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Routes. Roman sailors were never adept at handling the high seas and always maintained a profound fear and respect for the potential violence of the Mediterranean. They, like most sailors from other periods of antiquity, preferred to stick to the coast, leaving the sight of land only when it was necessary. To the best of their ability, they limited their journeys to the calmer summer seasons and avoided travel during the unpredictable winters. Cities that were located on excellent natural harbors thus grew quickly in population, as the business of sheltering ships, both military and commercial, required and attracted a large amount of manpower. Two of the three next largest cities of the empire, after Rome, were harbor towns: Alexandria and Ephesus; the third, Antioch, was just fifteen miles from the sea, connected by the Orontes River. Inland population centers, naturally, were also located on water; navigable rivers and lakes sustained a steady flow of traffic. Where such rivers were lacking, the Romans on occasion dug canals for transportation, examples of which can be found in the Po River valley in northern Italy and in Greece, across the Isthmus of Corinth.

Types of Ships. By modern standards, the ships and boats of ancient Rome were quite small. The largest vessels were, naturally, those meant for seagoing travel and were on average forty feet in length. (One extraordinary exception was a 180-foot cargo ship, mentioned by Lucian.) Ocean-going ships can be subdivided into those made for trade, for war, and for luxury. All were rigged with some kind of sailing apparatus, while merchantmen had wider, deeper keels for storage and fewer oars than battleships. Battleships, or triremes, were built for speed, maneuverability, and strength; they were fitted out with three banks of oars, a battering ram with which to sink their opponents, and, occasionally, a large crane, which could be lowered on the enemy to trap them while soldiers boarded across long planks. Quinqueremes, or ships with five banks of oars, are also attested, though less frequently. Sources for the imperial period describe luxury barges that had all manner of amenities, including running water, bathing complexes, banquet halls, and temples. Two of the emperor Caligula’s large floating palaces were discovered on the floor of Lake Nemi in Italy (they were housed in a lakeside museum until being destroyed by the Nazis). These ships were evidently stationary and not meant for travel at sea, but the bronze pipes, elaborate sculptures, and mosaics on board suggest that sources for highly advanced nautical engineering do not exaggerate. One story about the emperor Nero even claims that he had shipbuilders design a collapsible luxury yacht for his mother, whom he despised, so that it would appear seaworthy to her, but then fall apart when she was away from shore.

The Tiber. River-going vessels were much smaller. On the Tiber they were used to transport goods from the sea to the city. The flow of the river could be swift and heavy, and shallow craft had to be dragged against the current by animals up to the warehouses and storage facilities constructed

just south of the city. Larger ships attempting to travel up the river would have run aground, as did one that arrived in 205 B.C.E. bearing the new goddess, Magna Mater, from the East. According to legend, the Vestal Virgin, Claudia Quinta, tied her hair around the bow and yanked it free with the help of the goddess; regular merchants obviously could not count on such assistance! River-borne transportation was also widespread elsewhere in the empire. The Euphrates, Nile, and Rhine Rivers were heavily used by merchants, fishermen, and armies on campaign.

Ostia. The main harbor of Rome during the empire was the city of Ostia, located at the mouth of Tiber, sixteen miles from the capital. The earliest prosperity, before Rome acquired its empire, was based on its wide, low, salt flats; Ostia did not originally have a naturally well-defined harbor. In keeping with Roman ingenuity and craft, various attempts were made to construct one, first by building a breakwater to guard against the direction of the surf, and later by digging out wide basins, at great expense, just inland along the river. Because of its value to Rome, the town frequently received the beneficence of the emperor: Claudius built a lighthouse there and the emperor Trajan carved out a large hexagonal bay, which he proudly depicted on his coinage. As Rome grew, so did Ostia, until it became quite wealthy in its own right, with richly decorated townhouses, temples, and baths. An elaborate marketplace survives in which the merchants’ stalls, opening onto a large square, were decorated with mosaics that described their product or the region they traded with. The Ostians, though, were perpetually fighting a losing battle against the silt brought down from the Appennine mountains by the Tiber, and when the empire fell and Ostian population declined, the town was slowly buried. Archaeologists, as a result, have found it to be well preserved, much like a second Pompeii.

Cargo. Hundreds of Romanera shipwrecks have been explored by underwater archaeologists. From these finds one is able to learn much about the ancient Roman economy, trade routes, and produce. Most ships bearing cargo, for example, carried their products in large earthenware jars called amphorae (singular, amphora), which could carry dry goods, such as various types of grain, or valuable liquids, such as wine, olive oil, and garum, a fish sauce that was a popular condiment in the Roman diet. Shipwrecks with cargo of art, coins, and other kinds of treasure have been fewer, although they have attracted much attention. In 1972 an ancient shipwreck was discovered off the coast of southern Italy, which yielded several masterpieces of Greek bronze sculpture, including life-size statues of athletes or heroes, which presumably had been destined for sale in Rome. No ships were built exclusively to carry human cargo; there were no modern passenger vessels. People traveling for personal reasons hitched rides on ships that were headed in the right direction, though with different principal missions, military or commercial.

Shipwreck. Travelers and merchants must have greatly feared the possibility of shipwreck, if one is to appreciate the epic description of the horrifying waves that sank the ships of the founding hero of Rome, Aeneas. As Vergil says:

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

winds, like volleys of soldiers given an opening, rushed out to blow through the countryside, twirling. They fell on the sea: they roiled its bottom completely. Eastwind joined the Southwind; Southwesterly, crowded with squalls, ran out and rolled huge tumblers on the beaches. Cables creaked on the ships. Crewmen were yelling. Clouds had suddenly stolen the brightness of heaven from Trojan eyes, and a black night sat on the water.

The Romans, of course, did not have satellite technology with which to track and predict weather patterns, and storms could easily overwhelm entire fleets with no warning. The First Punic War (264-241 B.C.E.) was nearly lost by the Romans as a result of an inundation of their fleet. Merchants who had to transport goods by sea took out insurance policies to guard against loss as a result of shipwreck; the insurance contracts survive on stone. As a storm worsened, all hands would help to secure the ship; Paul, in the New Testament book of Acts, joined the crew in tossing the cargo overboard. Sailors sought to alleviate the pressure of the unknown by prayer to the gods of the sea and by other superstitious observances. Sneezing as one boarded a ship was considered bad luck, as was setting sail on certain days: 24 August, 5 October, and 8 November. If one dreamed of an owl before a voyage, it meant that either a storm or pirates would wreck the ship.

Piracy. Another risk of sea travel was attack by pirates. In the popular literature of the Romans, such as comedies in the Republic and novels in the Principate, the pirate was a stock figure; an archetypal hero/villain of melodramatic proportions, whose bumbling could be cast as amusing. The reality of piracy, however, was no laughing matter. Bands of marauders lived in groups that, in some cases, rivaled whole towns in terms of size and organization. According to Strabo, agents of pirates would spy on merchants on land in order to discover their route, destination, and time of travel, and then set a trap for them down the coast. Julius Caesar, in his youth, was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom; after he won his freedom, he later returned to kill his former captors. The problem became serious enough to warrant the attention of full-blown military campaigns. Pompey, in 67 B.C.E., received a formal charge by the Senate to rid the Mediterranean of pirates.


Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

Russell Meiggs, Roman Ostia, second edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).

John S. Morrison, Greek and Roman Oared Warships (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1996).

Henry A. Ormerod, Piracy in the Ancient World: An Essay in Mediterranean History (Liverpool: University Press of Liverpool; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1924; reprint, Chicago: Argonaut, 1967).

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