Travel and Geography in the Roman Empire by C. Adams
Book Review by Caldrail
Many years ago I stood on the other side of the world. On the face of it, that's nothing unusual. There are people from that faraway land living in my home town. The ease of transport in our modern world is something we take for granted. Travel agents offer exotic destinations for those who wish to sample the delights of foreign climes. All a matter of cash and some unavoidable bureaucracy. Having a great time. Wish you were here.
How different it must have been two thousand years ago. The British Isles really were out on the edge of the known world, at the furthest reach of the Roman Empire. Today, the same area is occupied by dozens of nation states who sometimes struggle to rule efficiently even with the modern communications that the Romans had no concept of. An astonishing achievement and a testament to their organisational skills. Yet it also leaves us with unanswered questions. How did they connect their impressive cultural leviathan together in an age of ignorance?
"Could not every man go where he wished, without fear?" Aristeides of Smyrna
When I began to read Travel & Geography in the Roman Empire, I thought this review was going to be so easy. I was wrong. Like many scholarly works, this is not so much a book as a collection of essays on the subject from a list of contributors that reads like a veritable 'Dragon's Den' of historians.
Make no mistake. These contributors take no prisoners. The phrase "must have..." carries no weight with them. Assumptions about the Roman Empire have no place between the covers. Whatever else can be said, I commend the authors for their resolute focus on using the available evidence. Images of Roman landscapes derived from documents, coins, monuments, and the writings of the Romans themselves portray an environment that might be superficially familiar, but one that bears little resemblance under close study.
We usually find the Romans had little interest in fussy details. They were more often refreshingly practical about how they dealt with matters. They wanted results, not endless possibilities. Travel & Geography makes clear from the beginning that many Romans set out on long expeditions without any real idea where their destination was. Sometimes they had no idea what was waiting for them when they got there.
Nonetheless these journeys were possible. Not only do we discover how ordinary people made their way across the Empire, but also how the legions conducted their marches, how letters and messages were sent from place to place, and how the Roman government relied on the networks of those famous roads and the facilities laid on to expedite business.
Interestingly, we read how travellers added their experience to the available archive of route information, and how little travellers knew about the lay of the land not only in distant corners of their empire, but even places closer to home. Their horizons were mysterious, a civilisation imposed upon a barbaric world, where all roads led to Rome. Whilst we have a mental perception of space and global positioning, they used a logical and linear concept, a clear determination to go where they wanted with the minimum of diversion.
There is so much revealed to the reader. For instance, one fantastic revelation is that Roman soldiers were not expected to know where they were marching to. Whereas in battle individual initiative was encouraged, the commanders felt that deserters or captive legionaries might tell their enemy more than they wanted them to know. They didn't want soldiers deciding which route to take, or perhaps worse, deciding they didn't like the destination at all. And yet, as brilliant an observation as it is, this point is hidden inside the text along with everything else.
There is, I'm afraid to say, much that this book should have included. You will find little or nothing concerning the means of transport, the various risks a traveller might expect, or any idea of travel times. You may also find, as I have, that despite the academic level of the essays, meaningful conclusions are avoided, and if the reader wants to find the vital ingredients of wisdom this book contains, you need to take the time to seek them out. It is, ironically, a literary analogy to the reality of Roman travel. Just follow the chapters until you reach the end.
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So we're left with the most interesting question of all, the most consistent thread throughout the book, which is did the Romans use maps as we do? If you want my personal opinion, I'll be happy to tell you. If you want scholarly expertise and insight, then set aside the time to discover the answer. This book won't tell you everything you need to know about the way the Romans got themselves from here to there, but it certainly presents an intriguing summation of what we ought to be saying about travel in times gone by.