St. Paul the Apostle in prison

The perils of travel in the Roman world

Paul the Apostle was an intrepid traveler. In his early 40s, he embarked on a series of missionary journeys that took him by land and sea through present-day Israel, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. All in all, Paul traveled more than 10,000 miles. But unlike modern travelers, who mostly have to deal with the discomfort of economy class service, Paul risked life and limb as he faced a bewildering assortment of physical hazards.

In 2 Corinthians 11:25-27 he offers a candid sketch of his many predicaments while on the road: “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 

Roman motels

The Roman road network was undoubtedly one of those things Romans could rightfully boast about. There were more than 250,000 miles of roads from Scotland to the borders of the empire on the river Euphrates. Weary travelers could visit facilities set along the principal roadways to enjoy a meal, rest, and take care of their animals or carts. Mansiones were reserved for the use of officials and those on official business; they were substantial structures that provided their guests with decent levels of service. Private travelers had to make do with basic lodgings in cauponae and tabernae; the former were infamous as haunts of thieves and prostitutes, while the latter could be either luxurious and respectable or shabby and disreputable. 

What happens when you assume too much

Outside the world of the roadside inns, travelers had to deal with many challenges. All roads could lead to Rome, but not all travelers wished to end up there. A comprehensive collection of mile markers provided them with information on the distance to the nearest town, but inconvenient mistakes were all too easy to make. It took the imperial doctor Galen two arduous sea crossings before he was able to visit the blood-red soil of Hephaestia on the island of Lemnos; it seems that the first time he sailed under the assumption that Lemnos had only one town (which he also assumed it must be his desired destination) and that all vessels docked there. He was very inconvenienced when he discovered that the port was nowhere near the area of Hephaestia and there was no time to walk there.    

Unfortunate highway meetings

Time and distance were not the only headaches. Far more dangerous was the presence of bandits along the roads and the rural highways. Most travelers walked alone or in small groups, thus becoming prime targets for armed outlaws who robbed them. These raids were often violent and resulted in the loss of money, clothing, and merchandise. Bandits often kidnapped their victims, either for ransom or to use them as slaves, while many tombstones throughout the empire reveal another possible outcome of an unfortunate meeting with highway robbers; death.   

At the mercy of Poseidon

Since land travel was so perilous and arduous, those travelers who could afford it often opted to reach their destination by boat. When the weather was fine and the empire strong enough to suppress piracy, a sea voyage could indeed be a pleasant enough experience (even though ships generally lacked cabins and stewards and dining rooms). The sailing season in the ancient Mediterranean was limited to the period from May to October. Captains paid close attention to the weather and avoided sailing when a storm was brewing (or if someone dreamed of a black goat…a sure sign of large waves). Nevertheless, many were the Romans who addressed their friends with farewell poems that seem to express a near certainty about their looming death at sea. 

And right they were. The Mediterranean is an unpredictable sea and disaster could always strike with little advance notice. As the winds got stronger and the seas more mountainous, the unfortunate passengers became increasingly aware of the thinness of the planks that separated them from the raging sea. Nail clippings and hair locks would be tossed overboard as appeasement offering to the gods, but it was often the case that much more drastic measures had to be undertaken if the ship was to reach the port. Crew and passengers would work together to jettison the cargo, much like St. Paul did when his ship almost sank during a storm. And even when the harbor was finally in sight, it was of the utmost importance that no passenger would utter a word of ill omen until everyone was safely ashore and a sacrifice of thanksgiving had been performed on the deck. 

If you like what you just read, check this out! 

The church of Saint Paul – Study Abroad in Greece
Link to The church of Saint Paul – Study Abroad in Greece

The church of Saint Paul – Study Abroad in Greece

This course consists of an academic pilgrimage to Late Antique and Byzantine Attica, Boeotia, and Corinth where Saint Paul preached the message of Christ.

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