Inland Waterways in the Roman Transport Network of the Gallic and Germanic Provinces (c. 50 BC – c. AD 400)

Project funded by the Flemish Research Foundation (FWO) 2017-2020

Directors: prof. Koenraad Verboven (History, Ghent University),  prof. Wim De Clercq (Archaeology, Ghent University)

Bas-relief de Cabrières-d'Aigues

Now the whole of this country is watered by rivers: some of them flow down from the Alps, the others from the Cemmenus and the Pyrenees; and some of them are discharged into the ocean, the others into Our Sea. Further, the districts through which they flow are plains, for the most part, and hilly lands with navigable water-courses. The riverbeds are by nature so well situated with reference to one another that there is transportation from either sea into the other; for the cargoes are transported only a short distance by land, with an easy transit through plains, but most of the way they are carried on the rivers—on some into the interior, on the others to the sea. (Strabo 4,1,2)


Scholars usually concurr that transport by rivers and lakes greatly stimulated the development of trade in the Roman empire. The contribution of rivers and lakes to transport networks is mostly treated in a matter of fact way. This is not an unproblematic view, however. Waterways require investment, regulation and control. They are as much man-made as roads are. Without tow-paths, canals, locks, connecting roads, ports and warehouses rivers offer only a marginal contribution to trade. 

This project will study the institutional conditions governing navigation on rivers and lakes, and the resource requirements for and effects of Roman riverine and lake navigation. Our approach is inspired by complexity economics, which analyses economics systems as dynamic networks of autonomous agents. We combine a social network analysis and a spatial network analysis to study the institutions, agents and spatial structures in the Rhone/Saone river basin and in the river basins of Scheldt and Meuse. Both areas differed institutionally and ecologically, but were interconnected via the Rhine and were part of a larger transport network linking the Mediterranean to the North Sea area.

State of the art

Transport by rivers and lakes is generally considered to have stimulated the development of over-land trade in the Roman empire, a view supported by ancient authors and archaeology. Barges transported cargoes up to 100 tons on major rivers (compared to only ten tons by ox-cart). Transport upstream was a slower than by road, but (supposedly) about five to six times cheaper. Downstream transport was (supposedly) up to eight times faster and eleven times cheaper. (Russell 2013, 95–96; Franconi 2014, 41–6)

Even Finley (1999, 128–129) agreed that "[w]ater transport ... created radical new possibilities", although he down-played the implications, because "[e]asy access to the sea or a major river was only a necessary condition for growth, not a sufficient (one)." Based on archaeological dis-tribution patterns, however, Hopkins (1983), argued that overland trade was common for bulk goods, as e.g. wine or ceramics, thanks in part to rivers and lakes. (cf. also Hopkins 1995)

Laurence (2005, 138) argued that "to discuss water and land transport as competing systems ... is to misunderstand the economics of transport in the Roman world"; rivers were 'highways' connecting regional road networks. Similarly, Horden and Purcell's (2000) famous 'connectivity model' has rivers, roads and seas linking up into a gigantic network connecting regions. Lau-rence (1999; 2005) explored this model of integrated transport systems for Italy. Adams (2007) did so for Roman Egypt. Franconi (2014) for the Rhine area. Carreras Monfort and de Soto (2013) built a GIS-based transport network model, integrating navigable rivers, roads, and coastal routes in the Spanish provinces, Italy and Britain—greatly improving the basic model provided by the Stanford ORBIS project for the whole empire ( (cf. also de Soto 2010)
But, waterways are as much man-made as roads are. They require investment, regulation and control. River basins are not naturally connected. Waterfalls, narrows, and rapids obstruct navi-gation. Levels and flows depend on unpredictable rainfall causing floods and torrents. In the north, waterways may freeze in winter. In the south, many rivers run dry in summer. Without tow-paths, canals, portages, locks, connecting roads, ports and warehouses rivers offer only a marginal contribution to trade. Tolls and fees burden profitability. Barges are vulnerable to at-tacks by land from brigands, raiders or soldiers. (Casson 1965; Rickman 1980, 19; DeLaine 1997, 123; Ellmers 1978; Franconi 2014, 32–71; Lentheric 1905; Marlier 2008; tolls: France 2001) Not surprisingly, rivers remained complementary to roads in early modern Europe until 'national' policies improved and regulated navigation. (Holt 2000; Blair 2007; Edwards 1987; Jones 2000; Langdon 2000; Szostak 1991)

