31 Jan 2017

Winter Schiffahrt (Englisch)

By Gerard Huissen
In ancient times there was hardly shipping during the winter. Therefore the activity in the various maritime ports during that time was also very low.

Relief on a sarcophagus1.

L. Casson scribes in his book Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World2: ' All normal activities took place during the summer and a few weeks before and after; at other times the Straits were nearly deserted and ports held a winter sleep in anticipation of the approaching spring.'
The official shipping stopped almost completely from late October to early April. In his work ‘Epitome Institutionum Rei Militaris (4.39) ', about classical military operations, Vegetius, a writer from the second half of the fourth century AD writes:: "A die VI Kal. Junias usque in arcturi ortum, id est in diem VIII decimum Kal. Octobres, secura navigatio creditur... post hoc tempus usque in tertium idus Novembres incerta navigatio est... ex die... tertio idus Novembres usque in diem sextum idus Martias maria clauduntur".

There were of course many reasons why they almost exclusively sailed during the summer months. The climate in the Mediterranean in those months is sunny and stable with a fairly constant wind direction. Thereby in that season one could also estimate the travel duration which was important for the transport by sea of e.g. perishable goods such as grain.
Navigation at night was also usually possible in those seasons by the often clear skies.

Of course there were exceptions. Ship personnel who, for the sake of own merchandise, still sailed out of season. Vegetius (EP. Rei mil. 4.39) speaks of privatarum mercium audacia4 and Pliny (NAT. Hist. II, 125) calls it greed (avaritia). There was indeed cargo offered in the winter months. Especially when there was scarcity, the prices rose and many skipper could not resist the temptation.

Grain measurers (part of a mosaic floor at Ostia)

This also applied to the societates, Associations of owners of one or more ships. They financed the trip themselves and could partly decide when to sail.
Sometimes also emperors organized extra transports by food scarcity during the winter. In 51 AD, when there was only food left from the summer for another fifteen days, the emperor Claudius gave the order, under pressure from his people, to bring in new supply5. This transport reached the port because ‘the gods were kind and the winter was mild (modestia hiemis), as formulates Tacitus (Ann. 12.43).
It is assumed that most ships that are now on the seabed are perishing during the winter-months6.

Pliny provides us with some information about the various distances between the ports, the average speed of the ships and the duration of the voyage7

afstanden eng

These were probably the speeds and travel times for warships or slim ships. For the large sailing ships between Ostia and Alexandria, transporting grain for the Roman population, a period of 18-25 days was hold. If the same trip had to be made with adverse wind, it took up to 50 to 60 days because of the tacking.

In ancient times, shipping did not stood in very high regard. She was associated with people of low origin, foreigners and Freedmen. The elite was supposed to keep far away from this. In 219-218 BC a law came into force, the Lex Claudia, which Senators and their sons denied ownership of vessels with a deadweight capacity bigger than 300 amphorae (Liv. 21,53,4: quaestus omnis patribus indecorus visus8). Trading profit was a disgrace. Small traders were almost by definition humble (Cic. II Verr. 5,167: homines tenues, obscuro loco nati, navigant, adeunt ad ea loca quae numquam antea viderunt....9). Trade wholesale was seen less as a low profession (magna et copiosa (mercatura) non est admodum vituperanda10)

Ships were used not only for trade but also for military expeditions, for post, for the transport of official emissaries and couriers. Especially in later times they were also brought into action for tourism.

F.J. Meijer "Mare Clausum Aut Mare Apertum" (Hermeneus jaargang 55),
R. Meiggs "Roman Ostia",


  • notes:
  • 1:  Museum für Antike Schifffahrt, Mainz
  • 2:  L. Casson; 'Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World";Princeton University Press (1971)
  • 3:  Translation of Vegetius: • From the sixth day of the calendar of June till the rise of Arcturus, that’s the eighteenth from the calendar of October shipping will be considered as save. From that time on till the third of the idus (15e of the month) of November shiiping is unsure.From the third before the indus of November till the sixth before the idus of Marz the seas are closed.
  • 4:  Vegetius (Ep. Rei Mil. 4,39) Translation:" reckless private trade "
  • 5: Suetonius, Vita Claudii 18
  • 6:  See http://www.romanports.org/en/news/152-roman-wreck-cabrera.html
  • 7:  Plinius: Nat. Hist. 19,3-4
  • 8:  Livius 21.53.4 Translation: "All profit seemed unworthy of senators
  • 9:  Cicero II Verr. 5.167 Translation: "Poor men of humble birth sail across the seas to shores they have never seen before...."
  • 10:  Cicero 'de officiis lib'. Translation: Large (trade) wealth isn’t blameworthy at all.

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