The vastness of Rome

For the Romans, without modern modes of transport, the world must have felt like a much larger place. For many, however, this was no impediment to setting out.

Written by Fabio Fernandes on

If you manage to find a direct flight between Rome and Alexandria, you will find that it should last approximately three hours. In contrast, a quick consultation of ORBIS, a digital geospatial network model of the Roman Empire, reveals that in the Roman period the fastest journey between these cities in July would have taken some 14 days, including a boat down the River Tiber to Ostia, Rome’s principal port, and a ship eastward.

A journey between the capital of the Roman Empire and another of its largest cities was a two-week journey, or roughly 333 hours more than a plane journey, if we take these generated figures at face value. North-westerly winds, particularly in the summer, meant the fastest-possible return journey from Alexandria to Rome in July took 21.2 days. To complicate a prospective voyager’s plans further, changing seasonal conditions meant travel times varied greatly throughout the year.

We take for granted today that long-distance travel has never been so rapid. In fact, what “long-distance” connotes has certainly shifted with time. It has been posited that in the Roman period “long-distance” must have meant anywhere not within five days’ reach (Woolf 2016, p. 451). It therefore seems reasonable to surmise that most ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire did not leave their immediate regions unless compelled to by uncontrollable push factors such as political or natural disaster, or enslavement.

At its height in 117 CE under the emperor Trajan, when the empire stretched from the north of England to the eastern Mediterranean down through Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf (the latter region a short-lived Roman territory), the area of the empire measured approximately 5,000,000 km². The world surely felt much bigger.

A map showing the Roman Empire at the time of the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE). It was slightly larger at the time of Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan, but those gains were short-lived. The Roman Empire reached from Britain in the west all the way into Southwest Asia, and from what are today the Netherlands in the north all the way down to Egypt in the south.

Yet what any examination of the Roman Empire in its socio-cultural and economic totality tells us is that the numerous and diverse peoples who inhabited it were not in isolation from each other. The empire possessed a remarkably developed road infrastructure which was open to civilian use even if intended primarily for military functions.

Likewise, ports and harbours along the Mediterranean coast primarily had a military function, as too did those on important navigable rivers, but these also supported a sophisticated maritime network for trade and communications and provided quicker and less costly journeys for other travellers as well. These “travellers” might be merchants, migrants, pilgrims and enslaved persons.

Enlightening evidence suggests that even travelling far to visit family was good enough reason. A fourth century CE inscription (CIL III 14406) from Beroia in Macedonia commemorates the voyage of Maccusa and Victoria, two young women aged 22 and 14 respectively, who voyaged from somewhere in Gaul all the way to Macedonia in northern Greece, presumably mostly over land and not alone, to visit their uncle Flavius Gemellus, an official (Bruun 2016, p. 177).

That is not to say that a majority of imperial Romans were regularly travelling. The ancient world, it has been suggested, was mobile insomuch that a minority of “movers” – mostly young, skilled males – travelled back and forth along well-traversed migration streams whilst the majority of others were “stayers” who remained in their localities even if well-aware of the wider world beyond (Woolf 2016, p. 451).

Still, levels of human mobility in the Mediterranean under the Romans had reached unprecedented levels (Horden & Purcell 2000). The Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” stimulated by the stability imparted by one state rule, facilitated a virtually undisrupted interconnectivity.

The movement of a minority of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the so-called “movers”, was significant and recurrent enough for it to have profound implications on the majority “stayers”. These travellers brought knowledge of the Other, as well as customs, objects, materials, languages and ideas from other lands. The fruits and legacies of mobility could be experienced by those who had no reason or means to ever set forth.

Shipwrecks stranded on the Mediterranean seabed, laden with lost cargo, attest to the dynamism of economic exchange. Latin and Greek were transmitted and spoken well-beyond their native regions.

Itself heavily borrowing from the Greek, Roman religion proliferated, and Eastern religions and deities such as Judaism, Christianity, Mithraism and gods of the Egyptian and Greek pantheons found their way north and westward as far as Britain.

