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Transport and travel in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman relief showing a cart drawn by four horses
Roman relief showing a cart drawn by four horses.

Ancient Romans were extremely mobile people, which is indirectly due to the fact that the Roman Empire covered a huge territory. Vast areas required well-connected routes and safe sea and river connections, free from pirates and robbers. People high in the social hierarchy travelled to look after their political and economic interests; merchants, craftsmen, doctors and practically all professions travelled. There were also pilgrims who wanted to visit holy places.

Short distances were most often on foot, especially if it did not involve taking much luggage. The richest were carried in litter manned by 2-4 slaves, but it was a slow and short-distance mode of transport, usually within the city. The rich used litter to avoid contact with the poorer classes.

For longer distances, requiring a faster pace, people usually went on top using horses, mules and donkeys. This way, you could take quite a lot of luggage with you. To prevent the animals’ hooves from rubbing on hard surfaces roads, they were shod with “iron sandals”.

Roman roads allowed for fast travel and transport.

The richest Romans and merchants travelled longer distances, with more luggage and servants, using carts drawn by draft animals. The carts had wooden, iron-covered wheels. Due to the fact that large Roman cities such as Rome were compact, narrow streets and crowded, it was forbidden to drive carts around the city during the day (during the first ten hours of the day). Hence, the Romans had to endure the noise of passing vehicles at night. The exceptions were four types of carts:

  1. merchant carts – which delivered goods to the city at night to leave Pomerania in the morning.
  2. carriages (plaustra) – that provided building materials.
  3. wagons used by the Vestals, flamen, and rex sacrorum for religious purposes.
  4. chariots taking part in triumphal marches.

Many types of vehicles the ancient Romans took over from the Celts, the valiant and mobile community. Additionally, numerous car decorations were used; in the Rhenish and Danube provinces, carts and yokes were decorated with brown zoomorphic fittings (boar motif), and the draft animals themselves were decorated, in Celtic custom, with amulets made of “pipes” and “sabers” of boars.

Roman Transport Carts

  • ANGARIA – a four-wheeled mail car, the etymology of the word comes from Persian to Latin entered through Greek;
  • ARCERA – cart with an open basket;
  • BENNA – a large, shredded car for carrying many passengers;
  • BIROTA – two-wheeled cart;
  • CAPSUM – car open;
  • CARPENTUM – a four-wheel car (on four pilentum), used by wealthy Romans. The then limousine. It had a wooden roof, much comfortable than other cars. It also had a decorated interior;
  • CARRUS – a war car, a travelling car for a large family;
  • CARRUCA and CARRACUTUM – derivatives of carrusa (luxury car and high vehicle);
  • CISIUM – a two-wheeled convertible with chairs. Pulled by two mules or horses. Not as fast as essedum;
  • CLABULA/CLABULARIUM – heavy ox-drawn cart used as a military van;
  • ESSEDUM – a small car with two wheels, without an upper body; closed from the front. Two people could ride it. The vehicle was pulled by one or more horses/oxen. The car was considered fast;
  • PETORRITUM – four-wheeled car;
  • PLAUSTRUM – a farmhouse with full wooden wheels (two or four) covered with iron, which was most commonly used in ancient Rome. The car did not have sides or upper buildings. It was usually pulled by two oxen, which were valued for high tractive power and endurance. Construction materials or agricultural goods: grain, olive oil and wine were transported on carts. Today, the equivalent of such vehicles would simply be transport trucks;
  • RHEDA/RAEDA – a four-wheeled car that we would compare today to a bus. It had many benches and a place for luggage. According to Roman law, the weight of the transported items could not exceed 1000 Roman libra (approximately 330 kg). Usually, the car was a convertible, or it only had a cloth attached above the heads of the passengers. The cart was pulled by many mules, oxen or horses (even more than four animals);
  • SARRACUM – a cart on low, full wheels, used for transporting timber;
  • TENSA – a sumptuous car.

Interestingly, the ancient Romans did not use horses for riding astride longer distances. In those days the stirrups were unknown, so the ride was not very comfortable.

Reconstruction of a Roman carpentum car. Roman-Germanic museum in Cologne (Germany).
Author: Nicolas von Kospoth | Under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Travel

The duration of the journey by road depended on many factors. First of all, the time of the year had to be considered. In the summer it was possible to cover twice the distance as in winter. In summer, the days are longer and the weather is better. In any event, a wagon traveller could travel about 30 miles (about 48 km) a day in summer and half as much in winter. On short distances, on horseback, you could move at a much higher speed and reach two or even more stationes a day.

