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Paul the Traveller
By Ernle Bradford
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Ernle Bradford
All rights reserved.
In the autumn of A.D. 59 a small coaster came alongside in the port of Myra. She was bound up north to Adramyttion, a town at the head of a long gulf near the island of Lesbos. She had left the famous city of Sidon about two weeks before, but because of the prevailing northerlies that sweep this section of the Mediterranean, had been forced to creep around the southern coastline of Asia Minor, seeking a lee. Now she had found her way into a comfortable river-mouth where she could discharge local cargo and wait for a favourable wind to boost her on her way through the island-studded Aegean to her home port.
Myra was one of the most important towns in southern Asia Minor. It lay a few miles inland, in the delta between two rivers, one of which, Andracus, flowed through a busy port some three miles away. It was a place like many others at that time, where the worlds of Greece and Rome met with those of Asia, Syria and the Near East. Nothing now, an obscure village in Turkey, Myra in the first century A.D. was a thriving little city. Coastal traders running between the Levant, the Aegean, Byzantium and the Black Sea thronged the quays. Large grain-carrying vessels also waited here before taking the long route that led past Crete, up the eastern coast of Sicily, through the Messina Straits and on to Puteoli in the Bay of Naples.
Aboard this coaster there was, apart from travellers and traders taking passage to Myra, Adramyttion, and other ports of call, a Roman Lieutenant of the Augustan Regiment named Julius. He was in charge of a group of prisoners on their way to Rome, either to be tried or—as men who had already been condemned to death—to serve as part of the spectacle in the arenas. (Criminals were constantly dispatched from different areas of the empire to satisfy the never-ending taste for blood that was part and parcel of 'The Grandeur that was Rome'.) The regiment to which Julius belonged acted as a kind of imperial messenger force. Apart from escorting prisoners to the capital city, they served as guards on grain ships, and as ageneral police force working with provincial garrisons in the maintenance of the imperial peace. A man like Julius was probably commissioned from the ranks. As such he was even more probably a devotee of Mithras, the Persian Sun-God whose cult, with its advocacy of manliness and the military virtues, had been widely adopted throughout the army. He had no doubt been called Julius after the great Julius Caesar, as a sign that his parents honoured the Julian House, whose current ruling descendant was the Emperor Nero.
The Lieutenant was looking for a passage to Rome for himself, his soldiers, and his prisoners. The coaster had only been an intermediate method of transport until he reached Myra. It was near the end of the traditional sailing season, for few deep-sea vessels ventured out after mid-September. Some three hundred years later a Roman expert on military affairs, Vegetius, was to write that 'From mid-September until the 3rd day before the Ides of November [10 November] navigation is uncertain.' He added that, after this date, 'the seas are closed'. Except for urgent troop movements, or the necessary use of dispatch vessels in case of emergency, the whole Mediterranean went to sleep until the end of May.
The Lieutenant was eager to get his prisoners safely delivered to Rome, and was counting on finding a late-sailing merchantman whose owner or master was set on catching the winter grain market. The reason he was fairly confident of finding a suitable ship at Myra was that the prevailing westerlies in this part of the sea often caused ships from Alexandria to make their way up north—as the coaster had just done—and wait at Myra for a favourable wind to boost them on to Rome.
He found his ship. She was an Alexandrian grain-carrier destined for Puteoli and carrying a number of passengers, some of them no doubt Romans who had been to Egypt on a sight-seeing tour, to marvel at the Great Pyramids (still faced in those days with marble), among other things. There were, as well, dancers, slaves and entertainers bound for the palaces of Rome. The ship was probably one of the imperial mercantile fleet. The Lieutenant's arrival with his prisoners would have occasioned little comment; criminals under escort were a common enough sight on the imperial highways and seaways. One prisoner, however, might have commanded some attention, for it was clear that he was a man of consequence. The Lieutenant not only treated him with deference but listened with great interest to whatever he said. His manner, too, showed that he was used to people paying attention to him, and he would sometimes preface a remark with a rhetorical gesture, a wave of the hand that seemed to command silence. He had two travelling companions with him—slaves, it would be assumed. Both were Greek and, while one appeared to be a physician, the other attended him in the capacity of a body-servant.
