Purposes of Travel

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Purposes of Travel


Trade and the Military. The responsibility for the ease of travel in the ancient world was shared by the twin incentives of profit and security. Harbors such as Ostia and outposts such as Dura-Europos teemed with merchants hocking their wares and with soldiers maintaining their emperor’s brand of order. Military and administrative travel included more than the movement of troops: ambassadors, sometimes with significant entourages, had to visit separate kingdoms and empires; news and information had to move efficiently among leaders. Commercial travel was also multifaceted: the archaeological evidence of shipwrecks and storefronts show all varieties of goods moving through desert caravans or coastal convoys. Soldiers and tradesmen made up a large portion of the total population of the empire, and it is fair to assume that from them alone unprecedented numbers of individuals were broadening their horizons: encountering new gods, new languages, and new cultures.

Tourism. These were not the only type of travelers, however; other reasons for travel developed, making use of the paths forged by merchants and generals. Under the security and prosperity of the middle Roman empire, tourists began to travel for traveling’s sake. Despite the discomforts, risks, and expense of overseas or overland journeys, they nonetheless desired to see great, faraway, and storied landmarks of the civilizations that preceded them. Egypt and Greece were both popular tourist destinations for those who could afford them. Julius Caesar, in the middle of fighting a civil war for his very survival, took time to cruise down the Nile with Cleopatra on her royal barge and see the sights: the pyramids and temples of the pharaohs who ruled millennia before him. Other Romans highly revered the cultural achievements of the Greeks and sought out their famous temples, schools, sanctuaries, oracles, and athletic sites at places such as Athens, Olympia, and Delphi. Pausanias, in the late second century C.E., published a guidebook of Greece, giving his readers directions to various sites and descriptions of their history. His works survive and are a valuable source for the look of major sites that were ancient even in his day. The list of seven wonders of the ancient world, canonized in the second century

B.C.E. by Antipater, was popular: essentially a checklist for adventurous and historically minded tourists.

Pilgrimage. One subcategory of tourism was religiously inspired. People covered great distances to visit a particular holy place, either to ask advice, to seek some kind of healing, or just to pay respects to the divine. Religious sites, both pagan and Christian, did a brisk business with their visitors, accepting their donations and gifts and selling them miniature replicas of their buildings or statues as souvenirs. Glass bottles in the shape of the famous cult statue of Tyche of Antioch look much like the kitsch one might find in tourist traps. Early Christians made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem. Women, such as Etheria in the late fourth century and Melania the Younger in the early fifth, spent years traipsing around biblical sites in Egypt and Palestine; the former even re-created the Exodus of the Jews. Christian emperors and members of their families built shrines and monasteries there that further inspired the wanderlust of contemporary Christians.

Exile. Some forms of travel were the opposite of leisurely, fulfilling, or joyous. A severe penalty in the Roman world was exile, when citizens would be forced to leave the city forever, unless later pardoned. It was forbidden for anyone to shelter or feed them; they lived in remote, poorly inhabited places, under guard. The initial journey to the place of exile would have been the dangerous phase of banishment: Augustus considered it a great act of clemency just to grant his exiles passage on imperial Roman roads. Their experiences upon arrival to their new homes were reportedly miserable. Various members of the imperial dynasties were carted off to islands where they often starved to death. Cicero complained bitterly of his situation in Greece, and Ovid wrote a series of poems from Tomis on the Black Sea called Tristia (The Sadnesses), in which he bemoaned, among other things, the lack of food and his inability to understand the language of the locals. Exiles also endured the torturous fear that an order for their execution might arrive from the emperor at any time.

Migration. Sometimes entire communities would have to abandon their homes and move to a new land because of poor crops, warfare, or overpopulation, all of which could be interrelated. Mass migrations of Gallic populations presented a serious threat to Roman populations in southern France in the end of the second century B.C.E., which required the extraordinary measure of repeating Marius’s consulships so that he could deal with the problem with

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authority. In the twilight of the Roman empire, large groups of people from northern Europe crossed the rivers that had, in effect, formed the northern border of Rome: the Rhine and the Danube. These groups—Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Franks—moved in droves. In the long run, Roman culture remained largely intact, though in an obviously altered form.


Mary T. Boatwright, Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

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

Jo-Marie Claassen, Displaced Persons: The Literature of Exile from Cicero to Boethius (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999).

E. D. Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, AD 312-460 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).