Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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TRAVEL WITHIN THE EMPIRE

Of the administration in Rome and throughout the provinces enough will be said in the proper place. Meanwhile we may look briefly at one or two questions of interest which will presumably suggest themselves at this stage. Since all this vast region now formed one empire, since Roman magistrates and officers were sent to all parts of it, since trade and intercourse were vigorous between all its provinces, it will be natural to ask, for example, by what means the traveller got from place to place, at what rate of progress, and with what degree of safety and comfort.

In setting forth by land you would elect, if possible, to proceed by one of the great military roads for which the Roman world was so deservedly famous. Not only were they the best kept and the safest; they were also generally the shortest. As far as possible the Roman road went straight from point to point. It did not circumvent a practicable hill, nor, where necessary, did it shrink from cutting through a rock, say to the depth of sixty feet or so. It did not avoid a river, but bridged it with a solid structure such as often remains in use till this day. If it met with a marsh, wooden piles were driven in and the road-bed laid upon them. When it came to a deep narrow valley it built a viaduct on arches.

[Illustration: FIG. 1.--THE PONT DU GARD (AQUEDUCT AND BRIDGE).]

The road so laid was meant for permanence. A width of ground was carefully prepared, trenches were dug at the sides, three different layers of road material were deposited, with sufficient upward curve to throw off the water, and then the whole was paved with closely-fitting many-cornered blocks of stone. In the chief instances there were sidewalks covered with some kind of gravel. The width was not great, but might be anything between ten and fifteen feet. Along such roads the Roman armies marched to their camps, along them the government despatches were carried by the imperial post, and along them were the most conveniently situated and commodious houses of accommodation. For their construction a special grant might be made by the Roman treasury--the cost being comparatively small, since the work, when not performed by the soldiers, was done by convicts and public slaves--and for their upkeep a rate was apparently levied by the local corporations. Besides the paved roads there was, needless to say, always a number of smaller roads, many of them mere strips of four feet or so in width; there were also short-cuts, by-paths, and ill-kept tracks of local and more or less fortuitous creation.

[Illustration: FIG. 2.--THE APPIAN WAY BY THE SO-CALLED TOMB OF SENECA.]

Beside the great highways stood milestones in the shape of short pillars, and generally there were in existence charts or itineraries, sometimes pictured, giving all necessary directions as to the turnings, distances, stopping-places, and inns, and even as to the sights worth seeing on the way. Wherever there were such objects of interest--in Egypt, Syria, Greece, or any other region of art, history, and legend--the traveller could always find a professional guide, whose information was probably about as reliable as that of the modern cicerone. In Rome itself there was displayed, in one of the public arcades, a plan of the empire, with notes explaining the dimensions and distances.

The vehicle employed by the traveller would depend upon circumstances. You would meet the poor man riding on an ass, or plodding on foot with his garments well girt; the better provided on a mule; a finer person or an official on a horse; the more luxurious or easy-going either in some form of carriage or borne in a litter very similar to the oriental palanquin. To carriages, which were of several kinds--two-wheeled, four-wheeled, heavy and light--it may be necessary to make further reference; here it is sufficient to observe that, in order to assist quick travelling, there existed individuals or companies who let out a light form of gig, in which the traveller rode behind a couple of mules or active Gaulish ponies as far as the next important stopping-place, where he could find another jobmaster, or keeper of livery-stables, to send him on further. The rich man, travelling, as he necessarily would, with a train of servants and with full appliances for his comfort, would journey in a coach, painted and gilded, cushioned and curtained, drawn by a team showily caparisoned with rich harness and coloured cloths. This must have presented an appearance somewhat similar to that of the extravagantly decorated travelling-coach of the fourteenth century. The ordinary man of modest means would be satisfied with his mule or horse, and with his one or two slaves to attend him. On the less frequented stretches of road, where there was no proper accommodation for the night, his slaves would unpack the luggage and bring out a plain meal of wine, bread, cheese, and fruits. They would then lay a sort of bedding on the ground and cover it with a rug or blanket. The rich folk might bring their tents or have a bunk made up in their coaches.

Where there was some sort of lodging for man and horse the average wayfarer would make the best of it. In the better parts of the empire and in the larger places of resort there were houses corresponding in some measure to the old coaching-inns of the eighteenth century; in the East there were the well-known caravanserais; but for the most part the ancient hostelries must have afforded but undesirable quarters. They were neither select nor clean. You journeyed along till you came to a building half wine-shop and store, half lodging-house. Outside you might be told by an inscription and a sign that it was the "Cock" Inn, or the "Eagle," or the "Elephant," and that there was "good accommodation." Its keeper might either be its proprietor, or merely a slave or other tenant put into it by the owner of a neighbouring estate and country-seat. Your horses or mules would be put up--with a reasonable suspicion on your part that the poor beasts would be cheated in the matter of their fodder--and you would be shown into a room which you might or might not have to share with someone else. In any case you would have to share it with the fleas, if not with worse.

