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Roads and Land Traffic

Roads and Land Traffic




Limitations . The main avenue of travel and heavy transport in ancient Greece was the sea. This fact was true in all of the Mediterranean lands, but was nowhere more the case than in Greece, where the waters were placid, the harbors plentiful, and the facilities for land transport limited. While overland roads certainly existed in Greece, they were in most cases rudimentary and were unsuitable for the transportation of large cargoes. In later centuries the Romans would earn themselves a reputation for road construction in the Mediterranean, but this art was one in which their Greek predecessors had little to teach them. It was not so much that the Greeks were incapable of competent road building; they could build a sturdy road where there was need for one, and many of the roads they built in the vicinities of cities and on the approaches to major religious sanctuaries were quite well constructed. Yet, road building on the scale of the Romans was something never seen in Greece until the modern era. The main reason for this situation was, once again, Greece’s geography: formidable mountain ranges presented considerable engineering difficulties for any but the shortest roads. The political fragmentation of Greece also was an obstacle. Few individual city-states could muster the sort of manpower and financial resources to build and maintain a reliable network of highways, and the relationships between neighboring city-states was rarely cordial enough to encourage cooperation on such matters. Moreover, the convenience of transportation by sea, and the habits in that direction that the Greeks had long inculcated, made the effort of building and maintaining first-class roads a low priority.

Greek Roads . One indication of the poor development of Greek roads and the unsuitability of the terrain is the fact that centuries later, when Greece was actually part of the Roman Empire, even the Romans did not practice their vaunted road-building skills in the region. The closest thing to a major Roman highway in Greece was the Via Egnatia, which ran from the Adriatic coast in present-day Albania to the city of Thessalonike, on the northern Aegean Sea, and from there east to Byzantium. Farther south, Roman road engineering was employed only in a few sporadic cases. The antiquarian Pausanias, who wrote about his travels in Greece in the second century C.E., provided a valuable account of the state of Greek roads dating from the Roman Period. Although Pausanias lived much later than the period covered in this volume, it is a safe assumption that the condition of roads before the end of the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) was little different from, and certainly not much better than, what he described.

Major Arteries . The routes mentioned by Pausanias were used for traffic between cities and sanctuaries. The road between Athens and Corinth was the only place in which Pausanias mentioned Roman road engineering in Greece. It was not only the most direct route between two major cities, but also the avenue for the majority of the traffic passing between the Peloponnese and central and northern Greece. Apparently in Classical times this road was a narrow and treacherous path along sheer seaside cliffs, probably suitable only for pedestrians and pack animals, and any wheeled traffic had to take a more circuitous inland route. It was only in Pausanias’s own day that the Roman emperor Hadrian ordered the improvement of this road, widening it so that wheeled traffic could pass in both directions. (It seems that even the best roads in ancient Greece were wide enough only for a single vehicle to pass at a time, and this accounts for Pausanias’s admiring comments on the width of Hadrian’s road.) Another route singled out for praise by Pausanias passed between two major cities, Argos and Tegea, and would have also carried the bulk of traffic bound for Sparta, Olympia, and other major sites in the Peloponnese. It too was suitable for wheeled traffic.

Delphi . Pausanias also described the roadways around the major religious shrine at Delphi. Sacred to the god Apollo, Delphi was the chief oracular shrine in Greece, and people seeking insight into their futures were constantly visiting the site (except in the winter months, when traveling was worse and the god was said to vacate his shrine). Delphi is located in particularly mountainous terrain, within the folds of the enormous Parnassus massif, and the roads as described by Pausanias were generally difficult, even the route which probably carried most of the overland traffic to the shrine. Apparently not even an important and lucrative religious shrine warranted well-engineered roads for the convenience of its devotees. Of course, in the case of Delphi, the effort that the pilgrim had to make in getting to the site may have been viewed as a soul-cleansing aspect of his or her religious experience.

Clues . Because of the undeveloped nature of most ancient Greek roads, modern archaeologists often have difficulty locating them and distinguishing them from ones made in later periods. In many cases, moreover, the Greeks chose the most convenient route between places, with the result that later builders would choose the same courses for their more thoroughly engineered roads and in the construction process cover and obliterate the remains of the earlier avenues. There are some cases, however, where a route used by the Greeks can be identified with reasonable certainty, and for this reason scholars are able to make some general observations about Greek road-building techniques.

