Paul the Traveler

Acts 13-28 forms a geography lesson of the ancient world as Paul travels more than 17,000 miles, that’s more than half way around the world in distance! The Roman roads were probably at their best during the first century after Augustus had put an end to war and disorder. Paul traveled in the best and safest period. Roman roads ran across plains, mountains, and rivers. At regular intervals on these roads seats were provided for foot-travelers.

The Roman mile (a word derived from mille passus, “thousand paces”) was about ninety-five yards shorter than our mile. Mile markers—inscribed stone columns five to six feet tall—marked the distances on the well-built Roman roads. These roads were paved with hewn stone and reinforced with banks of tight-rammed sand. Depressions were filled up, all intersecting torrents or ravines were bridged, and both sides were of equal and corresponding height, making for a beautiful appearance.

During his first missionary journey, after he crossed inland from the southern coast of Turkey, Paul used the Via Sebaste, a road built under Augustus in 6 B.C., which connected six military colonies, including Antioch in Pisida. Much of his other travels in Galatia and Phrygia, however, were on unpaved roads.

Highway speeds varied. The official messenger system, the Cursus Publicus, used couriers who changed horses at stationes every 10 miles, or at masiones every 20 to 30 miles. They were expected to cover 50 miles per day. A courier could travel from Rome to Palestine in 46 days, from Rome to Egypt in 64 days.

Those who traveled by carriage could cover between 25 and 50 miles per day. Roman vehicles had no springs, so the passengers felt every bump on the road. Wealthy individuals like the Ethiopian treasurer could afford a chauffer-driven chariot (Acts 8:28, 38). For the most part, only military personnel and government officials traveled by horse. The one time that Paul used a horse was when he was escorted by soldiers from Jerusalem to Caesarea (Acts 23:23-24).

Foot travel in good weather averaged about 25 miles per day. After a long-day’s journey, travelers needed a place to stay. Well-to-do Romans avoided inns if possible, and either set up their own tents or stayed with friends. Hospitality to strangers was important to the traveler. Travel on land was avoided during winter. Therefore, Paul planned to spend one winter at Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:4-6) and another at Nicopolis (Titus 3:12).

By far the fastest form of long-distance travel was to go by ship—at least in one direction. Paul sailed from the Aegean to Palestine but always went overland from Palestine to the Aegean. The one time he sailed west was as a prisoner. The reason for eastward sailing is simple. The prevailing winds during summer, the sailing season, generally blew from the northwest. Rome to Alexandria took 10 to 20 days sailing eastward and 40 to 65 days or more sailing westward. Ancient ships generally had one sail, so their ability to tack against the wind was limited.

The safe sailing season was from May 27 to September 14. Risky seasons were March 10-to May 26 and from September 15 to November 11. The winter season, from November 12 to March 9, was avoided except for emergencies or military campaigns. The greatest danger of winter sailing, of course, was shipwrecks. Paul writes of being shipwrecked three times, and on one of these occasions, spending a night and day floating in the open sea (2 Corinthians 11:25). He would experience being shipwrecked at least one more time.

Other than dangers from nature, travel was generally safe because of Pax Romana established by Emperor Augustus. The Stoic philosopher Epictedus (about A.D. 135) declared, “There are neither wars nor battles, nor great robberies nor piracies, but we may travel at all hours, and sail from east to west.”

The church confirmed the Holy Spirit’s call. Barnabas and Saul were not made priests, or bishops, but missionaries. So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:3). This act did not make Paul an apostle. Christ chose him, as he had Peter, John and the others.

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