Perhaps you base brought your food with you, perhaps you send out a slave to purchase it, perhaps you obtain it from the innkeeper. That is your own affair. For the rest you must be prepared to bear with very promiscuous and sometimes unsavoury company, and to possess neither too nice a nose nor too delicate a sense of propriety. Your only consolation is that the charges are low, and that if anything is stolen from you the landlord is legally responsible.

[Illustration: FIG. 3.--PLAN OF INN AT POMPEII.]

Doubtless there were better and worse establishments of this kind. There must have been some tolerably good quarters at Rome or Alexandria, and at some of the resorts for pleasure and health, such as Balae on the Bay of Naples, or Canopus at the Nile mouth. It is true also that for those who travelled on imperial service there were special lodgings kept up at the public expense at certain stations along the great roads. Nevertheless it may reasonably be asked why, in view of the generally accepted standards of domestic comfort and even luxury of the time--what may be called middle-class standards--there was no sufficiency of even creditable hotels. The answer is that in antiquity the class of people who in modern times support such hotels seldom felt the need of their equivalent. In the first place, they commonly trusted to the hospitality of individuals to whom they were personally or officially known, or to whom they carried private or official introductions. If they were distinguished persons, they were readily received, whether in town or country, on their route. In less frequented districts they trusted to their own slaves and to the resources of their own baggage. Their own tents, bedding, provisions and cooking apparatus were carried with them. If they made a stay of any length in a town, they might hire a suite of rooms.

We must not dwell too long upon this topic. Suffice it that travel was frequent and extensive, whether for military and political business, for commerce, or for pleasure. Some roads, particularly that "Queen of Roads," the Appian Way--the same by which St. Paul came from Puteoli to Rome--must have presented a lively appearance, especially near the metropolis. Perhaps on none of these great highways anywhere near an important Roman city could you go far without meeting a merchant with his slaves and his bales; a keen-eyed pedlar--probably a Jew--carrying his pack; a troupe of actors or tumblers; a body of gladiators being taken to fight in the amphitheatre or market-place of some provincial town; an unemployed philosopher gazing sternly over his long beard; a regiment of foot-soldiers or a squadron of cavalry on the move; a horseman scouring along with a despatch of the emperor or the senate; a casual traveller coming at a lively trot in his hired gig; a couple of ladies carefully protecting their complexions from sun and dust as they rode in a kind of covered wagonette; a pair of scarlet-clad outriders preceding a gorgeous but rumbling coach, in which a Roman noble or plutocrat is idly lounging, reading, dictating to his shorthand amanuensis, or playing dice with a friend; a dashing youth driving his own chariot in professional style to the disgust of the sober-minded; a languid matron lolling in a litter carried by six tall, bright-liveried Cappadocians; a peasant on his way to town with his waggon-load of produce and cruelly belabouring his mule. If you are very fortunate you may meet Nero himself on one of his imperial progresses. If so, you had better stand aside and wait. It will take him a long time to pass; or, if this is one of his more serious undertakings, there will be a thousand carriages, many of them resplendent with gold and silver ornament in relief upon the woodwork, and drawn by horses or mules whose bridles are gleaming with gold. And, if the beautiful and conscienceless Poppaea is with him, there may be a Procession of some five hundred asses, whose it is to supply her with the milk in which she bathes for the preservation of her admirable velvety skin.

There are, of course, many other individuals and types to be met with. If you happen to be traversing certain parts of Spain, the mountains of Greece, the southern provinces of Asia Minor, or the upper parts of Egypt, you will perhaps also meet with a bandit, or even with a band of them. In that case, prepare for the worst. Some of the gang have been caught and crucified: you may have passed the crosses upon your way. This does not render the rest more amiable. St. Paul takes it as natural to be thus "in peril of robbers." Perhaps certain regions of Italy itself were as dangerous as any. We have more than one account of a traveller who was last seen at such-and-such a place, and was never heard of again. It is therefore well, before undertaking a journey through suspected parts, to ascertain whether any one else is going that way. There is sure to be either an official with a military escort or some other traveller with a retinue; at least there will be some trusty man bearing letters, or some sturdy fellow whom you can hire expressly to accompany you.

After allowing for this occasional embarrassment--which was certainly not greater and almost certainly very much less than you would have encountered in the same parts of the world a century ago--it must be declared that, on the whole, travel by land in the Roman world of the year 64 was remarkably safe. If it was not very expeditious, it was probably on the average quite as much so as in the eighteenth century.

Ordinary travelling by road may not have averaged more than sixty or seventy miles a day, although hundred miles could be done without much difficulty, while a courier on urgent business could greatly increase that speed.

