TRANSPORTATION, CHARIOTS, SHIPS AND ROADS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE

TRANSPORTATION AND ROADS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE

20120227-Road Libya_LeptisMagna.JPG
Road at Leptis Magna in Libya
Travel on the sea was generally more comfortable that over land. Road travel was either on foot or in springless carriages, carts or chariots that bounced and bumped over every cobblestone. Egyptians, Hittites, Aryans, Shang Dynasty Chinese and Assyrians had chariots long before the Greeks and Romans did.

The Romans built over 53,000 miles of paved roads, stretching from Scotland to East Europe to Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq to North Africa. It was the greatest system of highways that the world has ever seen until recent times.

Roman all-weather roads were built with a great degree of sophistication. There were three levels of substructure under the roads, which bulged slightly at the center to allow rainwater to run off them. On steep hills grooves were notched in the road so that people and horses could descend without slipping.

20120227-bridge severische Turkey.jpg
Roman bridge in Turkey
Roman roads were built primarily to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. Roman legionnaires would not have been nearly as effective in their conquests if getting them supplies was difficult. The system was so well set up that commanders could accurately calculate how long it would take to get their armies from one place to another: from Cologne to Rome was 67 days, Rome to Brindisis, 57 days, and Rome to Syria (including two days at sea), 124 days. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The route the German Blitzkrieg used to move into France in 1940 through the Ardennes forests and over the River Meuse more or less followed Route Nationale 43 , which in turn followed the old Roman road laid out not long after Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the first century B.C.. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Roman roads radiated out from a golden milestone in the Forum in Rome. The first road, the Appian Way (Via Appian), was built from Rome to Capua in 312 B.C. to connect Rome with its colonies on the Adriatic. Other roads crossed the Alps, linked Europe to Asia and traversed sections of the Sahara. Major routes were linked to ports. In A.D. 21, under the orders of Augustus, a map of the world based on the empire's road system was produced and displayed near the Forum in Rome.

Appian Way

20120227-Road Via_Appia_Antica_Rome_2006.jpg
Via Appia
The Appian Way is one of ancient Rome's most famous roads. It extends for ten miles within the city limits of Rome beginning at the Colosseum and heads southeast. Begun in 312 B.C. under orders of the Republican magistrate Appius Clauduius, it once extended 370 miles Brindisi and was the major transport route to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. Along the way you can still find patches of huge, green-gray volcanic stones, called selces , that the Romans paved with, and kiln-shaped Roman tombs with classical entrances. Rich Romans had their tombs placed here in the belief that exposure to the thousand of people that traveled the Appian Way wound grant them immortality.

To the north of Terracina (about 50 miles southeast of Rome) the Romans built the Appian Way on a bed of rubble through a 30 mile section of marsh, an incredible engineering feat for its the time. Few other ancient people knew how to build road beds let alone in swamp. In another incredible undertaking Romans cut through 121 foot rock outcrop with only chisels and picks at Trojan's Cut. If you visit the sight you can still see Roman numerals that were used to mark the depth of the passageway.

20120227-Road Via_Appia_Antica_Rome.jpg
Minturnae (about 100 miles southwest of Rome) boasts one of the more complete sets of Roman ruins along the Appian Way. The section of the Roman road here which consists of coffee table-sized cobblestones is in very good condition as are the remains of the forum, aqueduct, theater, and temple. In the ancient Roman bath there is a mosaic that shows a bunch of winged cupids stomping grapes into wine. Not too far from Minturnae is a massive 21 arch viaduct-Ponte degli Aurunci-that withstood the weight of tanks in World War and still supports traffic today.

Other Interesting Appian Towns include Alberobello (about 50 miles southeast of Bari), whose houses have stone beehive roofs, used to direct infrequent rains into underground cisterns; Gravina di Puglia (about 60 miles northwest of Taranto), a rugged little village built among rocky hills chilled by forested canyons; Ordona (between Bari and Benevento) which boasts the foundations of a grand temple, as well as an ancient bath and shops; and Egnazia (between Bari and Brindisi), an ancient resort on the Adriatic Sea, where a section of the Appia still contains the grooves of chariot wheels; and the port town of Bari.

