Travelling through history

Many historical stories feature travelling from one place to another. Actually, a real journey is a common enough plot device as it can easily mirror the characters’ internal journey. But when this applies to historical fiction, whole legions of problems (or opportunities) assault the author. Everything from the names and locations of towns to the methods of transport would have been different.

I was made aware of this when characters in a Roman short story set off across the empire. First of all I needed to know how far a horse could ride in one day. We know the Romans were great at building roads linking their cities, but what do you do between towns? I assumed the presence of useful tavernas for my civilian characters, while my military character had access to forts, camps and staging posts. Once I’d determined a rate of travel, the journey presented opportunity rather than problems. Part of the appeal for the reader in historical fiction is visiting another world and what better way to see what ancient Rome has to offer than travelling through it?

My Dad had a fascinating fact about travel in Ancient Rome. A quick digression here, my Dad was great at saying things that you just accept as true. Then as you grow older you realise there’s no way of proving them. But they stay with you like facts because of who said them! Anyway, he said that the travel times around the empire were so good, that after the fall of the Western Empire, around the fourth century, it took about 1,400 years to get back up to that level of transport. Really it was only in the Victorian era that the rate and security of travel got back to Roman levels. Although it’s hard to prove, it does have a ring of truth about it. In fact, it’s not just transport. If a Roman saw a mediaeval dwelling with its simple latrine, lack of central heating, decoration, etc. they would be horrified that progress had gone backwards over 500 years!

Another easy way to trip up is in the amount of luggage a traveller would take with them. A train of pack horses would be a more common sight in most times throughout history than carts. The road system we have now seems so permanent it’s hard to remember that it didn’t exist a hundred years ago. A cart or wagon would work over short distances, but a train of horses would be able to travel down narrow paths, over rough ground, or mud, ford rivers, etc. much more easily than a cart. In short they’d be much more practical over a long distance.

It’s like the trouble of swords vs spears. Swords are far more fun and iconic, but in most periods of history, spears are a better way of equipping your army. For a given weight of metal, you can make more spear-heads than swords. Also, spears can keep an enemy at bay and even have a chance of unseating cavalry. It can also be a thrown weapon. So, it’s more versatile and cheaper to make than a sword!

Anyway, that’s enough of a historical ramble for now. I’m not quite sure how I got from travelling to the swords vs spears debate. I suppose it’s all about the pursuit of accuracy without sacrificing readability or a good story.

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