Greco-Roman civilisation was exported far beyond Greece and central Italy and instigated cultural transformations.

Enough people were moving to create an identifiably mobile society.

Ancient wanderlust?

It is not simply that a significant number of people were unthinkingly moving about. The romanticism of encountering the world beyond was ingrained into Greco-Roman folklore.

After all, Homer’s Odysseus, with whom Romans were well-acquainted through their adoption of Greek paideia (culture and education), was famously away on his Trojan War adventures for 20 years until he finally returned to Ithaca. Aeneas too, the protagonist of the Roman foundational epic the Aeneid, spends much of his time meandering from Troy to what would be Rome.

The desire to see the wider world was treated by some as an innate disposition. Seneca the Younger, the first century CE stoic philosopher, wrote to his mother that “nature has planted in the human breast a certain restlessness that makes man seek to change his abode and find a new home” (ad Helviam 12.6-7).

The second century CE Greek orator, Aelius Aristides, in his eulogy of Rome marvelled at how a Greek and barbarian could now “travel easily wherever he wishes, quite as if he were going from one country of his to another” (Regarding Rome 100).

Of uncertain provenance, but perhaps accountable to Aristides, too, is this similar articulation of wonderment (Pseudo-Aristides, Regarding the Emperor 37):

Cannot everyone go with complete freedom where he wishes? Are not all harbours everywhere in use? Are not the mountains as secure for the traveler as the cities for their inhabitants? (…) Is not fear gone from everywhere? For what river fords cannot be crossed? What straits are closed? (…) Now all mankind seems to have found true felicity.

Favorinus of Arelate, a second-century Sophist, also reflected eloquently (De Exilio, 15.3):

But a man, to whom the divinity has given an indefatigable nature, who travels “on land and on waves”, on foot or in vehicles of all kinds, from land to land and from sea to sea, for profit, trade and marriages in foreign regions (…) will not cite as an excuse either the need to cross mountains or the difficulties of the roads or the intensity of the heat and frost of the winters; and if he also, after a shipwreck, swims to the shore, he will embark on another ship, and all will think that it is possible to travel and cross by his courage.

In the likeness of Seneca, he posits that travel was driven by a certain intrinsicality. Yet he also submits some more utilitarian motives, “profit, trade and marriages”, the former two particularly telling of not simply an increased desire, but an increased need to travel to fulfil the progressively complex mercantile economic conditions the Romans had created for themselves.

There was nothing in the legal sense that outright prohibited an individual from disembarking on a temporary or permanent voyage. Nor were there borders in the modern sense, genuinely enforceable immigration controls, or mass communications and technology that enabled any such implementation as we know it today.

It seems the Romans were resigned to this fact, though they clearly thought it important to make sense of these population fluxes. By the late Republic, when Rome’s territorial empire was already expansive, we witness the emergence of new legal categories such as peregrinus (an evolving term in its nuances which very generally indicated a “foreigner”), origo (one’s land of origin) and domilicium (one’s adopted homeland): all evidence that increasing numbers of mobile individuals needed to be localised and their identities defined (Moatti 2006, p. 123).

Though it seemed apt by the later second-century CE for the jurist Ulpius Marcellus to legislate that “there is no barrier to anyone having his domicile where he wishes, provided somewhere is not forbidden to him” (Dig. 50.1.31).

These writings attest to what must be some of the earliest allusions to a concept of “freedom of movement”. Not only was the desire to travel considered innate, for vast was the world at the feet of the Romans, but freedom to travel within the empire was practically unobstructed and freedom to change one’s domicile guaranteed by law, if only because the state could not really control it. Mobility was a natural and generally unchallenged right.

The wider world

Inscribed at the feet of the famed Colossi of Memnon, the twin statues of the New Kingdom Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III on the west bank of Thebes, are 107 recorded inscriptions, 61 of which are in Greek, 45 in Latin and one bilingual.

