On the Road with St. Paul

When I teach Acts, students invariably ask very practical questions about the logistics of travel in Paul’s day: Did he travel by sea or land? How did he pay his expenses? When he asserts his Roman citizenship, how did he prove it? These are all great questions, and most people never think to ask them! So, let’s address them in this article.

In many ways, travel in Paul’s day was very similar to travel in our day.

H. N. Olympias, a modern replica of a Greek trireme, similar to what St. Paul would have sailed on

H. N. Olympias, a modern replica of a Greek trireme, similar to what St. Paul would have sailed on

Maritime trade flourished throughout the Mediterranean world, and passenger travel by ship was commonplace. We see Paul using ships for travel on his first missionary journey with Barnabas and Mark (A.D. 46-48), sailing from Seleucia to Cyprus and from Paphos to the port at Attalia, then upriver to Perge (Acts 13: 4, 13); at the end of their journey Paul and Barnabas sail directly back from Attalia to their home church at Antioch (Acts 14: 26). On the second missionary journey (A.D. 50-52) Paul travels by ship from Troas to Neopolis (Acts 6: 11), from the harbor near Berea to Athens (Acts 17: 14-15), and finally home from Cenchrea to Ephesus and on to Caesarea (Acts 18: 18-22). On the third missionary journey (A.D. 54-57) Paul travels by land from Antioch to Ephesus, the primary deep-water port on the west coast of Asia Minor, but he returns to Jerusalem by ship, sailing from Assos to Caesarea, making several stops for cargo and passengers along the way (Acts 20: 13, 17; 21: 18). Finally, Paul makes his journey from Caesarea to Rome (A.D. 58/59-60) entirely by ship, being shipwrecked on the island of Malta along the way (Acts 27: 1-8: 14). In fact, Paul traveled by ship so frequently that he tells us that he often had been “in danger at sea” and that he had been shipwrecked three times, in addition to the shipwreck on Malta (2 Corinthians 11: 25-26). Clearly, Paul logged thousands of miles on board ships!

And he traveled by foot, as well. The Romans had an extraordinarily well-developed road system, which at its peak spanned 53,819 miles and contained 372 links. The roads were built of stone laid on top of a deep roadbed of crushed stone to ensure adequate drainage and runoff. By law, Roman roads had to measure at least eight feet in width on the straightaway and sixteen feet in width on a curve. Many major roads were much wider.

Typically, people walked on the roads, while cargo was hauled on carts powered by mules or donkeys. Milestones marked distance, and they were placed at one-mile intervals (the English word “mile” comes from the Latin “milia passuum,” “one thousand paces,” or roughly 1,500 meters). Carts could travel about fifteen miles per day, walkers somewhat more, so the Roman government built way stations or “masiones” (“staying places”) at 15-18 mile intervals. Often, small villages or towns grew up around the way stations, offering private lodging, dining and entertainment, as well as maintenance for carts and animals.

Of course travel can be expensive, especially when you are on the road as long as Paul was. Fortunately, the Roman Empire had a banking system that accommodated travel and international commerce. The system included professional bankers throughout the Roman Empire who received and held deposits for an indefinite or fixed term and then lent the funds to third parties, acting as a creditor. The bankers functioned much like a guild, lobbying the government, exerting political influence, and protecting their interests as a group. Roman law regulated them, including who could enter the trade and the interest rates they charged. Not as developed and integrated as the modern post-industrial financial system, Roman bankers were more like small-scale entrepreneurs who worked behind a counter or in a shop. They learned their trade through an apprenticeship and they were obliged to respect the regulations that governed their trade. The Roman road system enabled the bankers to work with one another both locally and regionally, processing transactions as travel and trade demanded. In many parts of the Middle East today, such informal banking systems still exist. I’ve used them myself in both Jerusalem and Cairo.

Paul would certainly have access to such a banking system, but he probably didn’t need it all that often, for he and his companions could easily have carried cash. The smallest Roman currency of any real value was the denarius and drachma, each equal to one day's labor, and there were gold coins valued at twenty-five times the value of the drachma/denarius.

