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Roman transport ship
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

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.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Greek Traders

Greek trading ship

The Greeks traded all over the Mediterranean with metal coinage (introduced by the Lydians in Asia Minor before 700 B.C.); colonies were founded around the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores (Cumae in Italy 760 B.C., Massalia in France 600 B.C.) Metropleis (mother cities) founded colonies abroad to provide food and resources for their rising populations. In this way Greek culture was spread to a fairly wide area. ↕

Greece was resource poor and overpopulated. They needed to colonize the Mediterranean to get resources. Beginning in the 8th century B.C., the Greeks set up colonies in Sicily and southern Italy that endured for 500 years, and, many historians argue, provided the spark that ignited Greek golden age. The most intensive colonization took place in Italy although outposts were set up as far west as France and Spain and as far east as the Black Sea, where the established cities as Socrates noted like "frogs around a pond." On the European mainland, Greek warriors encountered the Gauls who the Greeks said "knew how to die, barbarians though they were." [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic, November 1994]

During this period in history the Mediterranean Sea was frontier as challenging to the Greeks as the Atlantic was to 15th century European explorers like Columbus. Why did the Greeks head west? "They were driven in part by curiosity. Real curiosity," a British historian told National Geographic. "They wanted to know what lay on the other side of the sea." They also expanded abroad to get rich and ease tensions at home where rival city-states fought with one another over land and resources. Some Greeks became quite wealthy trading things like Etruscan metals and Black Sea grain.

Trade Routes between Europe and Asia during Antiquity

“According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “New inventions, religious beliefs, artistic styles, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials, were transmitted by people moving from one place to another to conduct business. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

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“Long-distance trade played a major role in the cultural, religious, and artistic exchanges that took place between the major centers of civilization in Europe and Asia during antiquity. Some of these trade routes had been in use for centuries, but by the beginning of the first century A.D., merchants, diplomats, and travelers could (in theory) cross the ancient world from Britain and Spain in the west to China and Japan in the east. The trade routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury goods from areas with surpluses to others where they were in short supply. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods. China, for example, supplied West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk, while spices were obtained principally from South Asia. These goods were transported over vast distances— either by pack animals overland or by seagoing ships—along the Silk and Spice Routes, which were the main arteries of contact between the various ancient empires of the Old World. Another important trade route, known as the Incense Route, was controlled by the Arabs, who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel caravan from South Arabia. \^/

““Cities along these trade routes grew rich providing services to merchants and acting as international marketplaces. Some, like Palmyra and Petra on the fringes of the Syrian Desert, flourished mainly as centers of trade supplying merchant caravans and policing the trade routes. They also became cultural and artistic centers, where peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet and intermingle. \^/

““The trade routes were the communications highways of the ancient world. New inventions, religious beliefs, artistic styles, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials, were transmitted by people moving from one place to another to conduct business. These connections are reflected, for example, in the sculptural styles of Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan and northern India) and Gaul (modern-day France), both influenced by the Hellenistic styles popularized by the Romans. \^/

Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia

Roman Gate in Petra

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “By the end of the first century B.C., there was a great expansion of international trade involving five contiguous powers: the Roman empire, the Parthian empire, the Kushan empire, the nomadic confederation of the Xiongnu, and the Han empire. Although travel was arduous and knowledge of geography imperfect, numerous contacts were forged as these empires expanded—spreading ideas, beliefs, and customs among heterogeneous peoples—and as valuable goods were moved over long distances through trade, exchange, gift giving, and the payment of tribute. Transport over land was accomplished using river craft and pack animals, notably the sturdy Bactrian camel. Travel by sea depended on the prevailing winds of the Indian Ocean, the monsoons, which blow from the southwest during the summer months and from the northeast in the fall. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, \^/]

“A vast network of strategically located trading posts (emporia) enabled the exchange, distribution, and storage of goods. Isodorus of Charax, a Parthian Greek writing around the 1 A.D., described various posts and routes in a book entitled Parthian Stations. From the Greco-Roman metropolis of Antioch, routes crossed the Syrian Desert via Palmyra to Ctesiphon (the Parthian capital) and Seleucia on the Tigris River. From there the road led east across the Zagros Mountains to the cities of Ecbatana and Merv, where one branch turned north via Bukhara and Ferghana into Mongolia and the other led into Bactria. The port of Spasinu Charax on the Persian Gulf was a great center of seaborne trade. Goods unloaded there were sent along a network of routes throughout the Parthian empire—up the Tigris to Ctesiphon; up the Euphrates to Dura-Europos; and on through the caravan cities of the Arabian and Syrian Desert. Many of these overland routes ended at ports on the eastern Mediterranean, from which merchandise was distributed to cities throughout the Roman empire. \^/

