Ancient Mariners: Sailing the Roman Mediterranean

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Credits: Juliana Kozoski/ Unsplash

For ancient mariners, the Mediterranean Sea was a chaotic place. Sailors had to deal with fickle Mediterranean winds, unpredictable storms, fierce waves, and shifting tides. Yet, despite the dangers of sea travel and its seasonal limitations, sailing was the preferred way to travel. The Mediterranean had a vital role for the ancient Romans, allowing fast and efficient communication between all parts of the vast Empire. Ships could transport anyone to their destination quickly, in relative comfort.

In ideal conditions, a voyage by sea from Rome to Alexandria would last less than a month, whereas traveling strictly by road could take almost half a year.

Mediterranean trade and travel transformed the Roman Empire, facilitated its expansion, and increased its power and wealth. Thus, it is unsurprising that their inability to keep control over the “inner sea” led to collapse in the West, while in the East, the Empire’s limited control over vital ports and sea lanes assured its survival.

Ancient Mariners Sailing “Our Sea”

Initially, the Romans were hardly ancient mariner-material. Mariners had plied the waters of the Mediterranean since the dawn of civilization, but unlike the ancient Egyptians, Greek city-states, Carthage, and other seaborne realms, the Romans were primarily land-based people. However, they learned quickly and were willing to experiment. Thus, by the end of the first century BCE, Rome defeated its main rival Carthage, becoming a major Mediterranean Sea power.

Realizing the central importance the Mediterranean had for trade and communication, the formidable Roman navy declared war on local pirates, who for centuries had infested the waters of the “inner sea,” raiding ships and eluding pursuers. In a lightning fast campaign, Pompey the Great eradicated piracy, transforming the Mediterranean into “Mare Nostrum” or “Our Sea.”

Following the triumph at Actium and the demise of Ptolemaic Egypt, the Mediterranean became a Roman lake. Emperor Augustus was aware of the importance of the “inner sea” to the Roman economy and communications. The “Mare Nostrum” was the Empire’s heartland, and the sea lanes that linked the West with the East were its lifeblood, facilitating trade and transport over great distances. Augustus and his successors secured Roman mastery over the Mediterranean by maintaining a powerful navy. In addition, they constructed new harbors and expanded existing ones.

The most important trading hubs of the Empire were Ostia and Puteoli in Italy, Alexandria in Egypt, Carthage in Northern Africa, and Antioch in the Levant. The other harbors of importance included Caesarea in Syria, Corinth, and Athens in Greece, Gades (Cadiz) and Tarraco (Tarragona) in Spain, and Narbona (Narbonne) and Massilia (Marseilles) on the southern coast of France.

Ships of Trades

Besides dealing with sporadic piracy, the main task of the Roman military fleet was to patrol the shipping lanes. One such route, leading from Alexandria to Ostia, was of utmost importance for the Empire since it carried an uninterrupted supply of grain, feeding Rome’s growing populace. Even warships carried this vital sustenance. The vessels of the grain fleet varied in size, but the largest could carry up to 350 tons of grain.
Most merchant ships plying the Roman Mediterranean were smaller boats, their carrying capacity ranging from 100 to 150 tons, or up to 3000 amphorae. However, some trade vessels were leviathans of their time. Those ships, known as myriophoroi, could carry more than 10,000 amphorae (thus their name – “10,000 carriers”), filled with wine, olive oil, and garum (fermented fish sauce).
The Madrague de Giens shipwreck for example, was a 40 meter (131 feet) long, two-mast merchantman that transported between 5,000 to 8,000 amphorae, weighing up to 400 tonnes. The enormous size of this vessel probably mirrored its counterparts engaged in the long-distance Indian Ocean trade.

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Source: The Collector

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