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Roman Empire Travel |
Advice to first-century travelers: Don’t go alone

Roman Empire Travel is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 104, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Roman Empire Travel - Advice to first-century travelers: Don’t go alone

Roman Empire Travel - Advice to first-century travelers: Don’t go alone
Rome not only built and patrolled a vast network of roads throughout the empire, it aided both its armies and civilian travelers by marking the distances between cities. This milepost outside Capernaum dates from the first century.

Roman highways are an engineering wonder–but bears, dogs, and bandits strike terror on the side roads

From the outpost of Jerusalem, across North Africa and through the future Spain, France, Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, and Syria, there lay in Paul’s day a vast network of paved highways. Along them, Roman civilization advanced. Wide enough for soldiers to march six abreast and so carefully constructed as to require no repairs for, in some cases, a thousand years, the roads from Rome, linked end to end, could have twice encircled the earth.

These were the highways that Paul and his companions often traveled, and as long as they stayed on them, they did so in relative security. More often, however, they were on the empire’s secondary roads, where safety and even survival were very uncertain indeed.

In the world of the eastern Mediterranean the secondary roads were dependably passable only in the summer when streams were either dry or reduced to mere trickles. In the late winter and spring, they turned into raging torrents, crossed only at dangerous fords where travelers, up to their waist in swirling water, could be easily swept downstream. Bridges often consisted merely of logs thrown over the stream. The traveler, carrying his baggage, must delicately negotiate his way across.

Robbers and gangs of bandits were a much worse hazard. In the civil wars that ended less than a century before Paul’s time, brigandage became chronic and remained so into the first century. The Roman army’s policing activity was confined to the main roads. Once off them, the traveler, who had no option but to take his money with him, was fair game for robbery and possibly murder. That’s why few traveled alone, and most were armed at least with a staff.

Gangs, often driven into brigandage by poverty, roved the countryside on constant lookout for prospective victims, sometimes marauding country houses, holding the occupants at sword-point while the premises were looted. To defend themselves against this, the householders usually kept vicious dogs.

“When we reached a small village, the inhabitants very naturally mistook us for a brigade of bandits,” writes the philosopher and poet Apuleius who lived about a century after Paul. “They were in such alarm that they unchained a pack of large mastiffs, which they kept as watch dogs, very savage beasts, worse than any wolf or bear, and set them at us with shouts, halloos and discordant cries.” Staying at country inns was both essential and particularly dangerous. The wealthy might be able to pay for some privacy. Everyone else took his chances, sharing rooms and beds with they knew not whom, often having to keep their baggage beside them, lest their roommate pillage it during the night. And unless they dragged it all with them, every trip to the latrine or dining room risked robbery.

Wild animals were as great a danger as bandits. Bears, wild boars, and wolves are all mentioned by Apuleius, who says the lone journeyer lived in terror when the roads took him through a wooded area. He recalls authorities warning travelers in central Greece against packs of enormous wolves that were attacking even houses. “We were told that the road we wished to take was strewn with half-eaten corpses, and clean-picked skeletons, and that we ought to proceed with all possible caution–the higher the sun the milder the wolves–and in a compact body with no stragglers.”

But on the great highways built by the army, the traveler had safety and conveniences that would not be equaled in Europe for thirteen hundred years after the empire collapsed. Built on a firm rock foundation, overlaid by layers of stones in descending size, and finally topped with huge flat paving stones and crowned to drain off water, they enabled the legions to travel at twenty miles a day to any trouble spot. Five hundred army garrisons at intervals along the roads policed them.

They also served for commercial and civilian travel, whether on foot, donkey, camel, or horse, or in the creaking carts with wooden wheels that would be useless on the secondary roads. It was on these that most people risked life and limb. When Jesus tells the story of the man who “fell among thieves” in the parable of the Good Samaritan, nobody is recorded as having doubted its credibility. And when Paul writes to the church in Corinth of the hazards of travel–“in perils of waters, in perils of robbers . . . in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea . . . in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and nakedness,” nobody accused him of exaggeration. People knew all about such dangers.

This is the end of the Roman Empire Travel category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 104, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Roman Empire Travel from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at