“Other routes through the Arabian desert may have ended at the Nabataean city of Petra, where new caravans traveled on to Gaza and other ports on the Mediterranean, or north to Damascus or east to Parthia. A network of sea routes linked the incense ports of South Arabia and Somalia with ports in the Persian Gulf and India in the east, and also with ports on the Red Sea, from which merchandise was transported overland to the Nile and then to Alexandria.” \^/

Trade between Arabia and the Empires of Rome and Asia

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “South Arabian merchants utilized the Incense Route to transport not only frankincense and myrrh but also spices, gold, ivory, pearls, precious stones, and textiles—all of which arrived at the local ports from Africa, India, and the Far East. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Trade between Arabia and the Empires of Rome and Asia", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

“Frankincense and myrrh, highly prized in antiquity as fragrances, could only be obtained from trees growing in southern Arabia, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Arab merchants brought these goods to Roman markets by means of camel caravans along the Incense Route. The Incense Route originally commenced at Shabwah in Hadhramaut, the easternmost kingdom of South Arabia, and ended at Gaza, a port north of the Sinai Peninsula on the Mediterranean Sea. Both the camel caravan routes across the deserts of Arabia and the ports along the coast of South Arabia were part of a vast trade network covering most of the world then known to Greco-Roman geographers as Arabia Felix. South Arabian merchants utilized the Incense Route to transport not only frankincense and myrrh but also spices, gold, ivory, pearls, precious stones, and textiles—all of which arrived at the local ports from Africa, India, and the Far East. The geographer Strabo compared the immense traffic along the desert routes to that of an army. The Incense Route ran along the western edge of Arabia’s central desert about 100 miles inland from the Red Sea coast; Pliny the Elder stated that the journey consisted of sixty-five stages divided by halts for the camels. Both the Nabataeans and the South Arabians grew tremendously wealthy through the transport of goods destined for lands beyond the Arabian Peninsula.” \^/

Travel by Water in the Roman Empire

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The means of travel were the same as our ancestors used a century ago. By water the Roman used sailing vessels, rarely canal boats; by land, vehicles drawn by horses or mules; for short distances sedan chairs or litters. There were, however, few transportation companies, few lines of boats or vehicles, that is, few running between certain places and prepared to carry passengers at a fixed price on a regular schedule. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The traveler by sea whose means did not permit him to buy or charter a vessel for his exclusive use had often to wait at the port until he found a boat going in the desired direction and then make such terms as he could for his passage. And there were other inconveniences. The boats were small, and this made them uncomfortable in rough weather; the lack of the compass caused them to follow the coast as much as possible, and this often increased the distance; in winter navigation was usually suspended.

“Traveling by water was, therefore, avoided as much as possible. Rather than sail to Athens from Ostia or Naples, for example, the traveler would go by land to Brundisium, by sea across to Dyrrachium, and continue the journey by land. Between Brundisium and Dyrrachium boats were constantly passing, and the only delay to be feared was that caused by bad weather. The short voyage, only 100 miles, was usually made within twenty-four hours. For a detailed and easily accessible account of an ancient voyage, see Acts, xxvii-xxviii. |+|

Sea Trade, Tourism and Maritime Loans in Ancient Rome

Traders obtained the finances they needed to buy commodities through maritime loans, in which the cargo was pledged as a security and interest payments were around 30 percent. If the cargo showed up the trade could pay off the loan and still make a huge profits. The loan was only repaid after the cargo arrived. If the ship didn't make it the financiers of the loan lost their money not the trader.

Even under these terms, investors were willing to take the risk because such trading was one of the few ways that someone could rich quick. If they ship did come in more often than not the cargo could be sold for three or four times the price that as payed for the cargo.

Tourism developed under Augustus during the Pax Romana. Young wealthy tourists visited Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt. The roads and seas were safe for travel and people visited famous temples, places from the Iliad and Alexander' conquest, and even went to the Pyramids. Roman tourists bought souvenirs such as miniature copies of temples or statues made of pottery, glass, bronze, silver and stone. They also left inscribed their names on the walls of tombs and ruins. At the Temple of Isis one man even wrote "I, L. Trebonius Oricula was here."

