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As we know, the Greeks and later also the Romans built street networks to connect their settlements to each other. For me, this fact raised an issue: How did the Greeks and Romans move between their destinations? Did most people use one horse per man? Did they use chariots? Did they have some kind of "public transportation" systems like horses with big wagons for multiple persons?

And yes, I am aware, that travelling per ship was a very common way to travel in the Mediterranean world. But what about travelling for example from Rome to Mediolanum?

2 Answers 2

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First off the Greco-Roman world extends over a long time period. Depending on how you measure it that could span a millennium. So the answer to your question changes depending on when you are travelling, (and the season of the year; some seasons you travel by sea, and some you must travel by land) and where you are travelling.

Beyond that, the answer depends on your social class. If you are a plebian, you're going to walk. If you are a slave, and IF you are permitted to travel, you're going to walk. If you are of the Senatorial class, you may ride, or you may be carried. The equestrian class were originally those who were wealthy enough to own/support a horse and armor, and notionally if you were below that threshold, you were not going to ride.

While I cannot prove it, I would be very skeptical of any claim about public transport. Public services are (in general) an artifact of the modern welfare state. Rome provided some public services (the Urban Praetor was responsible for the sewers), but generally those services were provided grudgingly and poorly. There is no fundamental public interest in speeding travel.

I suspect that Romans walked, with very few exceptions.

The following paper models potential transport, and includes speed estimates. Travel in the Greco-Roman World

Most of the travelers along Roman highways were caravans, camels, horses, and donkeys.
Bible History

Travel & Transportion in Ancient Greece is a bit older than you asked but does discuss carts and chariots.

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    If you were a Senator in the city of Rome, you also walked almost all the time. You needed to be seen with your large pack of important clients by the other Senators. Also, all carts and wheeled vehicles were banned from Rome during daylight hours.
    – Oldcat
    Jul 25, 2014 at 17:23
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    Excellent point @oldcat, but I think OP was specifically concerned with inter-urban travel. Between cities the prohibitions against daylight carts weren't relevant, and there were fewer clients to see/be see with.
    – MCW
    Jul 25, 2014 at 17:25
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    Even then, there was a lot of walking. There is the famous scene when Milo and family met Clodius and his family when both were travelling on the Appian way. Their guards got into a fight and Clodius was killed. Most of the entourages were on foot, if not all.
    – Oldcat
    Jul 25, 2014 at 17:31
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    The roads were primarily for military advantage, not a public service.
    – MCW
    Jul 27, 2014 at 18:25
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    I think your connection between "public transport" and "public service" is mistaken. Public transport.is public in the same way that public houses/pubs are public. Modern forms include shared taxis, privately owned minibuses, Greyhounds buses etc. None of which are necessarily provided by the welfare state. Given that travelling by stagecoach was reasonably common in the 19th century, one might suspect something similar could have existed in ancient Rome.
    – Jan
    Apr 14, 2021 at 12:39
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In the case of the Ancient Greeks and their modes of transport, they primarily relied on boats. When I say, "boats", I am speaking broadly in that the Ancient Greeks could travel on large wooden ships-(if the destination was lengthy in distance) or they may have had the Ancient equivalent of a present-day water taxi or speed boat if the destination was close in proximity. The Ancient Greeks did use horses as a mode of transport, though the horse was usually reserved for either Aristocrats, Public Officials or Military Commanders. The average Ancient Greek usually walked to his or her destination and if he or she was of moderate economic means, may have had the capacity to travel to their destination(s) "by boat"-(so to speak).

The Romans also relied heavily on boats and ships as a mode of transport-(especialy during the time of the Empire). However, because Italy is larger and shaped much differently than Greece proper, the Romans were able to travel to inland destinations with greater ease than when compared to the Greeks-(whose interior landscape was largely uncultivated and not very conducive to lengthy traveling). Traveling by horseback and by chariot was probably far more common in Ancient Rome than in Ancient Greece; here are some theoretical examples:

  1. If a Roman wanted to leave Rome and travel to the smaller city of Ostia-(which is about 30 miles from Rome proper), one would typically walk to the city of Ostia and then travel down the Via Ostia. The Via Appia, was a major roadway which linked Rome to the Southeastern Italian region of Calabria. If one wanted to walk or travel by horseback or by chariot, one could do so. Keep in mind that the average Roman, in ancient times, rarely left the city of Rome-(if ever). Unless one was part of the Patrician class or one was serving in the Legions-(ranging from greater Italy to the Middle East, to Northern England), the typical, average Roman resident, lived much of his or her life in Rome proper. But, like the Greeks, the Romans also had waterway transportation; so if a Roman wanted to travel to the islands of Capri or Sicily or elsewhere in the Mediterranean, he or she could have access to shipping transport-(though would have to be of at least, moderate economic means, in order to undertake such a journey).

  2. If a Greek living in Athens wanted to travel to other parts of the Hellenic mainland-(before the Roman conquest of Greece proper in 146 BC/BCE), he or she would have a very difficult time in traveling beyond the region of Attica-(where Athens is located). Again, unless one was an Aristocrat, a Public Official or a Military Commander, the typical Greek resident of Athens, either remained in Athens for much of his or her life-(i.e. Socrates) or they would have access to boats and ships which could transport them to some of the cities along the mainland, the Aegean islands, Crete, the coastal cities in Asia Minor-(present-day Turkey),as well as to the Magna Grecia coastal cities in Southern Italy and Sicily. But, as in the case of the (aforementioned) Romans, the Ancient Greek resident of Athens would have to be of at least moderate economic means in order to travel beyond....The Acropolis Hill.

Compared with Contemporary society-(especially, in the United States), if you were a resident of either Ancient Rome or Athens, you pretty much spent the majority of your life in Rome or Athens proper. Waterway transport was perhaps, the one mode of transport that allowed Romans and Ancient Athenians to venture beyond their city proper or their larger city-state.

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  • Sorry you're getting downvoted. "No, seriously, they used boats... a lot..." is a perfectly fine answer to this question. Maybe focus on that and how the locations of cities (remember? the things you're trying to get between) were specifically selected to be accessible by ships; get away from the nonsense speculation; and the score will improve.
    – lly
    Jan 20, 2023 at 14:12
  • I admit that it may not be one of the most well researched answers, though to refer to this essay as, "nonsense speculation", is itself.....nonsensical.
    – Alex
    Jan 20, 2023 at 16:25
  • You are probably getting downvoted for talking about boats in a question which asked about transportation by any means other than water. "And yes, I am aware, that travelling per ship was a very common way to travel in the Mediterranean world."
    – Orsinus
    Jan 22, 2023 at 20:06
  • And if you look at my answer more closely you will see that waterway travel, was not the only thing discussed and was not necessarily the answer's central theme.
    – Alex
    Jan 22, 2023 at 20:58

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