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Travel in the Roman Empire

Unknown author

The Romans did more to facilitate travel than any other empire. They built major roads, cleared the seas of pirates, and instituted one currency. Until the invention of the steam engine, there was no time easier to travel than in Paul's day. It is estimated that Paul travelled the equivalent of more than half-way around the world. In his three missionary journeys, Paul covered eight thousand miles by land and sea.

The "Pax Romana" of Emperor Augustus (27 BC - AD 14) enabled people like Paul to travel safely in the first century.

Epicetus, the Stoic philosopher wrote: "There are neither wars nor battles, nor great robberies nor piracies, but we may travel at all hours, and sail from east to west."

Historian Lionel Casson writes: "The traveller could make his way from the shores of the Euphrates to the border between England and Scotland without crossing a foreign frontier. ... He could sail through any waters without fear of pirates, thanks to the emperor's patrol squadrons. A planned network of roads gave him access to all major centres, and the through routes were policed well enough for him to ride them with relatively little fear of bandits."

M. Ramsey, the N.T. archaeologist, writes: "The Roman roads were probably at their best during the first century after Augustus had put an end to war and disorder. ... Thus Paul travelled in the best and safest period."

Roman Roads

By AD 300, the Romans had built a marvellous network of over 53,000 miles of well-made roads throughout their empire, primarily for military purposes. They were normally ten to twelve feet wide, and paved with stones. The routes of many Roman roads are still followed by main roads today.

Plutarch wrote about the work of one official:
"The roads were carried through the country in a perfectly straight line, and were paved with hewn stone and reinforced with banks of tight-rammed sand. Depressions were filled up, all intersecting torrents or ravines were bridged, and both sides were of equal and corresponding height, so that the work presented everywhere an even and beautiful appearance. Besides all this, he measured off all the roads by miles ... and planted stone pillars as distance markers."

The Roman mile (mille passus = 1000 paces) was a thousand five-foot paces, about ninety-five feet shorter than a modern English mile. The mile markers were inscribed stone columns five to six feet tall.

Roman roads used by Paul

On his first missionary journey, after he had crossed inland from the southern coast of Turkey, he used the Via Sebaste to travel through Galatia. This road was built by Augustus in 6 BC, connecting six military colonies, including Antioch in Pisidia. Paul would have used this road on all three of his missionary journeys.

On his second missionary journey, after landing in Neapolis, he took the Via Egnatia from Philippi to Thessalonica. This was a major highway built by the Romans after they took over Macedonia in 148 BC. It crossed Greece and eventually reached Byzantium (modern Istanbul).

On his journey to Rome, he landed at Puteoli in Italy, then travelled along the most famous Roman road, the Via Appia, the road running south from Rome, which had been built in the 3rd century BC.

Foot or donkey

On these roads, soldiers could march four miles per hour, and on forced marches at five miles per hour. The average traveller walked three miles per hour for seven hours a day, making about twenty miles in a day. Peter's trip from Joppa to Caesarea was forty miles, and took two days (Acts 10:23-24). Paul travelled the twenty miles from Troas to Assos on foot (Acts 20:13-14), which would have taken about a day.

Among Jews, a day's journey ranged from twenty to thiry miles. A large company would only go about ten miles. A Sabbath day's journey was less than two miles. Whenever travellers would meet on the road they would greet each other in a very lengthy manner, often delaying their trip.

Travel on foot was for the common and poor person. Walkers had to wear heavy shoes or sandals, and to carry tents, bedding and provisions. Travel in the winter was more difficult as snow often blocked high passes, and rains in October and May flooded the rivers, making them difficult to cross. People travelling by foot would try to travel in groups for protection against the numerous robbers, particularly in isolated areas. There was also danger from wild animals, such as bears and wolves. A caravan leader would often pay leaders of certain locations for safe passage through that territory. The roads were slower but safer than sea travel. Paul wrote: “I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits ... in danger in the country". (2 Cor 11:26)

Horseback

On horseback, greater speeds could be accomplished. Julius Caesar covered the eight hundred miles from the River Rhone in France to Rome in eight days. Tiberius raced five hundredmiles in three days to reach his wounded brother Drusus.

The official messenger system, the Cursus Publicus, used couriers who changed horses at stations every ten miles, or at mansiones every twenty or thirty miles. They were expected to cover fifty miles per day. The same messenger (rather than a relay of messengers) carried such important news as the death or accession of a new emperor. A courier could travel from Rome to Palestine in forty-six days, and from Rome to Egypt in sixty-four days.