Road Travel in the Roman Empire

20120227-bridge PuenteromanoriveraTrebejana.JPG
Most traffic---oldiers, chariots, animals, carts, pedestrians---moved pretty slowly. Milestones inscribed with various kinds of information, such as distance to the next town, marked the Roman miles (measurements of 1,620 yards) on the major Roman roads.

By examining ruts left by chariot wheels in the stone streets, archaeologists have surmised the Romans had one way streets and no-left-turn intersections. National Geographic writer James Cerruti had always wondered whether Roman chariots drove on the right side of the road or the left side. When he saw grooves in the a section of the ancient Appian Way he realized they drove the same way Italians often do today: straight down the middle.<>

The Roman empire's major highway was the Via Salaria (Salt Road), on which salt was carried from the salt pans of Ostia to Rome. The Via Domitia connected Italy to Spain, the Via Egnatia linked Rome to Byzantium. An eastward extension of the Via Egnatia, the famed road to Damascus, ran across Turkey and southward to Beruit and Syria.

20120227-Road chariot ruts Calzadaromana.jpg
Road with chariot ruts
The Roman armies built pontoon bridges to move across waterways and used horses to scout out the enemy on reconnaissance missions. Trajan built a great bridge across the Danube, a startling achievement for its times, to aid his conquest of Dacia The bridge and battles from the Dacian campaign are immortalized in 200 meters of scenes that spiral around the 100-foot-high Trajan column. Trajan's bridge was torn down by Hadrian who felt that it might facilitate a Barbarian conquest of Rome.

Local people needed passport to travel on the official routes. There were no real addresses. Few streets had names and those that did didn’t have signs or numbers. Messengers could cover a distance of about 200 miles a day by on main roads by changing horses every 10 miles or so, pony express-style. Traveling in this fashion it took only about six days to reach Britain from Rome (a record that was not improved upon until the invention of modern automobiles in the 20th century).

First Wheels and Wheeled Vehicles

20120227-Ur chariot.jpg
Mesopotamian chariot
The wheel, some scholars have theorized, was first used to make pottery and then was adapted for wagons and chariots. The potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia in 4000 B.C. Some scholars have speculated that the wheel on carts were developed by placing a potters wheel on its side. Other say: first there were sleds, then rollers and finally wheels. Logs and other rollers were widely used in the ancient world to move heavy objects. It is believed that 6000-year-old megaliths that weighed many tons were moved by placing them on smooth logs and pulling them by teams of laborers.

Early wheeled vehicles were wagons and sleds with a wheel attached to each side. The wheel was most likely invented before around 3000 B.C---the approximate age of the oldest wheel specimens---as most early wheels were probably shaped from wood, which rots, and there isn't any evidence of them today. The evidence we do have consists of impressions left behind in ancient tombs, images on pottery and ancient models of wheeled carts fashioned from pottery.◂

Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium B.C., near-simultaneously in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus and Central Europe. The question of who invented the first wheeled vehicles is far from resolved. The earliest well-dated depiction of a wheeled vehicle---a wagon with four wheels and two axles---is on the Bronocice pot, clay pot dated to between 3500 and 3350 B.C. excavated in a Funnelbeaker culture settlement in southern Poland. Some sources say the oldest images of the wheel originate from the Mesopotamian city of Ur A bas-relief from the Sumerian city of Ur---dated to 2500 B.C---shows four onagers (donkeylike animals) pulling a cart for a king. and were supposed to date sometime from 4000 BC. [Partly from Wikipedia]

20120227-chariots Relief_Streitwagen.jpg
Roman chariot
In 2003---at a site in the Ljubljana marshes, Slovenia, 20 kilometers southeast of Ljubljana--- Slovenian scientists claimed they found the world’s oldest wheel and axle. Dated with radiocarbon method by experts in Vienna to be between 5,100 and 5,350 years old the found in the remains of a pile-dwelling settlement, the wheel has a radius of 70 centimeters and is five centimeters thick. It is made of ash and oak. Surprisingly technologically advanced, it was made of two ashen panels of the same tree. The axle, whose age could not be precisely established, is about as old as the wheel. It is 120 centimeters long and made of oak. [Source: Slovenia News]


The wheel and axle were found near a wooden canoe. Both the wheel and the axle had been scorched, probably to protect them against pests. Slovenian experts surmise that the wheel they found belonged to a single-axle cart. The aperture for the axle on the wheel is square, which means the wheel and the axle rotated together and, considering the rough ground, the cart probably had only one axle. We can only guess what the cart itself was like. The Ljubljana marshes are a perfect place for old objects to be preserved. There have been many finds uncovered in this area. Apart from the wooden wheel, axle and canoe, there have been innumerable objects found which are up to 6,500 years old.

