As we still say today, all roads lead to Rome. Or at least they did at the height of its power, which historians tend to place in the second century. It was in that century that the Greco-Egyptian polymath Ptolemy wrote his book Geography, whose description of all known lands inspired an unprecedentedly detailed world map. As Ptolemy’s map illustrates, “the Romans, for all their rhetoric about universal empire, were aware that the world was much larger than their domains.” So says ancient-history Youtuber Garrett Ryan in “The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans,” a video essay from his channel Told in Stone.
Ryan explains what history has recorded of “the vast range and reach of Roman merchants and adventurers,” who made it to Africa, Scandinavia, India, and even China. Some may have been motivated by pure wanderlust (the ancient Roman equivalent of Eurail-hopping college graduates, perhaps) but surely most of them would have set out on such long, arduous, and even dangerous journeys with glory and wealth in mind.
It was the promise of spices, frankincense, and myrrh, for instance, that drew Roman traders to Arabia Felix (or modern-day Yemen), despite the region’s reputation for being “overrun by flying snakes.”
However impressive ancient Rome’s geographical knowledge, they clearly had yet to get the details straight. But they knew enough to bring back from a variety of far-flung lands not just tall tales but treasures unavailable elsewhere, turning the metropole into a reflection of the world. Few such items would have been as visible in Rome as silk, “an indispensable luxury used in everything from legionary standards to the robes of the emperors.” That material came from China, most often purchased through dealers in Central Asia and India. But some particularly adventurous Romans made it not just to the Middle Kingdom but into the very palace of the Chinese emperor. All those roads to Rome were, after all, two-way streets.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.