Through Gaul to Ocean

Narbonensis provincia… agrorum cultu, virorum morumque dignatione, amplitudine opum nulli provinciarum postferenda breviterque Italia verius quam provincia.

The province of Narbonensis… by its agriculture, the high repute of its men and manners and the vastness of its wealth it is unrivalled by any other province and, in short, is a part of Italy rather than a province.

PLINY THE ELDER, Natural History


PROVIDED that the gods and the weather stay favourable, the journey from Portus Ostiensis to the southern sea ports of Gallia Narbonensis, on Gaul’s Mediterranean coast, should be relatively pleasant and straightforward. The journey from Rome takes, at its quickest, the best part of a week.1 The boat will sail close to the coastline, calling into ports along the way and allowing passengers to disembark, eat, bathe and perhaps even sleep on dry land for the night, depending on the circumstances.

The first substantial port, just a few miles up the coast from Portus Ostiensis, is Centumcellae (Civitavecchia). Built by Trajan, it is a mini version of Portus, with an inner basin entered from the main harbour, which is protected by sea walls and an island built as a breakwater on the seaward side of its entrance.2 Centumcellae provides safe harbour for ships bound to and from Portus and serves as an auxiliary port for cargoes arriving from Gaul and Spain: they can be unloaded here and then sent along the Via Aurelia to Rome, some 35 miles (56km) away.3 The number of ports called at along the Italian coast is determined partly by the weather and partly by the requirements of the captain, including whether or not he needs to collect or deposit cargo en route. A senior official with a ship entirely at his disposal might choose to stop at particular places along the way, so that he can meet up with old friends or conduct business.4

During the summer season in the Mediterranean, the prevailing winds are northerly, which means that ships sailing north, such as those from Rome to Gaul, do so in the teeth of the wind. It can be strong, especially when the cold, sharp Mistral blows along the coast of Gallia Narbonensis,5 or when the dry northerly etesian winds make life difficult in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. Sailing back to Rome is much swifter, and the journey from Gallia Narbonensis can be done in as little as three days.6 Ships sailing from Narbo can reach the coast of Africa in five days (a distance of 500 nautical miles), whereas in the other direction a thirty-day sail from Alexandria to Massilia can still be counted as a good journey.7

Gallia Narbonensis (roughly, Languedoc and Provence) has been a Roman province since 121 BC. Up to the time of Augustus, it was known simply as ‘Provincia’—the province*1—and was, according to the Elder Pliny, second to none, ‘in short, a part of Italy rather than a province’.8 Its Mediterranean climate, its landscape studded with vineyards and olive groves, and its urban culture make it home from home for Romans. The province attracted a large number of Roman settlers early on, and now many families from here have attained as great a prominence in Italy as they have in their native land.

As ships sail past Antipolis (Antibes), travellers may get a strong whiff of muriae, a sauce made from tunny fish, for which the port is famous. They should breathe more deeply at Forum Julii (Fréjus) just along the coast, a former naval base of the Roman fleet, where both the air and the milk are said to be beneficial for people with respiratory complaints.9 An ancestor of Julius Severus, named Julius Silvanus, was born here. A veteran of the Legion VII Claudia Pia Fidelis, he settled in Aequum, Severus’s birthplace, when it became a new colonia during the reign of Emperor Claudius.10

At Massilia, down the coast from Forum Julii, passengers may find much that is pleasingly old-fashioned and even still quaintly reminiscent of Greece. This former Greek colony, founded in about 600 BC, has also had much longer associations with Britain than has Rome. As early as the fourth century BC, the city had overland trading links, acquiring tin from the island, and the Greek explorer Pytheas partially explored Britain from here.11 Agricola, governor of Britannia in the AD 70s, was born at Forum Julii and brought up in Massilia; he was, according to his pious son-in-law Tacitus (also, very probably, from Gallia Narbonensis), sheltered from unsuitable company by growing up in a place ‘which so well combined a Greek sense of beauty with provincial frugality’.12


