October 3, 2008

The Road to Germany

I’m trying to figure out how long it took Rome's Senators to reach Germanicus in October 14 AD. It’s been bugging me that the timeline is too quick, but it turns out the ancient road from Rome to Germany was almost all downhill or flat! Evidently, less than 11% of it was actually uphill, over the Alps.

The first 300 miles were up Italy’s West Coast, followed by 15 miles over the thinnest tip of the Apennines and a hundred miles across the Po River Valley. (All numbers close estimates.) The first 40 or 50 miles into the Alpine Pass is all Lake Shore and River Valley leading to a rough 20 miles crossing from the Aenus to the Rhine River. In that stretch, the road climbs to almost a mile above Sea Level, but it’s all downhill from there! Another 400 miles to Mainz [Mogontiacum]. Another hundred or so to Cologne [Ara Ubiorum]. Another 65-ish to Xanten [Vetera].

Over half the trip to Cologne was downhill along the Rhine and over a third of it was flat along Italy’s coast! There seems to be less than 30 miles of really steep climbing the whole way. My estimate for the trip in 14 AD is 978 miles from Rome to Ara Ubiorum. The long downhill parts more than cancel out the uphill, so if the Imperial Coach changed horses at every stop they could easily average 30 miles a day.

Departing from Rome early on September 18th, the carriage might expect to reach Germanicus at Cologne in about 32 days, and thus on October 20th. Barbara Levick puts them in camp no earlier than the 7th, which would make a twenty day trip at 49 miles a day. That’s normal for Imperial Dispatch, but awfully quick for Senators in a Coach. Much later, though, and it’s hard to squeeze in the next chain of events. Much later, too, and it’s hard to squeeze in the previous chain of events. Maybe that long stretch down the Rhine was a bigger speed bonus than I can guess.

I’ll leave it to others to work with the Peutinger Tables and Milestone inscriptions. They probably have. I’m sure the hard facts and numbers are in some Library somewhere. For now, I’m satisfied with my Barrington Atlas and these close estimates of the terrain. This is good enough for my reconstruction on 14 AD.

One last note – I’d much rather travel north on that road than south! Wouldn’t you? When Tiberius walked in front of Drusus’ coffin – on foot – all the way back from the Elbe, it must have been 500 miles of gradual, consistent uphill climbing all the way! And knowing Tiberius, he’d be just that rare sort of man with the patience to see it through slowly.

Sometime soon I’ll have to go back and review 9 BC more closely, with these parameters. The timing of Drusus’ funeral is important to explaining why Nicolas of Damascus didn’t get a second chance to see Augustus that fall or winter. [And why a census of Israel as punishment to Herod was probably ordered before further info would have prevented it.] Point: A long, slow walk home for Tiberius makes a late funeral that much more likely, which is key, since Nicolas probably arrived in Rome in October.

Maybe 9 BC (in the back of my head) is what’s kept me from moving more quickly through this section of 14 AD.(?) Ah, well. It's always something!

And I always hope it’ll be worth it. ;)


Peter Kirk said...

Bill, I may have the advantage over you in having actually travelled most of this route, although mostly by train and/or car which makes it easier! The party would have had a difficult trip from (modern) La Spezia to Genoa, where the railway is in many tunnels and the Roman road must have been hilly. Similarly from Bingen to Koblenz unless there was a riverside road through the Rhine gorge as there is now. The climb to the Alpine pass (San Bernardino?) would have been steep but probably only one or two long days' climb, followed by a steep but shorter descent to the upper Rhine valley (around Chur). But almost all the rest of the route would have been so nearly level that the slight gradient over such a long distance would have been barely noticeable on a rough road. So you shouldn't assume any significant difference in the return trip difficulty or timing.

Peter Kirk said...

It occurred to me that you might find Google Earth a useful tool for investigating the topography of the route. It can tell you for example the height at any point, and the average gradient of the Rhine valley from Chur to Cologne which is probably less than 1 in 500 and so hardly noticeable except by observing the flow of water.

Bill Heroman said...

the slight gradient over such a long distance would have been barely noticeable on a rough road

May-be, but did you walk it? ;)

Seriously, thanks Peter. I'll go look at the towns you mentioned to see if they're on the same route as the ancient roads. You've also given me another nudge towards Google Earth. I really need to go check that out. (It's probably much faster than the first time I tried it long ago.)

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton