BMCR 2020.07.25

Dans les pas des voyageurs antiques: circuler en Asie Mineure à l’époque hellénistique (IVe s.av.n.è – Principat)

, Dans les pas des voyageurs antiques: circuler en Asie Mineure à l'époque hellénistique (IVe s.av.n.è - Principat). Asia Minor Studien, Band 86. Bonn: Habelt Verlag, 2019. xii, 511 p.; 16 p. of plates.. ISBN 9783774939998. €129,00.

This book, the publication of Hélène Roelens-Flouneau’s PhD thesis, provides a comprehensive study of the travel conditions of Hellenistic Asia Minor. It is divided into three parts—on transport infrastructures, on the practical aspects of travelling, and on the link between circulation and territorial construction—and includes substantial appendices and, most importantly, maps.

The first part, entitled “Les infrastructures de circulation : voies de terre et voies d’eau“, first focuses on terrestrial roads (Chapter One) and then on waterways and sea routes (Chapter Two).

Ancient Greek roads have been insufficiently discussed by historians, but the author shows that ancient Asia Minor was crisscrossed by numerous land routes. She first presents the vocabulary of roads and then describes the material aspects of roadways, based on archaeological remains, which are listed in Appendix I, p. 329-340. Asia Minor presents a great variety of roads, from mountain paths to prestigious paved ways, such as the one connecting Miletus and Didyma. Interestingly, while artificial wheelruts were widespread throughout mainland Greece, none have been found in Asia Minor.

At the end of this chapter, the author addresses the issue of chronology, briefly outlining the evolution of roads in Asia Minor through Antiquity. When Alexander conquered the territory, it was already well equipped with roads constructed under previous empires. At the other end of the book’s chronological frame, Roman power too took advantage of existing roads. Indeed, until the end of the Roman Republic, there is no indication that the provincial authorities built new roads in Asia Minor.

In Chapter Two, Roelens-Flouneau examines waterways and maritime routes, describing the conditions of fluvial navigability and the river vessels upon which such travel depended. She then describes the navigable stretches of the rivers of Asia Minor in a discussion well illustrated by maps. It is established that inland navigation existed in Antiquity, but the navigable stretches did not form a continuous network. Maritime shipping, on the other hand, obviously played a crucial role, and the author lists the main maritime routes serving the coasts of Asia Minor.

In conclusion, Roelens-Flouneau addresses the advantages and disadvantages of land transport and of maritime shipping. According to the author, maritime shipping was much cheaper than land transport. However, we should perhaps consider that this was the case primarily for heavy commercial cargo, such as architectural blocks, and probably less so for goods shipped by small-scale traders. Maritime circulation was also very much dependent on wind and weather, and land transport was consequently less hazardous. The author highlights the necessary complementarity of maritime and land transport.

The second part, “Les voyageurs entre contrôle et facilités institutionnelles” (Chapters Three and Four), focuses on the movement of persons and goods and how it was managed and regulated. The author tries to evaluate what she calls the “culture de la mobilité” (p. 137) in Asia Minor.

The most practical aspects of mobility are methodically addressed in Chapter Three. The author concentrates here on overland travel and sets aside maritime transportation, already discussed above. First, she studies preparation for travel, especially the quest for information about itineraries. Means of transportation and equipment are the themes of the second section of this chapter. Walking and using beasts of burden were the most frequent practices for, while wheeled vehicles have advantages, they cannot circulate on every road, unlike animals and people on foot. Finally, the author analyses travel costs. The type of accommodation sought depended on the traveller’s status. The author distinguishes three categories: official travellers, including ambassadors; professional travellers, especially traders and athletes; and occasional travellers. Official travellers benefited from institutional advantages, such as being hosted by the proxenoi or theorodokoi of their city. Professional travellers used their own social networks. Inns are sparsely represented in the sources and were perhaps considered a last resort, as most travellers would rather be hosted by acquaintances. Roelens-Flouneau goes on to list the various travel expenses, citing prices documented in the sources. Customs duties and expenditure on animals are compared to the ephodia, the amount of money the cities gave to their emissaries. In conclusion, the author reflects upon distances of travel in the Hellenistic period. First, she underlines the fact that, for the great majority of people, mobility went no further than everyday exchanges between city-center and rural land, activities that left hardly any archaeological trace. Opportunities to travel great distances increased in the Hellenistic period, but they chiefly concerned “professional travellers” or the notables of the cities. In the case of athletic competitions, for example, the athletes and theoroi might come from far away, but the audience was mostly local.