By contrast, Rome’s first colony in Gaul was founded a mere 250 years or so ago, in about 118 BC. Narbo Martius (Narbonne), lying west of Massilia, is the seat of the provincial governor and the centre of the imperial cult. It sits at the crossroads of two great roads: the Via Domitia, which links Italy with Spain; and the Via Aquitania, which runs some 245 miles (395km) via Carcasso (Carcassonne) and Tolosa (Toulouse) to Burdigala (Bordeaux), thus connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

On approaching Narbo, sailors begin to decorate their ship with garlands and olive branches, and on arrival the most senior person on board will offer a libation in thanks. Crew and passengers might also offer a sacrifice and, especially if the journey has been a difficult or anxious one, they might wish to make an ex voto offering at a temple in the port, respectfully propitiating the local presiding deity.13 This practice occurs in all corners of the Roman world. Just as the Greek protagonist of Achilles Tatius’s novel offers a sacrifice (to the Phoenicians’ great goddess Astarte14) for his safe arrival at Sidon, so Gallic and British merchants at the Rhine delta make offerings to the mysterious goddess Nehalennia, attended by her faithful hound, in thanks for a safe crossing of the perilous North Sea.

Everyone will be relieved to have safely completed the first leg of their journey and to spend a night or two on dry land in a civilized place like Narbo. But as the ship has now docked in a new province, there will first be the inevitably irksome customs to get through—as there are at all ports and boundaries between provinces and frontiers. Duty, which is generally between 2.5 and 5 per cent of an item’s worth, is charged on the value of the goods (ad valorem) being conveyed from one province to the next. It is payable on everything other than items necessary for your journey (instrumenta itineris) and those for your own personal use (ad usum proprium).

Customs officials are no more popular than any other sorts of tax collectors, and there are endless complaints about them throughout the empire. One edict against them, issued by the prefect of Egypt, declared:

I am informed that the customs collectors have employed fraudulent and clever tricks against those who are passing through the country and that they are also demanding what is not owing to them and are detaining those who are on urgent business, in order to get them to pay for a speedier release. I therefore order them to desist from such greed.15

The pettiness of customs officials and the upset they cause by their rifling through bags are also common sources of exasperation. The biographer Plutarch, who died c. AD 120/7, held up customs officials as examples of intrusive busybodies: ‘we are annoyed and displeased with customs officials, not when they pick up those articles which we are importing openly but when in the search for concealed goods they pry into baggage and merchandise which are another’s property’.16 Some enterprising individuals resort to tricking the customs men, by pretending that the goods they are importing are for their own use rather than for sale.17

Elsewhere in the port there is furious activity, as hundreds of people engage in the unloading of goods and in making ready the ships. Here are heavy barrels of Gallic wine, each being steered by two men up the gangway and over the sides of ships. Huge frames stand on the quayside ready to receive the large spiky-bottomed amphorae, full of Spanish olive oil, which are then closely stacked onto the frame in a pyramid shape. Once on board, the amphorae are kept in the hold, their spikes wedged into the gaps between the amphorae in the layer below.

Slaves carry sacks and smaller amphorae over their shoulders. They are bent almost double as they trudge down the gangplanks. Heavy amphorae need to be carried by two men, who slot poles between the handles. For extra protection during the journey, amphorae can be wrapped carefully in plaited straw or nestled in twigs and branches.

A governor on his way to a new province, such as Julius Severus, or a legionary legate, such as Minicius Natalis, can be assured of hospitality at the provincial governor’s residence, even if the latter is not at home. Other well-connected travellers might have family friends, business associates or, through letters of introduction, friends of friends who can put them up for a night or two. Even if the owners of a local estate are away in Rome or at properties elsewhere in the province, it is to be hoped that they will have written to their estate managers on their guest’s behalf, to ensure that their housekeeper is expecting visitors and will have food and a bed prepared.18

Comfortable and convenient though such arrangements might be, there remain all the constraints that giving and accepting hospitality demand of guest and host alike. Plautus’s comment in his second-century BC play Miles is still just as relevant in the second century AD: don’t overstay your welcome. Three days is okay, but after ten days ‘it’s an Iliad of disagreements. The slaves begin to talk.’19

With a far-off province to get to, no one is likely to stay in one place for more than a day or two unless delayed by illness or bad weather. Writing after Caesar’s expedition to Britain, in the first century BC, Strabo observed that there were four sea crossings commonly used in getting there from the Continent, namely from the mouths of the rivers Rhine, Seine, Loire and Garonne.

