The ship releases its lines. Destination: Carthage. Our sestertius is now traveling on a cargo ship, in the possession of a Greek sailor. How did he get it? In the easiest and quickest way possible: he stole it.
Yesterday he was at the baths and noticed a rich merchant arriving with some customers. He was telling them about a banquet he had hosted at his house the night before and how heavy his head still felt from all the wine he had drunk. Wine, by the way, that he had just brought personally from Gaul. When he heard that, the Greek sailor realized that the man must be quite rich. And he could also see that he was indeed tired and foggy-headed from the excesses of the previous night’s banquet. An ideal mark. He waited until the man got into line to enter the baths and with a swift slash of his knife he cut the cords of the purse that was hanging from his belt—a classic move at the baths. But the merchant was certainly not stupid because, despite being very rich, he was only carrying two sesterces. Apparently he was familiar with the dangers in Pozzuoli.
Now the stolen property is in a safe place on the boat, wrapped in a cloth and stuck between two floorboards. Better not to trust one’s fellow sailors.
The sailor casts a glance astern. Pozzuoli with its merchants’ villas, Baia with its baths, and Lucrinus with its orgies are slowly moving off into the distance. Before the ship felt solid and stable under his feet, but now that the water is getting deeper he can feel the heaving movement of the sea beneath the keel, rising and falling. Already several of the thirty passengers who had come aboard in Pozzuoli are feeling seasick. Traveling by sea in the Roman era is not very comfortable. There are no passenger ships. People wanting or needing to travel must go to the port, find a ship bound for their destination, and ask permission to board. For a price, obviously. But the service on board is terrible: no cabins, no beds, no blankets. You sleep on the deck and bring your own food. The voyages are not long, but they are decidedly uncomfortable.
When given a choice, Romans prefer to have the ground under their feet; they don’t trust the sea. To be sure, traveling by sea is much less exhausting, you don’t have to march for days on end, but the idea that you might die at any moment in a shipwreck is something the Romans will never quite get used to, contrary to some other much more maritime peoples like the Greeks and the Phoenicians. But sometimes they don’t have a choice, because of the length of the journey.
To put things in perspective, a sea voyage from Pozzuoli to Alexandria takes about nine days. That might seem like a lot, seeing as how today the same trip takes just three hours by air. But keep in mind that the distance is about 1,000 nautical miles, or 1,150 miles by land. Traveling the same distance on land would take a Roman at least two months. Our voyage to Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, will be short. It will take a couple of days’ sailing at a speed of around six knots (about seven miles an hour) to reach the coast of Africa.
The sailors move back and forth on the ship, which is called, as fate would have it, Europa, and has the typical shape of a Roman cargo ship (navis oneraria): it’s big-bellied, and on the stern it has a curious, enormous curl in the form of a swan with its beak elegantly resting on its neck. All the onerariae have this sculpture. The ship has a central mast, with a large square mainsail. Above it is another, smaller sail with a triangular shape, to take advantage of the slightest puff of wind on calm days. The oneraria has another mast on the bow, lower down, tilted forward like a knight’s lance. This is the bowsprit, which carries another small square sail, ideal for making maneuvers.
The commander gestures to the sailors to pull tighter on some lines to catch the wind better. These ships might be beautiful, but they don’t zip along like modern sailboats. They’re cargo ships, squat and heavy in the water.
Since the Middle Ages all ships have had a single wheel or helm in the center of the stern, but in antiquity this doesn’t yet exist. There is no steering wheel, not even the so-called tiller, the bar used to steer a small sailboat. Instead, there’s something quite unusual: two rudders on the stern, one on each side of the hull. They look like two enormous vertical oars sticking down into the water. From his post atop a small tower on the stern, the helmsman regulates them both, using two hands as though he were driving a motorcycle.
The Superstitions of Sailors and Travelers
We follow the sailor as he crosses the ship. He walks by a passenger who’s looking out at the receding coastline, reciting prayers in a low voice to invoke the protection of the gods. No one on board makes much of it because it’s the normal thing to do: there’s nobody here who’s not superstitious. This is the mentality of the ancients in general.
