The Most Distant Places Visited by the Romans: Africa, Scandinavia, China, India, Arabia & Other Far-Flung Lands

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Map Show­ing How the Ancient Romans Envi­sioned the World in 40 AD

Ancient Rome’s Sys­tem of Roads Visu­al­ized in the Style of Mod­ern Sub­way Maps

The First Tran­sit Map: a Close Look at the Sub­way-Style Tab­u­la Peutin­ge­ri­ana of the 5th-Cen­tu­ry Roman Empire

Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Vis­its the Great Pyra­mid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Mem­o­ry of Her Deceased Broth­er

The First Work of Sci­ence Fic­tion: Read Lucian’s 2nd-Cen­tu­ry Space Trav­el­ogue A True Sto­ry

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Alan says:

    This is vat­i­can Roman pro­pa­gan­da .…Nobody does not want to men­tion west­ern roman cru­sad­er vat­i­can plun­der of the City of Con­stan­tino­ple .….Rome stole all of the Gold from the City of Con­stan­tino­ple…

    They were greedy to have access to the silk trade road route…

    They par­tic­i­pat­ed and cre­at­ed proxy wars in the balka­ns and mid­dle east but failed their long time goals.…

    So they send an Ital­ian under the ser­vices of the Span­ish navy to dis­cov­er Cuba think­ing it was India.….

  • Selvin Robinson says:

    All Nations leaves there footprints&there his­to­ries for us to learn from,but what we’ve learned from his­to­ries is that we’ve not learned from his­to­ries

  • Martin Kulubi says:

    Rome still stretch­es her ten­ta­cles to the end of the earth but this time through reli­gion

  • Don Noble says:

    Mon­ey talked & Romans walked. So what’s new?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.