Next let us suppose that our friend proposes to travel by sea. As a rule navigation takes place only between the beginning of March and the middle of November, ships being kept snug in harbour during the winter months. The traveller may be sailing from Alexandria to the capital or from Rome to Cadiz or to Rhodes. If a trader of sufficient boldness, he may even be proceeding outside the empire as far as India. If so, he will pass up the Nile as far as Coptos, then take either the canal or the caravan route to Myos Hormos on the Red Sea, and thence find ship for India, with a reasonable prospect--if he escapes the Arab pirates--of completing his business and returning home in about six months. Over 120 ships, small and great, leave the above-mentioned harbour each year on the voyage to India, for Alexandria is the great depot for the trade round the Indian Ocean, and the products of India are in lively demand at Rome.

[Illustration: FIG. 4.--SHIP BESIDE THE QUAY AT OSTIA. (Wolf and twins on mainsail.)]

On such a remote course, however, we will not follow. Let us rather suppose that our traveller is proceeding from Alexandria, the second city of the empire, to Rome, which is the first. In this case he may enjoy the great advantage of going on board one those merchantmen belonging to the imperial service, which sail regularly with a freight of corn to feed the empire city. His port of landing will be Puteoli (Puzzuoli) in the Bay of Naples, which was then the Liverpool of Italy. The rest of the journey he will either make by the Appian Road, or, less naturally, by smaller freight-ship, putting in at Ostia, the port of Rome recently constructed by the Emperor Claudius at the mouth of the river Tiber. His ship, a well-manned and strongly-built vessel of from 500 tons up to 1100 or more, will carry one large mainsail, formed of strips of canvas strengthened by leather at their joinings, a smaller foresail, and a still smaller topsail. It will be steered by a pair of huge paddles on either side of the stern. There will be a crow's-nest on the mast, and at the bows a rehead of Rome or Alexandria or of some deity, perhaps of Castor and Pollux combined. A tolerable, but by no means a liberal, amount of cabin accommodation will be provided. A good-sized ship might reach 200 feet in length by 50 in breadth. One of them brought to Rome the great obelisk which now stands in the Piazza of St. Peter's; another ship had brought another obelisk, 400,000 bushels of wheat and other cargo, and a very large number of passengers. At a favourable season, and with a quite favourable wind, the ship may expect to reach the Bay of Naples in as little as eight or nine days: sometimes it will take ten days, sometimes as many as twelve. The ship may either proceed directly south of Crete, or it may run across to Myra in Asia Minor, or to Rhodes, and thence proceed due west. As a rule the ancient navigator preferred to keep somewhat near the shore. Other ships, picking up and putting down cargo and passengers as they went along, would pass up the Syrian coast, calling at Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, and other places before passing either north or south of Cyprus. From such a ship it might be necessary--as it was with St. Paul and the soldiers to whose care he was committed--to tranship into another vessel proceeding directly to Italy. If, as we have imagined, the traveller is on a cornship of the Alexandria-Puteoli line, he will reach the Bay one day after passing the straits of Messina, and his vessel will sail proudly up to port without striking her topsail, the only kind of ship which was permitted to do this being such imperial liners.

There were other famous trade routes of the period. One is from Corinth; another from the Graeco-Scythian city at the mouth of the Sea of Azov, whence corn and salted fish were sent in abundance; a third from Cadiz, outside the straits of Gibraltar, by which were brought the wool and other produce of Andalusia; a fourth from Tarragona across to Ostia, the regular route for official and passenger intercourse with Spain. Yet another took you to Carthage in three days. Across the Adriatic from Brindisi you would reach in one day either Corfu or the Albanian coast at Dyrrhachium (Durazzo), where began the great highroad to the East. Given a fair wind, your ship might average 125 or 130 miles in the twenty-four hours, and, if you left Rome on Monday morning, you had a reasonable prospect of landing in Spain on the following Saturday. From Cadiz you would probably require ten or eleven days. There was, it is true, no need to come by sea from that town. There was a good road all the way, with a milestone at every Roman mile, or about 1600 yards. Unfortunately that route would generally take you nearly a month.

It is not probable that sea travelling was at all comfortable; but it was apparently quite as much so, and quite as rapid, as it was on the average a century ago. Ships were made strong and sound; nevertheless shipwrecks were very frequent, as they always have been in sailing days. Wreckers who showed false lights were not unknown. There is also little doubt that the vessels were often terribly overcrowded; one ship, it is said, brought no less than 1200 passengers from Alexandria. That on which St. Paul was wrecked had 276 souls on board, and one upon which Josephus once found himself had as many as 600. It is incidentally stated in Tacitus that a body of troops, who had been both sent to Alexandria and brought back thence by sea, were greatly debilitated in mind and body by that experience. On the other hand, as has been already stated, there was generally no such thing as a pirate to be heard of in all the waters of the Mediterranean.




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