On land, before setting sail, neither the passengers nor the sailors know when the ship is going to leave. Sometimes they will wait several days. Departures are determined by the winds, obviously, but also by the omens.
First of all, certain days in the Roman religious calendar—August 24 and November 8, for example—were considered unlucky, and doing work or making deals was practically forbidden on those days. When an unlucky day, say Friday the 17th, coincided with a day of good wind, it might still be risky to depart. The commander would then sacrifice a bull or a sheep to see what the gods had to say. In the case of a negative response, departure would be postponed.
Even when everything lines up just right (wind, religious clearances, and sacrifices), there are omens to consider. And that is a whole other story. Lionel Casson has compiled a list of some of these bad signs that must be heeded: sneezing on the gangway when boarding (but sneezing to the right during a sacrifice is a good sign), a raven or a magpie perched and squawking on the masts, or the appearance of flotsam and jetsam just before departure. Furthermore, it bodes ill for anyone to curse, dance, or, in good weather, cut their fingernails or hair (which, however, can be thrown into a rough sea to placate the ire of the gods).
And then there are premonitory dreams: a key or turbid water is a clear prohibition to depart. A goat is a symbol of rough seas, a bull or a wild boar means a storm is on the horizon. Owls, barn owls, and sparrow owls indicate the imminent arrival of pirates or a squall. Finally, dreaming of someone being gored signifies a sinking ship.
There are a few good omens, as Casson points out. One of them comes in the form of birds (presumably not ravens or magpies) perching on the ship during the voyage. But perhaps the reason for the scarcity of good omens is obvious: the sea is so unpredictable that favorable signs can quickly be proven wrong. The preponderance of bad omens, on the other hand, may actually be a good thing, because the less often you go to sea, the less you risk your life. The worst-case scenario, obviously, would be a bad omen dreamed out on the high seas, when the ship is already at the mercy of fate.
Our sailor is very superstitious; he walks among the passengers making sure they are all behaving according to the rules.
Our sailor goes down belowdecks, officially to check on the cargo but more likely to make sure his loot (our sestertius, but also money from other petty thefts) is still there. At the center of the ship there is a square opening in the deck with a set of stairs going down. It’s a dark space that calls for a lantern. In the dim lamplight the sailor leads the way down through an expanse of sacks, and then amphoras, which are lined up next to one another on several levels: the ones on top are inserted between the necks of the ones below and so on. Down in the hold it’s easy to see that the shape of the amphoras, so tapered and elegant, is actually a practical design. The ferrule makes them less fragile at the base. The narrow and streamlined shape allows them to be arranged in narrow rows and on several levels. That explains how some ships manage to pack in as many as ten thousand of them. Finally, placing the handles near the top makes them easier to lower and raise during transshipping and transport operations.
We take a look around. The flank of the ship is solid. How are the boards of the planking held together? With the same system that we now use to attach an extension to a dining room table when there are guests for dinner: mortises and tenons, a precise series of dovetail joints that make the structure solid. These are then reinforced with nails bent three times. Examples of this technique of ship construction and of planking “sewn together” in this way can be seen at the Museum of the Sea and Navigation at the Santa Severa Castle north of Rome, built on the site of the ancient Etruscan port of Pyrgi. It’s a small museum, but it’s the only one that presents, in a complete way, all the techniques of ancient navigation.
Laboratory tests have indicated that for the keel and the frame the ancients preferred hard, resistant woods like oak or olive; for the tenons and planking, on the other hand, they used woods that were lighter, elastic, and resinous, like pine, fir, or larch.
The museum is also home to the only functioning reconstructed model in Europe of a pump used to suck up water. All the Roman ships were outfitted with them in case of a leak or to eliminate the bilge water that accumulated on the bottom of the ship. The pump consists of wooden disks that are pulled horizontally through a wooden pipe by a crank. It’s a simple system but very effective. Passing through the pipe, the disks carry out the water as though they were a line of buckets. The result? The pump is able to eliminate fifty gallons of water per minute. And there were pumps in ancient times that were even bigger.