Construction Techniques . In many cases, Greek roads were little more than paths that were cleared and leveled by continual use. Some important routes seem to have been given no deliberate improvement at all, and in fact the path of the road was occasionally nothing more than a dry streambed. Flagstone and cobblestone paving has been found on some routes, but not frequently enough to make archaeologists think that this was a common practice in cross-country road building. Deliberate leveling of the roadbed is detectable in some cases. It was usually accomplished by simply filling in rough places or, where the road ran along a slope, by building an earthen terrace held in place by a retaining wall. The steepness of roads that passed over mountains was often countered by the laying out of switchbacks that formed a zigzag pattern up the slope. Even with such measures the grade of Greek mountain roads sometimes approached 30 percent, meaning that for every ten feet in length the road rose three feet in height. This gradient is steep—by comparison modern highways are generally engineered to avoid gradients over 10 percent—and would have made wheeled traffic difficult, though not impossible. Greek roads were often less than two meters (6.5 feet) in width and were rarely wider than three meters (10 feet). As a result, it is easy to see why Pausanias found a road in which carriages could pass each other abreast particularly remarkable.

Wheel Ruts . An expedient that the Greeks frequently employed to accommodate wheeled traffic over terrain that was particularly steep, rough, winding, or slippery was the cutting of wheel ruts. These grooves were carved into the roadway in which the wheels of vehicles would run, giving them improved traction and preventing them from sliding off to the side of the road. In some places, wheel ruts were the only improvements made to the roadway, and the areas between and alongside the ruts were left in their original rough and rocky state. The distance between ruts varied from road to road, but the average was 1.5 meters (about 5 feet). Makers of carts and wagons for cross-country traffic had to keep this fact in mind if they wanted to produce vehicles that could be used on these roads.


The stadion was the standard Greek unit of large-scale distance measurement and was equivalent to a little more than two hundred yards. About eight stadia, or furlongs, make a mile.

[The coast road between Athens and Corinth] which is still named after Sciron, was first, they say, made passable for foot passengers by Sciron when he was war minister of Megara; but the Emperor Hadrian made it so wide and convenient that even chariots could meet on it.

The road from Tegea to Argos is an excellent carriage-road, and quite a highway.

From this point the road [one of the main overland routes to Delphi] grows steeper and more difficult for a man on foot.

The ascent [from Delphi] to the Corycian cave is easier for a man on foot than for mules and horses.

Tithorea is distant, I should guess, eighty furlongs from Delphi by the pass over Parnassus. The other road, which is not mountainous the whole way, and is even suitable for vehicles, was said to be some furlongs longer.

Lilaea is a winter day’s journey from Delphi: the way lies across and down [Mount] Parnassus. We judged the distance to be one hundred eighty furlongs.

From Cleonae there are two roads to Argos. One, a shortcut, is a mere footpath: the other is over the pass of the Tretus, as it is called. The latter, like the former, is a narrow defile shut in by mountains on all sides, but it is better adapted for driving.

The road [from Sikyon] to Titane is sixty furlongs, and impassable for carriages by reason of its narrowness.

There is a pass into Arcadia from Argolis. by Hysiae and over Mount Parthenius, debouching [(coming out)] in the territory of Tegea; and there are two other passes debouching in the territory of Mantinea, one through Prinus, as it is called, the other through the Ladder. The latter is the wider pass, and steps were formerly made in it to facilitate the descent.... The other road is narrower than the one I have described, and leads over Arternisius.

Source: Pausanias’s Description of Greece, translated by J. G. Frazer (London; Macojillati, 1913).