Today we can economically travel through the U.S. on $35-50 per day, staying in campgrounds, cooking our own meals and using public transportation or walking. We know that Paul walked to many of his destinations and he almost always stayed with friends once he arrived. Therefore, the cost of his time “in transit” could easily have been financed by half a day’s wages or less, as he stayed at way stations. If Paul took several gold coins, and he used friends and the local population for hospitality, his travels would require something on the order of five gold coins for each year of travel for each person in his group. Of course, such a plan could sometimes break down. Paul tells us that at times he would be hungry and cold, going without sleep, perhaps due to being robbed or simply running short on cash, in which case he would use the services of the local bankers.

More difficult problems would arise when Paul encountered legal difficulties, as he so often did. In Philippi during his second missionary journey, Paul is arrested, flogged and imprisoned, and again in Jerusalem he is arrested and about to be flogged. In both instances, Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen. When he does, his legal status instantly changes, for Roman citizens had considerable rights under Roman law. One might reasonably ask how Paul would prove his citizenship.

The Roman Empire of Paul’s day was a hierarchical and class-conscious society. In general, Roman society could be divided into two categories: 1) the upper classes, which included the senatorial class and the equestrian class and 2) the lower classes, which included the commons, Latins, freedpeople and slaves.

The basis for the senatorial class was political, and it included all men who served in the senate. Senators had to prove that they had property worth at least 1,000,000 “sesterces”; they collected no salary for serving in the senate; and they were prohibited from engaging in nonagricultural business, trade or public contracts. The basis for the equestrian class was economic. An equestrian had to prove that he had stable wealth (usually in the form of property) worth at lease 400,000 “sesterces.”

Among the lower classes, the commons were all other freeborn Roman citizens. They had the right to contract a legal marriage with another Roman citizen, beget legitimate children who were also Roman citizens, vote, and enjoy all the benefits of Roman law. The Latins were freeborn citizens of Italy. Freedpeople were men and women who had been slaves but who had bought their freedom or been freed by their masters. When Philemon frees Onesimus, this is the category into which he would fit. Finally, slaves were the property of their owners. Roman slavery was not racially based. Typically, a person was sold into slavery through war or piracy. Although slaves were the property of their owners, they could buy their freedom or be granted it by their owner.

When Paul is asked by the Roman commander in Jerusalem, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” Paul answers, “Yes, I am.” To which the commander replies, “I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.” And Paul says, “But I was born a citizen” (Acts 22: 27-28). The Roman commander had probably been a man captured in war and sold into slavery, but who had bought his freedom and become a member of the freedpeople; Paul, however, was born a Roman citizen and was probably a member of the commons.

Since Roman citizenship carried such important legal rights as the ability to enter into contracts, the right to a trial in the presence of one’s accusers, and the right to judicial appeal, Paul doubtless would have carried evidence of his citizenship on his extensive travels throughout the Empire.

University of Michigan Papyrology Collection, P. Mich. inv. 2737.

University of Michigan Papyrology Collection, P. Mich. inv. 2737.

The University of Michigan’s Papyrus Collection offers a sample of such evidence. Among its collections is a wood and wax document certifying the Roman citizenship of Marcus Cornelius Justus. Dating from A.D. 103, the document originated in the Roman province of Alexandria, Egypt, and it reads, in part: “. . . [Cornelius] Justus, the son of Marcus, whose census rating is 20 [thousand] sesterces, [registered] in the monthly record as a Roman citizen [my son] Marcus Cornelius Justus, born [. . .] Heras, daughter of Marcus, on the 4th day before the ides of September past.” The document measures 13.5 x 7.2 cm (approximately 4 ½ x 2 ½ inches); it is durable; and it is portable.

Although claiming to be a Roman citizen when one is not was a grave offense under Roman law, Paul would certainly have carried a document like this one, much as we carry a passport when we travel.

So, travel in Paul’s day was not much different from travel in our day. In our many “Study Abroad” tours to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Greece and Italy we encounter crowds at airports, security checks and hospitality of various sorts; we sometimes run short of cash; and we often have to produce evidence of our citizenship.

Just like Paul.