Yet, the contribution of rivers and lakes to Roman transport networks continues to be treated in a matter of fact way – despite, for instance, Adams' (2012) acknowledgment of the problems caused by terrain and weather, and Horden and Purcell's (2000, 377) emphasis on social and political contexts as 'lubricants' for overland transport. With the exception of Franconi's PhD on the Rhine, there has been no systematic study of the conditions that need to be fulfilled for wa-terways to offer a significant contribution to overland transport networks. Campbell's (2012) survey of all rivers in the Empire hardly scratches the surface. Jones (2009) does little more than collect empirical data for Roman Britain. Millar (2002) deals almost exclusively with shipping technology.

Campbell (2012, 328) believes that "Rome simply made opportunistic use of the available re-sources" and hardly tried to improve navigation. Given, however, that waterways were part of integrated transport networks, such a passive attitude is hard to reconcile with the resources invested in roads or bridges. The Roman empire was not handicapped by political fragmentation as medieval Europe was. Imperial authorities had the know-how, the man-power, and the funds needed to improve and regulate waterways. Canal projects show that authorities were aware of the advantages. They are badly documented; being mostly shallow (ca. 0.5 to 1.5 m), narrow, and using natural water courses where possible, most were swallowed up in post-roman times by changes in fluvial landscapes. (Salomon et al. 2014; Kort and Raczynski-Henk 2014, 52) Yet, they were a familiar part of Roman water management. Most were intended primarily for irriga-tion and watering, but that did not exclude navigation as Augustus' canal through the Pontine marshes shows (Strabo 5,3,6 ; Horace 1,5,12). (cf. Salomon et al. 2014 on multiple purposes canals) Many, like the fossa Corbulonis from the Rhine to the Meuse (Kort and Raczynski-Henk 2014), or the canal by-passing the Iron Gate on the Danube (Šašel 1973), were built to facilitate military logistics, but served also commercial purposes. Others, like Pliny's project to connect Nicomedia to the Black Sea (Moore 1950), or Trajan's repairs and improvements to the 'phar-aonic' canal from Nile to Red Sea (Aubert 2004), aimed to stimulate regional developments, boosting imperial prestige and fiscal revenues. Small local canals, as between Aventicum and lake Morat, show the interest of local polities. (Bonnet 1982)

Roman authorities improved and supported riverine transport also in other ways. Reliefs and archaeology document tow paths, quays and harbours. The Classis Germanica, patrolled the lower parts and estuaries of Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. Guilds of barge skippers, protected by powerful Gallic aristocrats, were influential in Lugdunensis and Germania Superior. Some of their presidents belonged to the civic elites that ruled the Gallic civitates. If Rome neglected wa-terways despite of being aware of their potential contribution to overland transport networks, and of having the know-how and resources needed, and of having well-connected and influen-tial guilds to represent the interests of barge skippers, the question why only becomes more pressing. Franconi's study shows that substantial progress can be made if we combine historical, archaeological, ecological and comparative data.