First-Rate Highway . One road that has been identified with some certainly by archaeologists is the one which Pausanias identified as “a first rate highway,” the route between Argos and Tegea. This road, though it was used in the Roman Period, shows no trace of distinctively Roman engineering, so it can be taken as an example of the best that ancient Greek road builders could accomplish. It crosses a pass through a particularly tall and rugged range of mountains. The pass, known as Mount Parthenius, is not the lowest one in this range, but it provides the most direct access between the territories of Argos and Tegea, a fact that shows the builders were concerned more with minimizing the distance of the road than they were with making it as gentle a route as possible. Many of the best features of Greek workmanship are exhibited on this route: flagstone paving covers the road in many stretches and may have at one point run the entire length of the road. When the road runs along the sides of slopes, it is carefully terraced, and in the steeper parts it is equipped with zigzagging switchbacks. Wheel ruts have been found in some of the steeper stretches, and in one particularly steep place the paving is interrupted at intervals by rows of stones that stand up above the rest of the pavement, forming something analogous to speed bumps in modern streets. At first glance these barriers would seem to be an impediment to wheeled traffic, but in all likelihood they were put there in order to prevent carts and wagons from rolling backwards as they made their way up the hill. Despite all these improvements, some characteristics illustrate the limitations of the Greeks’ road-building practices: even with switchbacks and terracing, the slope of the road sometimes approaches 25 to 30 percent, and at times the road narrows to less than two meters—wide enough for a single cart but not for two going in opposite directions.


In the following passage from Homer’s Iliad (circa eighth-seventh centuries B.C.E.), King Priam of Troy is preparing to take a wagonload of riches to Achilles. The Greek warrior had killed his son, Hector, and Priam hopes to ransom Hecto’s body from Achilles so that he and the Trojans can give him a proper funeral. After berating his remaining sons, Priam commands them to get the wagon ready. The “carrying basket” is the wickerwork siding attached to the wagon platform. The wagon has a single pole that runs between two mules. On the yoke is a ring which the “peg” (the end of the pole) slips into. The yoke is then lashed in place by leather thongs (“yoke lashing”) that are wrapped around the pole and around a knob on the yoke. Unmentioned here are the parts of the yoke that actually contact the mules: a pair of yoke pads that go between the yoke and their shoulders, two thick straps that wrap around the front of their necks, and leather thongs that run behind their front legs.

“Well then, will you not get my wagon ready and be quick about it, and put all these things on it, so we can get on with our journey?”

So he spoke, and they in terror at the old man’s scolding hauled out the easily running wagon for mules, a fine thing new-fabricated, and fastened the carrying basket upon it.

They took away from its peg the mule yoke made of boxwood with its massive knob, well fitted with guiding rings, and brought forth the yoke lashing (together with the yoke itself) of nine cubits and snugged it well into place upon the smooth-polished wagon-pole at the foot of the beam, then slipped the ring over the peg, and lashed it with three turns on either side to the knob, and afterwards fastened it all in order and secured it under a hooked guard.

Then they carried out and piled into the smooth-polished mule wagon all the unnumbered spoils to be given for the head of Hektor, then yoked the powerful-footed mules who pulled in the harness and whom the Mysians gave once as glorious presents to Priam.

Source: Homer, The Iliad, translated by Richmond Lattrimore (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1951).

Here is a famous story told by Herodotus that involves vehicular transport. By looking beneath the moralizing lesson of the story and focusing on a more mundane level, one can see that a well-to-do household apparently did not have enough oxen both to take care of the plowing and to carry the apparently infirm matron of the family around on her cart. It also shows that such a family could have a single vehicle that would have to serve all their transportation needs; An oxcart would have been a heavy vehicle, built for heavy loads, not for ferrying one old lady to a festival. This story, to the extent it has any basisin fact, is dated to the late seventh or early sixth century b.c.e.

Two young men of Argos … Cleobis and Biton … had enough to live on comfortably; and their physical strength is proved not merely by their success in athletics, but much more by the following incident. The Argives were celebrating the festival of Hera, and it was most important that the mother of the two young men should drive to the temple in her ox-cart; but it so happened that the oxen were late in coming back from the fields. Her two sons, therefore, as there was no time to lose, harnessed themselves to the cart and dragged it along, with their mother inside, for a distance of nearly six miles, until they reached the temple. After this exploit which was witnessed by the assembled crowd, they had a most enviable death-t heaven-sent proof of how much better it is to be dead than alive. Men kept crowding round them and congratulating them on their strength, and women kept telling the mother how lucky she was to have such sons, when, in sheer pleasure at this public recognition of her sons’ act, she prayed the goddess Hera, before whose shrine she stood, to grant Cleobis and Biton, who had brought her such honour, the greatest blessing that can fall to mortal man.

After her prayer came the ceremonies of sacrifice and feasting; and the two lads, when all was over, fell asleep in the temple—and that was the end of them, for they never woke again.

