The Mediterranean Sea played a central role in the transportation and travel of ancient Greece and Rome. Its broad expanses—along with its many natural harbors, inlets, and bays—made sea travel the most economical and efficient means of getting from place to place and of transporting goods. Water transportation was not always possible, however. In some cases, the Greeks and Romans had to depend on land travel as well.

Travel and Transport by Land. Travel and transport by land was difficult, tedious, and expensive. But sometimes there was no other option. Going from one inland location to another often meant traveling by land—unless a navigable river or stream connected the two places. Moreover, during the winter and at certain other times, bad weather or unfavorable winds closed down shipping or delayed it, making land transportation the only alternative.

In ancient Greece, transportation by land was especially difficult. Rugged, mountainous terrain and the lack of roads in most areas limited overland journeys to short distances. The roads the Greeks were able to build were rough and unpaved. The Greek historian Herodotus marveled at the impressive system of roads in the Persian Empire, which enabled relatively swift mobility from one place to another. Using a system of riders, horses, and relay stations, Persian messengers could cover as many as 100 miles a day. The Greeks took over these roads when Alexander the Greatconquered Persia.

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were superior road builders. Italy was the first area to have paved roads. In the east, the Romans maintained the existing Persian road system and connected it with roads in Europe and North Africa. By the A.D. 100s, the Romans had built an extensive network of paved roads that linked all parts of their empire.

Roman roads were marvels of engineering. Built for use in all kinds of weather, they were wide, smooth, well drained, and as straight as possible. Every road had milestones—stone markers placed every mile to inform travelers of the distance from the road’s starting point. The Appian Way, one of the most famous Roman roads, ran for 360 miles from the city of Rome to the port of Brundisium on the Adriatic Sea. The Romans built their roads to last. Some sections of ancient Roman roads are still in use today.

In both ancient Greece and Rome, the basic land vehicles were twowheeled carts and four-wheeled wagons. Pulled by oxen, mules, or horses, they carried both people and goods. Large four-wheeled wagons were used mainly to haul heavy loads, while light two-wheeled carts were preferred for small loads and passengers. By Roman times, a variety of other passenger vehicles were available. Wealthy Romans often traveled in carriages with roofs and curtains. For long journeys, there were roomy sleeping wagons. Small, curtained carriages called litters, carried on the shoulders of severed men, were available in most Roman cities.

In mountainous areas, where there were no roads, it was often impossible to use vehicles of any type. In those areas, people traveled by foot and transported goods on pack animals. The most common pack animal was the donkey. Camels often served as pack animals in North Africa and the Middle East. Ancient travelers rarely rode horses, which generally were used only by government messengers and the cavalry troops of the army.

Travel and Transport by Sea According to the Greek philosopher Plato, Greek cities and colonies crowded the shores of the Mediterranean Sea “like frogs on a pond.” The Roman empire surrounded the sea so completely that Romans called it mare nostrum, which means “our sea.” Because the Mediterranean occupied such a central place in ancient Greece and Rome, it is not surprising that the preferred method of travel and transport was by sea.

Sea travel had certain disadvantages, however. Most Greek and Roman ships sailed only from late spring to early fall. Inclement winter weather made sea travel undesirable the rest of the year, except in emergencies, such as moving troops during wartime or shipping food to relieve serious shortages. Another problem with sea transport was the dependence on favorable winds. The majority of Greek and Roman sailing ships operated most efficiently when winds came from behind or from the sides. If the wind came from the wrong direction, or was not blowing at all, sailing ships were unable to move. Storms at any time of year posed a danger to shipping, and pirates were a constant threat as well.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were able to overcome wind problems to some extent by using galleys—ships powered by human rowers as well as sails. Because of the rowers, galleys did not have to rely solely on the wind. Whenever possible, galleys used their sails. But when the wind died down or blew in the wrong direction, the rowers put out their oars and the ship was able to continue on its way. Galleys were most useful for short trips along the coast or between islands. All warships were galleys because they could not afford to be at the mercy of the winds during a war.

Galleys were not suitable for transporting heavy, bulky loads over long distances. Only sailing ships had the power needed to move such loads. By the 300s B.C., the average Greek commercial vessel could carry loads of about 100 tons. In Roman times, the largest ships could carry many times that amount. Because of their large size and weight, such ships traveled slowly, averaging only between four and seven miles per hour with favorable winds.

The main purpose of large commercial ships was to haul cargo. The most difficult cargo to transport was building stone. Stones from Egypt, Asia Minor, and other distant places were in great demand in Rome for use in constructing temples and public buildings. Greek and Roman ships also hauled grain, wine, oil, foods, and other goods. Grain was generally transported in cloth sacks. Wine and olive oil—as well as such products as olives, nuts, and honey—were transported in large clay jars with long thin necks called amphorae. Some large Roman ships could carry as many as 10,000 of these jars.

* breakwater barrier in a harbor that breaks the force of the waves


Transportation by land in ancient Greece and Rome was tedious and noisy. Cart and wagon wheels lacked lubrication. The only lubricants known were animal fat and the oily sediment left after pressing olives. Both were too costly to be applied freely to the wheels of most vehicles. To make matters worse, most wagons and carts had iron wheels and no springs. The result was a very bumpy and noisy ride. The wheels screeched and squeaked and wagons clattered and banged so much that a wagon could be heard well before it arrived and long after it left.

Passenger ships did not exist in ancient times. Instead, people traveled on cargo ships. Travelers generally just went to the waterfront and looked for ships going to their destination. Ships did not provide meals or rooms for passengers. Travelers had to carry their own food, bedding, and any other supplies they might need for the trip.

The Greeks and Romans built harbors to facilitate shipping. By the 400s B.C., most Greek ports had stone breakwaters* and docking areas as well as storage sheds and warehouses. The Romans built even more impressive harbors. Their skill in using concrete enabled them to build harbors in places that had no natural protection.

As passenger travel by sea and land became more widespread, inns and eating places were established to serve travelers. People traveled to visit popular temples and famous sites, to study at important schools or with famous teachers, and to seek treatment for illnesses. Such travel was limited to the wealthy, but a small number of other people also traveled in search of new opportunities. (See also Naval Power, Greek; Naval Power, Roman; Piracy; Ships and Shipbuilding; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman.)

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