Overland Travel

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Overland Travel



Roads. Contrary to the popular saying, all roads did not actually lead to Rome. The empire had a web of highways in almost every province, connecting cities and army camps, stretching across deserts, winding through mountains, and plunging deep into forests. Like President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s system of interstate highways in 1950s America, Roman roads were built with security in mind; they allowed the free and efficient movement of armies. Army engineers designed them while on campaign, and soldiers, during times of peace, constructed them, thus keeping busy and fit when not on campaign. Roads were also built as populist measures that assisted in general travel and trade. In building the Via appia in 312 b.c.e., Appius Claudius was making it possible for rural populations to participate in the civic life of the city, as well as employing large crowds of workers who would remain indebted to him thereafter. Augustus was particularly proud of his roads; he set up a gilded milestone in the forum, which recorded the distances from that spot to the most important cities of the empire. The average width of a major country road was about twelve feet, which provided ample room for Roman carts, averaging four feet in width, to pass each other. Limestone paving required extensive organization for the quarrying and transport of stones. It was not universal; packed gravel often sufficed.

City Streets. Urban streets were built in much the same way as country roads, with large, flat paving stones. They were narrow and alleylike, as shops and houses were built up to their very edge. Gullies were dug along their sides in order to collect aboveground sewage; raised stones at the corners of city blocks gave pedestrians the means to step over the offal. There were few wide-open spaces in the

ancient city, when large stone buildings were being constructed in the city center, which required laborers and suppliers to clog up through ways already crowded with litter and hurrying pedestrians. The satirist Juvenal complains of the noises of wagons and stonemasons and the danger of being crushed under collapsed carts of heavy building materials (3.236-261). The streets were dark at night; the fire necessary to keep them well lit must have posed a significant fire risk, given the closeness of buildings.

Bridges and Tunnels. Roads outside the cities had to deal with what could sometimes be tricky terrain. Bridges could range from small wooden affairs to huge, complicated structures, set atop series of trademark Roman arches and traversing deep river gorges and valleys. The first stone bridge in Rome was the pons Aemilius, built in 179 b.c.e. ; it was soon followed by the pons Mulvius in 109 b.c.e. and the pons Fabricius in 62 b.c.e. All bridges had Janus as their patron god, whose two faces, looking in opposite directions, vividly represented their function. Some were expensive to build, and their sponsors took great pride in their accomplishments; Trajan’s bridge across the Danube gets attention on his coinage and in the histories of Dio: “it has 20 piers of stone, 150 feet high, excluding the foundations, and 60 feet wide.” The bridge was dismantled shortly after it was built to keep the Dacians from attacking the Roman side, but many other stone bridges are still in use throughout the former Roman provinces. Sometimes, rather than succumbing to the landscape, the Romans took great expense in altering it to fit their needs. Near the Bay of Naples, the emperor Trajan had an entire cliff chopped up and removed to make way for a much-needed new road. When the geography was more accommodating, Roman roads were easier to build but were still technically sophisticated; in a level part of Germany, a Roman road extends for miles without even the slightest bend.

Conveyances. The variety of wagons and chariots for use by merchants and the military matches the array of different kinds of ships in the Roman world. The basic wagon, with its tall wooden wheels, shallow bed, and yoke for horses or oxen, is a universal design that was used to carry commercial cargo or supplies for legions on campaign. Chariots on two wheels—and thus faster, lighter, and more maneuverable—were used in warfare for high-ranking officers. They also had a high entertainment value; chariot-racing in the circus (a long racetrack) drew huge numbers of spectators. Luxury conveyances trans-ported the wealthy both within the city and along country roads. A special chariot, decked out in royal colors and drawn by special horses, carried victorious generals in their triumphal processions. The carpentum used by the empress Livia, the wife of Augustus, and other women of the imperial dynasty was reproduced on coins. Some may have chosen to travel by sedans, which were chairs or chambers set across poles and carried by slaves. In most cases, however, animals provided the labor: horses, cattle, elephants, and camels. The poet Horace even talks of children who hooked miniature toy chariots to teams of mice.