Source: Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt (Harmondsworth, U.K. & Baltimore: Penguin, 1954),

Diolkos . The Greeks demonstrated the ability to engineer roads that could be used to transport extremely heavy freight. In the early sixth century b.c.e., the people of Corinth built a pathway paved with massive stones all the way across the six-mile-wide Isthmus that serves as the only land link between the Peloponnese and the rest of Greece. The Corinthians had become a wealthy and powerful city thanks in no small part to their control of the Isthmus. All land traffic between the Peloponnese and the more northerly parts of Greece had to go through this neck of land, and Corinthians were in a position to control that traffic and to exact duty and tolls from those who passed through their territory. The Corinthians had ports on both

sides of the Isthmus and thereby had easy access both to the Aegean and to the western sea routes that led to Italy and Sicily, a fact that made them almost automatically one of the leading maritime states in all of Greece. Most importantly, even for non-Corinthian merchants carrying cargo from the Aegean to the West or vice versa, it had long been the practice to sail up to the Isthmus, unload the cargo onto mule-or oxen-driven wagons (owned and operated, no doubt, by Corinthians who charged a handsome fee for the service), and carry it across to the other side where it would be put into different ships for the rest of the journey. In this way the merchants could avoid risking their cargoes on the open seas of the Mediterranean. Some of the most treacherous winds and currents in the sea were in the waters off Greece’s southern tip, and the only practical way for merchants to avoid them was by the trans-Isthmus service provided by the Corinthians. The stone track that the Corinthians built was an improvement on this service. Called the diolkos (“drag-across”), the track allowed the Corinthians to convey not just the cargo but the entire ship across the Isthmus. In this way the merchants who used the service benefited by being able to use the same ships for the entire journey, and the Corinthians benefited by being able to charge an even more handsome fee for each boatload. In the event of war the diolkos could also be a strategic benefit for the Corinthians and their allies, since they could use it to transfer their warships more quickly and safely between the eastern and western theaters of war. Exactly how the Corinthians managed to move ships across the diolkos is not known with certainty. Large wheel ruts ran down the middle of the track, so it is likely that the ship was pulled onto an oversized wheeled sled and towed across by a large team of oxen or mules. In modern times a function similar to that of the diolkos is served by a canal cut through the Isthmus almost along the same line of the dragging route. Many attempts were made in antiquity to dig a canal through the Isthmus, but none of them got far past the planning stage.

Quarry to Temple . Another example of a heavy-freight roadway in ancient Greece comes from Athens. In the early fifth century b.c.e., the Athenians decided to build an enormous new temple for their patron goddess, Athena, on the acropolis (citadel) of the city. This temple, the forerunner of the famous Parthenon, was to be built of marble from Mount Pentele, some ten miles to the northeast of the city. Since some of the architectural elements of the temple, such as the column drums and capitals for the exterior colonnade, were of gargantuan size, sometimes ten tons or more, transporting them from the quarries to the city was a problem. The Athenians solved the problem by constructing a marble-paved track all the way up the side of the mountain to the quarries themselves. Blocks were laboriously winched and levered out of the quarries up to the track, where they were put on wooden sleds and carefully lowered down. Since the way was all downhill, no propulsion was necessary. In fact, the problem was not getting the marble blocks going but keeping them from sliding down too quickly and getting out of control. To prevent this dangerous situation from occurring, the Greeks dug large post-holes at regular intervals beside the track. Thick wooden posts were inserted in these holes, and stout ropes were tied to the block and wrapped around the posts. As gravity pulled the block downhill, the ropes were gradually released, and the descent of the block was controlled until it reached the level of the next set of posts where the process was repeated. After the block reached the base of the mountain, the road to Athens was no longer uniformly downhill, so the block had to be loaded on special large wagons pulled by teams of mules the rest of the way to the city. The process involved in transporting these large stones is revealed partly by archaeological remains—the paved trackway, for instance, is still visible in some places along the mountain—and partly by inscriptions relating to the finances of the building of this temple and other subsequent temples. The original Athena temple was only partly complete when it was destroyed by the invading Persian army in 480 b.c.e. The same methods, however, were employed in building the Parthenon a few decades later.