There was something strangely compelling about the man, even though his physical appearance was scarcely attractive. Certainly he was neither young nor good-looking—probably in the middle or late fifties, a fellow voyager would have guessed. He was almost totally bald, but heavily bearded with a sprinkling of grey. His face was volatile, an alive and slightly smiling expression, the nose long and aquiline. A Levantine face—probably a Jew? There were enough of those scattered throughout the empire. The really compelling thing about the man was his eyes, very bright and grey, and framed under shaggy, overhanging eyebrows that met in the middle. He was slight in stature and stooped a little. His face, his manner and his whole appearance suggested a man of authority, one who perhaps had travelled widely and to whom this ship and this projected voyage were no more than repetitious experiences in a life that had known many of the same. But at this early moment, while the merchantman still lay at the quay, and while the passengers were concerned about themselves, their private affairs, keeping an eye on their goods and bedding, and buying additional stores to make sure that they were adequately fed on the voyage, few would bother to speculate much about one Levantine under escort. Time was getting on, they were late, and all, for their varying reasons, were eager to reach Puteoli and the gracious Bay of Naples. Business or pleasure called them. The customary affairs and concerns of the world—no different then from now—occupied their dreams as well as their waking life.
Quite apart from the crew, the master, the pilot and other officers, there were 276 passengers. It is probable that the ship could have accommodated a great many more—grain-carriers of her type sometimes carried as many as 600 passengers. But it was a late-season sailing and most travellers would have caught earlier transport to avoid the dangers of being caught at sea during the autumn, when the Mediterranean weather often becomes rapidly unstable. A grain-carrier of this type was likely to have been about 340 tons. This was the size that the Roman imperial government preferred, and ship-owners who built a vessel of this tonnage for use in government transport were automatically exempt from compulsory public service. It was, then, clearly to the advantage of wealthy ship-owners to contribute one ship of such a size to the government. Their design followed the basic pattern that had been evolved by those master-mariners the Phoenicians centuries before, in their gaulai or tubs. Somewhat like half a walnut in hull-shape, they were intended above all for carrying capacity and not for speed. Unlike the galley, they were sailing ships first and foremost, having a large longboat for giving them a pluck out of or into harbour. This could also be used in calms at sea to tow them in the direction of any whisper of wind. Under normal conditions the longboat would lie astern on a line, but if the weather grew rough it would be hoisted aboard.
Apollonius, philosopher, mystic, wonder-worker (like others of his day and age he is credited with having raised people from the dead), was a native of Asia Minor and a contemporary of these travellers. On one occasion, in an attempt to reconcile the quarrelling citizens of Smyrna, he had pointed to the departure of just such a ship as this from their harbour, and used it as an example of how they should run their city: 'Look at the crew of that ship,' he said. 'Do you see how some are embarked in the skiffs ready to take towing ropes? Look, too, how some are hoisting the anchors and securing them inboard, while others are readying the sails to spread them before the wind, and at the same time parties are busy about their duties on poop and prow. If a single member of the crew failed to do his own particular job, or did it in an inefficient or un-seaman-like manner, all would have a bad passage and they would themselves be their own tempest. But if there is a healthy rivalry between them, and if each tries to be as efficient as his neighbour, then the ship will make a good landfall....'
No doubt in just such a manner this merchantman put to sea from Myra. She headed first of all northward towards the port of Cnidus on the all-but-island of Triopion—'all-but', since it was connected with the mainland by a causeway which had gradually converted into a sandy isthmus. This gave two good harbours, one to the north and one to the south. It was the southerly that the ship will have sought out at this time of the year.
It had been a slow passage, bucking the north-westerly head winds, anchoring at night, and hoping always for a favourable slant that would give them a chance to sheer off to the west and set their course for home. At Cnidus no doubt most of the passengers went ashore—some to admire the magnificent Aphrodite by Praxiteles in her temple—but most of them to enjoy good food and wine, and supplement their rations. There were few comforts aboard passenger-carrying merchantmen, although there were some vessels afloat which offered for the rich such accommodation as would not be seen again in this sea for many centuries after the fall of the Roman empire. In these, and in particular the royal pleasure barges of the emperors, there were baths and lounges, elegant cabins, exercise areas, covered promenades and chapels. Their floors were paved with mosaics, lamps and pitchers were of bronze, while silver or gold dishes and goblets graced the table. But in a standard ship such as this which had just left Myra there were no such luxuries. Since nearly all Mediterranean sailing was done during the indulgent summer months, people travelled as simply as peasants, most of them camping out on the upper deck with a roll of bedding and sleeping with their heads under the stars. Any slaves, condemned criminals, or steerage passengers would have been down below, hardly able, as the Greek writer Lucian put it, 'to stretch out their legs on the bare boards beside the bilge water'. Between the floor timbers limber-holes were cut to permit the bilge water to run freely to the pump-well where, either by an Archimedean screw or by leather buckets, the seamen on watch bailed the ship. A few passengers—certainly Julius and most probably his distinguished charge-would have shared in the modest comforts of the deckhouse at the stern, where the captain also had his cabin. The galley was also hard by, its stove smoking away in fair weather, with the smell of vegetable soup or hot bread to whet the appetite. Simple though it was, such a galley, with its hearth and oven raised on iron bars above a clay base, and sitting on a floor of tiles, was far more sophisticated than the open fireboxes used aboard the ships in which Columbus crossed the Atlantic 1,400 years later.
