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Logistics of Travel and Transportation

Logistics of Travel and Transportation


Space and Time. The Roman empire was roughly the same size as the continental United States. The distance from the far northeastern corner to the southwestern one, when the empire was at its height, was roughly the same as from Boston to Los Angeles, with one big and obvious difference: the Romans had in their center a huge sea, the Mediterranean, meaning, literally, “in the middle of the lands.” This large body of water, with its predictable periods of relative calm during the summer and its lack of tides, greatly facilitated movement within the empire. The central location of the capital city, in the middle of a peninsula that jutted out into the middle of the sea, makes it no surprise that the Romans frequently referred to the Mediterranean as mare nostrum (our sea). They were never more than a two-week voyage from any coastal location under their domain, provided the weather cooperated. Overland travel was much slower; the furthest one could go, comfortably, on a given day would have been about forty miles. Travel for armies, with their baggage, equipment, and large numbers of soldiers, was more cumbersome; they could make no more than twenty-five miles a day. Under pressure, a single messenger, riding on horseback and stopping along the way to change horses, could, at most, cover 150 miles in a day, as one did in 9 C.E. in order to report to Augustus the destruction of his army in Germany.

Efficiency. From just these basic pieces of geographical information, one could almost guess the history of Roman travel and transportation. The importance of seafaring was paramount, and the problems of overland travel were severe, and at times, devastating. If an army on campaign in, for example, Parthia, had suffered a defeat, it would take about five days to carry the message to the coast and then fifteen more days to get it to the emperor in Rome. If he responded immediately, the emperor’s orders would return in slightly less time, owing to the direction of the winds; that would mean a total of about thirty-five days after the initial defeat before the emperor’s intentions could be known. A neighboring army from the area, since it was closer than the emperor, may have found out about the problem sooner and marched to relieve them, but even so, it would have taken weeks for help to arrive. Early on, the Romans recognized the threats posed by the obstacles of travel and responded to them with the same efficiency and administration that was in evidence for their modes of communication. Their roads, bridges, harbors, and aqueducts were miracles of ancient engineering and are a vivid testament of their careful planning and organization. Though slow by modern standards, the Romans were able to travel greater distances more quickly than people in any other previous period of human history. The relative ease of travel was partly responsible for the cultural mélange that so defines the Roman empire.


Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (London: Allen &c Unwin, 1974).

Tim Cornell and John Matthews, Atlas of the Roman World (New York: Facts on File, 1982).

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