On the Road With Paul
The first two centuries of the Christian era were great days for a traveler, writes historian Lionel Casson: “He could make his way from the shores of the Euphrates to the border between England and Scotland without crossing a foreign frontier.… He could sail through any waters without fear of pirates, thanks to the emperor’s patrol squadrons. A planned network of good roads gave him access to all major centers, and the through routes were policed well enough for him to ride them with relatively little fear of bandits.”
Because of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) of Emperor Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14), such conditions prevailed when Paul traveled the Roman world. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (d. about 135) declared, “There are neither wars nor battles, nor great robberies nor piracies, but we may travel at all hours, and sail from east to west.”
New Testament archaeologist W.M. Ramsay concludes, “The Roman roads were probably at their best during the first century after Augustus had put an end to war and disorder.… Thus St. Paul traveled in the best and safest period.”
What would it have been like to travel with Paul during this unique era of ancient history?
Roads Built to Last
By the time of Emperor Diocletian (c. A.D. 300), the Romans had built a marvelous network of over 53,000 miles of roads throughout the Empire, primarily for military purposes. They were generally 10 to 12 feet wide and models of road construction. Plutarch writes about one official’s work:
“The roads were carried through the country in a perfectly straight line, and were paved with hewn stone and reinforced with banks of tight-rammed sand. Depressions were filled up, all intersecting torrents or ravines were bridged, and both sides were of equal and corresponding height, so that the work presented everywhere an even and beautiful appearance. Besides all this, he measured off all the roads by miles … and planted stone pillars as distance markers.”
The Roman mile (a word derived from mille passus, “thousand paces”) was one thousand five-foot paces, or about 95 yards shorter than our mile. Mile markers—inscribed stone columns five to six feet tall—marked distances.
During his first missionary journey, after he crossed inland from the southern coast of Turkey, Paul used the Via Sebaste, a road built under Augustus in 6 B.C., which connected six military colonies, including Antioch in Pisidia. Much of his other travels in Galatia and Phrygia, however, were on unpaved tracks.
During his second missionary journey, after landing at Neapolis, Paul took the Via Egnatia from Philippi to Thessalonica. This major highway was built by the Romans after they had taken over Macedonia in 148 B.C. It spanned Greece and was eventually extended east beyond Philippi to Byzantium. Paul left this road when he went south to Berea, but he must have taken it later when he evangelized Illyricum (Yugoslavia; see Rom. 15:19).
After landing at Puteoli, Italy, Paul traveled the most famous Roman road, the Via Appia, the road from Rome to points south, which had been built in the third century B.C.
On such sturdy roads, soldiers could march four miles per hour, and on forced marches, five miles per hour. The average traveler walked three miles per hour for about seven hours a day—or about 20 miles per day. For example, Peter’s trip from Joppa to Caesarea, a distance of 40 miles, took two days (Acts 10:23–24). Paul traveled from Troas to Assos on foot, a distance of about 20 miles (Acts 20:13–14), so it probably took him a day.
Even with sound roads, travelers did well to wear heavy shoes or sandals, to have capes and broad-brimmed hats, and to carry bedding, tents, and provisions. Though traveling during the winter was possible, snows sometimes blocked high passes, and rains in October and May flooded the rivers and made them difficult to cross. In some isolated areas, travelers faced dangers from robbers, as well as from wild animals such as bears, wolves, and boars.
Paul no doubt had some of these problems in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, “I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits … in danger in the country” (2 Cor. 11:26).
Some extraordinary records were accomplished by determined travelers on horseback. Julius Caesar covered 800 miles from the Rhone River in France to Rome in eight days. Tiberius raced 500 miles in three days to reach his mortally wounded brother Drusus.
The official messenger system, the Cursus Publicus, used couriers who changed horses at stationes every 10 miles, or at mansiones every 20 to 30 miles. They were expected to cover 50 miles per day. The same messenger (rather than a relay of messengers) carried such important tidings as the death or accession of an emperor. A courier could travel from Rome to Palestine in 46 days, from Rome to Egypt in 64 days.
Those who traveled by carriage could cover between 25 and 50 miles per day. Roman vehicles had no springs, so the passengers felt every bump on the road. The Romans had such vehicles as the carpentum, a two-wheeled deluxe carriage, the redda, a four-wheeled wagon, and the carruca, a covered wagon. Wealthy individuals, like the Ethiopian treasurer of Queen Candace of Meroe, could afford a chauffeur-driven chariot (see Acts 8:28, 38).
For the most part, only military personnel and government officials traveled by horse. The one time that Paul used a horse was when he was escorted by soldiers from Jerusalem to Caesarea (Acts 23:23–24).
Inns of Ill-Repute
After a long-day’s journey, where did travelers lodge? Well-to-do Romans avoided inns if possible, and either set up their own tents or stayed with friends. Roman writers (such as Horace and Apuleius) uniformly criticized inns for their adulterated wine, filthy sleeping quarters, extortionate innkeepers, gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes. The apocryphal Acts of John relates the amusing story of the apostle who, coming to a bed infested with bugs, ordered the insects to depart for the night.
