BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Pax Romana and Maritime Travel

The dangers of peacetime sea travel

Westward view over the harbor at Fair Havens, on the southern coast of Crete. Photo courtesy of Mark Wilson

Westward view over the harbor at Fair Havens, on the southern coast of Crete. Before being shipwrecked on his ill-fated journey to Rome, Paul sailed along Crete’s southern coast to avoid heavy winds (Acts 27:7-8).
Photo courtesy of Mark Wilson.

The Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” is what many often term the Roman Empire’s unprecedented period of peace and economic prosperity between 27 BCE and 180 CE. It was during this time that Jesus lived and was crucified, and that early Christianity grew and spread. Thanks to the Pax Romana, “The Mediterranean world of the first two centuries, then, was bigger than it had ever been before. So was the volume of movement. The roads and sea ways were now thronged with traders in larger numbers than the Greek world had ever known, with armies, bureaucrats, couriers of the government post, and just plain tourists.”1 Although some traveled for the same reasons we do today—to see great sights or to escape the heat of the city—others traveled for their health (the sanctuaries of Asclepius, the god of medicine, were very popular healing destinations), to visit oracles, or to see sporting events such as chariot races and the Olympic games.

The peace of the Pax Romana is often associated with the empire’s extensive road system, but well-traveled waterways and the Mediterranean were critical arteries of trade and communication as well. In 31 BCE, the Romans wiped out Egypt’s large navy at the Battle of Actium, almost four decades after Pompey the Great destroyed the last major pirate group in 67 BCE. With these great sea victories, the newly formed Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean, allowing for safe travel throughout its waters.

One thing Rome could not control, however, was the weather. While it became possible to travel anywhere, passenger ships as we know them today did not exist; instead, travelers would book passage on any vessel that was carrying goods or journeying to the passenger’s ultimate destination. Ships did not sail on set schedules; instead, they waited for favorable winds, calm weather, and good omens. Some scholars even argue Mediterranean storms (and fog) were so unpredictable that ships only regularly sailed between the months of May and September; from October to April, ships would have sailed only out of necessity. This view has been contested in recent years, however, and it very much depended on the type of ship and the route of the voyage.

Mosaic from the Square of the Corporations (west porticus - statio 49) in Ostia depicting two ships approaching a lighthouse.

A mosaic from the Square of the Corporations (west porticus – statio 49) in Ostia depicting two ships approaching a lighthouse. Ostia was one of the major ports of ancient Rome. The city was located at the mouth of the Tiber River and had a population of 100,000 at its peak.
Photo by John Drummond.

Travel by ship was the fastest means of getting to a destination, but it was also more dangerous than overland travel. Storms could pop up out of nowhere and threaten even the largest of vessels with the best of crews. It’s impossible to know how many ancient ships were lost at sea, but based on parallels from more recent periods, a safe guess would be about 3 percent of all ships. Some scholars estimate that one in five ship journeys ended in a wreck. Over a thousand wrecks are known within the Mediterranean alone, from all time periods. Even the first Roman emperor, Augustus, suffered numerous disasters at sea during his lifetime, including a wreck, the loss of two complete ships, and the destruction of an entire fleet.


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As we know from the New Testament, the apostle Paul, too, ran into dangerous Mediterranean weather and was shipwrecked three times (2 Corinthians 11:25–30). Mark Wilson, in his article “‘Under the Lee’ with Paul” in the Spring 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, describes Paul’s voyage to Rome and one of these shipwrecks in great detail, even using his own recent experience of sailing on the Mediterranean for context.

To learn more about Paul’s maritime travels, read “‘Under the Lee’ with Paul” by Mark Wilson, published in the Spring 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full piece, “‘Under the Lee’ with Paul” by Mark Wilson, published in the Spring 2024 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Footnotes:

1 Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Toronto: Hakkert, 1974), p. 127.


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

 

A Road Well Traveled

Roman Construction Site Uncovered at Pompeii

Learn Unknown Facts About Paul Today

2,000-Year-Old Road Unearthed in Bet Shemesh

 

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