BMCR 2002.03.14

Transport und Nachrichtentransfer im römischen Reich

, Transport und Nachrichtentransfer im römischen Reich. Klio : Beiträge zur alten Geschichte. Beiheft, n.F., Bd. 2. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000. 380 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3050035846.

How did a newly appointed governor move to the province assigned to him? How did the grain supply from Egypt reach its consumers in the city of Rome or the legions based at the frontiers of the Roman Empire? How (and how quickly) did the emperor learn about military threats and misgovernment thousands of miles away from his palace, and what were his means to cope with the problems in time? It is obvious that matters of transport and communication are not only of technical and economic, but also of political relevance, as is mirrored, e.g., by the numerous constitutions collected in the Theodosian Code (CTh 8.5-6; also 6.29; 7.4-5).

German scholars have been particularly devoted to the subject, and the pinnacle of their achievements, ‘Das Nachrichtenwesen des Altertums mit besonderer Ruecksicht auf die Roemer’ by W. Riepl (1913), is still highly valued.1 Works by Holmberg, Pflaum, Kornemann, and Jones furthered our understanding of public transport and communication of the Roman Empire, while Casson and Chevallier described the conditions of travel on a wider scale. Since the 1970s, several detailed studies have been contributed especially by Eck and Mitchell. But only the most recent years have seen a real revival of interest in this field, including works by Stoffel, Black, di Paola, Corsi, and a collection of conference papers edited by Adams & Laurence.2

Having already addressed some minor issues in the same field,3 Kolb had the work under consideration accepted as a Habilitationsschrift (supervised by Christian Marek) at Zurich in winter 1999/2000. It deserves appreciation that she—ambitiously and successfully—endeavoured to make the results of her second dissertation available to a wide audience within a single year. She has presented a systematic investigation of transport and communication of the Roman public authorities (a restriction which is undoubtedly justified but should have been indicated in the title). In spite of this limitation, her approach is wide-ranging, first on the chronological scale, which extends from Cato the Elder (early 2nd century B. C.) down to the empire of Justinian (6th century A.D.) and partly even beyond; secondly, her book considers several technical and socio-political implications, though the military sphere is touched upon only in passing (as announced on p. 8). Kolb has digested a considerable amount of 20th-century scholarship (evident from the up-to-date bibliography on p. 340-60) and worked through most of the literary, legal, papyrological, and epigraphical sources (registered on p. 361-73). Above all, she draws two conclusions of far-reaching importance, already sketched in the introduction (p. 8f.) repeatedly illustrated throughout the book, and summed up on p. 333-39.

The first relates to the cursus publicus (hereafter CP, a term which is often translated as ‘Staatspost’ (Stoffel) or simply ‘post’ (Jones 830). Kolb rejects such anachronistic terms as they entail several misunderstandings. While it is currently uncontroversial that the CP had nothing to do with a public postal service or the carriage of private persons, the CP is commonly identified with a body of imperial messengers. In contrast, Kolb demonstrates that it simply provided an infrastructure for magistrates and messengers who travelled through the empire. It consisted of thousands of stations placed along the main roads; these had to supply fresh horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen, as well as carts, food, fodder, and accommodation. The possibility of exchanging the mount or draught animal after an average distance of 8 Roman miles (ca. 12 km) accelerated a journey significantly.

The service weighed heavily upon local communities and thus needed to be confined to as few users as possible. Others were given equipment or money ( viaticum) to buy or rent such, unless they were expected simply to walk. In particular, the financial administration and army units often used means of transport different from the CP, but, as they also recruited their resources from the provincials (whether through regular tributes or extraordinary requisitions) and were, at least under special circumstances, allowed to use the CP in addition, the description of this institution is much more complex than hitherto acknowledged.

