Today, business travel is standard all over the world. A multitude of means of transport, a wide range of accommodations and other facilities, such as telecommunications, make travelling for business purposes quick, comfortable and safe. And what were such issues like in the vast Roman Empire? The answer comes from the detailed, and therefore extremely valuable, journals and letters of a certain official who meticulously recorded his travels.
In 1896, Arthur Surridge Hunt, a well-known English explorer and papyrologist, purchased a collection of manuscripts from Hermopolis, an ancient city on the Nile near the border of Upper and Lower Egypt. Thanks to the dry and hot climate of Egypt, these documents have been preserved to our times and have brought a lot of interesting information from the times of the late empire. Among the letters written by a certain Theophanes, an official in the Egyptian province, we will look at his well-documented journey from Egypt to Antioch in present-day Turkey.
Theophanes was the legal adviser to rationalis, a high-ranking treasury overseer named Vitalis who was in charge of finances in that area of the Empire. Between 317 and 323 CE Theophanes went on a business trip. The surviving letters and accounts do not reveal their purpose, but their content reveals the entire course of the journey, and with it the dates, costs, details of luggage and much other valuable information that tells us about the Roman delegations of that time.
The Roman Empire, as a huge country even by today’s standards, struggled with many communication problems that hindered effective management and exchange of information, including all ordinances, throughout the country. The Romans understood the importance of this issue and, like the Romans, made great efforts to make the problem as small as possible – we can still admire their advanced road systems, and many of the solutions of that time were a model for the administration of other countries in later centuries. One of the elements of the Roman communication system was the cursus publicus, i.e. something that today we can call the state post office. The system included establishments that also provided places to rest for business travellers, and offered the exchange of horses for fresh ones, as well as accommodation. Of course, Theophanes also used such a network.
So how was his journey? Well, on April 6, he set off from the settlement of Nikiu in Upper Egypt, located several dozen kilometres north of today’s Cairo. Theophanes averaged forty kilometres a day, but in the early stages, when he was travelling through the desert in North Sinai, the daily distance was twenty-four kilometres. When he reached Palestine, he accelerated to sixty-five kilometres, and on the last day he covered a distance of more than one hundred kilometres, and after three and a half weeks, on May 2, he finally reached Antioch. The return trip took about the same. And this is where the meaning of cursus publicus can be seen – when travelling officially, Theophanes could exchange animals along the route, so he did not have to spare them excessively.
The preserved documents also show something else – we can see the complexity of the preparations and the entire course of the journey. Teophanes, officially setting off on such a long journey, was equipped by his superior with letters of introduction to important figures on the route, even to the administrators of the lands and cities he was supposed to pass. Some of the letters our officials did not use for various reasons, thanks to which they became part of the found archive. Along with the letters, Witalis’s envoy also took various gifts intended for these people. They were gifts of various value, including the precious musk of the lynx, which is also an ingredient of expensive perfumes. Apart from the letters, of course, Theophanes needed a large amount of money, but he did not have to carry it with him – with the appropriate authorizations, he could use the treasuries along the route. Did he actually take any funds? Given that he took too little from Nikiu, we can assume that he did.
Of course, the journey with valuables and money tempted bandits of all kinds, hence the official had to have an armed escort with him, and its presence also increased the cost of the entire expedition. Thus, Theophanes’ journals tell us about expenses for travelling companions, as well as their food, as well as the luggage of the whole group and his own. From the official’s supplies, we can conclude that the facilities in cursus publicus provided rather modest equipment. Teophanes brought with him a set of clothes for various occasions and weather conditions, but also his own bedding, mattresses and even kitchen utensils. One can only imagine how many servants and slaves, in addition to escorts, he needed on such a journey.
Travelling in a laden retinue resulted in further costs. We know from the letters of Theophanes that he spent less than half of what he spent on himself a day for the maintenance of his servants. For example, from the preserved papyri we can read that on the way back our official bought one hundred and sixty litres of wine for his companions. A lot of? Possibly, but we are further told that it cost less than the two pints of much better wine that Theophanes had with dinner that same day.
Letters found in the late 19th century are full of these seemingly insignificant details, bills and small notes. However, they give us an excellent, because first-hand, view of the then realities related to official travel. At the same time, it is worth noting that it was an expedition of a single, not excessively high, official, and not a multi-person delegation consisting of the most important people in the province. The degree of complexity, the number of challenges as well as the pace and time of the entire undertaking illustrate a certain outline of what the management, administration and exchange of all information between different regions of the Empire looked like at that time.