If the sailing conditions are unpromising, then there are long-established overland routes up to the Oceanus Britannicus, the English Channel. Trade routes between Britain and the Mediterranean were in operation centuries before the Roman conquest. Diodorus Siculus, writing c.60–30 BC, but using third-century sources, relates how it took traders thirty days to travel across Gaul on foot with their packhorses, bringing British tin to the mouth of the Rhône, at Massilia and Narbo.20 Their route went along the estuary of the Gironde and the valley of the Garonne by way of Burdigala, Tolosa—an ancient trading post between Gallia Narbonensis and the Celtic tribes of Gaul before their conquest21—and on to Carcasso and Narbo.22

Today’s travellers from Narbo to Burdigala may also follow the ancient tin traders’ route, now transformed into the Via Aquitania. At Burdigala there will be plenty of merchant ships heading up the Atlantic coast, perhaps even ones sailing straight for Britannia and distant northern British ports.23


Travellers taking the overland route now have the option to continue north by road or river into Tres Galliae (Three Gauls), an altogether different entity from Gallia Narbonensis. Acquired much more recently, during Julius Caesar’s conquests of 58–51 BC, the region was once referred to as ‘Gallia Comata’—Long-haired Gaul—after the outlandish hairstyles of the natives. Tres Galliae consists of three provinces: Aquitania, Lugdunensis and Belgica.*2 During the first century AD, the region was further restructured when a military zone along the Rhine was established and two additional provinces of Germania Superior and Germania Inferior (Upper and Lower Germany) created.*3

The effective capital of Tres Galliae is Lugdunum (Lyon), which sits at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône. It is readily accessible from most parts of Gaul and from the Rhine via the great rivers and network of roads that converge on it. The majority of goods reaching Britannia from the Mediterranean probably do so via Lugdunum, being shipped along the Rhône and the Rhine in consignments destined mainly for the large civilian and army populations in the Rhineland. Any onward shipments bound for Britannia will then arrive in the province via ports on the North Sea.24

Although the route to Oceanus Britannicus from Lugdunum pre-dates the conquest of Gaul, it was under Augustus that M. Vipsanius Agrippa established a military road system centred on Lugdunum, with roads leading west to the Atlantic coast and north to Colonia Agrippina (Cologne) via Andematunnum (Langres, in Champagne). One road led north-west up to Gesoriacum (Boulogne) via Augusta Suessonium (Soissons) and Samarobriva (Amiens).

A centre of the imperial cult of Rome and Augustus was founded in Lugdunum by Drusus in 12 BC. It was served by priests drawn from the Gallic nobility. At the sacred precinct of Condate above the rivers, the aristocratic high priest still performs sacrifices at the great altar, which is faced in marble and glitters with the gilded names of the Gallic states inscribed on it. Here, once a year, prominent members of town councils from every state in Tres Gallia gather at an assembly in the magnificent amphitheatre, next to the altar, to vote for the annually elected sacerdos, or priest of the cult, and for other officers of the assembly. To be elected priest is the highest honour in Gaul, and the Gallic aristocracy have embraced both the cult and the assembly enthusiastically, taking advantage of the opportunities they offer for enhanced prestige. At Lugdunum, nobles vie with each other in other ways too—in erecting monuments at their own expense, and in mounting increasingly spectacular and costly gladiatorial shows.25