A wheel dated to 3000 B.C., was found near Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Wheels with simialr dates have been found in germany and Switzerland. One very old wheel was a wooden disc discovered at an archeological sight near Zurich. The wheel now can be seen in the Zurich museum.

First Domesticated Horses

20120227-chariots ROMAN_CHARIOT_RACING.jpg
Roman chariot race
The first domesticated horses appeared around 6000 to 5000 years ago. The first hard evidence of mounted riders dates to about 1350 B.C. Uncovering information about ancient horsemen however is difficult. They left behind no written records and relatively few other groups wrote about them. For the most part they were nomads who had few possession, and never stayed in one place for long, making it difficult for archeologists---who have traditionally excavated ancient cities and settlements of settled people---to dig up artifacts connected with them.

For similar reasons it is difficult to work out how different horsemen groups interacted and how individuals within the group behaved. What little is known about group interaction has been learned mostly from the work of linguists. Most of what is known about their behavior is based on observations of modern groups or a hand full of descriptions by ancient historians. .

Based on these sources, scholars believe that early nomadic horsemen lived in small groups, often organized by clan or tribe, and generally avoided forming large groups. Small groups have more mobility and flexibility to move to new pastures and water sources. Large groups are much more unwieldy and more likely to generate feuds and other internal problems. On the steppe there generally was enough land for all so the only time horsemen needed to unite was to face a common threat.

The Eurasia steppe is the only place that horses survived after the last Ice Age. Domestication is believed to have occurred around 3000 B.C. when horses suddenly appeared in places where they hadn't been seen before like Turkey and Switzerland. It is difficult to pin down when domestication took place partly because the bones of wild horses and domesticated horses are virtually the same. [Source: William Speed Weed, Discover magazine, March 2002]

Horses are believed to have been domesticated from wild horses from Central Asia about 6,000 years ago. Ancient men viewed horses primarily as a source of meat and hunted them like other animals. One effective method of hunting horses was driving them over cliffs.

20120227-Bullock_cart_with_driver.jpg
Indus valley bullock cart
The first domesticated horses are believed to have been horses that were herded rather than hunted. Later they were used as beast of burdens, and later still they were ridden. Horse are believed to have first been ridden to keep track of domesticated animals that ranged over large expanses on the steppe. Some people have speculated that the first horsemen drank the blood of their animals as cattle-herding tribes in East Africa do today.

The first horseback riders and domesticated horses were originally believed to have come from Sredni Stog culture, a site in the steppe areas east of the Dnieper River and north of the Black Sea in what is now the Ukraine, dated between 4200 and 3500 B.C. Russian archeologists excavated Sredny Stog in the 1960s and found scraps of bone and horn that resembled the cheek pieces of bridles plus wear and tear on the teeth of an excavated horse that resembled the wear and tear caused by wearing a bit. Archeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College in New York examined horse teeth found at Sredni Stog sites and concluded the horse teeth dated to 400 B.C., and the site not the home of 6000-year-old riders.

Carts, Onangers and Horses

20120227-chariots trasporto_agli_inferi_alabastro.JPG
Roman transport cart
Animals pulling carts preceded mounted riders by as much as 2,000 years. A bas-relief from the Sumerian city of Ur, dated to 2500 B.C., shows four onangers (donkey-like animals) pulling a cart for a king. The first animals used to pull sledges (carts without wheels) were probably oxen (bulls made more docile by castration). The first carts were probably sledges with logs rolled underneath them.

