Friday, November 17, 2017

Calculating travel time in ancient times

When I wrote my book, The Road to Alexander, I knew I was going to be travelling a lot.  He’d dragged his army (like a gaggle of geese, as Ashley dryly remarks*) from one end of the known world to the other – over mountains, swamps, and deserts. Luckily, I had an incredible ressource to help me plot the journey – Michael Wood’s “In the Footsteps of Alexander”, a book literally written while following Alexander’s army. Invaluable and fascinating! But from book IV to book VII, the couple voyage to Africa, Gaul, Scandinavia, and then down the coast of France and Portugal, through the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ and on to Carthage, Rome, Pompeii and finally home again in Alexandria.  But how to calculate the time it took to travel that route?
Overland routes were the easiest – although roads were often just tracks, they existed, and in those days, there was brisk trade from north to south, and east to west. Walking time is fairly easy to calculate, and the larger towns and cities were logical stopping points. But what about sea voyages? How fast did the boats go, how long did it take to get from Alexandria in Egypt to the port of Massalia (Marseilles)? Luckily the library steered me to a fascinating book on ancient travel by boat, and wonder of wonders – it was in public domain and online! So off I went to research, and this book became my new favorite as I happily plotted and planned Alexander and Ashley’s trip.
A few years later, I stumbled across this wonderful site – and now writers of history can click on a map and get travel times in Ancient Rome, and I spent a lot more time than I’d care to admit clicking on routes.
Ancient travel is mostly composed of marching, riding, sailing, or plodding along in a cart pulled by oxen.  What brings a book to life are details of everyday life – and what adds even more veracity is (trying at least) to keep travel time as close to reality as possible. I hope these online ressources can help authors as much as they helped me!
Speed Under Sail of Ancient Ships.  Lionel Casson. New York University (article)*.html
Travel times in Ancient Rome: ORBIS.
For walking – use the Hiking Time Calculator:
Mile per day riding: On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 40
Hilly terrain: 30
Mountainous terrain: 20
Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 30
Hilly grasslands: 25
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 20
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 15
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 10
Marshland: 10
An average quality horse, of a breed suitable for riding, conditioned for overland travel and in good condition.
Roads and trails are in good condition.
Weather is good to fair, and travelers are riding for around ten hours a day.
Halve these distances for a horse pulling a cart or for a very heavily laden horse, and essentially, it depends on the horse. Horses are athletes, and well conditioned horses that are used to travelling long distances can travel much further than horses that are not used to such activity. If your horses don’t get out and do this particularly often, then 20-30 miles (30-50 km) per day is probably a good estimate. Wikipedia supports this, with a claim of 30 miles (50km) per day for a small mounted company. This involves the horse walking for most of the duration of the day, with short breaks.
Excerpt from “The Road to Alexander”
*I nodded. ‘Fine, let’s go south. I was worried about spending the winter in the mountains anyway.’
His mouth twitched. ‘Well, that’s another reason we’re going.’
‘Fine. Did you tell your men?’ I asked sarcastically, ‘or did you just say “march south”, as if they were a gaggle of geese?’
‘A gaggle of geese?’ His eyebrows rose. ‘I don’t think my men think of themselves as geese.’
‘Oh? Well, excuse me. It’s a just silly impression I got, that’s all.’
‘Explain.’ It was an order.
‘Did you tell them why you did it?’ I asked, getting angry now. ‘Did you bother to explain? Do you know what they’re saying?’
‘About what?’
‘You know damn well about what. I’ll tell you what they’re saying. They’re saying that Parmenion had no trial. They’re saying you were the judge, the jury, and the executioner, and that you did it out of sheer fury! That’s what they’re saying.’
‘Where did you hear this?’ His eyes were blazing.
‘In the stables, the grooms are talking. Alex, you have to do something. You can’t just expect your men to read your mind and follow you blindly. They deserve your trust.’
‘Oh? They do? What about Philotas?’
‘I think he was an exception,’ I said levelly. ‘But if you go on pretending to be a god, he’ll become the rule.’
‘Pretending to be a god?’ Alexander sat heavily on the bed and stared up at me. ‘You, of all people, telling me that? I see you’re blushing. Good, so you do see the irony of your statement.’
‘I only meant that you could explain. Call your men together and give them one of your speeches, you do that so well. They want to see you; they love you and want to follow you. But if you close yourself off from them, they will be hurt, then angry, and then they will refuse to follow.’ I looked at him pleadingly.
He studied my face for a few minutes, then looked down at his feet. He wiggled his toes. ‘They really love me?’ he asked, looking up again.
‘What do you think?’
‘I wasn’t sure, you know, after last night. It came as such a shock.’
‘I know.’ I sat next to him and touched his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve already written a speech, and I was going to give it before we broke camp.’ He grinned.
‘You did?’
‘Yes, I wasn’t going to drag my men around after me like an old sack. Or a gag of geese.’
‘A gaggle.’
‘Yes, nice word. I think you worry too much, Ashley of the Sacred Sandals. You worry and fret like an old mother hen.’ He took my hand and pulled me down on the bed next to him. He started to take off my tunic, not heeding Brazza who was packing the rug, or Axiom who was taking down the lamp.
The Road to Alexander_bannerExcerpt from The Road to Alexander by Jennifer Macaire

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