That year the northerlies which prevail over the Aegean throughout summer persisted well into the autumn. The captain, who had hoped to pick up a favourable slant off the mainland so as to run straight across the southern Aegean to Aphrodite's island, Cythera, was in something of a dilemma. With his awkward rig, dependent almost entirely upon one square-sail, he was naturally worried that the ship would make so much leeway that, instead of fetching up at Cythera, he would find himself on the iron-bound northern coast of Crete. And there were few enough harbours in that part of the world. He consulted with the pilot and both agreed that the sensible course was to drop down south of Crete where, in view of the steady northerlies, they would be able to find themselves in a lee. From here they could coast along and, if wind and weather permitted, could then make their way across Adria (the Ionian Sea) until they reached either Syracuse or Messina in Sicily.
Leaving the rocky islands of Karpathos and Kasos to port they dropped down the Aegean and came under the lee of Cape Salmone at the eastern end of Crete. Even now navigation was not easy. The northerly winds whipped down the mountains causing shuddering squalls over the foothills. The merchantman, with her heavy mainyard braced as far fore-and-aft as possible, made little progress. They worked slowly along the coast, always aware that if they got carried away they would be hurled southwards to Africa. About half way along the southern coast of Crete they found a sheltered anchorage in a small bay known as Fair Havens, a little east of Cape Matala. Here they waited, hoping for a favourable shift of the wind. With the northerlies still persisting they could not possibly beat up into the bay beyond the cape. It was now nearing the end of September and it seemed clear that, unless there was a considerable improvement in the weather, the ship would have to winter in Crete. It was not a very happy prospect. Certainly the anchorage where they lay—although it had a small town called Lasaea nearby—was far from suitable. All were eager to get on if possible, but even the captain, concerned about the delivery of his precious cargo, was aware that the winter weather had set in earlier than usual this year.
On 5 October, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the bald-headed man and one of his servants—though not the other who was a doctor—were observed to take no bread or wine. Jews, then, as had already been surmised. A few days later the captain called a conference in his cabin. Although the master of the ship, he was at the same time an employee of Rome, and the senior officer aboard was Julius. Roman practice made no distinction between service ashore or afloat. A lieutenant of the Augustan Regiment, even if not professionally a sailor, was nevertheless in command unless there was an army officer superior to him among the passengers. Among those who attended this conference at the invitation of the Lieutenant was the older Jew. He was said to be a very experienced traveller, a man who had been shipwrecked more than once, and who was conversant with the climate and the weather of the eastern Mediterranean.
The result of the shipboard conference was recorded by the medical and literary man. The decision taken was that the anchorage of Fair Havens was unsuitable for wintering in, and that as soon as possible the ship should make for a harbour called Phoenix. This lay to the north-west across the gulf beyond Cape Matala and was known to be the only really safe winter harbour in southern Crete. Although strong gusts might be expected to sweep across Phoenix when the wind was in the north, vessels could be safely secured by anchors laid out in good holding-ground, and with stern-lines doubled-up to the stone quays. Even when the wind went into the south it seldom 'blew home' against the precipitous mountains that surrounded the town and harbour. There was only one dissentient from the general opinion to winter in Phoenix and that was the elderly Jew. He said that, if they went on any further, he was quite sure they would lose the ship, the cargo and possibly their lives as well. Julius, following the opinion of the captain and the sailing-master, naturally elected to go on to Phoenix. It certainly seemed the best thing to do at the time.
While they were anchored in Fair Havens the passengers went ashore and traded with the locals for fresh vegetables, meat and wine. The Cretans were a dour and truculent race of people, and they disliked their Roman rulers. Certainly they made a bad impression upon one man. The bearded Jew was to remark of them later in a letter to a friend: 'All Cretans are liars, evil people, and lazy gluttons.' He was, it was true, quoting the Cretan poet Epimenides, but clearly something or other had stuck in his mind that caused him to write this way. No doubt, like many other travellers before and since, he had been fleeced by the locals while doing some shopping.
Excerpted from Paul the Traveller by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1974 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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