Normally, only military personnel and government officials travelled by horse. The only time Paul used a horse was when he was escorted as a prisoner by soldiers from Jerusalem to Caesarea (Acts 23:23-24).

Horse and carriage

A carriage could cover between twenty-five and thirty miles in a day. Roman vehicles had no springs, so passengers felt every bump in the road. The carpentium was a two-wheeled deluxe carriage, and the redda was a four-wheeled wagon. A variety of carriages could be hired relative to a person's income. Carriages could be found outside a city's gate. Rich people with time, travelled in comfort, ordering slaves to organise heavy luggage and transport. Some were even carried on litters. The Ethiopian treasurer of Queen Candace could afford a chauffeur-driven chariot (Act 8:28,38).

Lodgings

The Romans built official inns at regular intervals of a day's journey, adding smaller hostels between for slower travellers. An inn was an oblong building with stables, kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, and bedrooms on the upper floor. There was often a courtyard on the side with a smith and repair shop. Other inns were just an empty shell with a place for animals and people alike. In the cities there were a variety of hostels, restaurants and snack-bars, but due to a bad reputation, visitors staying more than a day or two would hire private lodgings. Affluent Romans avoided the inns, preferring to set up their own tents, or to stay with friends. Roman writers such as Horace or Apuleius criticized inns for their aulterated wine, filthy sleeping quarters, extortionate innkeepers, gamblers, thieves and prostitutes.

There is no record in the N.T. of Paul staying in an inn. This was because Christians were urged to practice hospitality for travelling believers. John commended Gaius for opening his home to travelling preachers (3 Jn 5-6). Paul enjoyed the hospitality of Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:15), of Jason in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5), and of Gaius in Corinth (Rom 16:23). Christian hospitality could be abused. The Didache warns of this, saying: "Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he it to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night's lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet."

Ship

The fastest form of long-distance travel was by ship. Ship travel was done between the months of April and October. No one sailed in the winter unless business was urgent. There were no fixed sailing times. The captain would wait for the right wind and weather and for the right omens.

Paul normally sailed from Greece to Israel, but always travelled by land from Israel to Greece. The only time he travelled west by ship was on his journey to Rome as a prisoner. The prevailing winds during the summer sailing season blew from the north-west. This made the eastward journey quicker and easier. It could take ten days to sail from Rome to Alexandria in Egypt and up to two months to return. The return trip was made by sailing north from Egypt along the coast of Israel, then west along the southern coast of Turkey. Ancient ships normally only had one main square sail, so their ability to tack against the wind was limited. Whenever they could, ships would sail close to the shore to avoid bad weather.

There were no ships dedicated to carrying passengers. Passengers had to travel on cargo ships when space was available. It cost a family two drachma (two days wages) to sail from Alexandria to Athens. Because the ships carried cargo, they would often dock at night. Water was provided for passengers, but no food or accommodation. Passengers would go ashore to find their own housing and they were always responsible for their own food. All passage was booked with the captain. The two main types of ships in Paul's day were merchant ships or warships. Ships were propelled by oar or by sail. Pirates were always a threat, although the Roman government did a good job in keeping them at bay.

The grain ships from Alexandria played a key role in the ancient world. Egyptian wheat supplied at least a third of the grain needed to feed the population of Rome. Rome needed to import between 200,000 and 400,000 tons of wheat a year to feed its population of about one million. Paul travelled on one of these grain ships on his journey to Rome. Some of these ships were huge: 180 feet long, 45 feet wide and deep, and could carry 1,200 tons of grain.

Some of the Major Routes

1. Via Egnatia. The post road to the East from Rome.
Rome to Brundisium, Dyrrhachium, Thessalonica, Neapolis (for Philippi), Troas, Pergamum, Philadephia, Acmonia, Julia-Ipsos, Philomelion, Tarsus, Syrian Antioch, Caesarea (Palestine) to Alexandria (Egypt).

2. Via Sebaste. The central route to the East from Rome.
Rome to Brundisium, Corinth, Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Laodicea, Apamea, Pisidian Antioch, (or Julia-Ipsos & Philomelion), Iconium, Tarsus, Syrian Antioch

3. Great Road north
Ephesus, Symrna, Pergamum (earliest Roman road built in Asia between 133-130 BC)

4. Imperial Post Road
Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Ephesus, or to the East
The seven churches of Revelation lay on these two roads. A route using both these roads would make a circular route to and from Ephesus.

5. Anatolian Circuit
Pontus (Amastric, Sinope or Amisos) to Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia
The cities and regions addressed in 1 Peter lay on this road.

Sources

Edwin M. Yamauchi: On the Road with Paul - "The Ease - and dangers - of Travel in the Ancient World"


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