Travel in the Ancient Greek World

Credit: worldhistory.org

Travel opportunities within the ancient Greek world largely depended on status and profession; nevertheless, a significant proportion of the population could, and did, travel across the Mediterranean to sell their wares, skills, go on religious pilgrimage, see sporting events or even travel simply for the pleasure of seeing the magnificent sights of the ancient world. Travel was not always glamorous, though, and three other significant groups who also travelled far from their homeland, usually against their will, were political envoys, slaves, and soldiers, especially mercenaries.

Celebrating Travel

Travel seems to have always been held in high regard by the Greeks, which is no surprise for a civilization famous for its curiosity and innovation. In the earliest oral traditions of Greek mythology, many of the tales, such as Jason and the Golden Fleece, celebrated the benefits to be gained from travelling whilst others, such as the myth of Charybdis, warned of the possible risks of voyaging into the unknown. In the earliest works of Greek literaturein the 8th century BCE, both Homer and Hesiod describe traders, in particular, as great travellers. Works such as the Odyssey illustrated that the authors themselves had clearly travelled or at least spoken to those who had, and one might say that Odysseus’ epic journey home to Ithaca was itself a celebration of the adventures inherent in travel.

ARTEFACTS AND LITERATURE INDICATE THAT AT LEAST SOME PORTION OF THE POPULATION WAS RELATIVELY MOBILE ACROSS THE GREEK WORLD.

The idea that the Greeks did travel widely is evidenced in the archaeological record which shows such tangible and measurable indicators of contact between peoples as finds of tradegoods and coinage, uniformity in artistic styles and cultural practices, and the spread of disease. Literature too, for example, scholarly works, plays, and histories, all indicate that at least some portion of the population was relatively mobile across the Greek world. In addition, trends came back the other direction and new ideas could influence the home citiesand regions; one important example of this two-way exchange was the influence of eastern tastes in clothes, food, and architecture on Greek city-life.

As the following quote from Plato’s Crito illustrates, travel was widely considered a useful activity, and the Athenian philosopher Socrates is here criticised for not thinking so:

You never went out from the city to a festival, or anywhere else, except on military service, and you never made any other journey, as other people do and you had no wish to know any other city or other law, but you were contented with us and our city. (52b)

Practicalities

Travel on land meant using carriages and horses for the better off or beasts of burden and plain old walking for everybody else. Greece had an extensive road network connecting even the most remote settlements; however, the easiest and most comfortable way to travel was by sea, especially as the vast majority of the more important urban centres were located either on or very near the coast. There were no ships dedicated only for travellers, though, and the would-be tourist had to persuade a sea-trader to make room amongst his cargo.

Maps, at least those covering larger areas, seem to have been the reserve of scholars rather than everyday travellers. No doubt primitive roads, natural landmarks (mountains, rivers and springs) and settlements were used to guide a visitor new to a particular area. Regarding sea travel, ship’s captains commonly kept logs (periploi) describing landmarks along coastlines and sometimes even records of land distances and routes (stadiasmoi) relevant to their ports of call.

Travel could be an expensive business, though, and if undertaken over long distances, required baggage porters and other attendants. Hospitality was usually provided by social peers for free (at least for the higher classes) but there were specific enterprises set up to provide basic food and accommodation, especially in the larger cities and great ‘attractions’ of the Panhellenic religious sanctuaries. At ports like the Piraeus, secondary businesses also sprang up to capture the money of the passing traveller, for example, shops, laundries, barbers and prostitutes.

The dangers of travel in the Archaic period included the legal problem of being in the territory of another state without permission whilst trying to arrive at one’s destination, unreliable transport, robbery and even abduction; the latter two were a particular danger when travelling by sea, where pirates operated. By the Classical period relations between states became more regularised and systems of communication improved, but travel remained a risky business. In addition, with the ever-increasing size and complexity of urban-centres, the need for resources, skills and slaves meant that warfare could very often result in the forced movement of people and even whole populations.

Commercial Travellers

Traders (emporos), highly skilled craftsmen (especially metalworkers, gem-carvers, potters, stonemasons and glassworkers) and technical experts such as actors, writers, philosophers, and practitioners of medicine, commonly travelled around the Mediterranean offering their goods and services to those who could pay. Examples include the doctors Demokedes of Kroton and Apollonides of Kos (who both served the Persian royal court), the architect Mandrokles of Samos and the sculptor Telephanes. Many of these specialists and artisans made permanent moves and set up their workshops to spread their knowledge and artistic styles far from their original place of invention.

Traders also gathered at the busy commercial centres like the Piraeus to sell their goods which would, in turn, travel across the Mediterranean. Colonists (apoikoi) established hundreds of new cities across the Mediterranean, and these were usually developed from basic trading posts. In addition, there were centres which were exclusively set up for the purposes of trade, for example, Naucratis on the Nile Delta and Al Mina in present-day southern Turkey. Consequently, in the summer season, traders continuously criss-crossed the Mediterranean in search of goods and business, and in so doing they provided a means for non-commercial travellers to reach far-flung destinations.

Maps, at least those covering larger areas, seem to have been the reserve of scholars rather than everyday travellers. No doubt primitive roads, natural landmarks (mountains, rivers and springs) and settlements were used to guide a visitor new to a particular area. Regarding sea travel, ship’s captains commonly kept logs (periploi) describing landmarks along coastlines and sometimes even records of land distances and routes (stadiasmoi) relevant to their ports of call.

Travel could be an expensive business, though, and if undertaken over long distances, required baggage porters and other attendants. Hospitality was usually provided by social peers for free (at least for the higher classes) but there were specific enterprises set up to provide basic food and accommodation, especially in the larger cities and great ‘attractions’ of the Panhellenic religious sanctuaries. At ports like the Piraeus, secondary businesses also sprang up to capture the money of the passing traveller, for example, shops, laundries, barbers and prostitutes.

The dangers of travel in the Archaic period included the legal problem of being in the territory of another state without permission whilst trying to arrive at one’s destination, unreliable transport, robbery and even abduction; the latter two were a particular danger when travelling by sea, where pirates operated. By the Classical period relations between states became more regularised and systems of communication improved, but travel remained a risky business. In addition, with the ever-increasing size and complexity of urban-centres, the need for resources, skills and slaves meant that warfare could very often result in the forced movement of people and even whole populations.

Commercial Travellers

Traders (emporos), highly skilled craftsmen (especially metalworkers, gem-carvers, potters, stonemasons and glassworkers) and technical experts such as actors, writers, philosophers, and practitioners of medicine, commonly travelled around the Mediterranean offering their goods and services to those who could pay. Examples include the doctors Demokedes of Kroton and Apollonides of Kos (who both served the Persian royal court), the architect Mandrokles of Samos and the sculptor Telephanes. Many of these specialists and artisans made permanent moves and set up their workshops to spread their knowledge and artistic styles far from their original place of invention.

Traders also gathered at the busy commercial centres like the Piraeus to sell their goods which would, in turn, travel across the Mediterranean. Colonists (apoikoi) established hundreds of new cities across the Mediterranean, and these were usually developed from basic trading posts. In addition, there were centres which were exclusively set up for the purposes of trade, for example, Naucratis on the Nile Delta and Al Mina in present-day southern Turkey. Consequently, in the summer season, traders continuously criss-crossed the Mediterranean in search of goods and business, and in so doing they provided a means for non-commercial travellers to reach far-flung destinations.

Travel in the Greek world, then, just as today, was considered an important way to broaden the mind, learn about other, older civilizations or contemporary cultures and see for oneself the places made so famous by literature; to finally see first-hand the exciting and exotic places one has read and heard so much about since childhood.

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