Secondly (cf. also ch. IV.1, p. 264-68), Kolb shows a correlation between the organisation of transport and communication by the state authorities on the one hand and constitutional history on the other. The republic allowed a high degree of independence to its senatorial commanders; the requirements of quick communication and movements were restricted to single (mostly military) actions, which had to be prepared individually. But the basic principle for centuries to come was already in force: the provincials and allies were responsible for providing hospitality and means of transport for the magistrates, their staff and soldiers. The centralisation of the empire under Augustus necessitated a permanent system of transport and communication. Although the sources do not allow us to determine the extent of the organisation, it is clear that Augustus laid the basis of the relay system. Also the demand for public grain supply increased, in Rome as well as at the frontiers where the legions were stationed.

From Septimius Severus down to the reign of Constantine the face of the empire changed. The travelling imperial court(s), the multiplication of emperors, enemies and armies, the division of military and civil administration, the doubling of the provinces, and the taxes now mostly collected in kind strongly increased the movement of public goods; along with the growing bureaucracy and centralisation came more state officials and messengers hurrying throughout the empire. The needed reforms of the transport systems can be traced to Diocletian: he subdivided the CP into the cursus velox, which concentrated on speedy transport, and the cursus clavularius, which was responsible for carrying heavy items on oxcarts. New modes of authorisation were developed, and with them emerged the curiosi, a new body of controllers subordinate to the magister officiorum, who acted in competition with the regional administration (cf. CTh 8.5 and 6.29). The involvement of the local communities got more intense as supervising the stations of the CP and delivering the annona, e.g., to oversea harbours, became compulsory munera for the members of the middle and upper classes. Expense allowances that officials had formerly been prescribed to pay the provincials (though on a low level), are no longer recorded.

Kolb’s presentation is not without problems. Although she is repeatedly concerned with lexical explanations (p. 8 n. 1, 49ff., 67f., 268ff.), her account more than once suffers from terminological inexactitude.4 The most significant example is her deliberate use of ‘CP’ to denote the ‘staatliche Transporteinrichtung’ as established by Augustus, notwithstanding its first attestation under Constantine I (Pan. Lat. 6.7.5 A. D. 310; CTh 8.5.1 A.D. 315), having been coined most probably under Diocletian (P. Panop. Beatty 2.275 A.D. 300 δημόσιος δρόμος). Similar basic principles do not, however, justify the anachronistic extension of technical terms over three centuries, especially given the factual differences emerging from her own conclusions.

It was rather the significant changes of the system that induced contemporaries to look for new terminology. During the principate, the concrete plural noun vehicula had predominated (e. g., CIL 3.7251 A.D. 49/50; further references on p. 49f.) and may reflect the minor degree of organisation. But, apart from the ‘(imperial) institution of vehicula‘, one can also speak of ‘(imperial) vehiculatio‘, although this abstract noun is only attested twice (RIC 2 no. 93; CIL 3.6075; cf. Kolb 50); but cf. also the term ‘ cursus vehicularis‘ (Arcadius Charisius, Dig., under Diocletian), which Kolb 51 rightly considers to reflect an ‘Uebergangsstadium’. Authorisations to use the ‘CP’ that had mostly been called diplomata during the high empire were now denoted evectiones. The bulk of the users, the imperial messengers and spies, had formerly been the tabellarii and frumentarii, but were called agentes in rebus since Diocletian (Aur. Vict. Caes. 39.44f.; Kolb 275ff., 282ff., 290ff.), and among the latter figured a new group of controllers, the curiosi. As well as urging rejection of an anachronistic application of ‘CP’, these examples buttress Kolb’s second main idea, namely that the Roman constitution and the organisation of state transport interacted.

But, also in this regard, some developments on the verge of Late Antiquity deserved a closer examination. The separation of the civil administration from the military commands (which had always had available their own means of transport) could have been elaborated on. Also the growing necessity of communication deserves to be specified. For example, by conferring Roman citizenship on most of the provincials in A.D. 212, the Constitutio Antoniniana accelerated the spread of Roman law and litigation; to a growing extent, trials were held before the representatives of the emperor, whose lawyers had to be consulted on complicated issues. Moreover, the multiplication of soldiers and officials finally brought along a similar effect: in order to finance them, new taxes (money, goods, and services) had to be raised, so that new obligations, rules of exaction, and respective privileges had to be communicated; along with the burden and complexities, conflicts between citizens and either their community or the fisc increased, since the liabilities became doubtful and people became generally more reluctant to comply with them. The CTh reflects more than a thousand instances in which either information, new legislation, or legal actions were needed, producing correspondence between the centre of the empire and all its parts on an unprecedented scale.