Worshipping the numen (divine spirit) of the emperor through the imperial cult is required of everyone in the empire, military or civilian. But it is, in religious terms, unproblematic for people who view the whole world as alive with many spirits and deities, and where each locality has a presiding spirit, which it is wise to propitiate. The only peoples for whom worship of the imperial cult is impossible are the Jews and Christians, whose belief in a single deity excludes the worship of any other, including the emperor. And it is because the Christians refuse to honour the imperial cult that they are persecuted as a dangerously subversive and disloyal group.*4

As a hugely important commercial and administrative centre, Lugdunum offers all the attractions of a great city. Many emperors have used it as a base while on their travels further north, including Claudius, who was born here.26


While men of the status of Julius Severus or Minicius Natalis, and their companions, can expect to be entertained in the style to which they are accustomed at Lugdunum, anyone making their way independently to Britannia, or travelling in less elevated company, will have to take pot luck among the many private establishments available in the city and along the main roads out of town. While small hotels can typically be found in the centre of towns, larger establishments are often on the outskirts, where space is at less of a premium and carriages, horses and mules can better be accommodated, especially as there are restrictions about bringing them into town centres.

Hotels and inns go by all sorts of names. Some are called after a feature of the building, such as ad Pictas (At the Painted Houses), or take their names from the surrounding landscape, such as ad Pontem (At the Bridge). They might be known after a sign painted on, or hung from, the building, such as ad rotam (The Wheel), or named after beasts: ad aquilam (The Eagle) or ad draconem (The Dragon).27 The signs are attractive enough, and they ensure that strangers can locate a hotel in a world that lacks formal street names and house numbers. But with so many places on offer, innkeepers and hoteliers have to work hard at marketing their businesses. In Lugdunum, one owner, Septumanus, hopes to attract plenty of customers with the upbeat advertisement he has pinned to the wall of his hotel: ‘Mercury here promises wealth; Apollo, health; Septumanus hospitality, with a meal. Whoever comes will feel better afterwards. Guests, take care where you stay.’28

‘Take care where you stay’: Septumanus brilliantly plays on the fears of many travellers. As with bars or popinae, the inns and innkeepers have, at best, ambiguous reputations. The medical writer Galen mentions dodgy innkeepers passing off human flesh as pork.29

Innkeepers are not always male, and the vivid world conjured up in Apuleius’s second-century novel Metamorphoses offers a rare glimpse of feisty, witty and seemingly independent women running the show. One of them, Meroë, ‘an old but still very beautiful woman’, cooks a big free meal for any male guests she likes the look of, as well as inviting them into bed with her; but then—and here is the catch—she turns them into animals if they displease her. One of the worst fates is that of the man she turns into a beaver, ‘because the beaver, when alarmed by the hunt, bites off its own testicles and leaves them lying by the river bank to put the hounds off the scent’—a lot she hopes will befall her disappointing lover. While such startling metamorphoses are confined to the story books, there is certainly sex on offer at many establishments.30

Even the most basic provincial inn must provide stabling for horses and mules, as well as an enclosed courtyard where carriages can be parked securely, so that they do not need to be unloaded completely. A gatekeeper will be on twenty-four-hour duty to guard the entrance against intruders and to prevent guests leaving without settling their accounts.31

Guests expect to be able to secure their rooms—against non-magical intruders at least—by means of a lock and bar. Rooms tend to be sparsely furnished. Uncomfortable beds, with uneven legs or bases, always that little bit too short, are a hazard the empire over.32 Unless the inn has its own bath house, guests will be directed to the nearest one in town, private or public, reputable or otherwise, depending on their requirements. Some hotels include free admission to nearby baths in the price of the room.33

Having finally settled into their lodgings and bathed, travellers’ thoughts can naturally turn to food and drink; unless, through drinking brackish water, their stomachs have rebelled and they are forced to sit and watch their companions tuck into dinner. Such a fate befell Horace during his poetic journey to Tarentum in the twilight years of the Roman republic.34 It is to be hoped that the human flesh that Horace speaks of 35 will be off the menu, and that instead there will be appetising food on offer, such as prawns, African snails, ham and sausages, all of which—Horace tells us—line the stomach for a night of serious drinking.36