In literary texts we learn of rather comfortable inns in Asia Minor, and less reputable ones in Greece, though the New Testament never mentions Paul’s staying in one. Christians from Rome traveled 40 miles south to meet Paul and his party coming from Puteoli at a place known as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns (Acts 28:15), but it is not likely the party stayed in any of these tavern-inns.
That’s because Christians were urged to practice hospitality for traveling believers. The elder John, for example, commended his friend Gaius for opening his home to traveling preachers: “You are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers even though they are strangers to you.… You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God” (3 John 5, 6).
An early Christian document, the Didache, indicates, though, that this hospitality could be abused:
“Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet.”
On his journeys, Paul enjoyed the hospitality of Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:15), of Jason in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5), and of Gaius in Corinth (Rom. 16:23)—to name three of his hosts.
Dangers on the Seas
By far the fastest form of long-distance travel was to go by ship—at least in one direction. It is significant that Paul sailed from the Aegean to Palestine but always went overland from Palestine to the Aegean. The one time he sailed west was as a Roman prisoner.
The reason for eastward sailing is simple: the prevailing winds during the summer, the sailing season, generally blew from the northwest. This greatly eased an eastward voyage, which could be made directly from Rome to Alexandria in from 10 to 20 days. By the same token, these same winds would hinder the westward journey, which could take from 40 to 65 days or even more. This had to be accomplished by sailing from Egypt northward along the coast of Palestine and then west along the southern coast of Turkey. Ancient ships generally had but one main square sail, so their ability to tack against the wind was limited.
There were no passenger ships as such. Passengers sailed on cargo ships as space was available. The ships left when the winds and omens were favorable. The expense for passage was not high; it cost a family but two drachma (about two-days’ wages) to sail from Alexandria to Athens. The fare included the provision of water but not of food and of cabins.
Alexandrian grain ships, upon one of which Paul traveled to Rome, played a key role in the ancient world. The wheat of Egypt supplied at least a third of the grain necessary to feed the population of Rome. Rome needed to import annually between 200,000 and 400,000 tons to feed its population of about a million. Lucian (second century A.D.) gave a vivid description of an Alexandrian grain ship, the Isis, which was blown off its course into Piraeus, the harbor of Athens: the ship was huge, 180 feet long, with a beam about 45 feet, and a depth also about 45 feet. Such ships could carry 1,200 tons of grain.
The safe sailing season was from May 27 to September 14. Risky seasons were from March 10 to May 26 and from September 15 to November 11. The winter season, from November 12 to March 9, was avoided except for emergencies or military campaigns.
Even travel on land was avoided during winter—hence Paul’s plan to spend one winter at Corinth (1 Cor. 16:5–6) and another at Nicopolis (Titus 3:12), as well as his urgent plea to Timothy, “Do your best to come before winter” (2 Tim. 4:21).
The greatest danger of winter sailing, of course, was shipwrecks. In his second letter to Corinth, Paul mentions being shipwrecked three times, and on one of these occasions, spending a night and a day floating in the open sea. Yet we know of another shipwreck still, and Luke’s description of it (in Acts 27) is one of the most vivid narratives in all of ancient literature.
At Caesarea Paul was placed on board a ship from Adramyttium; at Myra, in southern Turkey, he was transferred to an Alexandrian grain ship headed to Rome. (One ancient manuscript of Acts says the trip to Myra took 15 days.) Luke’s reference to the Day of Atonement (about October 5) indicates that this ship was sailing late in the season.
After reaching the southern coast of Crete, the captain wished to get to the larger harbor at Phoenix to winter, but a ferocious northeasterner, the Euroclydon, cast the ship helplessly adrift westward for many days without sight of sun or stars. The ship took such a battering it had to be abandoned. Ancient ships carried small boats for the transfer of passengers to the shore but no life rafts or life vests. It was miraculous that all 276 passengers and crew survived.
Paul and the others found themselves shipwrecked at Malta, where they were forced to stay for three months. Underwater archaeological surveys have plotted 538 Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, 142 from A.D. 1 to 150—eight of these are known from the island of Malta. After spending the winter there, Paul was transferred to another Alexandrian grain ship, which, Luke notes, had the figureheads of the twin gods, Castor and Pollux, whom pagans believed provided protection in storms! After short stops in Syracuse and Rhegium, Paul and his guard arrived safely at Puteoli, Italy.
All in all, especially compared to previous centuries, Paul’s travel conditions were ideal. As Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons, put it, “The Romans have given the world peace, and we travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” And Paul the missionary eagerly took advantage of such conditions.
Edwin M. Yamauchi is professor of history at Miami (Ohio) University. He is co-author (with Richard Pierard and Robert Clouse) of The Two Kingdoms: The Church and Culture Throughout the Ages (Moody, 1993).