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The Edge of the Empire

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Travel ancient Britannia in this excerpt from Bronwen Riley’s new book

By Stephanie Bastek

May 10, 2016


 

 

If you’ve ever wished you could have seen parts of the world before anyone else—before the beaches were covered in sunbathers or the mountain passes littered with trash—The Edge of the Empire is the travelogue for you. Bronwen Riley’s new book, equal parts history and travel guide, departs from the shores of Rome in 130 A.D. for the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, recreating the journey that Britannia’s new governor would have taken to assume his post.

Riley traces Julius Severus’s journey through London’s bustling harbor, the touristed springs of Bath, and the vaulted amphitheatre of Caerleon, finally ending at Hadrian’s Wall. Read an excerpt from the beginning of the governor’s journey, when the party first sets sail from Ostia.

Just as all roads are said to lead to Rome, so there are many roads out of the city, which ultimately lead to all corners of the empire. Although Britannia is hardly the most convenient place to get to from the capital of empire, there are several options open to those wishing to visit the remote island.

Anyone travelling there will probably sail a significant part of the way, weather permitting, for travel by sea is much the quickest and cheapest form of transport for both people and goods. The River Tiber is only navigable with small boats, and Rome’s nearest port for sea-going vessels is some 17 miles (27 km) from the city. Until the reign of Claudius, Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber, was the port of Rome. Under that emperor, a phenomenal feat of engineering resulted in the creation of a new port (Portus) less than two miles to the north of Ostia. In Hadrian’s day, the old and new ports are regarded as a single entity, and referred to as Portus Ostiensis or interchangeably as Portus and Ostia.

High-ranking officials such as Julius Severus and Minicius Natalis will have staff to make their travel arrangements for them; but the average prospective sea traveller can glean valuable information about ships likely to be sailing in their direction at the agencies or offices (stationes) of representatives from foreign ports in Rome. They may be able to tell you of a ship soon expected or already sailed into Portus Ostiensis and even secure you a place on board. Such stations, once found around the Forum of Caesar, have since moved to other parts of the city. Some can be found on the Via Sacra, where the air is fragrant from the Horrea Piperataria—the warehouses built by Emperor Domitian to store pepper and spices from Egypt and Arabia.

Although it is possible to sail down-river to Ostia from the centre of Rome—as Claudius did when setting out to conquer Britannia—it is an easy journey by road. Ostia lies 14 miles (23 km) from Rome, and both Ostia and Portus are perfectly manageable in a day. Pliny the Younger, who had a superbly designed (in his view) seaside villa at Laurentum, near Ostia, described how it was possible to do a day’s work in Rome and get to the villa for the night without feeling unduly rushed. Pliny described the trip as a pleasant ride, though once of the main thoroughfare parts of the road could be sandy and heavy-going in a carriage. While some among Minicius Natalis’s party, such as his wife and children, may travel by covered carriage or by boat down the Tiber, riding to the port could well be an attractive option for Natalis and other members of his retinue, especially when faced with the prospect of being cooped up on a ship at sea for the next two days—or even weeks.

Excerpted with permission from The Edge of the Empire, by Bronwen Riley. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.


Stephanie Bastek is the associate editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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