Travel time and cost in the Roman Empire

Stanford has an awesome site that shows time and cost to travel in the Roman Empire. You can find it at

ORBIS – The Stanford Geosptial Network Model of the Roman World

If you’ve read my blogs for a while, you know I am a member of the Protestant tradition of the Christian faith community.  As a result, the Roman Empire is of interest, since that was the occupying power in Israel during the New Testament period.

You also know I am interested the impact of technology on the cost of everything, including travel.

You can only imagine what a delight it is to find a web site that overlaps travel costs and the Roman Empire.

Here is a description of ORBIS from its website:

Spanning one-ninth of the earth’s circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. These extensive connections were sustained by premodern transportation and communication technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal bodies, winds, and currents.

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity.

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

Is that cool or what?

To give you a feel, here are some travel calculations. I picked 4 different routes because they look like a good representation. I also looked up airfare and time for a trip in June. I added three hours at each end of the air travel to allow for time to check-in and clear security & customs.

Rome to Jerusalem:

Rome to Jerusalem in June, cheapest priority, civilian river travel, slower sea travel, wagon prices– 2983 kilometers, 24.4 days, 4.5 denarii per kilogram of wheat, 668.99 denarii per passenger in a carriage

Round trip airfare one week stay – 3.5 hours in the air + 6 hours at airports = 9.5 hours – cost $427

Ephesus to Caesarea:

The cheapest journey from Ephesus to Caesarea (Phrygia) in June takes 12.9 days, covering 849 kilometers. Prices in denarii, based on the use of a slower sail ship and a civilian river boat (where applicable), and on these road options:

* Per kilogram of wheat (by donkey): 7.82

* Per passenger in a carriage: 459.58

Driving – that would be 527 miles, so I’ll make an extremely wild guess that it would be between 8 hours and 13 hours since I have no clue about modern routing and border control. (Yes, I’m showing my ignorance and lack of desire to do more research.)

Caesarea to Jerusalem

Overland route from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem in June takes 3.5 days, covering 106 kilometers. * Per kilogram of wheat (by donkey): 2.96

Driving – that would be 65 miles, I’ll make a complete wild guess that modern roads take the same route , so a wilder guess would be around an hour driving time.

Rome to London:

The cheapest journey from Roma to Londinium in June takes 45 days, covering 5342 kilometers. Prices in denarii, based on the use of a slower sail ship and a civilian river boat (where applicable):

* Per kilogram of wheat: 4.66

* Per passenger: 1148.21

Roundtrip airfare for one week stay – 5 hours in the air + 6 hours at airports = 11 hours – cost of $430.60

A denaraii is usually described as one day’s wage for a common soldier or laborer. Figure a day’s pay at minimum or near minimum wage.  I’ll use $10 for 8 hours, or $80 per day.

So here’s some comparisons of time and cost during Roman Empire and today:

Rome to Jerusalem:

24 days, 669 days wages / / 10 hours, $427 or 5.3 days wages

Ephesus to Caesarea:

13 days, 460 days wages / / 1 hard day of driving, maybe 26 gallons of gas or $113 at California prices, or 1.4 days wages assuming you already own a car

(Yes that is not a far comparison to exclude the cost of renting a car. But on the other hand, sort of proves my point. A laborer in the Roman era would have not been able to own a carriage.)

Rome to London:

45 days, 1,148 days wages or 38 months or 3.1 years / / 11 hours, $430 or 5.4 days wages

Reduction in travel costs

Remember the airfare costs are for a round trip.

The ratios of cost for one-way trip expressed in days wages in Roman times to today are 252, 656, and 424.  That is not including the days of travel in the calculation.

In very rough terms, that shows a reduction in travel costs by a factor of 250 or 400 fold.

If you have read this far in this post, you really need to check out that site.

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