Over time onangers and donkeys---animals that often will not move even when furiously whipped---were later replaced by horses who are less stubborn, faster, and have a lower threshold for pain than a donkeys. In the second millennia B.C. horses were increasingly to pull weights on the Central Asian steppes. These horses were smaller and shaggier than modern horses, and much more difficult to control than oxen. Deep-furrowed plows also began to be utilized by farmers in the second millennia B.C. Muscular oxen proved to be much better suited for this kind of work than horses.

Herdsman at this time had learned to breed sheep, goats, and cattle, and it follows that they applied what they learned about breeding to horses. Through breeding, horses were made manageable enough to attach to carts with the mouth-fitted bit . By contrast donkeys were controlled by reins attached to nose rings and oxen were harnessed to yokes shaped around their shoulders.

First Horse-Pulled Chariots

20120227-chariots  musee_de_Laon_050208.jpg
Roman chariot
Chariots preceded mounted riders by at least 1,000 years. Because oxen were better suited for pulling plows and heavy loads, horses were attached to lighter vehicles that evolved into chariots. Lightweight chariots, employing technology similar to that used to make racing bicycles light, could move quite fast. Ancient Egyptian chariots, pulled by a pair of horses and weighing only 17 pounds, could reach easily reach speeds of 20 miles-per-hour. A cart pulled by oxen, by contrast, rarely exceeded two miles-per-hour.

Chariots preceded mounted horses and saddles in part because the early domesticated horses were small and not strong enough to support men on their backs. The first chariots were probably used by shepherds to help them hunt wolves, leopards and bears that threatened their flocks and were alter adapted for warfare.

The important elements of a chariot were the wheels, chassis, draught pole and metal fittings. Advancement in metallurgy, woodworking, tanning and leatherworking, the uses of glues, bone and sinew all made the construction of chariots possible but the most important development of all was the improvement in physique of horse to pull such a vehicle.

Earliest Evidence of Chariots

20120227-chariots Roman_Chariot_Races.jpg
Roman-style chariot races
John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “In ancient graves on the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, archeologists have uncovered skulls and bones of sacrificed horses and, perhaps most significantly, traces of spoked wheels. These appear to be the wheels of chariots, the earliest direct evidence for the existence of the two-wheeled high-performance vehicles that transformed the technology of transport and warfare.[Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“The discovery sheds new light on the contributions to world history by the vigorous pastoral people who lived in the broad northern grasslands, dismissed as barbarians by their southern neighbors. From these burial customs, archeologists surmise that this culture bore a remarkable resemblance to the people who a few hundred years later called themselves Aryans and would spread their power, religion and language, with everlasting consequence, into the region of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. The discovery could also lead to some revision in the history of the wheel, the quintessential invention, and shake the confidence of scholars in their assumption that the chariot, like so many other cultural and mechanical innovations, had its origin among the more advanced urban societies of the ancient Middle East.

New analysis of material from the graves shows that these chariots were built more than 4,000 years ago, strengthening the case for their origin in the steppes rather than in the Middle East. If the ages of the burial sites are correct, said Dr. David W. Anthony, who directed the dating research, chariots from the steppes were at least contemporary with and perhaps even earlier than the earliest Middle East chariots. The first hint of them in the Middle East is on clay seals, dated a century or two later. The seal impressions, from Anatolia, depict a light, two-wheel vehicle pulled by two animals, carrying a single figure brandishing an ax or hammer.

20120227-transp stagecoach.JPG
Roman stagecoach
"Scholarly caution tells me the matter is not resolved," said Dr. Anthony, an anthropologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. "But my gut feeling is, there's a good chance the chariot was invented first in the north." While praising Dr. Anthony's work, Mary Littauer, an independent archeologist and co-author of "Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East" (Brill, 1979), was not ready to concede the point. "It's still debatable," she said. "A spoked wheel is not necessarily a chariot, only a light cart on the way to becoming chariots."

Other archeologists and historians said they would not be surprised to learn that the chariot had originated in the steppes. After all, pastoralists there were probably the first to tame and ride horses; as Dr. Anthony determined in other research reported four years ago, this may have occurred at least 6,000 years ago. Then they developed wagons with solid disk wheels, and many centuries later learned to make the lighter spoked wheels, the breakthrough invention leading to the fast, maneuverable chariot. The results of Dr. Anthony's dating research was presented at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association and an interpretation of the results was published in Archaeology, the magazine of the Archeological Institute of America.