In the times of the Empire, travelling by public “stagecoach” allowed to cover a distance of up to 96 km a day. Julius Caesar once travelled in a carriage a distance of 1,280 km (800 miles) in 8 days, or 160 km a day. A messenger from Rome carrying an urgent message of the death of Nero, reached Galbain Spain at the time 36 hours covering a distance of 531 km (332 miles). Tiberius rushing to his dying brother Drusus the Elder, rode nonstop, day and night, and He travelled 960 km (600 miles) for 3 days. Public Mail, by carriage or horseback, was delivered to a destination 160 km (100 miles) away in one day. We also know that, for example, a letter sent from Rome to Brundisium reached the recipient in six days (distance 370 miles), and to Athens – 21 days.

In 52 BCE Julius Caesar sent a letter from Britain to Cicero in Rome, which reached the addressee within 29 days. By comparison, in 1834, Sir Robert Peel, in a very hurry, made the journey from London to Rome in 30 days.

Distances in Ancient Rome

Distances by road between the most important cities of the Empire and Rome (in miles):

  • Paris – Rome – 1000
  • Cordoba – Rome – 1200
  • Lyon – Rome – 800
  • Brindisi – Rome – 400
  • Marseille – Rome – 750
  • Milan – Rome – 500
  • Pozzuoli – Rome – 133

Distances by sea between major Roman ports (on shipping days):

  • Cadiz – Ostia – 9
  • Carthage – Ostia – 3-5
  • Alexandria – Pozzuoi – 20
  • Narbonne – Ostia – 3
  • Tarragona – Ostia – 6
  • Marseille – Ostia – 3
  • Pozzuoi – Reggio di Calabria – 2
  • Caesarea – Ostia – 20
  • Athens – Ostia – 10

Travelling by land took more time than by water and was more tiring (bumps and obstacles in the road), but for some reasons, there was some compensation. First, storms that would befall on land were rarely the cause of death for a traveller. And the season made no difference; by comparison, sailing times in ancient times were from May to June and were relatively more dangerous.

It was possible to take more luggage on the road. In addition to the necessary kitchenware and tableware, towels, bedding, etc., the traveller probably needed more clothes for a change. The necessary parts of the traveller’s outfit were: thick shoes or sandals, a hat with a wide saucepan, several capes: short, light for better weather (lacerna), different for rainy days (paenula made of wool or leather, with a hood reaching the knee), another one for cold days (cirrus, a long wool coat with a hood). Money and valuables were carried in a purse on a belt looped around the waist (zona) or in a small pouch around the neck (crumena, ballantion). Travellers who really wanted to know the time could get a small pocket sundial, a small round bronze device (the items found are 3.5 – 6 cm in diameter); some of them were designed so that they could be used throughout the empire, others were intended for specific territories. Women wore roughly the same garments as the men on the go, albeit longer, reaching the ankles. If they took jewellery with them, they kept it hidden for fear of robbers.

On more important roads, milestones (miliarium) were set, according to the Roman mile, that is every 1478.5 meters. Their name comes from milia passuum, meaning “one-thousandth of a piece”. Their purpose was, of course, to inform about the distance to specific places. Every 5 miles there was a so-called courier stone (lapides tabulari) for orientation when travelling quickly.

Roman travellers on the way could stop at designated parking places (mansiones), which also included roadside inns. If the traveller was an imperial official, he would go to an inn maintained by the imperial post; if he was a wealthy patrician, he could spend the night in one of his houses, which was on the road. Merchants or other well-to-do Romans could try to keep their friends, acquaintances or associates at home (the so-called deversoria). As a last resort, if there was no shelter in the house, there was still a tent and a small camp. Ordinary travellers could count on roadside inns (tabernae), where they could rest, eat and sleep. These types of structures were located on all major Roman roads, and sometimes there were so many of them that you could choose where to stay. Some of the lonely taverns standing by the road, with time became the seeds of settlements and towns.

Tabernae – roadside inns

Typical Roman tabernae were two-story buildings on a square or rectangular plan, with an adjacent yard for wagons and wagons. On the ground floor, there was a stable for animals, a smithy, a kitchen with a dining room and the owner’s office. There were guest rooms on the first floor. The dining room and kitchen were often heated. The rooms on the first floor for travellers were probably not large, they were heated with fireplaces or coal baskets. Taverns and taverns were located not only on the roads along which the travellers travelled but also in the cities on their route. Such a city tavern or inn was something like a cheap motel.

