Thursday, 15 August 2013

Sea-Craft and Shipping in the Roman World (The Wonder of Rome Blog-Hop)

With the expansion of the Roman Empire in the 1st Centuries (BC & AD), the peoples of northern and western Europe found themselves, for the first time in their history, within the compass of a trade network that was truly international, rather than simply regional. Silks from China and spices from India would have been traded in the market-places of York and Exeter. Lead from north Wales was used to make the pipes that fed the bath-houses of Cyprus and Egypt. Wine and olives from Italy and Spain were consumed in the dining rooms of villas at Chedworth and Lullingstone.

Most of the trade between north-western Europe and the Mediterranean world was by sea, and we know something of the craft that plied this trade, and of the men who sailed them, both from archaeology and from historical sources. Commerce was not a "respectable" occupation for wealthy Roman citizens, so ship-owners and captains were, for the most part, either freed slaves or foreigners, including Greeks, Cypriots and Phoenicians.

Most of the ships that are known from the archaeological record were small coastal freighters, 20-25 metres in length, with a single mast. They typically had two steering oars connected by long tillers.

Lucian tells us that one such ship "...depended for its safety on one little man, already a greybeard, who turned those great steering oars with just a skinny tiller." 

The Kyrenia ship, found off the coast of Cyprus, is pre-Roman (3rd Century BC), but is very similar to the Roman ships found in the ancient harbours of Pisa and Fiumicino. From the personal effects found in her cabin, it is believed that she had a crew of four men. Many of these ships had no galley or firebox, so the crew probably came ashore each night to cook their meal. 

            Kyrenia II, a working replica of a trading ship of the 3rd Century BC.

                            Fiumicino IV, part of the hull of a Roman freighter.

Such ships undoubtedly sailed between London or Chichester and ports along the coastlines of modern France, Germany and Belgium. The cargo ships that braved the Bay of Biscay, however, were probably much larger. We get a glimpse of such vessels in the wreck from Le Grand Conglue, near Marseille, which was around 40 metres in length, and dates to the early 1st Century AD. These ships carried passengers as well as cargo, but on a casual basis, negotiable with the captain.

The Grand Conglue wreck, with amphorae used for the transportation of wine or olive oil.

Passenger travel, however, was not for the faint-hearted. Travellers brought their own food, wine and bedding on board, and their own slaves to cook their meals in the ship's galley. They slept in improvised shelters on the deck. Synesius, writing in the 5th Century AD, describes one such voyage, on a ship with a crew of twelve.

The crew were "...ordinary farm-boys who, up to last year, had never touched an oar..." and "...the one thing they all shared in common was having some bodily defect...they made jokes about this, and called each other by their misfortunes instead of their real names - 'Cripple,' 'Ruptured,' 'One-Arm,' 'Squint.'"

There were more than fifty passengers sailing with Synesius, around a third of them women. The captain must have taken pity on these women, since they were allowed to sleep below deck, with a "good strong curtain" to protect their modesty. They must have feared, however, for more than just their reputation and their virtue. Synesius describes the almost inevitable storm in graphic detail:

"The men groaned, the women shrieked, everybody called upon God, cried aloud, remembered their dear ones. Only [the captain] was in good spirits. Then someone cried out that all who had gold should hang it around their to pay for a funeral...The ship was running along under full canvas because we couldn't shorten the sail. Time and again we laid hands upon the lines, but gave up because they were jammed in the blocks."

Travel by sea, however, was significantly faster (and therefore cheaper) than travelling overland. The fastest voyage on record was from the Straits of Messina to Alexandria in six days, an average travelling speed of six knots, allowing the ship to cover 100-135 miles per day. This, however, was evidently with the most favourable of all possible winds.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos are published by Crooked Cat Publishing, and can be purchased from Amazon.

To learn more about "The Wonder of Rome," take a look at the blogs of the other writers contributing to this blog-hop:

David Pilling

Elisabeth Storrs

Gordon Doherty

Scott Hunter

Mark Patton

Ruth Downie

M. C. Scott

Fred Nath

Brian Young – The Eagle has Fallen

Helen Hollick

Heather Domin

David Blixt

Alison Morton

Petrea Burchard

Tim Hodkinson

S. J. A. Turney


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this article Mark - thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Helen, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Fabulous post, Mark. Very interesting. Enjoyed it very much.

  4. The coastal freighters sound very small. It's a wonder there were not more ship wrecks. Thank you for the informative post and giveaway.

  5. Thanks, Marsha and Denise. The small freighters must, I think, have been the work-horses. There are more wrecks than I had scope to mention (there is one, for example, from the harbour at Guernsey), but I am sure that there are also a great many as yet undiscovered.

  6. Exciting stuff. I really enjoyed this post.

  7. Interesting. I've delved into Roman shipping over the years, but you've put a lot of thought into this. :-)

  8. That blog hop gave me a number of new blogs for my blogroll. :)

    And your post is an interesting complementary one to a post I did in 2010 about Roman river transports. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Thanks, Victrix. The post is based on research I did that never found its way into the novel. My first draft was much too long, so although my protagonist returns from Rome by sea, I cut out my description of the voyage.

  10. Thanks, Gabriele, I hadn't seen your fascinating post on river transport. My post is also complementary to one I did on this blog on road transport on 17th February. The road journey did make it into the novel.

  11. Thanks, Debra, I'm glad you enjoyed it. We may be doing another of these blog-hops in the near future.

  12. Your blog provided us with valuable information to work. Mark - thanks for sharing! Baggage company to USA