Dura-Europos. Towns that were located on major trading routes stood to gain much from the economy of overland trade. Those that controlled a bridge or passage along a certain road might charge a direct toll to all users, or simply benefit from the services and markets that travelers required. A perfect example of the latter is the desert town of Dura-Europos, located on the Euphrates River and on the caravan route between Palmyra and Parthia. It was a trading post and military station of the Romans until 257 C.E., when it fell to the Persians; its ruins were covered over by the sands of the desert until it was excavated by archaeologists in the 1930s. The town appears to have supported a diverse economy, with evidence of trading in silks and other cloths, bronze tools and implements, slaves, various

kinds of grain from the surrounding farmland, and fish from the river. The position of the town on the border between two major empires—two different worlds, in effect—led to the frequent and regular passage of people from various ethnic backgrounds, and as a result, the remains of the city preserve an international and even cosmopolitan feel. Several religions were practiced in close proximity to each other within the mere four square miles of the town. A Jewish synagogue is a few blocks down from a Christian church, which is a few blocks down from a temple to the eastern god, Mithras. A short distance away was a shrine to the imperial cult, as well as temples to both Zeus, a conventional Greco-Roman deity, and Atargatis, a native eastern goddess. The town is a vivid illustration of multicultural quality of the empire, aided and abetted by the revolutionary ease of travel and communication.


Some time in the second half of the first century B.C.E., the poet Horace made the journey from Rome to Brundisium. He later wrote a verse account of his trip in a book of Satires, in which he lampooned, among others, the slaves and boatmen, the annoying animals along the way, and his fellow travelers, some of whom he liked and some of whom he despised. The following excerpt is just the first twenty-nine lines of an immensely entertaining tale, describing not only what an Italian journey might be like, but the attitudes of the travelers, as well:

Departing mighty Rome, I took lodging / in a modest inn at Aricia. / My companion there was the rhetorician / Heliodorus, by all odds the most / learned of the Greeks. Thence to Forum Appi / boiling with boatmen and rascally tavern-keepers. / Lazily we spent two days on this stretch alone. / A single day would have sufficed for swifter souls. / Here, owing to the water which was villainous / I declare war against my stomach, waiting / (and not with good will, either) while my companions / roistered over their dinner. Already night / was preparing to spread its shadows over the earth / and sprinkled the sky with stars and constellations. / And now the slaves are shouting insults at the boatmen, / the boatmen at the slaves;—Tie up here! / Pile ia three hundred! Ahoy! That’s / plenty now!’ — While they are dickering over fares, / harnessing the mule, an hour slips by. / Impossible to sleep what with cursed / mosquitoes buzfcing, frogs croaking from the swamp, / while the boatmen, drunk with too much wine, / together with a passenger sing in wretched / competition of their distant loves. At last / the weary voyager begins to snooze, and / the lazy boatman turns his mule out to graze, / tying his reins to a rock. Then, supine, / he too stretches out and snores away.

Source: Horace, The Complete Odes and Satires of Harace, translated by Sidney Alexander (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Discomfort. Travel over long distances, according to many sources, was not pleasant. The poet Horace, again, wrote of an overland journey between Rome and Brundisium in the south of Italy, which was supremely uncomfortable. Not only had he to deal with poor water quality; loud frogs that kept him awake; the monotonous, nonperishable foods that one would pack for days of travel, but with boredom and the unbroken company of overbearing fellow travelers. Long journeys were dangerous in that people might be susceptible to unsanitary conditions or to illnesses in a strange land, to which their bodies were unaccustomed. The student of ancient Rome frequently comes across famous figures who died of sicknesses while away from home or en route: for example, the emperors Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus, and the poet Vergil. A traveler had to plan carefully, since he/she might be on the road for days before encountering an adequate

market for supplies. A papyrus from Egypt, dating to the early fourth century, preserves the various daily expenditures made by a man named Theophanes on a round-trip overland journey from Egypt to Antioch in Syria. His purchases include food, not only for himself but also for slaves and animals, as well; he also bought nonedible supplies: wood for building fires and snow for chilling his wine (making the most of what Horace considered an unappealing situation).

Bandits. Just as seafarers had to contend with pirates, overland travelers risked confrontations with bandits. These criminals could be as carefully organized and numerous as pirates; one example is the bandit named Bulla in the reign of Septimius Severus, who planned his attacks well in advance by using information about an individual traveler’s itinerary. Stories of the violence of bandits could be gruesome; the Boukoloi of Egypt allegedly practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism. Sometimes those who are classified as bandits in ancient sources were actually rebels who disliked Roman rule; their activities were not so much robberies for personal gain as guerilla tactics employed in pursuit of freedom. “Bandits” such as these often required the attention of Roman armies in full-blown campaigns. The punishment for captured robbers was frequently crucifixion along the very roads they terrorized.


Lucinda Dirven, The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos: A Study of Religious Interaction in Roman Syria (Boston: Brill, 1999).

Ray Laurence, The Roads of Roman Italy: Mobility and Cultural Change (London & New York: Routledge, 1999).

Colin O’Connor, Roman Bridges (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Brent Shaw, “Bandits in the Roman Empire,” Past and Present, 105 (November 1984): 3-52.