As everyone knows, the Gauls’ capacity for feasting and drinking (a barbarian hallmark) is legendary: they are said to have the habit of drinking their wine unmixed and in such excess that they either fall into a stupor or lapse into a state of madness. As a consequence, they become flabby and unfit, ‘quite incapable of running or hardship and when required to exert themselves they get breathless and sweaty and soon became exhausted’.37

Before the Roman conquest of Gaul, its inhabitants were said to have had such a thirst for Italian wine that they were prepared to pay over the odds for it: a slave in exchange for a jar of wine.38 Nowadays, the Gauls produce their own wine and export it to the Romans, though they still import grands crus from the eastern provinces. Their own sweet, strong wine of Massilia, produced in limited quantities, can command as high a price as Falernian.39 Vienna (Vienne) produces ‘pitch-flavoured wine’, while wine from Baeterrae (Béziers) is extremely popular in Rome,40 although Pliny the Elder was scathing, claiming that many Gallic wine-dealers adulterate it, adding colour and doctoring it with herbs and harmful drugs.41

If you are drinking good wine in elevated company, then elegant receptacles will be provided, such as crystal glasses. For the consumption of beer, punch or vin ordinaire in more casual surroundings, there are jokier sorts of cup, perhaps even of the kind inscribed with bar-room banter in colloquial Latin, complete with abbreviations, shifting vowels, dropped ‘h’s and slipshod grammar: (H)ospita, reple lagone(m) cervesa (‘Hostess, fill up my flagon with beer’) or Reple me, cop, conditi (‘Fill me up with punch, boss.’)42

On finally repairing for the night, travellers—it is to be hoped—will not be kept awake as Horace was on his journey to Tarentum (Taranto). First there were the tedious voices of those who had drunk too deeply from the punch and cheap wine, such as the sozzled boatman singing too loudly of his distant lover, and the inevitable fellow who joined in, trying to outdo him. All this in addition to the mosquitoes and the fantasies about the girl who promised to come to his room but failed to show up.43

A traveller might or might not end up sharing a bed with a companion, paid for or otherwise. Slaves will sleep on a mattress on the floor, possibly in the same room, and in readiness for whatever services they may be called on to perform during the night—regardless of whether anyone is in bed with their master or mistress. Even if you retire alone, the probability is that at some point during the night you will realize that you are, after all, sharing your bed with not one but many miniature companions: the bedbugs that so many writers mention in their descriptions of a night spent at an inn or lodging.

Before going to sleep it is advisable to check that there is a chamberpot under the bed, to avoid the fate of the unfortunate guests at Pompeii’s Inn of the Mulekeepers, who scrawled outside the door of their hotel: ‘We have wet the bed, my host, I confess we have done wrong. If you ask “Why?” There was no chamber pot.’44

The hope is that the next morning you will wake up with neither a hangover nor bites from bedbugs, nor as a castrated beaver, but feeling alert and ready for the rigours of the journey ahead.


Outside the towns, Gauls in their vast country may still indulge in quaint barbaric habits. But most imperial travellers, unless they are curious Greeks collecting ethnographic information about the locals, will be more interested in getting safely to their destinations along the fastest routes. As you go further north, however, you cannot fail to notice dramatic changes in the landscape and climate, and, while passing through smaller towns and roadside settlements, you will hear the Celtic language spoken more often than Latin. Different types of buildings appear in the countryside, including roundhouses, and there are unmistakable changes in the dress and appearance of the people, who wear trousers or short tunics, with scarves tucked into their necks and long capes.45

For the most part, though, Roman travellers will be able to cocoon themselves from anything too foreign or rustic, riding on well-maintained roads with stationes (service stations) at regular enough intervals, and staying where possible among people of similar background in private residences or perhaps in mansiones—the official guesthouses for government officials, provided at key stopping places along the major roads.