Roman Ships and Sea Trade in the Roman Empire

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 Ancient Greco-Roman 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."

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.

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large Triremis

Roman Ships Found Off Italy in the 2010s

In 2012, archaeologists said they found an almost intact Roman ship in the sea off the town on Varazze, some 18 miles from Genova, Italy. Rossella Lorenz wrote in; “The ship, a navis oneraria, or merchant vessel, was located at a depth of about 200 feet thanks to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) following tips from fishermen who had caught some jars in their nets. The ship sank about 2,000 years ago on her trade route between Spain and central Italy with a full cargo of more than 200 amphorae. [Source: Rossella Lorenz,, August 20, 2012]

“Test on some of the recovered jars revealed they contained pickled fish, grain, wine and oil. The foodstuffs were traded in Spain for other goods. “There are some broken jars around the wreck, but we believe that most of the amphorae inside the ship are still sealed and food filled,” Lt. Col. Francesco Schilardi, who led the Carabinieri Subacquei (police divers), said.

“The ship, which dates to sometime between the 1st Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D., is hidden under layers of mud on the seabed, which has left the wreck and its cargo intact. The vessel will remain hidden at the bottom of the sea until Italian authorities decide whether to raise it or not. “Right now the area of the finding has been secured, and no fishing or water traffic is allowed,” Lt. Col. Schilardi said.

in 2010, A team of marine archaeologists using sonar scanners have discovered four ancient shipwrecks off the tiny Italian island of Zannone, with intact cargos of wine and oil. The remains of the trading vessels, dating from the first century B.C. to the 5th-7th century AD, are up to 165 metres underwater, a depth that preserved them from being disturbed by fishermen over the centuries. “The deeper you go, the more likely you are to find complete wrecks,” said Annalisa Zarattini, an official from the archaeological services section of the Italian culture ministry. [Source:, August 23, 2010 by Ancientfoods]

“The timber structures of the vessels have been eaten away by tiny marine organisms, leaving their outlines and the cargos still lying in the position they were stowed on board. “The ships sank, they came to rest at the bottom of the sea, the wood disappeared and you find the whole ship, with the entire cargo. Nothing has been taken away,” she said.

“The discoveries were made through cooperation between Italian authorities and the Aurora Trust, a US foundation that promotes exploration of the Mediterranean seabed. The vessels, up to 18 metres long, had been carrying amphorae, or large jars, containing wine from Italy, and cargo from North Africa and Spain including olive oil, fruit and garum, a pungent fish sauce that was a favourite ingredient in Roman cooking. Another ship, as yet undated, appeared to have been carrying building bricks. It is unclear how the vessels sank and no human remains have been found. The vessels are the second “fleet” of ships to be discovered in recent years near the Pontine islands, an archipelago off Italy’s west coast believed to have been a key junction for ships bringing supplies to the vast warehouses of Rome.

Scale of Trade Revealed at Ancient Roman Port

port scene from a Pompeii fresco

In 1999, ABC Science reported: “ A detailed picture of the huge, vital and complex trade regimes in ancient Rome has been revealed by English and Italian archaeologists working on the remains of Portus, an ancient trading port. The investigation was led by Professor Simon Keay and Professor Martin Millett, University of Southampton in collaboration with Dr Helen Patterson, British School at Rome and Dr Anna Gallina Zevi and Dr Lidia Paroli, Soprintendenza Archeologica di Ostia. [Source:ABC Science, November 29, 1999 ]

“"Portus is the largest maritime infrastructure of the ancient world, created to guarantee the food supply of the population of Rome whose inhabitants numbered almost one million in the Imperial period," said the Soprintendente Archeologo di Ostia, Dr Anna Gallina Zevi. "Portus is therefore central to understanding one of the fundamental mechanisms of the economic life of Rome from its peak as an Imperial power to its decline in the early Middle Ages." "While the techniques of the geophysical survey are not new, the scale of this investigation, and its speed, have brought new possibilities to archaeological research. We've been able to map an area of 28 hectares in two weeks," said Professor Millett, "and new software allows us to analyse results and produce startling images of the buried structures."

“Portus was first built by the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), and was later enlarged by the Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). It was a major port which handled all the trade and tribute destined for Rome, as well as the supplies for its provinces. Although the site has been known since the sixteenth century, excavation has been extremely limited, and little was previously known about the internal organization of Portus or about its links to the River Tiber and to Rome.

