|Last night Dr James Gerrard of Newcastle University gave a fascinating talk, "Connecting Small Worlds: Travel and Communications in Roman Britain" based on his current areas of research. There is a common perception that the Roman Empire functioned rather like modern Europe where travel is relatively safe, quick, easy and affordable. To believe this is to underestimate the advances that have been made in technology, infrastructure and resource management. The clue is in the name: the word "travel" derives from "travail", in other words, a hard slog.
Transport by sea was by far the cheapest option with river travel costing x5 times per mile and road travel x29. Land transport was slow: walking, riding or vehicles drawn by horse power or (worse) oxen. Just consider the implications of undertaking a long journey on horseback. A horse is an expensive item, both to purchase and to maintain: it is estimated that a horse would eat its own value in fodder each year, some 550lbs of grain. Then there is the cost of buying and maintaing saddle, bridle, reins, leather items that require specialist daily care. Your horse may get sick or become lame (no Roman horse shoes). Then you need somewhere to stay enroute; inns are not cheap. You will need directions, perhaps having to hire a guide for part of the way. In any case you might not want to risk travelling alone in case you were attacked or became unwell, far from assistance.
Other means of transport were similarly expensive in terms of resources. A simple river barge for example could take up to 73 oak trees to provide the planking and 1500 nails: 500kg of wrought iron. A 25m.square sail made of woollen fabric would use the fleeces of 50 sheep.
From our modern perspective, then, it is hard to imagine the practical difficulties of travelling large distances in the Roman era, in terms of cost, time, personal safety and physical exertion and we tend to underestimate them.
This all has the makings of a wonderful book and Dr Gerrard has promised to let us know when a publication date is decided.