An ancient Roman road at Leptis Magna, Libya

Ancient Journeys: What was Travel Like for the Romans?

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Ancient Roman river vessel carrying barrels, assumed to be wine, and people.

Ancient Roman river vessel carrying barrels, assumed to be wine, and people. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Romans would stay on the deck of the ship and sometimes there would be hundreds of people on the deck. They would bring their own supplies aboard including food, games, blankets, mattresses, or even tents to sleep in. Some merchant ships had cabins at the stern that could accommodate only the wealthiest Romans. It is worth noting that very wealthy Romans could own their own ships, just like very wealthy people own big yachts today. Interestingly, a Roman law forbade senators from owning ships able to carry more than 300 amphorae jars as these ships could also be used to trade goods.

How clay amphorae vessels may have been stacked on a galley.

How clay amphorae vessels may have been stacked on a galley. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Traveling by ship wasn't very slow, even compared to modern day standards. For example, going from Brindisium in Italy to Patrae in Greece would take over three days, versus about one day today. Romans could also travel from Italy to Egypt in just a few days. Commercial navigation was suspended during the four winter months in the Mediterranean. This was called the mare clausum . The sea was too rough and too dangerous for commercial ships to sail. Therefore, traveling by sea was close to impossible during the winter and Romans could only travel by road. There were also many navigable rivers that were used to transport merchandise and passengers, even during the winter months.

Traveling during the time of the ancient Romans was definitely not as comfortable as today. However, it was quite easy to travel thanks to Rome's developed road network with its system of way stations and regular ship lines in the Mediterranean. And Romans did travel quite a lot!

Featured image: An ancient Roman road at Leptis Magna, Libya.( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By: Victor Labate

References

Romae Vitam. Roman roads. [Online] Available here.

Watler Scheidel, Elijah Meeks. ORBIS The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. Orbis.Stanford.edu [Online] Available at: http://orbis.stanford.edu

Romae Vitam. Roman carriages. [Online] Available here.

Romae Vitam. Roman ships. [Online] Available here.

Comments

10 to 15 miles per day! That’s quite slow. When people went West -Oregon trail, or any of the other trails during the late 1800’s in the US- they went by wagon, horse or walking and they did 20 miles per day. And the poney express, a similar horse relay system as described in the artical, could go from Atlantic to Pacific(about 3000 miles) in 10 days. To travel 41 to 60 miles from Rome to Naples in two days is also pretty slow. Did the Roman road have bad traffic? No passing lanes? Did the Univeristy that created the map believe that the people today are so much better, that the people of that past could not have possiably done things in a realistic time frame?

 

--Still learning--

10 to 15 miles per day is amazingly fast for people who also have to do other things to make their travel possible, even when the roads are good. For instance, obtaining and cooking supplies could easily take up more than half the daylight hours (at any rate in winter in the north), and that's even before washing and cleaning and making and breaking camp, let alone vehicle maintenance and animal care. Mediaeval armies on the march were often stopping at the van before the rear had even left, which is why a league - the practical distance between camps - was often between three and five miles, depending on the terrain.

Fascinating reading about day to day things like this. Would have to be able to have a camera that can look back in time and show what these roads were like. Wonder how busy they got?

So the two day rush shipment from Rome to Naples was roughly the same as UPS today!

I read that the postal service could get a message from Canterbury (UK )to Rome (Italy) in 4 days flat, almost as good as airmail today. Incredible.

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