Undue emphasis on the continuity of the ‘CP’ conditions a defective understanding of the institution. Among other things, one may overlook the main reason for the creation of the cursus clavularius : the requirements of the more numerous, more extended and ever more mobile courts, whose supply needed a distinct form of super-regional organisation. The novelty of the cursus clavularius was not only the large scale of requisitions, but also the construction of a close network of mansiones AND mutationes THROUGHOUT the empire: it allowed the high average speed of ca. 25 m.p. per day for heavy transports and the additional advantage of calculability. The distances of the mutationes (ca. 8 m. p.) appear to have been adjusted precisely to the capacities of oxen, while the riding messengers could have done easily with longer intervals. Notwithstanding, the possibility of more frequent changes certainly raised their average speed, so that the cursus velox was likewise new in quality. This interpretation is not only suggested by the date of the Itinerarium Burdigalense (A. D. 333), the only source to attest such a sophisticated network of relay stations, but also by the gradual decline of the CP in the 5th and 6th centuries: the number of emperors and courts had been reduced and the Eastern Augustus now resided permanently in Constantinople, thus being accessible by sea from all important ports. This conclusion is likewise missing in Kolb’s book, although it once more reflects the correlation between the state transport system and political constitution.

Notwithstanding this, Kolb’s systematic enquiry is an asset to our understanding of the Roman state. Beginners and advanced scholars are well advised to consult this monograph as a useful and wide-ranging reference book, but no less when struggling with related specialist questions. They will appreciate the easy accessibility of the information owing to the clear table of contents (p. 5f.), the well-structured introduction (p. 8-14), which includes a survey of the sources and the Forschungsgeschichte, and the detailed indices (p. 361-80). In addition, many (mostly reliable) German translations of the main sources will be welcomed in parts II-IV.5 The reader of the entire book, however, will be less grateful, as he has to endure many repetitions not apparent to the selective reader. He will also be more sensitive to the fact that, at least, in some chapters the train of thought lacks clarity (e. g., II.3-4). On the other hand, these shortcomings are partly counterbalanced by the short introductory passages which guide one through parts I-V (and some of the chs.) as well as through the readable summary which concludes the scrutiny (p. 333-39).6


1. Cf. in particular E. E. Hudemann: Geschichte des roemischen Postwesens, 1878, and O. Seeck: Cursus publicus, RE 4, 1901, 1846-63; other 19th-century works (also mostly by Germans), are listed by Kolb on p. 11f. n. 4 (but not included in her bibliography).

2. Cf. E. J. Holmberg: Zur Geschichte des cursus publicus, 1933; H.-G. Pflaum: Essai sur le cursus publicus sous le Haut-Empire romain, 1940; E. Kornemann: Postwesen, RE 22, 1953, 988-1014; A.H.M. Jones: The Later Roman Empire, 1964, 830ff.; L. Casson: Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, 1971; Travel in the Ancient World, 1976, 2nd ed. 1994; R. Chevallier: Les voies romaines, 1972 (Engl. 1976); Voyages et de/placements dans l’empire romain, 1988. For the works of W. Eck and S. Mitchell as well as for many others cf. the bibliography by Kolb 340-60 or Adams & Laurence (below) 177-95. For recent contributions cf. P. Stoffel: ‘Ueber die Staatspost, die Ochsengespanne und die requirierten Ochsengespanne’, 1994 (on CTh 13.5); E. W. Black: Cursus publicus. The Infrastructure of Government in Roman Britain, 1995; L. di Paola: Viaggi, trasporti e istituzioni. Studi sul cursus publicus, 1999; C. Corsi: Le strutture di servizio del cursus publicus in Italia, 2000. C. Adams & R. Laurence published conference papers on ‘Travel & Geography in the Roman Empire’ (Durham 1999 / London & New York 2001).