Roman Ships and Sea Trade in the Roman Empire

20120227-ships Chaland_romain_1.jpg
Roman transport ship
The Rome-Carthage trade ships were wooden vessels with square rigs and a deep belly which held amphoras filled with wine, olive oil, fish sauce and other goods. Planks were fastened together with hand cut mortise-and-tenon joints.

A number of Roman-era vessels have been excavated from the muddy ancient harbor of San Rossore in Pisa, They include merchant vessels, river boats and a warship described as the “the best-preserved vessel of antiquity ever found.” The warship was preserved in 15 feet of mud and is practically undamaged. Some of the ships are on display on Pisa’s new Museum of Ships.

A Roman trading ship dated to 200 B.C. that was found was 100 feet long and featured cargo holds in the fore and aft. It carried two lead anchors, bronze vessels and eight types of amphora (double-handed jars).

Items found on a ship dated to the time of Christ have indicated that trade took place between North Africa, southern France and Campania in southern Italy. First century A.D. ships have been found with cargos of granite stones, columns and a large anchor and amphorae carrying wine and oil. A fifth century ship has been found with iron anchors, hand-operated mill, a lamp from Carthage and Roman coins.

Large Ships

Normal-size sea vessels held about 3,000 amphorae while large freighters held as many a 10,000. Grain was the main commodity, followed by wine and olive oil.

As time went the ships became larger and larger. Galleys rated as "fours," "fives," and "sixes" were introduced between 400 B.C. and 300 B.C. They were followed up by "16s," "20s" and "30s." The Emperor Ptolemy IV built a massive "40." The numbers refereed to the number pulling each triad of oars. Ships with more than three bank were built but ultimately they proved to be impractical.

Describing one of the largest boats, a 2nd century Greek wrote: "It was [420 feet] long, [58 feet] from gangway to plank and [72 feet] high to the prow ornament...It was double-prowed and double-sterned...During a trial run it took aboard over 4,000 oarsmen and 400 other crewmen, and on deck 2,850 marines."

20120227-ships Triremis.RomanEmpire.BCE31.SvenLittkowski.001.jpg
large Triremis

In the late 1990s an English-Greek team built a 170-oar trireme at a cost of around $640,000. Held together with 20,000 tenons fastened with 40,000 oak pegs, it set sail with a an international crew of 132 men and 40 women. Describing, the team in action, Timothy Green wrote in Smithsonian, "the crew rowed together and sang together, getting up high spirits and up to seven knots.

Trade in the Roman Empire

The Roman established wide trade network across the Mediterranean. Ships regularly crossed the open Mediterranean out of site of land from Italy to Carthage in Northern Africa. There were Flame-toped lighthouses like the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandrian, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. River travel could be quite slow. The 600-mile, up-river boat journey on the Nile from Alexandria to Coptos (now Qift) took two weeks even when the boat traveled day and night.

Important trade items included metals and olive oil from Spain and Africa, grain from Egypt, Africa and the Crimea, spices and silks from the east and wine from France and Italy. They were carried in large jug-like red clay amphoras on square-sailed merchant ships. Ivory from Africa, silk from China, spices, pepper and cotton from India, wheat, and linen and marble from Egypt were carried by ships across the Mediterranean. The amphorae used to transport oil, wine and other foodstuffs were generally about five feet high.

By the 2nd century, the Romans had a well developed trade network with China. Silks, rich brocades, cloth of gold and jeweled embroideries made their way to Rome from China and Persia. Caravans loaded with perfumes from Arabia, spices and rare woods from India, and silk from China passed through Palmyra in Syria and other oasis towns and made their way to the Roman Empire. along what would later be called the Silk Road

20120227-800px-Roman_harbors_and_fleets_Augustus-Severus.png
Roman harbors and fleets at the time of Augustus-Severus

Because of the stormy weather in the Mediterranean during the winter ships usually stayed in port from October to March. Even during the Middle Ages, Venetian ships only made one trip a year between Italy and the Levant (present-day Lebanon). One fleet left Venice after Easter and returned in September.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.