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Travelling in Ancient Rome

You might have heard of the age-old idiom “All roads lead to Rome”. This was literally true in the days of the powerful Roman Empire. The Romans had an incredible network of roads and all of the roads apparently radiated out from the capital city, Rome. However, despite having an incredible network of roads, travelling was not an easy and enjoyable task but it was necessary for government officials, for the Roman military and even for merchants. The Romans were faced with many obstacles that arise both prior and during their journey. Let’s follow the story of Cornelius, a Roman government official.  

An itinerarium


Before starting on his journey, Cornelius has to get ready a few items. Firstly, he has to plan out their journey. He needed to know what routes to take, which routes to avoid and roughly how long the journey will be. Maps were not commonly used during those times as it was hard to copy and mass produce. As such, Cornelius had to rely on an itinerarium. An itinerarium is an Ancient Roman map with a list of cities, villages, and other landmarks, and the distances in between landmarks drawn onto it. It will tell Cornelius which significant landmarks he will have to pass by and how far apart each landmarks are. This will help him to better prepare for his journey, in terms of the amount of supplies he will need and the amount of time he will spend travelling on the road.


A Roman Carriage


Secondly, he has to figure out what mode of transportation he wants to travel by. He had to choose between hiring a horse or a carriage, and both were not very comfortable options. If he were to pick a horse to ride, he would have to put in significant effort into mounting and dismounting from the horse as stirrups were not invented at that point of time. Moreover, there were also no horseshoes so the horses had no protection on their hooves, making them more susceptible to the elements of the roads. If he were to pick a horse-drawn carriage to travel by, though it is much faster than travelling by horse, it is a lot more uncomfortable. There were no form of cushioning available in the carriages, as such, he would have to endure the uneven stone surfaces of the Roman roads. He would constantly be bouncing up, down, left and right, making sleep practically impossible and causing his back to hurt. (Imagine riding a horse and multiplying that back ache by a 100 times!) The windows were merely just square holes on the side of the carriage, letting the occasional dust, dirt, wind and rain blow into the carriage, making it very damp and musky inside the carriage.


Highwaymen Attacking a Roman Carriage


Thirdly, he would have to hire some bodyguards or enlist the help of the Roman army while he is travelling between his destinations. Though the roads were well-developed, the absence of natural or man-made lighting at night made it rather dangerous to travel alone because of the presence of highwaymen, robbers who prowl the Ancient Roman roads and rob unsuspecting travellers.

Now that Cornelius has gotten everything he needs for his journey, he is ready to set off.


Roman Way Station


After enduring a back-breaking journey for about 8-10 miles or so, Cornelius stops at a way station, known as a mansio, which is an official resting place along the Ancient Roman roads that is specifically built for Roman officials who are travelling the Roman Empire on official business. There are mansiones available every 15-18 miles apart. At the mansio, Cornelius could take a rest from his journey and replenish his supplies. Further down the road, he will pass by the mutationes, which is situated every 12-18 miles apart along the Ancient Roman roads. These are vehicles and animals “changing stations”, where Cornelius and other travellers could purchase new and strong horses as well as other vehicular supplies to replace their tired horses, and their damaged carts and equipment before carrying on on their journey.

Cornelius continues along his way as such, stopping at mansiones and mutationes whenever necessary, and checking his itinerarium to see which landmarks he will have to pass by next, till he reaches his destination.