3. Cf. ‘Cursus fiscalis. Eine Inschrift aus Concordia in der Tradition kaiserlicher Politik?’, in: R. Frei-Stolba & M. A. Speidel: Roemische Inschriften. FS Hans Lieb, AREA 2, Basel 1995, 191-204;—Angaria, DNP 1, 1996, 699f.;—Cursus Publicus, DNP 3, 1997, 245;—’Der cursus publicus in Aegypten’, in: Akten des 21. Internationalen Papyrologenkongresses, 1997, 533-40;—review of Stoffel 1994, Klio 79, 1997, 606-8;—’Kaiser Julians Innenpolitik: Grundlegende Reformen oder traditionelle Verwaltung? Das Beispiel des cursus publicus’, Historia 47, 1998, 342-59.—Kolb’s article in the collection by Adams & Laurence 2001 (p. 95-105) is an English summary of the book under discussion.

4. For example, ‘Edikt’ is used incorrectly for imperial ‘constitution’ (p. 10) or ‘letter’ (p. 230). The ‘Kaiserzeit’ seems to end with the 2nd or during the 3rd century (p. 152, 202, etc.). The a diplomatibus is unduly qualified as belonging to the ‘subalternes Personal’ (p. 161); the regendarius is denoted ‘subalterner Beauftragter’, although he was responsible for a ‘leitende Aufgabe beim’ CP (p. 171); the a vehiculis was probably not a ‘Helfer oder Stellvertreter’ of the praefectus vehiculorum (p. 161), but rather a precursor of if not identical with the latter, according to the terminology of the high empire, cf. ab epistulis, a libellis, a memoria, a rationibus. On p. 197, servi publici, ‘staatliche Sklaven’, and the ‘oeffentliche Sklaven’ of the cities are equated. To ‘exist’ is used for ‘be attested’ (p. 203), ‘Steuergelder’ instead of ‘Steuergelder und -gueter (vornehmlich Gold)’ (p. 233). (Nostra) domus is better not translated as ‘Kaiserhaus’ (CTh 7.5.2 / CI 10.49.2: p. 243, SS 2 and 248), unless the kinsmen of the emperor are meant. ‘Arbeitsplatz…verlassen’ instead of ‘Beruf aufgeben’ may suit galley slaves, but not bastagarii (p. 255 SS 1). I doubt that late antique records of apparitores testify a continuity of the homonymous republican servi publici (p. 274 with n. 0-2); they rather denote officiales who enjoyed some social standing. The terms ‘Reisende’ (p. 59 paragr. 2 l. 2 ‘[staatliche]’) and ‘Paechter’ (p. 42 l. 2 ‘[Steuer-]’) need specification. ‘Die staatlichen Reisenden’ (p. 60, paragr. 2 l. 12) is an undue generalisation. A glossary would have been desirable.

5. CTh 8.5.23 pr. exempts two (Pharr 198), not three groups (Mommsen and Kolb 193 n. 2). CTh 11.16.18 eius igitur patrimonium, quem…, cura conficiendi pollinis non habebit; nullam excoctionem panis agnoscet is translated (p. 231): ‘Eine Person also, die…, soll kein Backen von Brot kennen; soll keine Pflichten in Baeckereien haben’; correct into: ‘Das Vermoegen desjenigen, den…, wird keine Verpflichtung zum Brotmahlen in Anspruch nehmen; wird kein Brotbacken gelten lassen’. In the context of CTh 8.5.16, non oportet does not mean ‘ist nicht noetig’ (p. 233), but ‘darf nicht’. CTh 13.7.2 navem esse fisco sociandum has nothing to do with ‘Bereitstellung von Schiffen fuer die Finanzverwaltung’ (p. 243 with n. 4), but is an elegant periphrasis for ‘the punishment of confiscation’, which is differently expressed in CTh 13.7.1 publica iactura navium quoque dominis feriendis. CI cursores partis Augustae are probably couriers of the emperor, not of the empress (p. 280).

6. My thanks to Benet Salway (UCL) for his thorough reading of an earlier draft.