Travel and Transport in St. Paul’s Time
Over a period of some ten years in the middle of the first century, St. Paul made three journeys, traveling through Anatolia and Greece spreading the gospel. In the course of these, he visited much of Anatolia, probably walking a good deal of the way, accompanied by one or more companions. It has been estimated that St. Paul traveled some 20,000 km on his missionary journeys. A considerable part of this was overland through Anatolia, on Roman roads which followed the ancient routes that trailed the natural river and mountain passes which had been used for military transportation since antiquity. The Romans had began to construct these roads immediately after they established the province of Asia in the 130s BCE and by the time of St. Paul had extended their network covering southern Anatolia as far as Syria proper.
A part of this ancient military net which ran through Pisidia and southern Galatia during the Roman period was known as the Via Sebaste. St. Paul and his companions were able to make their missionary journeys with relative ease and safety largely because of the Roman presence. Under the Pax Romana, the Roman peace instituted ‘by Augustus, the roads were by and large kept free of brigands and in good repairs’. These roads were carefully engineered and built to carry the Roman armies, which at this date mostly consisted of troops and imperial officials, along the straightest route as swiftly as possible. The size and type of construction varied according to expected traffic, terrain and materials available, but the general principles of Roman road building were those described by the Greek author Plutarch, born about a decade before St. Paul’s death: ‘The roads were carried straight across the countryside.
They were paved with hewn stones and bolstered underneath with masses of tight packed gravel; hollows were filled in, and torrents or ravines that cut across the route were bridged’. The milestones placed along the road usually showed the distance in Roman miles but sometimes carried more detailed information, such as the name of the person who built or repaired the road, the number of available cisterns or garrisons or regulations of transportation. A bilingual edict – in Latin and in Greek – and dating from the period St. Paul was born, fixes the number of animals that the people of Sagalassus were obliged to provide for different types of officials and the cost of such services, and the priority of the various kinds of officials and officers who might require them and thus it shows how much the Roman governor of the time cared for orderly transportation in his region.
At the time St. Paul traveled on these roads the regular posting stages belonging to the Roman government post were not yet known. The information about the inns of the period is not flattering. They were known to be dirty and dangerous spots. In the apocryphal Acts of St. John, St. John, as he traveled from Ephesus to Laodicea (on the lycus river), when bothered by bed-bugs in the inn where he spent the night, banished them from his room. Nevertheless, next morning he found the insects waiting outside for his permission to return to their dwelling. Ancient literature gives the impression that people preferred, when or where this was possible, to stay at other people’s houses. If they had no acquaintances, arriving in an unknown town, they probably walked to the shrine of their cult, in the case of Jews to the synagogue, or to the market place with the members of their profession or guild, and introducing themselves expected an offer of hospitality. Being of the same country, religion or profession may have increased one’s chance of receiving an invitation. At the time of St. Paul’s journeys some of the synagogues in Anatolia and Greece probably had hostels.
If one, however, remembers what the Apostle preached and how the Jewish communities reacted, St. Paul should not have expected much hospitality from his own race. Acts mentions St. Paul’s overnights at friends’ houses such as at Lydia’s in Philippi (Acts 16: 15) and the tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla’s in Corinth (Acts 18:3), Mnason’s in Jerusalem (Acts 21: 16), and others. This is also expressed by St. Paul himself when he wrote to Philemon of Colossae and asked him to prepare a guest room for him (phlm 22). The period of St. Paul’s travels saw a considerable expansion of Anatolia prosperity and the roads were increasingly used by traders and private travelers. The worn out pavements on the busy main highways indicate a traffic of pack animals, mainly donkeys or mules and farm wagons with heavy loads drawn by teams of oxen as well as an assortment of carts and carriages. Few people other than the cavalry rode horses; it was tiring and uncomfortable, as stirrups had not yet been invented and saddles were fairly rudimentary; some however rode on mules.
People traveled for many purposes: sightseeing, pilgrimage, health or business. Although seventy-two voyages of the merchant Titus Flavius Zeuxis of Hierapolis to Italy may have been a rare experience it was not surprising to come across with people like the woman Lydia, from Thyatira in Anatolia selling home made goods at Philippi across the Aegean (Acts 16: 14) or Aquila and Priscilla, tentmakers originally from Pontus on the Black Sea, who had moved to Rome and then migrated to Corinth (Acts 18:2-3) and were about to move to Ephesus (Acts1 8- 1 9). Although there were many traders’ vehicles or carriages bearing the wealthy to their estates, most travelers would have walked. St. Paul probably covered some 20 to 30 km a day on foot, sleeping at inns or the homes of friends or in the open when the weather was good along the way. He would have worn heavy shoes or sandals and perhaps a broad brimmed hat or a cloak with a hood and kept his money in a leather purse either on his belt or on a cord hung from the neck and a long staff to help him on rocky paths and against dogs.
