Heritage > The Romans

Travel in the Empire

In ancient times, there were few bridges, and those that existed were not always safe. This made it difficult to cross rivers, and even boats were not always around when needed. But in the River Tiber in Italy, 20 kilometres from its mouth, was the Tiberine Island, which made it easier for people to cross. Gradually, the Island became a more and more popular spot for getting across the river. The area was closed in and protected by seven hills. These would become the seven hills of Rome, and the few farmers living in the area were the first Romans.

Roman GalleyBy AD 114, the Empire stretched from Scotland in the north to Egypt in the south, and from Spain in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east. All the people within this area could call themselves Romans. All this was united by a single government, an international legal system, and the language of Latin. Nearly two millennia later, Europe is just beginning to approach some kind of unity in law and government.

Little by little, Rome asserted its power. In its early days it suffered frequent defeats, but each time returned to fight with greater energy. Rome took over Italy gradually over the fourth and third centuries BC. Greeks had settled in southern Italy, and so they were next in the list of Rome’s adversaries. In 279 BC the Greek general Pyrrhus defeated the Romans, but at such great cost that he complained: ‘One more victory like this and I will be destroyed.’ We still use the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’ to describe a success that costs more than it is worth.

Rome absorbed Greek culture by its conquest; Greek slaves took on jobs for cultured and educated people, becoming accountants and scribes, and more or less cornering the market in teaching and medicine. Greece had a great influence on Roman religion, literature, and architecture.

By 146 BC, after 120 years of war, Rome destroyed Carthage, and went so far as to sow Carthage’s fields with salt, making the land barren. Carthage had a whole empire, so that large areas of Spain and North Africa were added to Rome’s territories. The Romans also derived the war-galley from Carthage; it was propelled by oars, and had a ram at the front to sink other vessels. Over the next century, Rome took over Greece and Asia Minor.

Then in 27 BC, Octavian did a shocking thing - he gave the Empire away. Although he accepted the title of ‘Augustus’, he refused to become king. Instead, he placed the Senate in charge of Italy and other lands that were ‘peaceful and easy to govern’. He offered to take the imperium in Egypt, Spain, Gaul, and Syria, the more difficult areas. Of course, the Senate accepted enthusiastically. Meanwhile, Augustus made certain that the armed forces were near him, and wherever there was danger of rebellion. Egypt was the richest country in the Empire, and Augustus consolidated his power through commerce. The people prospered, and the Senate was attentive to his every word. He gained supreme power by drawing attention away from his power. He is sometimes called the ‘second founder of Rome’.

Augustus established what was called the Pax Romana, the ‘Roman peace’: five hundred years of rule by emperors. In AD 38, the Jewish Egyptian scholar Philo wrote: ‘the whole human race would have been destroyed, had it not been for one man, Augustus... who ended wars... set every city at liberty... civilized all the unfriendly, savage tribes... and safeguarded peace...’ On the other hand, Tacitus wrote in AD 110 that Augustus had ‘tricked the army by giving them gifts, the common people by giving them cheap food, and everyone by peace, then little by little he began to increase his powers, to steal the authority of the Senate, the magistrates and the laws... So the state had been changed, and the old, free Roman people no longer existed.’

Less controversially, the Greek writer Aristides described Rome as ‘a common market for the world’. The Empire was united by Roman law and the Latin language, and trade flourished. Goods were transported by sea, the most cost-effective way of doing so: for the same price, you could send them 25 times as far by sea as by road. Sea transport also had the advantage of speed, as it took less than a fortnight to sail from Egypt. These merchant ships could go as far as India. They sailed during the summer, and stuck close to the coastline because they had no compasses. Sailing was dangerous, and not many ships sailed in winter, especially because of the danger that the wind would wreck them on the shore.

In peacetime the war-galleys policed the seas against pirates. Wines went from Italy and Spain to Gaul and Britain; huge freighters brought grain from North Africa to Rome. Wild animals were brought for the games from many countries. Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber, and Puteoli, near Naples, were the main ports.

Road markerThis is not to say that Roman roads were inferior - in fact, roads were one of the Empire’s greatest achievements. They were carefully built with enough camber (sloped sides allowing water to drain into ditches) to be usable in all weathers. Every milestone on every road in Italy indicated its distance from a central marker in the Forum in Rome. This is why we still say ‘All roads lead to Rome’. Donkeys carried goods in panniers on their backs, or pulled carts and wagons.

As well as traders, couriers of the cursus publicus carried their messages by these roads. Proconsuls went their way collecting taxes; athletes travelled from one race meeting to another. People came from the provinces to Rome to put their case to the Emperor. The legions went from Rome to the provinces to police rebellion and unrest, and government curators went out to check a province’s accounts.

People travelled the highways not only for military or business purposes, but even as tourists. These travellers influenced the countries they passed through; during the Pax Romana Christianity spread from the east to the west, thanks to the roads and seas. Not that travelling was a pleasure: it was exhausting, even for officials who could force locals to carry their baggage. Not everyone completed their journey before falling victim to accidents, illness or robbers. Inns were usually dives: smoky, dirty and terrible firetraps. But they were better than nothing for a traveller to sleep overnight, get his wagon repaired, and get a little refreshment.

Meanwhile, the Empire carried on its tradition of conquest and expansion; Claudius took Britain in AD 43. In Britain, the lifestyle changed gradually from a tribal system to something more akin to a class system, and some people adopted Roman ways, though others were uninterested. Living standards improved in the towns and cities, and by the fourth century, some villa owners occupied luxurious houses. Around the third century, Caracalla divided Britain into two regions, with Britannia Superior in the lowlands. This area was governed by a consul, and the rest of Britain was run by a governor of lesser rank.

Domitian crossed the frontier of the Danube, after the Empire had been struggling to do so for years. Trajan conquered Dacia (Romania), and reached the Persian Gulf in AD 116.

But the empire grew too big to govern. Diocletian divided the empire into east and west; while the east flourished and managed to survive until 1453, Rome was finally conquered in 476.

Roman customs remain with us today. We still use the Roman alphabet, Roman numerals, Roman months, concrete, glass windows, central heating, blocks of flats, hospitals, a postal service, a fire brigade, a civil service, international trade, public baths (in the form of swimming pools), a public health system... The Latin language developed into Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, Portuguese... It also had a strong influence on the English language, and certain phrases survive intact, such as ‘et cetera’. The influence of this vast empire remains, centuries after its fall.

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