Getting around in Roman times was hard.
Few had a riding animal. Travel meant walking. Everywhere there were processions of men and women, groups of three or more, trudging along with a knapsack and a walking stick, just as the pilgrims still do on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Pilgrims (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license photo by Alex Chang)
Shoes were bad. Most people wore rope or leather sandals with rope soles.
Caliga of a roman soldier (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by MatthiasKabel)
Prehistoric sandals (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license photo by Luis García)
It must have been usual to see a tired traveller adjusting the straps of his sandals, loosening them or removing his sandals to rub his feet.
The roads were terrible.
Most were only wide paths, muddy or hard and bumpy with wagon tracks.
Dusty, stony roads in central Spain (file photo)
Few were paved like this one:
Remains of a Roman road in Libya (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Dirk.heldmaier)
The best ones were built for and used by the military.
There were few inns, so travellers often had to spend the night outdoors. Travelling alone or with just one companion was dangerous because of highwaymen, so if you could you joined up with a group of travellers going your way.
Highwaymen attack a carriage by Francisco de Goya (public domain photo)
A few rich men had horses or mules to ride. Though there were saddles and bridles, there were no stirrups, so riders had to mount by jumping up and dismount by sliding down. At many post stations there were platforms with steps for the women and the elderly.
There were no horseshoes yet either—at least nothing was nailed to the horse’s hooves. Animals with injured feet were shoed with metal sandals called soleae but healthy horses wore no protection.
Stirrups and nailed horseshoes were not invented until the Middle Ages.
Reconstruction of a Roman Carriage (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Nicolas von Kospoth)
Travelling by horse-drawn cart was much faster but very uncomfortable. The big box carrying the passengers sat right over the wheels—there were no springs or leather straps or suspension of any kind, so every unevenness in the road was transmitted directly to the seats above, which were mere benches. Passengers were constantly jolted and tossed left and right, as well as up and down. Sleep was impossible except after exhaustion.
The dust and dirt the horses raised came into the cabin and soon covered everyone. Carriage windows were only square holes—glass panes hadn’t yet been invented. Consequently the wind and rain blew in unless the shutter was closed, in which case the carriage was totally dark. People who were sensitive to draft or dampness suffered very much in a carriage.
The horses or mules that pulled the carriages had the harness straps around their necks, which choked them a little or a lot, depending on the weight of the load they had to pull. The U-shaped collar, which transferred the thrust to the horse’s shoulders and off its neck and throat, wasn’t invented until the twelfth century. When it was, the animals could pull much greater loads without tiring.
A Roman carriage. Notice how the horses pull from their neck (photo from and article by Ignacio González Tascón in the catalog (page 122) of an exhibition called ARTIFEX: Ingeniería Romana en España which took place at the Museo Arqueológico of Madrid from March to June 2002.
A trip from Rome to Cadiz in southern Spain took two or two and a half months, though Julius Caesar, riding in a coach and using the efficient army network of roads and mansiones (places for the military to rest and change horses) once made the trip in 28 days. They say he wrote much of his Gallic Wars in carriages on his way to army camps. Caesar didn’t waste time.
Here is a map of the main roads of the Roman Empire in AD125. Most were there long before the Romans came along.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Andrein