His provisions would have been probably loaded on a pack animal or carried by his companions. Whilst most of St. Paul’s missions were accomplished by walking, he traveled also by boat. Although considerably faster than land travel, it was also more dangerous, not just because of pirates who – despite some flattering claims that they were cleared from the Mediterranean by the Romans – still roamed in some waters, but also because of the weather. Even in summer, voyages across the open sea were unpredictable. This was an era when passenger ships were not known. One had to go to the port and ask for a merchant vessel scheduled to sail to one’s destination. Writing some three hundred years after the time of the Apostle, Libanius, the pagan Antiochene orator remarks, ‘In Constantinople I went down to the Great harbor and made the rounds asking about vessels sailing for Athens’. Having found a vessel that could take him to his destination, the passenger would have to wait near the harbor, perhaps several days, as perhaps the Apostles had to do in Seleucia Pieria at the beginning of their first journey to sail to Cyprus and on many other occasions, for the right winds and omens.
By the first century the captains and pilots who navigated in the Mediterranean possessed information accumulated over the centuries since the Phoenicians. Although in the Mediterranean the winds and currents are known not to have changed for the last two thousand years, in order to minimize the dangers of sailing in the open sea, during this period, captains are thought to have sailed without losing the sight of the coastline, a practice which lasted as late as the sixteenth century. The Mediterranean was good for sailing in the open sea except in winter when storms and fog affected visibility of the coast and stars. Writing in the seventh century BCE, the Greek poet Hesiod limits the navigable season in the Mediterranean to the period between 5 May and 25 October. In fine weather captains either followed the Pole star or any landmark. With a few exceptions, it was always possible to see the silhouette of a mountain such as the peaks of the Taurus range of Anatolia, the African coastline or the islands. The sailing season was short and limited to the period of good weather, beginning in the early spring and lasting until October.
It may be for this reason that St. Paul cut his stay short when he stopped at Ephesus during his return from Corinth to Jerusalem at the end of his second journey IActs 18:20). In winter when the skies were cloudy, the stars and sun, by which sailors found their course, were often not visible. The dangers of winter weather and tempests are vividly described in the account of the voyage that ended in shipwreck off Malta, when St. Paul was being taken to trial in Ronie IActs 27). In such cases there was nothing that the pilot could do but to shelter in a port and wait for favorable weather. Acts does not give any information about the kind of ships that the Apostles embarked on during their sea journeys. Ancient literature, in addition to small coastal vessels, mentions the existence of large ships with the capacity of as many as six hundred passengers or more. Very different were the many small boats, that sailed along the coasts, coming into harbor each night. Such boats hopping from one port to the other, collected any kind of available passenger or merchandise. This practice is evident in the schedule of the boat on which St. Paul embarked on his journey to Rome as a prisoner; a boat ‘bound for ports in the province of Asia’ (Acts 27:21 which shortly after its departure from Caesarea stopped at Sidon.
On such coastal boats merchants, exiles, prostitutes or priests, all traveled together. As they made zigzags between islands and mainland the traveling merchants would be collecting timber from Phoenicia, copper and wine from Cyprus, amphorae from Rhodes and Samos or grain mills from Coos such boats did not have a schedule and when the captain decided that his business was done and the wind was favorable he would send one of the crew to announce in the streets and taverns of the port that he was soon leaving. By the time that darkness fell unless he reached a port, he usually found a sheltered shallow bay and dropped anchor or beached his ships. Lifeboats were unknown. In case of danger, without the pilot there was no chance of survival. St. Paul, as an experienced traveler who claimed to have suffered three shipwrecks (2 Cor 11 :251 knew this well because when the vessel carrying him faced shipwreck off Malta during his last journey and the crew tried to sneak off using the dinghy to save their own lives, he got the centurion and the soldiers and told them that unless those men stayed with the ship, they could not be saved (Acts 27:30-311.
People also took passage on vessels carrying cargo. On the same ill-fated voyage, St. Paul embarked at Myra on one of the big grain vessels bound from Alexandria to Rome. We know from the words of St Luke that this ship had 276 people aboard (Acts 27:37), but some took even more, the passengers sleeping on the open decks. On boats such as this, or probably larger, would St. Paul have sailed the eastern Mediterranean, to carry Christ’s message to Cyprus, Anatolia, and Greece.