Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Roman Empire Sailing |
First-century sea voyagers never traveled light

Roman Empire Sailing is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 178, 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

Scout out a willing captain, strike a deal for passage, bring plenty of food, and pitch your tent on deck

Roman Empire Sailing - First-century sea voyagers never traveled light

Roman Empire Sailing - First-century sea voyagers never traveled light
This relief, cast from Trajan’s column in Rome, depicts wine casks being loaded into barges on the Danube. Roman merchant and military vessels made good use of navigable rivers as extensions of their busy and efficient sea routes.

Summer travel by sea in the first-century Mediterranean world was dependable and safe. But it was neither comfortable nor convenient. Nobody traveled light.

A formidable fleet of huge sailing vessels, the fabled “grain ships,” plied regularly between Alexandria in Egypt and the Italian ports, laden with grain from the Nile Delta to feed the hundreds of thousands of the emperor’s subjects who lived in Rome.

In addition, thousands of smaller coastal vessels worked the other ports, while the big galleys of the imperial navy, some with three or four rows of oars, patrolled the sea lanes, exterminating, promptly and inexorably, every would-be pirate.

When the Roman general Pompey brought the cities of the eastern Mediterranean, Judea and Galilee included, into the Roman fold, his first act was to rid the Mediterranean of its oldest scourge, piracy. Though the Judeans thanked Rome for little else, none could deny that it had made travel by sea fast, cheap, and popular.

But not convenient. The fact is there were no passenger vessels as such, only freighters. These had, it’s true, a few cabins in their sterns for the wealthy and powerful. Everybody else more or less camped out on deck, sometimes by the hundreds.

When Paul, or anybody else, wanted to make a passage across the Aegean, Adriatic, or Eastern Mediterranean, the first task was to assemble tents, bedding, mattresses, toiletries, and a week or two’s food for everyone in the party. All this would then be lugged either to one of the dockside inns in the port of departure, or perhaps to the home of a friend who lived in the port city.

Next, the traveler, or his servant, must canvass the waterfront for ships’ captains or owners with a vessel bound for the port to which he was headed. A financial deal was worked out, and as the day of departure neared, the party boarded. They would be assigned a position on deck to pitch their tent at night. The tent would protect the traveler from rain and some spray. If the wind was severe, however, all the travelers could expect to get soaked.

The departure time itself was subject to certain variables. Lionel Casson in his fascinating Travel in the Ancient World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974) lists some of them. Not only must the wind and weather be right, but so also must “the signs.” Ominous dreams, for example, in which the dreamer saw muddy water, or a house key, or an anchor, could delay a sailing. If anyone happened to see a goat before boarding, that was bad; a black goat spelled almost certain disaster. Wild boars were worse, as were bulls. To be gored in a nightmare by a bull made shipwreck inevitable. There were bad luck days (like Friday the thirteenth to a future generation)–a captain would have to be crazy to sail on August 24 or October 5.

When all these dangers had been somehow avoided, the vessel would sail. Headed south with the prevailing northerlies behind, from Naples or Athens to Alexandria, the trip could be made in ten days or less. Headed north, the headwinds could double the time. There were no food services, though the passengers could make use of the galleys to prepare their meals. By day, in fine weather the tents came down, and those who could afford “books” could read. Codices, or leafed books, were coming in during the first Christian century, and they could be held in one hand, much more convenient than the old scrolls. Gambling was also a favored diversion, and wine drinking.

You could also watch the handling of the vessel by the crew–the huge square sail, the smaller square foresail, the relatively small tiller-bar that controlled the two huge steering oars off the stern. The size of the grain vessels was prodigious. One of them, the Isis, was blown off course by bad weather and wound up at Piraeus, the port of Athens, where its dimensions were recorded. It was 180 feet long, forty feet wide and measured forty-four feet from the deck to the bottom of the hold. It was said to be carrying enough grain to feed Athens for a year, roughly one thousand tons. It could have carried, say the records unconvincingly, up to a thousand passengers.

When the vessel approached its destination port, it would be intercepted by a many-oared towboat that would drag it over to the quay. As the gangplank went out and the passengers disembarked with all their gear, longshoremen flooded aboard to begin unloading the grain.

In the relative peace that followed the dawn of the Christian era, the efficient transportation and communication system of the empire was preserved and became a major factor in the spread of the gospel. As Roman control of the western part of the empire waned in the fifth century, however, the peaceful seas ceased to be, piracy returned, and marine technology forgot much of what it had once known. Not until the nineteenth century, Casson notes, did European shipbuilders construct a vessel capable of carrying such a cargo. In other words, it took humanity fourteen centuries to recover the ground it had lost.

This is the end of the Roman Empire Sailing category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 178, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Roman Empire Sailing 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