Conveyed by various means (boat, barge, carriage, ox cart or on horseback), and following their various routes—by land or by river through Gaul, or by ship along the Atlantic coast—our travellers to Britannia eventually arrive at Gesoriacum (Boulogne), the Continental base of the classis Britannica, or British fleet. Those who left Portus Ostiensis could well have been in transit for three weeks or more by now, and those arriving here via family estates or from distant postings will also have been travelling for some time.

Any members of Severus’s new staff who have come from elsewhere in the empire will be able to meet up with him at Gesoriacum if they have not already joined him along the way.*5 With such a large number of soldiers stationed in Britannia, Julius Severus will have more posts to offer than do the governors of most other provinces. Although senior military positions are in the emperor’s gift, Julius Severus has undoubtedly had a say in the appointment of Minicius Natalis as the new legionary legate and Maenius Agrippa as commander of the British fleet, both of whom he has worked with in the past: Natalis may have been serving as a tribune in the Legion XIV Gemina in Pannonia Superior at the time when Severus was commanding that legion, while Agrippa was the prefect of the ala Gallorum et Pannoniorum catafractaria, a heavy armoured cavalry unit in Moesia Inferior.46 If there is trouble in Britannia, and war or the reorganization of the province is looming, Severus will be keen to have these men by his side as soon as possible.47

On a clear day, Julius Severus will have a fine view of the coastline of Britannia from the British fleet’s base, which is built on a hill overlooking the harbour. Enclosing an area of about 31 acres, it houses around 3,500 men.48 On high ground, roughly a mile to the north-west of the base, a lighthouse built by Gaius Caligula helps ships navigate the Channel.49 An answering light across the water in Britannia shines from lighthouses on the cliffs of Dubris (Dover).*6 Alongside Gesoriacum’s harbour are extensivenavalia(shipyards), where boats can be brought out of water during the long winter months when the sea is ‘closed’ and when maintenance and repairs can be carried out: prows painted, sails repaired and hulls recoated with pitch and wax to make them more watertight. Nothing goes to waste, and should a vessel be damaged beyond repair, every scrap of it will be recycled, right down to the bolts, nails and even the wax.50

The British fleet is one of the two most important provincial fleets of the empire, the other being the classis Germanica, which patrols the Rhine and has its main base at Altenburg, near Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne). Only the Italian fleets based at Misenum and Ravenna are ranked higher. The classis Britannica patrols the Channel and the seas around Britannia, ensuring that supplies are maintained for the province’s army and that any goods exported from there on behalf of the emperor, or to supply the army on the Rhine—such as tin, lead, wheat and hides—reach the Continent in safety. Organized along the lines of the auxiliary sections of the army, the fleet is recruited largely from non-citizen provincials who sign up for twenty-six years (one year longer than in the army) and are awarded the prize of citizenship on discharge.

The commander of the British fleet needs to be a senior officer of equestrian rank with sound administrative experience, someone who can deal with logistics and keep complicated supply networks running smoothly. Maenius Agrippa is just such a man.*7 He and his deputy, the subpraefectus, will be supported by staff such as clerks and accountants, quartermasters, messengers and doctors based in Gesoriacum and Dubris, in addition to several likely outposts around the British coast.

Although the classis Britannica still counts men from the Mediterranean area, such as Syrians and Thracians, among its ranks,51 these days there are many more from the north-western provinces. The Romans were swift to enlist men from tribes such as the Batavii, Chauci, Frisii, Morini, Menapii and Veneti after the conquest of their territories. Living along the coastline of Gallia Belgica and Batavia (northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands), these people have crucial experience of sailing in the strong tidal waters of the Atlantic and North Sea, and of the different types of vessels and skills needed to navigate these waters. By AD 69 the commanding officer of the classis Germanica was a Batavian officer, Julius Burdo,52 with large numbers of his fellow Batavians serving as oarsmen. The Batavians had a crack cavalry force, which could swim the Rhine in perfect formation in full armour while holding on to their mounts.53 Sailing men from Britannia were also swiftly recruited into the German fleet.54

