Sea routes in antiquity – "The Romans were already living in a globalized world"
How did goods get from one end of the Roman Empire to the other in the blink of an eye?? To explore this, archaeologists are now becoming boat builders and sailors themselves.
Aelius Aristides was impressed. "(To Rome) is brought, from every land and sea, whatever the seasons make grow, and bring forth all lands, rivers, and lakes, and the arts of Greeks and barbarians," said the Greek orator in 155 AD about the capital of the Roman Empire. "So countless are the cargo ships that arrive here, carrying all the goods from all the countries from every spring to every turn in late autumn, that the city seems like a common trading center of the whole world."
What cannot be seen in Rome, Aelius Aristides concludes, would not exist in the world. Grain from Egypt, olive oil from Baetica in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, exotic goods like Irish hunting dogs, no desire was left unfulfilled in the marketplaces of Rome. "Globalization is truly not a new phenomenon," says ancient historian Christoph Schafer of Trier University. "The Romans already lived in a globalized world."
The Roman Empire was a gigantic economic area. Practically everywhere the same lingua franca was spoken, a uniform currency applied as well as the same legal system. The goods in this vast trade network were, as Aelius Aristides pointed out in his speech, transported primarily on ships from one end of the Roman Empire to the other.
But this poses a problem for the reconstruction of the ancient flow of goods. Because while transport over land leaves abundant archaeological evidence in the form of roads, milestones, or roadhouses, after a ship the waves crash again and the sea looks as if nothing had happened. Although isolated shipwrecks and ancient accounts provide clues to sea routes, their course is not nearly as fully documented as land routes.
Time was money even in ancient times
To change that, Schafer is pursuing the long-term project "Maritime Connections and Their Influence on Ancient Maritime Trade". For nine years, scientists at the Transmare Institute in Trier, Germany, together with other institutions, plan to research the sea routes that turned Rome into a gigantic trading empire. They don’t have to start from scratch: "We can build on almost 20 years of research," Schafer says. For example, the ancient historian has already been involved in the faithful reconstruction and testing of three Roman warships, a cargo ship and a merchant ship. "In our project historians and archaeologists work side by side with craftsmen, mechanical engineers, astrophysicists, computer scientists and economists."
One of the latter is self-employed consultant Pascal Warnking – who used his knowledge of the business world to test Roman trade routes for their economic viability. For no one really wanted to believe the ancient authors when they reported on the speeds at which Roman merchant ships allegedly traveled through the Mediterranean Sea. Take Cato the Elder, for example: "Incidentally, I am of the opinion that Carthage must be destroyed," the Roman statesman is said to have demanded in every Senate session in the second century B.C.
To emphasize his point, he once brought a bowl of figs to the lectern. At the end of his speech, he demonstratively held one of them up in the air and warned: "It was picked only three days ago in Carthage!" That’s how fast the Punic ships were supposed to be able to sail from Carthage to Rome. Repeatedly this statement was smiled at by historians as gimmickry. But: "Cato was right," says Warnking.
"In our project, historians and archaeologists work side by side with craftsmen, mechanical engineers, astrophysicists, computer scientists and economists."
Christoph Schafer, ancient historian from the University of Trier
Time was also money in antiquity. Accordingly, Roman investors were looking for optimized routes that promised them the greatest possible profit. Each additional day at sea cost food for the crew – and possibly deprived the ship of another voyage before the winter storms set in. But the optimal route depends on the season, weather conditions, winds and currents. Today, sea routes are calculated using nautical software that takes all these factors into account. "Why shouldn’t the same work for ancient merchant ships?", Warnking wondered. He got hold of "Expedition" – a regatta and navigation software that is also used in the Ocean Race, the America’s Cup and the Vendee Globe – and fed it with all the available data on square-rigged ships from all periods of history that he could get hold of: Schafer’s Roman ships, replicas of Viking boats from Roskilde, Denmark, measurements from the French navy from the 18th century, and so on. and 19. He was also involved in the construction of the modern sailing training ship Gorch Fock in the nineteenth century. With regard to the weather, a fortunate circumstance helped: the very well documented Mediterranean climate in the 20. The price of goods in the sixteenth century is pretty much the same as in Roman imperial times.
When Warnking examined the data, Cato’s gloomy prognosis gained tremendous ominousness. And another passage suddenly appeared in a new light. In his price edict, Emperor Diocletian (236/245 to 312 AD) prescribes the maximum transportation costs for goods on nearly 50 different sea routes. The seemingly inconsistent specifications had led ancient historians in the past to dismiss the decree as an imperial miscalculation. But when Warnking fed his ancient square sail data into the regatta software, the calculated sailing times seamlessly explained Diocletian’s specifications. "That was my eureka moment," Warnking says.
The replicated Roman ships are equipped with the latest measuring technology
While Pascal Warnking is the expert on the invisible with his route calculations, Christoph Schafer has managed to make Roman seafaring not only visible, but also tangible. His ship reconstructions were built by students from the University of Trier and volunteers under the guidance of a specialized master boat builder using ancient methods and craft techniques. The models were wrecks such as the merchant ship Laurons II, discovered off the French coast near Marseille in 1978.
But how does a Roman ship behave on the water? What is the fastest way forward? To answer these questions, Schafer and his team, together with mechanical engineers from the University of Trier and astrophysicists from the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, have adapted and further developed a nautical measuring instrument. When the replicas complete their test runs on the Moselle, they always attract attention. What few of the spectators suspect, however, is that the Roman ships’ hulls and yards are peppered with state-of-the-art technology that constantly provides data on speed, movements and loads.
"The Roman economy seems much more modern than we ever imagined it to be."
Christoph Schafer, ancient historian
For professional nautical training, staff and students travel to the Netherlands and the Aegean Sea. But also basic knowledge of rowing is an advantage, because without muscle power nothing worked on the riverboats, which were part of the transport network as well as the big sailors. To what maximum speed can boats be propelled by rowing, piling or towing?? What cruising speed can a full crew of rowers in two different types of Roman warships maintain for several hours? That, too, can be measured: In one test, rowers on the two river warships Victoria and Lusoria Rhenana competed against each other while their lactate levels and heart rates were monitored – to the point of complete exhaustion.
"We’re generating source material here that’s never existed before," Schafer says. All new information will flow into the heart of the project: the Digital Interactive Maritime History Atlas, which will be made available online. With it, scientists from all over the world can then understand and simulate the great lines of maritime trade and the ancient economy for their own research projects. According to Schafer, one thing is already apparent: "The Roman economy seems much more modern than we ever imagined."