“Concentrating on the harbour of Trajan - a large hexagon linked to the sea and to the River Tiber - the archaeological team has discovered rows of warehouses and a colonnaded square along the eastern side of the hexagon. Even more significant are discoveries on flat land between the hexagon and the Tiber. Here the geophysics clearly reveal the line of the late Roman wall which defined the limits of the harbour area on its landward side. Also visible is a major canal, around 40m wide, which linked the Trajanic harbour to the river; this was lined with buildings in which pottery containers and marble from around the Mediterranean were unloaded. Running parallel to the canal are an aqueduct, the road to Rome, and a number of mausolea. The detailed images will allow precise excavations to be carried out in the future at particular buildings, which will further enhance knowledge of Portus and its historical development. A large part of the site will be open to public next year as part of Rome's millennium celebrations.”

Roman River Barge

Robert Kunzig wrote in National Geographic: “In the summer of 2004 a diver surveying the dump for archaeological riches noticed a mass of wood swelling from the mud at a depth of 13 feet. It turned out to be the aft port side of a 102-foot-long barge. The barge was almost intact; most of it was still buried under the layers of mud and amphorae that had sheltered it for nearly 2,000 years. It had held on to its last cargo and even to a few personal effects left behind by its crew. And through a further series of small miracles, including another intervention by Julius Caesar, it has emerged from the trash to resume its last voyage—safe this time in a brand-new wing of the Musée Départemental Arles Antique. [Source: Robert Kunzig, National Geographic, April 2014 ]

“To that snapshot of the boat, the nearly 1,200 cubic yards of mud and Roman trash that eventually buried it add a kind of time-lapse image of the commerce that was Arles. In the museum’s dim basement, Djaoui and I walked down long aisles of amphorae, many with their necks sliced off. “All this will have to be studied,” he said, with a trace of ambivalence. The dump is almost too rich; the archaeologists had already placed 130 tons of ceramic sherds back in the riverbed, in the hole left by the boat. I asked Djaoui about the building stones that had started the whole story. They were too heavy for the restored boat, he said; replicas were being used. Djaoui took me out behind the museum. The stones were there, next to a large trash bin, awaiting their own return to the river.

“When Arles-Rhône 3 sank, it was carrying 33 tons of building stones. They were flat, irregular slabs of limestone, from three to six inches thick. They had come from a quarry at St. Gabriel, less than ten miles north of Arles, and were probably headed toward a construction site on the right bank or in the Camargue, the marshy farmland south of Arles. The boat was pointed upstream, though, rather than downstream, indicating it had been tied up at the quay when it sank. A flash flood had probably swamped it.

“As the flood subsided, the cloud of sediment it had kicked up settled out of the water again, draping the barge in a layer of fine clay no more than eight inches thick. In that clay, in contact with the boat, Marlier and her team found the crew’s personal effects. A sickle they’d used to chop fuel for their cooking fire, with a few wood splinters next to the blade. A dolium, or large clay jar, cut in half to serve as a hibachi, with charcoal in the bottom. A plate and a gray pitcher that belonged to the same man—both bore the initials AT. “That’s what’s exceptional about this boat,” said Marlier. “We’re missing the captain at the helm. But otherwise we have everything.” The mast, with its traces of wear from the towropes, is to her the most precious find.

“Before that diving season was out, the same diver who had found Arles-Rhône 3, Pierre Giustiniani, discovered the statue that set the boat on its present course: a marble bust that looked like Julius Caesar. Portraits of Caesar are surprisingly rare. This one might be the only one extant that was sculpted while he was alive—perhaps right after he declared Arles a Roman colony, launching it into long centuries of prosperity.

Land Travel in the Roman Empire

road in Leptis Magna Libya

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ The Roman who traveled by land was distinctly better off than Americans of the time of the Revolution. His inns were not so good, it is true, but his vehicles and horses were fully equal to theirs, and his roads were the best that have been built until very recent times. Horseback riding was not a recognized mode of traveling (the Romans had no saddles), but there were vehicles, covered and uncovered, with two wheels and with four, for one horse and for two or more. These were kept for hire outside the gates of all important towns, but the price is not known. To save the trouble of loading and unloading the baggage it is probable that persons going great distances took their own vehicles and merely hired fresh horses from time to time. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“There were, however, no post-routes and no places where horses were changed at the end of regular stages for ordinary travelers, though there were such arrangements for couriers and officers of the government, especially in the provinces. For short journeys and when haste was not necessary, travelers would naturally use their own horses as well as their own carriages. Of the pomp which often accompanied such journeys. |+|