These inscriptions generally state some variation of, “I have heard Memnon”, referencing the whistling sounds that used to emanate from the cracks of the northern colossus at dawn that were thought to be Memnon, the mythological Greek king of Ethiopia, singing to his mother Eos, goddess of dawn.

The sounds started shortly after the Roman annexation of Egypt, likely the result of earthquake-induced damage in 27 BCE. People came from far and wide to witness this phenomenon.

Inscribers range from Corinthian, Anatolian and Levantine Hellenes to a soldier from Gaul, Roman provincial administrators coming upstream from Alexandria, and attestable visitors from Rome itself, among others. They were all allured to the southern extremities of the empire, surely a practical inconvenience for many, as a result of their own pre-nineteenth century “Egyptomania”.

Can this be considered an early form of “tourism”? Pliny the Younger’s (61-ca. 113 CE) views on exploration certainly seem to point to an early development of the concept (Epist. 8.20.1-2):

We are always ready to make a journey and cross the sea in search of things we fail to notice in front of our eyes, whether it is that we are naturally indifferent to anything close at hand while pursuing distant objects, or that every desire fades when it can easily be granted, or that we postpone a visit with the idea that we shall often be seeing what is there to be seen whenever we feel inclined. Whatever the reason, there are a great many things in Rome and near by which we have never seen nor even heard of, though if they were to be found in Greece, Egypt or Asia, or any other country which advertises its wealth of marvels, we should have heard and read about them and seen them for ourselves.

For Pliny, the world was at his disposal and, in fact, the exotic “marvels” of faraway lands held more allure for journeying Romans than those seemingly on their doorstep.

Just as Egypt, Greece too played an important role in the Roman popular psyche as a land of great antiquity. The Republican consul Aemilius Paullus (229-160 BCE) had famously toured Greece, taking in the sights of still-routinely visited cities and sanctuaries such as Delphi, Athens, Sparta and Olympia (Livy 45.27.5-28.5).

Later geographic works and travel narratives, written often by Greeks, would certainly play a role in opening Greece and other foreign lands to the curious Roman intellectual: the Greek geographer Pausanias’ description of Greece; the Greek Strabo’s geography of the world (as he knew it); Pliny the Elder; Pomponius Mela; Claudius Ptolemy, to name a few.

The wider world was a theme in other Roman literature too. The travels of Enclopius, the protagonist of Petronius’ Satyricon, who finds himself in Massalia (Marseille), Puteoli (near Naples) and Crotona (Calabria), are a central aspect of this “novel”.

Philostratus’ account of the first century Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana concentrates on his alleged extensive travels throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, as far as Nubia, Babylon and India.

There is a strong dose of fantasy in Philostratus’ account which puts its veracity into question, but even if some of these geographers and writers did not actually travel themselves, it is revealing of a profound curiosity and awareness among Greco-Roman intellectuals of the beyond.

Curiosity is fed with education, and travelling to fulfil this aspiration was practiced by elites in antiquity, too. The second-century writer Apuleius encapsulated the well-educated and well-travelled Roman, leaving his native Madaurus in Numidia (modern Algeria) to study in Carthage, Athens, Egypt, Asia Minor and Rome.

Cities attained renown for specific fields, which meant there was good reason to traverse the Mediterranean for them. The law school of Beirut was famed and attracted students from Anatolia and Egypt, and further afield from Rome, Illyricum, Euboea and Armenia (MacAdam 2001, p. 209).

The second-century physician Galen studied medicine in Smyrna, Corinth and Alexandria before returning to his native Pergamum, itself renowned for its medical school, after which he went to Rome.

Alexandria, renowned for its Great Library constructed by the Ptolemies, continued to offer desired expertise in philosophical and scientific studies. Athens maintained its role as a centre of rhetoric and philosophy and its high profile attracted teachers and pupils (Camp 1989, p. 50).

Rome, the cultural centre of the empire, also attracted students – so many, in fact, that in the fourth century it was thought necessary to impose conditions on which students, and the amount of time those “who come to the City because of their desire for learning” could spend there (Cod. Theod. 14.9.1).