In the harbour are vessels better suited to the tidal waters of the north-western provinces, with high bows and sterns to protect against heavy seas and storms, than the Mediterranean ships. While the latter are constructed using interlocking timbers, the northern vessels are made of stout planks laid edge to edge which are secured to massive, closely spaced framing timbers by large iron nails. The northern ships’ flat bottoms help them ride in shallow waters and on ebb tides, and better enable them to be drawn up on a beach, where they sit upright on the shore. Their sails, like the river boats of northern Gaul, are made of raw hides or thin leather,55 and their anchor chains differ too, being made of iron rather than rope.56 Larger ships have additional masts and sails, including a triangular ‘lateen’ sail, which allows them to sail more directly into the wind.57 All in all, these vessels make ideal transports for soldiers, horses and supplies. They were swiftly adopted during Caesar’s second expedition to Britannia and used in Germanicus’s naval expedition from Rhine to Ems in AD 15.58

At Gesoriacum ships will now be put at Julius Severus’s disposal and that of his retinue of friends, family advisers, freedmen, household staff, bodyguards, horses (and hounds) and all their various baggage, to transport them over the OceanusBritannicus(English Channel).59 But before Julius Severus sets sail, he must first write to the outgoing British governor to confirm the day on which he expects to arrive. He is required to do this not only as a matter of courtesy, but also to prevent any fears among the provincials of a hiatus in government, which might lead to unrest or prevent business being carried out.60

Julius Severus might have the option of sailing ceremoniously to Britannia in a conventional trireme: there is one based at Gesoriacum called Radians, ‘Gleaming’.61 But he can also take a smaller, nippier type of naval galley which has been specially adapted for use in the north-western provinces.62 Although the boats have oars, sails are used whenever possible, and it is only ever when under duress—during a battle or when required to go at top speed to carry an urgent message—that all the oars are manned.

On board these vessels, the crews are jealous of their status as military men, describing themselves as soldiers rather than sailors.63 They have undergone rigorous training, having been taught to row on dry land on special practice benches before being let loose on a ship; now, when the pausarius, or chief oarsman, calls out the stroke they all row together, perfectly in unison.64 There are no pitiful galley slaves in the Roman fleets.

As they take leave of the Continent, Julius Severus and his retinue pass under the most prominent monument in the port: the victory arch granted to Claudius, commemorating the place from which he launched his successful invasion of Britannia in AD 43. The distance they will travel, from Gesoriacum to Rutupiae, is approximately 40 nautical miles. Provided all goes well, the journey will take between six and eight hours, benefiting from the prevailing south-westerly winds. If the ships cast off about the time of the third watch, around midnight (as Caesar’s did in 55 BC), they should reach Britain at about the fourth hour of the day, around 9am.65

The route across the Channel to Rutupiae may be short in comparison with the many miles travelled to get to Gesoriacum, but the symbolic distance is immense. For to step foot on a ship bound for Britannia is to venture into Oceanus, that immeasurable expanse of sea full of monsters and perilous tides, beyond which lies a land of unfathomable people.

*1 It would later give its name to the French region of Provence.

*2 Aquitania was bordered by the Bay of Biscay to the west and the Pyrenees to the south; Lugdunensis comprised central and eastern France, and Belgica northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg and a part of western Germany, including Trier.

*3 Germania Superior (Upper Germany) comprised parts of eastern France and western Germany; Germania Inferior (Lower Germany) included the southern part of the Netherlands, the eastern part of Belgium and part of Germany.

*4 The account of the horrible persecution of Christians in the amphitheatre at Lugdunum in AD 177 is preserved in Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History) 5.1.

*5 Those coming from the Rhineland, for example, could have travelled from Cologne (Colonia) via Tongres (Atuatuca Tungrorum), Bavay (Bagacum), Tournai (Turnacum) and Cassel (Castellum Menapiorum).

*6 Remarkably, one of those lighthouses, among the most astonishing Roman remains in Britain, may still be visited at Dover Castle.

*7 He clearly excelled at his new role and flourished in Britain, afterwards being made procurator of the province.

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