“The streets of Rome were so narrow that wagons and carriages were not allowed upon them at hours when they were likely to be thronged with people. Through many years of the Republic, and for at least two centuries afterwards, the streets were closed to all vehicles during the first ten hours of the day, with the exception of four classes only: market wagons, which brought produce into the city by night and were allowed to leave empty the next morning, transfer wagons (plaustra) conveying material for public buildings, the carriages used by the Vestals, flamines, and rex sacrorum in their priestly functions, and the chariots driven in the pompa circensis and in triumphal processions. Similar regulations were in force in almost all Italian towns. This, in imperial times, made general the use within the walls of the lectica and its bearers. (See illustration in Walters under lectica, and Sandys, Companion, page 209.) Besides the litter in which the passenger reclined, a sedan chair in which he sat erect was common. Both were covered and curtained. The lectica was sometimes used for short journeys, and in place of the six or eight bearers, mules were sometimes put between the shafts, one before and one behind, but not until late in the Empire. Such a litter was called basterna. |+|


carriage and amphorae in Pompeii

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The monuments show us rude representations of several kinds of vehicles and the names of at least eight have come down to us, but we are not able positively to connect the representations and the names, and have, therefore, only very general notions of the form and construction of even the most common. Some, of ancient design, were retained wholly, or chiefly, for use as state carriages in the processions that have been mentioned. Such were the pilentum and the carpentum, the former with four wheels, the latter with two, both covered, both drawn by two horses, both used by the Vestals and priests. The carpentum is rarely spoken of as a traveling carriage; its use for such a purpose was a mark of luxury. According to Livy, the first Tarquin came from Etruria to Rome in a carpentum.The petoritum also was used in the triumphal processions, but only for the spoils of war. It was essentially a baggage wagon and was occupied by the servants in a traveler’s train. The carruca was a luxurious traveling van, of which we hear first in the late Empire. It was furnished with a bed on which the traveler reclined by day and slept by night. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The Raeda and Cisium. The usual traveling vehicles, however, were the raeda and the cisium. The former was large and heavy, covered, had four wheels, and was drawn by two or four horses. It was regularly used by persons accompanied by their families or having baggage with them, and was kept for hire for this purpose. For a rapid journey, when a man had no traveling companions and little baggage, the two-wheeled and uncovered cisium was the favorite vehicle. It was drawn by two horses, one between shafts and the other attached by traces; it is possible that three were sometimes used. The cisium had a single seat, broad enough to accommodate a driver also. It is very likely that the cart on a monument found near Trèves is a cisium, but the identification is not certain.

“Cicero speaks of these carts making fifty-six miles in ten hours, probably with one or more changes of horses. Other vehicles of the cart type that came into use during the Empire were the essedum and the covinus, but we do not know how they differed from the cisium. These carts had no springs, but the traveler took care to have plenty of cushions. It is worth noticing that none of the vehicles mentioned has a Latin name; the names, with perhaps one exception (pilentum), are Celtic. In like manner, most of our own carriages had foreign names, and many French terms came in with the automobile.” |+|

Road Travel in the Roman Empire

Most traffic — soldiers, 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 cart and carriage 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 carts and carriages 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.

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).

Roads in the Roman Empire

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 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 Romans didn't make the first paved roads. The Assyrians built the first aqueducts and paved roads. But Roman roads certainly stood the test of time. 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. An inscription on a milestone of the Via Salaria reads: “Erected by the consul [117 B.C.] Lucius Caecilius Metellus, etc. One hundred nineteen (miles) from Rome.”

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The engineering skill of the Romans and the lavish outlay of money made their roads the best that the world has known until very recent times. They were strictly military works, built for strategic purposes, intended to facilitate the dispatching of supplies to the frontier and the massing of troops in the shortest possible time. Beginning with the first important acquisition of territory in Italy (the Via Appia was built in 312 B.C.) they kept pace with the expansion of the Republic and the Empire, so that a great network of roads covered the Roman world, all indeed leading to Rome, as the proverb has it. In Britain, for instance, the roads, some of which are still in use, converged at Londinium (London). [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Roman roads in Britain