Isis, Queen of the Seas
We hear some shouting up on deck. Our sailor rushes up the stairs to have a look. The passengers are pointing toward an enormous ship that’s approaching. We’ve been sailing on the open sea for several hours now, and the approaching ship is clearly headed for Ostia. It’s part of the famous grain fleet. We can see others sailing behind it, all in line. They set sail several days ago from Alexandria and they’re crossing the Mediterranean to feed Rome. They are immense and majestic, with red sails and a curl on the stern fashioned with the head of an animal. In the past, every time a ship this size arrived in Pozzuoli the people ran down to the harbor to see it.
The ship passes by us, and everyone on board is dumbstruck. It’s the largest ship that can be seen on the Mediterranean: 180 feet long, more than 42 feet wide, and over 44 feet high from the lowest point of the hold to the deck—taller than a four-story building.
This queen of the seas has an expert crew; earning a place on it is the equivalent of being named to the national sailing team.
On the bow we notice some images of the goddess Isis, and her name is painted on both sides of the hull. Everything about the ship is oversized: the immense anchor, the capstans, the winches, even the stern cabins. The man at the helm, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite: small, his head half-bald, half-ringed with kinky hair, its white color testifying to his long experience on the sea. This small man’s hands are in control of a real giant. To make a comparison to modern ships, it’s as though he were in command of an aircraft carrier.
According to some estimates, this ship has the capacity to transport more than a thousand tons of grain! It would be interesting to discover how the sacks are distributed in the hold: in order to keep the ship on an even keel, and to avoid contact with the sides of the ship, which are always wet, they must have come up with some ingenious form of shelving inside the hold.
The sailors on the two ships exchange greetings. The Isis zooms by our oneraria like a cloud; immense, silent, and without stopping.
Night falls; the ship sails on. On board the passengers work out whatever arrangements they can for finding a place to sleep. Some of them have spread large pieces of cloth over themselves for protection from the humidity. Others are curled up in the corners with nothing but a blanket. The sea is as black as pitch. The helmsman, or gubernator, has the stars as his only reference point, and he keeps an eye on them, guiding the ship with all of his experience. Our sailor isn’t saying anything, but last night he had a scary dream: his fellow seamen have figured it out because they notice that he has lain down to sleep right next to the ship’s only lifeboat. Actually, it’s a simple rowboat that’s only used during maneuvers in the harbor and to go ashore. At most it can hold ten or twelve people pressed up against each other, so it’s not nearly big enough for everyone. We take a look around: there are no life jackets, and in Roman times almost no one knows how to swim except for those who live in close contact with the sea, like these sailors. So it’s easy to understand Romans’ fear when they have to cross a great expanse like the Mediterranean, which can unleash a tempest and transform itself into a killer from one minute to the next. Historical records tell us that of the ships that transport grain to Rome, one in five sinks. And a shipwreck in these times means death: there are no radios or SOS signals; nobody comes to search for you. Moreover, ship traffic is very light compared to modern times. After a shipwreck, anyone who doesn’t drown remains at the mercy of the sea and dies of the cold in short order.
At five in the morning we wake up with a start; the sea is raging, the wind is taut, and the waves are slapping against the sides of the ship. Everyone is anxious and worried, and among the passengers there are those who are praying and invoking the gods and those who are crying in desperation. In these situations everyone has to pitch in and do their part, passengers included. The sails are wiped down with linseed oil to keep them from tearing. The sea rises more and more, and when the sun appears on the horizon (an instant before being swallowed up by the black clouds), a full-blown storm has arisen. The ship is tossed from side to side by the swirling sea. The waves are as high as hills and are running like wolves around their helpless prey. Suddenly, a wave washes over the ship and, like an octopus, latches onto some passengers, dragging them away. Luckily, they’re able to grab onto some ropes and are held on board by some other passengers.
Cargo sacks and the passengers’ baggage are rolling and sliding across the deck, but nobody tries to stop them. No one can think of anything but saving himself. The ship is being hammered furiously. But it hangs on.
The struggle goes on for hours until, toward noon, the sea calms down, like a giant going back to sleep. On board, the damage is tallied. The passengers are exhausted, wet, shivering with cold. They look at each other, teeth chattering. But they’re alive. Some of them are swearing that they’re going to make the return trip on foot, by way of the Middle East.