We should steer clear of romanticising notions of Roman mobility. Behind this sense of freedom of movement lay also the reality of imperialism, subjugation and enslavement. Moreover, if anyone was travelling far, it was likely to be a result of more immediate push factors.

Pre-industrial cities such as Rome would not have grown or survived, it has been maintained, without a substantial stream of migration to compensate for high urban mortality rates (Hin 2016, pp. 234-263; Tacoma 2016, 142-169). Yet in an age of choice, we needn’t limit individuals to powerless actors who uprooted only when obliged by uncontrollable external events.

Cities such as Rome, with the economic opportunities that they could offer, attracted migrants from their immediate regions and beyond. The perception that people now had choice and personal agency must have weighed on minds. Just as now, the prospective migrant might engage in a “cost-benefit” analysis to decide what would better their personal situations (De Ligt, Tacoma 2016, pp. 9-11).

And in an ever more interconnected world with greater access to knowledge about lands beyond, migrants might be driven by perceptions of opportunity elsewhere even if misguided (Bernard 2016, pp. 52-53).

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the seven Greeks recorded as members of an association in Ostia, likely of shipwrights, who were not unskilled labourers but professional carpenters, were pushed to Italy out of desperation. We might consider them as “trained professionals” who followed favourable conditions for their own advancement, much as the above-described students (Bruun 2016, p. 184).

An interconnected world

Spread out over the surface of the Piazzale delle Corporazioni (Forum of Corporations) in Ostia is a series of mosaics exhibiting the stationes (commercial offices) belonging to the merchants who frequented this space. They not only give an impression of the nature of these corporations and what they sold, but also evoke the lands from which they originated.

The merchants hailed from across the empire: modern-day Algeria, Egypt, Sabratha in Libya, Sullectum and Carthage in Tunisia, Turris in Sardinia, Narbonne in southern France. We gain a sense of the prosperity of Ostia as Rome’s seaport where people from across the Roman world met.

The intensity and geographical extensiveness of the trade that Ostia served may even be taken as an early manifestation of “globalisation”. This was, after all, a period of enhanced contact between peoples, cities and regions enabled by an established communications network. This interconnectivity was one component of the glue that held the Roman Empire together and made it viable for so long.

We cannot disentangle our understanding of Rome and Romans from this ancient cosmopolitanism. Imperial Rome was not a mere city and its appended empire, but a vast, interconnected world of its own.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Seth G. Bernard, “Food distributions and immigration in Imperial Rome”, in: De Ligt & Tacoma (2016), pp. 50-17.
  • Christer Bruun, “Tracing familial mobility: Female and child migrants in the Roman West”, in: De Ligt & Tacoma (2016), pp. 176-204.
  • John McK. Camp, “The philosophical schools of Roman Athens”, Bulletin Supplement (University of London. Institute of Classical Studies) 55 (1989), pp. 50-55.
  • Saskia Hin, “Revisiting urban graveyard theory: Migrant flows in Hellenistic and Roman Athens”, in: De Ligt & Tacoma (2016), pp. 234-263.
  • Luuk de Ligt and Laurens E. Tacoma (eds), Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire (2016).
  • Luuk de Ligt and Laurens E. Tacoma, “Approaching migration in the early Roman Empire”, in: De Ligt & Tacoma (2016), pp. 1-22.
  • Henry L. MaAdam, “Studia et circenses: Beirut’s Roman law school in its colonial, cultural context”, ARAM 13-14(2001-2002), pp. 193-226.
  • Claudia Moatti, “Translation, migration, and communication in the Roman Empire: Three aspects of movement in history’, Classical Antiquity 25.1 (2006), pp. 109-140.
  • Laurens E. Tacoma, Moving Romans: Migration to Rome in the Principate (2016).
  • Greg Woolf, “Movers and Stayers”, in: De Ligt & Tacoma (2016), pp. 438-461.

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