In Chapter Four the author estimates the influence of political entities (kingdoms and city-states) on the circulation of people and goods. The state ensured territorial security with forts and patrols and also took financial advantage of the traffic on the roads. Here, Roelens-Flouneau presents the sources mentioning import, export and transit duties. She also gives information on the monetary measures of the states. Is it possible to detect active policies encouraging circulation of goods and of people? It seems that the cities were the main actors in the construction and maintenance of roads. Kings and cities also granted legal and fiscal privileges facilitating exchange, such as ateleia, asylia or asphaleia. In conclusion, Roelens-Flouneau defends the idea that the powers of the Hellenistic period pursued a global policy of enhancing mobility. Indeed, they took care of the infrastructures and the security of travellers, and they also undertook fiscal measures benefiting traders. According to the author, the institutions, especially the city-states, had a major influence on “la fluidité des circulations et la connectivity des régions” (p. 259). On this point, she disagrees with P. Horden and N. Purcell,[1] who maintain that the political powers had little influence on mobility.

The book’s last part, “Circulation et construction des territoires” (Chapters Five and Six), deals with the concepts of network and territory.

Chapter Five explores various methods of studying ancient road networks. Roelens-Flouneau first applies É. Vion’s method[2] of the “tris graphiques” to southern Caria. But she sees a problem: this method does not allow one to highlight itineraries connecting sites that have been continuously occupied since Antiquity. The author proposes drawing hypothetical itineraries between settlements, and then integrating the known remains into this framework. With this approach, we can understand the general organisation of a road network despite the lack of archaeological remains of ancient roads. Lastly, the author evokes computer modelling and “least cost path analysis”, citing in particular a study based on the data of the stadiasmos of Patara.[3] In her opinion, the fabrication of such models is a dead end (“impasse”, p. 271). Indeed, a multitude of factors, such as water sources, farmsteads, and agricultural parcels conditioned the layout of roads. It is therefore unrealistic to expect a network shaped by centuries of human activity to follow the same logic as a computer program.

The author next proposes an “étude multiscalaire” analysing the way local, regional and supraregional networks are articulated. She studies the territory of Kyaneai, well known thanks to a survey by Fr. Kolb,[4] and analyses the integration of this local network into the larger Lycian one. The Lycian network, in turn, is connected to the axis serving all of Asia Minor. At every step of this analysis, Roelens-Flouneau takes chronological development into account, seeking out the structuring centers of each period. The territory of Kyaneai and the Lycian network are presented in two maps. The history of the road networks of Asia Minor as a whole is the subject of nine annotated maps (Annexe III). It appears that, from the Achaemenid period, major routes maintained by royal authority crossed all of Asia Minor. These were connected to regional networks, organised by the satraps or the Greek city-states of the west coast. After the creation of the Hellenistic kingdoms, some of these Achemenid routes lost their importance, while that of others was enhanced due to the foundation of new cities. Therefore, between the end of the Achemenid empire and the Roman conquest, the road network gradually became denser and more stratified. The Romans occasionally developed additional routes in certain areas but did not radically transform the network. Changes were prompted by traffic between cities, as well as relations between continental and maritime areas and by micro-regional specializations. The author asserts that the political fragmentation of the Hellenistic world did not impede the growth of travel and commerce. On the contrary, the smallest political unit, i.e., the city-state, was the most active in the organisation of infrastructures and mobility.

The concluding chapter focuses on the notion of territory. The author underlines once again the importance of the city-states in the geographical organisation of Asia Minor. Every city of the Hellenistic period was accessible and connected to a wider network. The book ends with the question of Hellenistic “globalisation” (p. 324). In this period, Asia Minor experienced an intensification of mobility; it was no longer a peripheral area of the Greek world, but an important pole in the eastern Mediterranean.

Roelens-Flouneau’s work proposes a most welcome re-evaluation of the land network of Asia Minor. Indeed, research on ancient Greek roads has been systematically undervalued, due to the notion that only a centralised authority could implement efficient infrastructures. On the contrary, Roelens-Flouneau shows the importance of the city-states in the structuring of the Greek world. She relies on rich literary and epigraphical documentation, but rather sparse archaeological data, due to the state of field research on ancient roads in Asia Minor. Nevertheless, the documents available about this region and comparison with studies carried out in mainland Greece show unequivocally that Greek antiquity produced dense, efficient road networks. Roelens-Flouneau is the first to present a synthetic study of mobility in the Greek world highlighting land transport. We join her in anticipating new regional studies about land roads in every part of the Greek world.


[1] P. Horden, N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford, 2000.

[2] É. Vion, “L’analyse archéologique des réseaux routiers. Une rupture méthodologique, des réponses nouvelles”, in Paysages découverts. Histoire, géographie et archéologie du territoire en Suisse romande, 1, 1989, 67-99.

[3] G. Graßhoff, Fl. Mittenhuber (ed.), Untersuchungen zum Stadiasmos von Patara. Modellierung und Analyse eines antikes geographischen Streckennetzes, Bern, 2009.

[4] Fr. Kolb, Burg, Polis, Bischofssitz. Geschichte der Siedlungskammer von Kyaneai in der Südwesttürkei, Mainz, 2008.