In addition to the typical kitchen and bedroom services, the traveller could also come across prostitutes at the inn. Even in decent pubs, the so-called hospitium, it was possible to use the services of a prostitute. There was no problem with that in the lower-order taverns, the so-called caupone, which mainly hosted sailors, coachmen and slaves.

One could recognize the taverns in the city by the fact that there were always lit lamps above the entrance door (especially helpful at night). During the day, from the street side, the inn had a bar where you could eat. There were also signs illustrating the name and profile of the establishment. The names were different: “Elephant”, “Circle”, “Apollo”, “Rooster”, etc. The facade of the building was often decorated with paintings such as jugs of wine or erotic scenes. On the wall in front of the entrance, there were signs encouraging you to use the inn’s services and price lists of the dishes on offer. Taverns in cities were smaller than those in villages and along roads. On the ground floor, there were: a kitchen, a small hall, a restaurant, a reception desk and a latrine; there were guest rooms on the first floor. At the back, behind the building, there was sometimes a small yard and a stable for animals and travel carts.

Map of travel costs during the Roman Empire. I also recommend interactive map.

Most often, running an inn was a woman’s profession. Often, however, on behalf of the owner, the plant was managed by a manager (a liberator or a slave). The rest of the staff are usually slaves: doorman, hotel boys, porters, waiters, bartenders, cleaners. Upon arrival at the inn, the traveller was led to his room. They were dormitories. Rarely has a room been reserved for one guest only. The room was small, with only beds with mattresses (mostly full of bedbugs) and candlesticks. On the bedroom walls, there were numerous graffiti left by guests. The traveller could wash and refresh himself in the city bath. Here, he could also eat and rest, or sometimes use the services of a prostitute.

Ancient fast-food in Ostia.

Meals were eaten mostly in their rooms. They were prepared by their own servants or brought to the room from the host’s kitchen on request. You could also eat a meal in the dining room, i.e. a restaurant located on the ground floor of the inn. However, the traveller may have gone to another restaurant or bar in the city. You could also use “Roman fast-food“. It was a marble counter facing the street (2-2.5 meters long). There were pitchers of wine on the counter; the innkeeper sat behind the counter, serving the customer what he ordered. Such an ancient fast food bar was called thermopolium (literally “the place where something warm is sold”) or opinae. Most often it was a cup of wine. Scientists suspect that groats, fish stew and garum were also served. They drank and ate on the spot while standing at the counter.

The inn restaurant had a kitchen with a cooking hearth and a dining area with tables and chairs. The better restaurants had several dining rooms and toilets, some of them with open courtyards for eating outside (like today’s restaurant “gardens”). In addition to the dishes, the wine was served (from the most ordinary to the best-imported species). They were drunk diluted with cold or hot water. Various kinds of punches and drinks were consumed (wine mixed with herbs, honey, etc.).

Restaurants and bars in taverns opened in the morning. They were open until late at night, because they organized music and dancing. Back then, high profits were also expected from the services of prostitutes and gambling. Many of these places were more pubs and dives than in real restaurants.

Sea and river travel

The journey by sea was faster than by land, but as mentioned it was a much less safe trip due to possible storms. Moreover, the ships sailing on the sea could be lurked by pirates who were the real bane of the Mediterranean in the first half of the 1st century BCE1. It is also worth mentioning again that sailing was only possible from May to October because later they came clouds and winter storms preventing smooth navigation. The downtime was called mare clausum. This does not mean, however, that in the case of favourable weather conditions, the cruise was not decided at all.

The main ports on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea were Portus and Ostia at Rome, Caesarea, Alexandria, Carthage, Gades, Narbonne, Marseille, Cartagena, Tarragona. Without a doubt, Rome was the most important. From here, the traveller could quickly get to Egypt. There was a fleet carrying grain on the Rome-Alexandria route. It was possible to sail to Greece through the Strait of Messina, around the Peloponnese to Corinth and Athens. From here it was easy to cross the Aegean Sea and get to Ephesus and Smyrna in Asia Minor. The duration of the sea voyage depended on the winds and the type of ship. If it was a seagoing ship going through the open sea, the journey was shorter, if it was a small ship sailing close to the shore, along the coasts, then the journey was long. For example: senior Roman officials used galleys on business trips. They swam along the shores and called at ports every night. So the journey was slow but safe and comfortable.