Study area

Gaul provides a particularly suitable study area. Ancient authors concur that it prospered thanks to its dense network of navigable rivers (cf. Strabo 4,1,2; Dupré 1999), on which scholars have published extensively (cf. references above). Its transport system was formed in the late 1st c. BCE, when the road network was laid out (39/38 BCE), new provinces were created, and the tribal organisation was restructured into civitas. In the later 3rd century the civil and military or-ganisation in the north changed drastically. This clearly affected the transport system, but the network continued to function until Roman authority crumbled in the early 5th century. We will focus on two regions: the Rhône and Saone basin in the South, connected via the (Swiss) lakes of Germania Superior to the Rhine and Alpine area; and the Meuse and Scheldt basin in the north, connected to the Rhine basin via their estuaries. (cf. Tockner e.a. 2009 for an overview) This builds on Franconi's study of the Rhine basin, and benefits from Bravard's (1986) and Le-veau's (1999) studies of the Rhône basin. (cf. also Bravard et al. 2002) The two zones cover in-stitutionally and ecologically different but interconnected transport networks, linking the Mediterranean to the North Sea.


We have two objectives. First, to study the efficiency characteristics of institutions governing riverine transport. Fragmented authority was less a problem in the Roman empire than in pre-industrial Europe (cf. Holt 2000; Blair 2007), but institutional diversity was nevertheless pro-nounced and various authorities were involved.

First of all, military camps dominated the area along the Rhine and North Sea. Their logistic needs decisively shaped the transport network of the Gallic provinces. The military provided a stable demand for local and for Mediterranean goods (passing i.a. through the Rhone and Saone basin) but imposed also fiscal burdens in kind, in addition to organising its own trans-ports. In return military presence enforced order and increased security. Secondly, local civil authorities enjoyed considerable autonomy over their territory. They were responsible for embankments and port facilities, local regulation and justice. Thirdly, during the Principate barge skipper and merchant guilds (collegia) were important in the Rhône/Saone river basin and the high and alpine Rhine area (but conspicuously not in the north). Although they were not officially endowed with regulatory powers like later medieval guilds, their prominence and powerful patrons suggest they played a co-ordinating role.

The institutional constraints posed by local polities, guilds, military authorities and imperial regulation on the use of inland waterways have never been systematically studied. By taking this perspective we will gain a better understanding of how the Roman institutional framework af-fected the level of efficiency of the transport system.

Our second objective is to evaluate the resource requirements for material interventions in waterways and the impact of these interventions on the performance of overland transport systems. Local, provincial and imperial authorities invested heavily in creating and maintaining the required infrastructure for riverine trade, alongside (and in connection with) investments in the road system and in maritime harbours. This required human resources (technical, logistic and intellectual skills), financial resources and material resources (raw materials). In some cases, as the harbour of Voorburg-Arentsburg (Domínguez-Delmás et al. 2014), building materials were imported from hundreds of kilometres away.

The project will help us better understand how efficient resource inputs in waterways were to increase the capacity of the overall transport system. This objective is connected to the previous because control over resources and access to decision making by agents depends on the institutional framework.

On a higher level, the project will contribute to our understanding of economic development in the Roman world. Roman economic performance cannot be understood without its land transport system, crucial for the integration of land-based areas. (Hitchner 2012) This raises a fundamental question: was there a transport revolution, supported by favourable institutions, investment in ships, waterways, and port facilities, boosting (and supported by) urbanization and markets? (Greene 1986, 40; cf. Aldcroft and Freeman 1983; Freeman 1980; Szostak 1991)

The 'primitivist orthodoxy' of the 1970s and 1980s is dead. Archaeological data show that the quantity, quality and distribution of production was matched in the west only in early modern times. Various explanations have been suggested for this high level performance (cf. Scheidel 2012): the role of institutions and the state (Scheidel e.a. 2007; Bang 2007; 2008), neo-classical market-dynamics (Temin 2013), technological innovation and diffusion (Wilson 2002; 2009, 23¬¬-38), or climate change (Sallares 2007). Our project will contribute by focusing on one of the most basic requirements for any type of economic development: connectivity.

In doing so we adopt as our overarching theoretical frame the model proposed by complexity economics, which analyses economics systems as dynamic networks of autonomous agents, and posits that structural growth and development depends on the properties of these networks. Successful economies are characterised by dense networks of agents (with small-world effects increasing resilience) capable of contributing a diversity of products and services (Beinhocker 2006; Hausmann and Hidalgo 2013).