Foot Travel . Because of the nature of Greek roads, the most common way to travel along them was on foot. It is

clear from Pausanias’s descriptions that he did most of his traveling through Greece as a pedestrian, and other descriptions of travel confirm that this mode of locomotion was used far more frequently than any other. Many vase paintings depict the travelers’ god Hermes wearing special garments. Travelers’ clothing consisted of sturdy footwear, a broad-brimmed hat to protect the person from the Mediterranean sun, and, for men, a shorter garment than they were accustomed to wearing around town, leaving more room for their legs to move. For particularly strenuous walks, men would hitch up their garments even further and travel “well-girt.” A traveler planning on an overnight stay carried with him a sack containing bedding in addition to food and extra clothing. The Greeks were accustomed to traveling in this manner and made good time in doing so. Pausanias measured his routes both in terms of distance and time, allowing his readers to calculate how quickly he walked. (It works out to a little less than three miles per hour, which, over difficult terrain, and figuring time for rest and for meals, is a fairly respectable pace.) There is some evidence that when goods needed to be transported overland they would sometimes be carried on foot by people using packs or shoulder braces. However, the average person could not haul more than fifty pounds over great distances, so no large-scale movements of goods were likely to have been undertaken in this manner.

Domesticated Animals . The Greeks possessed various domesticated animals that were used for overland transport, including horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen. Of these animals, donkeys and mules were the most versatile and commonly used. They were either ridden, hitched to wheeled vehicles, or used as pack animals capable of carrying three or four times as much cargo as a human. Horses were employed much less frequently because they were expensive to obtain and raise; they were a privilege indulged in by the upper classes and used chiefly for racing and, to a lesser extent, warfare. Although far more fleet of foot than donkeys or mules, horses were difficult to control, more temperamental, less surefooted on mountain roads and tracks, and prone to injury. One clear indication of the uselessness of horses for overland transport in Greece was the fact that when a message needed to be sent quickly over a long distance, the Greeks used runners rather than riders on horseback or horse-drawn chariots. Oxen were useful as draft animals when large loads had to be transported. They had greater pulling power and could be harnessed more efficiently than either horses or mules. The drawbacks to oxen were that they were slow (averaging about one mile per hour versus three miles per hour for mules), and they were also rare and expensive compared to donkeys and mules.

Wheeled Vehicles . Aside from local traffic, the usefulness of wheeled transport was considerably limited by the nature of the terrain and the deficiencies of the roads. Perhaps for this reason, the Greeks made few if any innovations or improvements in the realm of wheeled vehicles. Literary and artistic representations show that the Greeks had two-wheeled and four-wheeled carts that carried people or light cargo. These vehicles were generally pulled by donkeys or mules. Larger four-wheeled wagons, pulled by mules or oxen, were used for heavier loads. The basic Greek cart or wagon seems to have been little more than a wooden platform to which wooden or wickerwork sides were attached in order to keep the cargo from falling out. The wheels and axles were usually made of wood, and the heavier vehicles generally had solid wooden wheels, whereas chariots and lighter carts tended to have four-spoked wheels.

Location of Cities . Wheeled vehicles were essential for transportation in and around the cities. Few Archaic or Classical Greek cities were located right on the water. Fear of piracy and hostile raids led the Greeks to fortify places at a safe distance from the shores, and habitation tended to cluster around the citadels. Athens, for instance, was four miles inland from its port, Piraeus; Corinth was similarly distant from its two harbors; and Sparta, the least maritime of all major Greek cities, was twenty miles from its port, Gutheion. Even a city that sent and received much cargo by sea still had to manage to bring goods from the port to where people lived, and wheeled traffic clearly did most of that kind of moving. Wagons and carts were also put to good use by the farmers in the Greek countryside, particularly for bringing their goods to market. One effect of the formation of the city-states out of scattered farming villages was the concentration of population and commerce into a single, central area, although farmers in the hinterlands had to make longer trips to the market. Within the territory of the city, wagon roads were probably reliable enough (when the weather was dry and rain did not turn the pathways into rivers of mud) for wheeled conveyance to be put to good use. In limited circumstances, then, land transportation was an important part of Greek life and economy, but for long-distance transportation of people and large cargoes, there was no real alternative to the sea.


Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Volume II: Transport and Road Building (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1955).

Manolis Korres, From Pentilicon to the Parthenon (Athens: Melissa, 1995).

William Kendrick Pritchett, Studies in Ancient Greek Topography, Part III: Roads (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

Pritchett, Studies in Ancient Greek Topography, Part IV: Passes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

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