Map showing approximate travel time from Rome in July, by high-speed ship, private boat or by road. The contours indicate the time measured in days.

Mild summer winds, called “Etesian”, were decisive for shipping. They blew constantly from the northern part of the sea and were found in the eastern Mediterranean, mainly in the Aegean Sea. With these winds, the journey from Rome to Alexandria took 10 to 20 days. It was much worse back. You could go even for two months or longer. At that time, you had to sail along the southern shores of Asia Minor, through Crete, Malta and Sicily, fighting against the winds. The journey from Rome to Corinth took a week or two, depending on the winds blowing.

Why did it take so long? The ancient ships were not very fast and relied heavily on good winds and currents. The ships reached an average speed of up to 6 knots, therefore the journey from Rome to Narbonne took 3 days, to Corinth 5 days, to Rhodes 7 days and to Alexandria 10 days. The journey from Constantinople (Byzantium) to Rhodes took 5 days and to Alexandria for 9 days.

The travellers, unless they were rich citizens, could not take advantage of the offer of a passenger ship. The only option was to pay the captain of a merchant ship that happened to be heading in the direction we wanted. Interestingly, in Ostia, there was even a special square where you could learn about the departing vessels and their destinations. Due to the fact that cargo ships were intended to carry cargo, passengers had to take into account not the best conditions.

The travelling person had to be provided with their own food, cooking utensils and, if they could afford it, a service to help. The cruise could be booked with magistra navis dealing with the commercial interests of the shipowner. In some ports, prior to departure, the traveller had to obtain the governor’s consent to travel. An appropriate document was then issued and a fee had to be paid (it depended on the profession, e.g. captain paid 8 drachmas, sailor 5, and prostitute 108). People travelling by ship had to take the form of a tent or a bedspread because the ancient cabins were only available to the highest command of the ship and the rich. The only place they could sleep was the deck of the ship, where kitchens of some kind were also built.

The ship’s departure took place in good weather conditions, so travellers had to be prepared at all times for a signal from the captain. Moreover, attention was paid to issues such as unlucky days (e.g. August 24, October 5, and November 8), unfavourable signs (sneezing while boarding a ship, croaking crow, uttering some inappropriate words, bad sleep of someone from the crew) or bad divination. During the cruise, blasphemy and dancing were forbidden, and if someone died during the trip, the body was immediately thrown into the water; death was considered a bad signal for an expedition.

When the ship safely reached its destination, the travellers joyfully offered votive gifts to the deities for their happy voyage and protection. It is worth noting that the ancient Romans were not very good sailors and did not like sea travel, despite the fact that they defeated the former naval power – Carthage. If they could choose, they preferred to avoid sea excursions.

It is also worth paying attention to the river routes, which were eagerly used for travel/transport of goods in the field. Both Strabo and Pliny the Elder state that rivers increased trade opportunities and accelerated transport. There are many examples: the Tiber, Baetis (Spanish Guadalquivir), Cilbus (Spanish Guadalete) or the Ebro.

Ports acted as connecting rivers, sea and land routes, so they were an ideal place for the development of trade and the expansion of the centre. For example, the Roman city in the south of Gaul – Arelete (now Arles) – gave access to the Rhone, a river that ran deep into the continent. Another example is Ravenna and Patavium in Italy, which are located at the mouth of the Po, a river that crosses the Apennine Peninsula.

Footnotes
  1. Pompey the Great overcome th problem of piracy in the Mediterranean, thanks to the special powers he received from the Senate. Cicero recalls that the Sea then became like a single port, connected by many sea routes (cursus maritimi).
Sources
  • Colin Adams, Transport in the Roman Empire
  • Lionel Casson, Podróże w starożytnym świecie, Wrocław 1981
  • Will Durant, Historia cywilizacji, tom 2
  • Harold Whetstone Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans
  • Victor Labate, Ancient Journeys: What was Travel Like for the Romans?, "Ancient-Origins", 17.01.2016
  • Podróże morskie w starożytności, "Ale Historia", 29 November 2011
  • A.M. Ramsey, The speed of the Roman Imperial Post
  • Roman Carriages, "Romae Vitam"
  • Rzymskie gospody, "Ale Historia", 14 December 2011
  • Andrzej Wojcieszak, Zapomniana logistyka

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