A couple of hours later something is sighted in the water. It looks like a big piece of floating wood. The helmsman directs the ship toward the object, which disappears every now and again amid the waves. As the ship gets nearer, it becomes clear that it is a man overboard, clinging to the boards of a shipwreck.
The problem of getting the man back on deck is not easy to solve; a sailing ship can’t put on the brakes like a car. It’ll have to throw him a line, and he’ll have to grab it and hang on tight so he can be pulled on board. Will he have enough strength to do that after all that time in the water?
The ship moves in closer, the sailors lined up on the bow and along the side of the ship ready to launch the line.
Now the man is right in front of us. The helmsman has done a perfect maneuver, and he lets loose the sails, which start fluttering in the wind. The ship loses speed. The man overboard is now just forty or fifty feet away, and we realize that it’s a woman. The first sailor launches a line, but it hits the water out of her reach. The second manages to hit the woman, but the rope gets dragged away by the ongoing ship before she can manage to grab hold of it. It’s clear that her muscles are stiff and sluggish from the cold of her long time in the water; hypothermia is slowly sapping the life from her body.
Now it’s the third sailor’s turn, but his launch is too short. It looks like the woman is done for. It will take a wide maneuver to return to the spot, assuming that once it’s been done they’ll be able to find her again. It’s very easy to lose sight of a floating object among the waves.
Suddenly, another line is launched from the ship. It was launched by a man who we will later learn is a veteran, a legionnaire, recently retired. He tied a long rope onto one of the oars of the lifeboat and threw it with all his might toward the woman, exactly as he had been accustomed to doing for twenty years, heaving his pilum at the enemy. The oar is heavier than a javelin, but the woman is not far away; and besides, the launch is perfect. The oar with the rope on the end flies through the air beyond the woman and falls into the water very close by. She finally manages to grab onto it, but she’s too weak to lift herself up. It’s all she can do to hold on to it. From the ship everyone pulls in unison, and they manage to get her near the side of the ship and, eventually, up on board.
After being fed and warmed, she recounts that she is the only survivor of a ship identical to theirs that had been struck full on by the storm. There were a lot of people on board, sixty or so, plus the crew. She hasn’t seen any of them. The others all disappeared in the darkness of the night. Miraculously, she had come across these three boards still solidly fastened together, and she clung to them. Those boards, our sailor points out, are not a good sign. They’re part of the planking. It means that the ship was shattered into pieces by the fury of the waves, and now it’s at the bottom of the sea. All the other passengers are probably dead, or they will be in another few hours, scattered by the waves. The same thing could have happened to us.
A Million Wrecks Waiting on the Bottom
This gets us thinking. A hypothetical estimate of three shipwrecks per day throughout the Mediterranean (a very conservative figure considering that the interruption of navigation during the winter months did not apply to the coastline navigation of fishing boats and small vessels) means that more than a thousand vessels, big and small, sink every year. If we multiply this number by a thousand years, the duration of the Roman era in the West, we get a total of a million wrecks at the bottom of the sea. Naturally, they’re not all Roman ships but also include Carthaginian, Greek, Etruscan, and so on.
If we consider that the Mediterranean was traveled by ships for many centuries before the Romans, we realize that the bottom of the sea is an enormous cemetery, full of stories that we will never know. But it is also the most amazing museum of antiquity on the entire planet. If we think about all the civilizations that grew up along its shores—Minoan, Mycenaean, Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Etruscan, Roman—we soon realize that the sea bottom holds an endless collection of objects, handmade goods, and artistic masterpieces from all those epochs and cultures. They are down there waiting: statues by the great Greek masters, maybe even works by Phidias or Praxiteles. Or maybe even one or more Egyptian obelisks on their way to Rome. Today they are unreachable. But future generations of archaeologists will have means that we can’t even imagine for exploring the bottom of the Mediterranean. And they may well discover a forgotten past, without having to excavate it.
It’s early afternoon when our sailor sights land off in the distance. We’ve made it. The port of Carthage awaits us.