versión española


The maritime communications routes were preferable to the terrestrial routes due to their speed; in general, the navigation was a coasting, i. e., keeping always the coast at sight, because, in case of bad weather or rainy weather, the ship could come back to a harbour; due to the scarce draught or the ships in the Roman age it was not necessary big harbours, but modest installations and in some occasions beaches where they ran aground and moored the ships.  In addition, in winter the Romans did not use to sail due to the weather nor in case of some winds in the rest of seasons.




Additional dangers threatened the ships: the shipwrecks, because the survivors who were rescued alive used to become slaves, and the pirates who attacked the ships to obtain rich plunders; in addition, there was the superstition of dying in the sea without burial, that was no desirable for the ancient Romans.  We know that one of the first and biggest successes of Cnaeus Pompeius was to clean the Mediterranean sea up from pirates, although in the age of the emperor Augustus and in later ages their activity was very frequent.




In some occasions the maritime routes replaced the terrestrial routes; we know the case of the northern Africa, in Mauritania, where there was not a road that connected Pontus Magnus (nowadays Arzeu, near Oran, in the north of Algeria) and Tingis (the current Tangier, in the north of Morocco near Ceuta), both in the Mediterranean coast.




In the merchant navy the used kind of ship was called navis oneraria –“cargo ship”-, rounder, bigger and wider than the naves longae –“long ships”-, the war ships; these naves onerariae sailed by the wind impulse more than by the motive power of the oarsmen crew.




The speed that these ships reached was higher than the advance through the Roman roads.  With a favourable wind these ships could reach 5 knots per hour, i. e., 9 kms.; with these calculations and thanks to ancient texts we know that the travel from Tarraco (nowadays Tarragona) to Ostia (the harbour of Rome, 5 kms. far away from the city) lasted about 4 days; from Carthago (in the currrent Tunisia) to Gades (now Cádiz), 7 days; from Alexandria (in Egypt) to Ostia, 18 days -in very favourable conditions only 9 days-.


Date of the travel

Length of time and details of the travel

31 a. C.

Imperial post from Rome to Antioch (Asia Minor) by the sea with bad weather: 2.500 kms. in 3 months

68 a. C.

Imperial post from Rome to Alexandria (Egypt) by sea: 2.000 kms. in 28 days or less




In the imperial age the interest in the maritime routes was reactivated and the Romans undertook big works: the emperors Caligula and Nero tried to make a channel in the isthmus of Corinth; the emperor Trajan brought again into operation the channel of the Pharaohs, which connected the Mediterranean and the Red seas through the river Nile.  The main harbours and the dangerous coasts had lighthouses to guide the sailing and the entrance of the ships in the harbours; nowadays only one Roman lighthouse is preserved, the so called Torre de Hércules –Hercules’ Tower-, in La Coruña, Spain.


Torre de Hércules -Hercules' Tower (La Coruña, Spain).  It is the only Roman lighthouse that is still preserved and it is in modern use.  (Photo: Ana Isabel Cansado García 10/11/2003)







- HACQUARD, Georges: Guía de la Roma Antigua, Madrid, 2003

- HAMEY, L. A. y HAMEY, J. A.: Los ingenieros romanos, Madrid, 1990