Historical Notes : People on the move in the ancient world

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
TRANSPORT IS as old as human society; as long as people have been around, they have moved themselves and the things they need from place to place.

The oldest recorded story in the world, the Mesopot-amian Epic of Gilgamesh from the third millennium BC, contains an important and enigmatic passage about Urshanabi, the ferryman of Utnapishtim, who carries King Gilgamesh of Uruk across the ocean that is the boundary of the known world; this is possibly the earliest reference we have to a transport professional. Fifteen hundred years later we have the account of the difficulties Odysseus encountered in voyaging from Troy to Ithaka. The 500-mile journey ended up taking him 10 years; not for nothing in the ancient world was the sea regarded as alarming and untrustworthy.

Land travel, too, had its perils. In the Old Testament we have, in the Book of Numbers, the story of Balaam and the angel; the seer Balaam, travelling in the course of his duties (but contrary to God's will) to the land of Moab, was baffled, then infuriated, then violent and abusive, when the ass he was riding came to a sudden halt, having seen, as her rider could not, the angel of the Lord blocking the path. Balaam's anger, we are told, "was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff"; an early example of road rage.

Rome, of course, had its roads. The heart of Rome was the ancient equivalent of a road sign: the milliarium aureum, the golden milestone, from which the great roads - the Via Flaminia, the Via Aurelia, the Via Appia - radiated the length and breadth of Europe, and beyond, into Africa and Asia. And along those roads moved merchants, artisans, farmers, doctors, civil servants, and of course generals and soldiers; and along them, too, travelled the, language and customs of Rome, literature and philosophy, religions old and new. The Roman road was simultaneously military hardware, political symbol, cultural conduit and economic infrastructure, and this is by no means the last time transport systems have embodied this conjunction of the political, the cultural and the economic.

The stupendously engineered road network of the Incas had a similar significance in their society; and in more modern times the Grand Trunk Road of Mughal, and then British, India, memorably described in Rudyard Kipling's Kim, provides another example.

The Roman Empire came to an end in the fifth century AD, but the roads remained to form the basic element of land transport in Europe for another thousand and more years. The people of this post-Roman world travelled a lot more than we tend to think.

The old image of medieval and early modern people living their whole lives in their own village, generally travelling no more than two or three miles, with a trip to the local market town amounting to a major adventure, while not without elements of truth, is a simplistic generalisation. Medieval society was full of people on the move: officers of state, nobles, armies, clergy, scholars, pilgrims, drovers. Roads were, by modern standards, poor, and travel was highly seasonally dependent, but travel people did and do.

Travel is more than just the utilitarian expression of the human requirement; it is also an epression of freedom. Societies which have sought to limit freedom have always controlled travel and transport, the movement of people, goods and ideas.

Today the networks of transport we have around us and upon which we depend are expressions of a greater modern freedom. The freedom of movement, a freedom which is spread more widely and has a greater influence than has ever been the case before. The consequence of this freedom is prosperity, opportunity and a richness of life inconceivable to most of our ancestors.

Ralph Harrington is writing `Metropolis in Motion: trans-port, communication and the modern city, 1880-1940'