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H - 170 : A Day in the Life of a Roman Sailor

After two heady subjects on the end of Rome's expansion and the early days of Christianity, something lighter for today’s blog.


A Corbita, a standard Roman Cargo Ship, leaves fully loaded a Port


How was daily life on a Roman merchant ship?  Definitely different from our sailing this summer. We get up leisurely at six am for morning coffee and discussing the day's plans, lift anchor by 8 to 9 am, sail or motor for the next six hours (30 miles), have lunch on the way and dine on shore or on the back of the boat.


Life for Roman mariners was different. It started earlier - specifically when on the way home from Egypt or the Levant. They had to catch the thermal wind from the hills and mountains which started blowing at around 3 am. Often, by 9 am it would peter out. Hot weather always kills it. Getting the boat ready for the night breeze meant everybody had to be up at midnight. All the cargo had to be stowed and tied down. An ancient ship was no different from a modern sail boat. Final prayers had to be said and off they went into the night.


Model of a One-Deck Corbita, usually 15 - 35 meter long, carrying 100 - 400 tons of Cargo


Most Roman cargo ships were derivatives of Greek or Phoenician boats. Just larger and with better rigging and sails. The Roman shipyards had access to timber from Germany and Gaul which were floated down the Danube and the Rhone respectively. Hulls were mostly made from sturdy oaks, the masts from long and bendable pines. Roman cargo ships had usually a spritsail which enabled them to sail windward - tackling a course against the wind. A Corbita had a minimum crew of four: a captain, a deckhand, a navigator and a commercial agent representing the cargo owners. Depending on the type of cargo, there could be up to ten crew members. Often, cargo ships accepted paying passengers - without any comfort though. With the exception of the captain and agent, everybody slept on the deck.



A Corbita with two Decks - the lower Deck for Ballast


Sailing straight into the night did not frighten the Roman mariners. They had learned from Phoenicians and Greeks how to navigate the stars. Still wonder whether they had sky maps. Have not come across any. Maybe knowledge was transferred verbally from generation to generation. A good thousand years later, the Polynesians passed on their navigational know-how this way when exploring the Pacific. Though the Romans had no compass, they knew how to sail strait from the Messina Straits to Alexandria. With the help of sun dials during the day and the stars at night, they could maintain a steady course far away from land. Rome to Alexandria could take as little as 14 days.


The Route Rome to Alexandria was one of the most important Sea Lanes in Antiquity

Life on board was crowded. On smaller boats, nobody had a cabin. Everybody slept under a canopy. When there was a lot of work, the crew asked passengers to lend a helping hand. During stormy seas, all hands were on deck. Every body had a job - be it trimming the sails, bucketing water from the bilge or throwing cargo over board. On smaller boats there was no kitchen either. Passengers had to bring their own, dried food. Sailors ate their customary bread - so hard it had to be broken by axes - and dipped it into Garum - the sauce made from decaying fish, salt, water and garlic. Its salty taste was washed down with diluted wine that probably tasted more like vinegar.


The open Deck of a Corbita provided little shelter in case of bad Weather


During early imperial time, maritime trade blossomed under the Pax Augusta. The entire Mediterranean became an integrated economic area. No wonder the Romans called the Mediterranean the "Mare Nostrum", our sea. With increased volumes, the demand for larger cargo ships went up. The concept of the Corbita inspired the Oneraria, a giant at its time. The ship was 55 - 60 meters long and 13 - 14 meters wide. It could carry 2'000 tons of cargo or 40'000 amphorae. Some of these monsters carried 400 passengers per trip. It was this type of ship that would transport the plus 500 ton obelisks from Egypt to Rome - as we know there are quite many.


The Mosaic of Ships from the Palazzo Diotallevi, mid 2nd Century AD


Larger ships needed bigger and deeper ports. Roman emperors understood this all too well and embarked on a big program to improve harbour infrastructure. Trajan's harbour near Ostia (just next to Rome's international airport Fiumicino) was one of the most demanding construction projects in the entire empire. But that will be the subject for another blog.


Rome's Harbour on one of Nero's Gold Coins 64 /AD








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