“They ran as far north as the wall of Antoninus Pius, and out to points on the coast. After crossing the Channel one found the highway again as it may still be traced, running down through Gaul and on to Rome. In the fourth century of our era nineteen great roads, it is said, went out from Rome through the fifteen gates of the Wall of Aurelian. In Italy roads were built at the cost of the State; in the provinces the conquered communities bore the expense of construction and maintenance, but the work was done under the direction of Roman engineers, and often by the legions between campaigns. Roads ran in lines as straight as possible between the towns they were to connect, with frequent crossroads and branch roads only less carefully constructed. The grade was always easy, because hills were cut through, gorges and rivers were crossed on arches of solid stone, and valleys and marshes were spanned by viaducts of the same material. |+|

“The surface of the roads was rounded, and there were gutters at the sides to carry off rain and melted snow. Milestones showed the distance from the starting-point of the road and often that to important places in the opposite direction, as well as the names of the consuls or emperors under whom the roads were built or repaired. The roadbed was wide enough to permit the meeting and passing, without trouble, of the largest wagons. For the pedestrian there was a footpath on either side, sometimes paved, and seats for him to rest upon were often built by the milestones. The horseman found blocks of stone set here and there for his convenience in mounting and dismounting. Where springs were discovered, wayside fountains for men and watering-troughs for cattle were constructed. Such roads often went a hundred years without repairs, and some portions of them have endured the traffic of centuries and are still in good condition today.

Trade and Business at Vindolanda

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Another fabulous, long and very well preserved letter, from Octavius to his brother Candidus, gives us the names of these two brothers and portrays them as a couple of local wide-boys, with their fingers in as many pies as possible (Tab. Vindol. II 343): “Octavius to his brother Candidus, greetings. The hundred pounds of sinew from Marinus, I will settle up. From the time when you wrote about this matter, he has not even mentioned it to me. I have several times written to you that I have bought about 5,000 modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least 500 denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about 300 denarii, and I shall be embarrassed. So, I ask you, send me some cash as soon as possible. The hides which you write are at Cataractonium, write that they be given to me and the wagon about which you write. And write to me what is with that wagon. I would have already have been to collect them except that I did not care to injure the animals while the roads are bad. See with Tertius about the 8½ denarii which he received from Fatalis. He has not credited them to my account. Know that I have completed the 170 hides and I have 119(?) modii of threshed bracis. Make sure that you send me some cash so that I may have ears of grain on the threshing room floor. Moreover, I have already finished threshing all that I had. A messmate of our friend Frontius has been here. He was wanting me to allocate(?) him some hides, and that being so, was ready to give cash. I told him I would give him the hides by the Kalends of March. He decided that he would come on the Ides of January. He did not turn up, nor did he take the trouble to obtain them since he had hides. If he had given the cash, I would have given him them. I hear that Frontinius Julius has for sale at a high price the leather ware(?) which he bought here for five denarii apiece. Greet Spectatus and ...and Firmus. I have received letters from Gleuco. Farewell. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]|

“Candidus was obviously so well known in the fort that his brother did not need to put his name on the back for whoever was delivering the note. The two seem to have the supply of grain to Vindolanda sewn up (which is interesting when you consider that the military granary of Corbridge was just down the road). The regular allocations to Macrinus and Crescens are probably rations doled out to individual unit centurions: since a Crescens is named as a centurion of III Batavorum. In that case, who are Firmus and Spectatus? Clearly Firmus is a key individual, as he has the authority to allocate grain to a detachment of legionaries in the fort; yet does this mean that he is a senior centurion of one of the cohorts, or is he just a middle-man? Since Spectatus uses grain as a loan to Victor, it seems most likely that they were agents of the brothers (though this does not necessarily stop them being soldiers). |::|

“I think it is clear that the two brothers were civilian entrepreneurs, and when you consider that the annual pay of an auxiliary soldier at this time was about 300 denarii, they were obviously not in the little-league if they could fork out 500 denarii for their grain supplies. The fact that they had Roman names can tell us little, since anyone who wanted to get on is likely to have 'Romanised' by this time. One possibility does come to mind. Given the Roman penchant for farming out public services (like tax-collecting and mining) to individual entrepreneurs, it is possible that these two men had the contract for supplying grain to the army from Corbridge. Flavius Cerialis and his family |::|

The other great strength of the Vindolanda tablets is the insights that they give into the personal lives of some of the people who inhabited the fort. Naturally, this is most graphic for the officers of the fort, especially since the majority of the tablets were found in a rubbish tip linked to the commander's house, but there are things they can say about the lesser individuals who lived and worked in the vicinity also.” |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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