Methodologically we will focus on (1) institutions, i.e. the norms and regulations that serve as the 'rules of the game' (North 2008), (2) agents, and (3) spatial structures.

Our first step will be to study the relevant institutions affecting inland waterway transport—both private (e.g. re-sponsibilities for cargo, rights and duties of adjacent landowners) and public (e.g. tolls and fees, licences, privileges). The data come primarily from legal texts (i.a. four chapters and c. 100 vari-ous passages of the Digest, a few dozen comments in the Codices), but also from the handbooks of land surveyors (Gromatici)), and official inscriptions (c. 100-200). Campbell (2012, 83-117) provides a first list of textual sources and an overview of legal regulations that can easily be ex-panded.

Next, we will project these institutions in time and space onto the realities of our study area, and thus establish (changes in) the 'institutional competence' of the agents involved in governing and using the transport system, i.e. their submission to, or control over, the relevant institutions and their enforcement. Our assumption is that institutional competence is correlated to the agents' formal and informal status.

    • In the case of public agents
      • (a) the degree of autonomy of collectives (their status as vicus, civitas, municipium latinum, castrum or castellum ...) and
      • (b) the functional authority of individuals (procurator, praefectus, centurio, ...).
    • In the case of private agents
      • (c) the legal and social status of individuals (free, slave, civis romanus ..., council member, guild officer, ...), and
      • (d) the degree of incorporation and privileges of collectives (guilds, communities)

This approach implies identifying the agents and their status attributes. Much work has already been done on individual shippers and merchants, their guilds (collegia), and mercantile communities, for which our data derive mainly from inscriptions sources. Broekaert (2013) authored a prosopography on traders and transporters, building on previous studies by i.a. Krier (1981) and Wierschowski (2001). This provides a firm basis to analyse individual agents (c. 200 individuals). Verboven has collected data on 59 documented transport and mercantile collegia and communities in the study area (c. 90% of the total) in his Ghent Database of Roman Guilds and Occupation Based Communities. The internal organisation and status of collegia is relatively well known thanks to the inscriptions that document them. None were official regulatory agencies (contrary to medieval guilds), but there was a direct correlation between their wealth/social prestige on the one hand (as revealed by the inscriptions documenting the status of their patrons, or the privileges and benefactions they received), and their influence/spokesmanship on the other. Public agents and their status are easily identified on the basis of public epigraphy, although some ambiguities are inevitable, for instance in determining relations between military and civil authorities. We can rely on extensive studies (mainly) by French scholars of the former 'Centre Gustave Glotz' (now ANHIMA), to which prof. K. Verboven was affiliated (Dondin-Payre and Raepsaet-Charlier 1999; 2001; Dondin-Payre et al. 2006; Lamoine 2009, see also the overview at

The project will integrate these existing data on agents, with their institutional competence attributes and spatial structures (below) in a dynamic multi-mode network model. To do this we will use the SNA-software Pajek (Broekaert is an acknowledged SNA ex-pert). By using this approach we will be able, for instance, to reveal links via shared patronage and/or officer relations, between local networks (e.g. of craftsmen) and merchant and trans-porter networks (e.g. of barge skippers); or, for instance, to distinguish route preferences of agents based on institutional diversity, by linking transport routes to public and private agents with attributes expressing their institutional competence.

Thirdly, spatial analysis will be used to analyse the role of waterways through time. The model we aim to build for this will complement for our study area the GIS-based transport model de-veloped by Carreras Monfort and de Soto (2013) for Britain, Italy and the Spanish provinces, but will increase its resolution by including fluvial attributes (flows, depths, seasonal variation ...), and institutional (above) and functional attributes of places (harbours, market, ...). The groundwork for this has already been prepared for the above mentioned Ghent Database of Roman Guilds and Occupation Based Communities, which is linked to ArcGIS shapefiles containing the rivers and roads network, administrative territorial divisions, settlements, towns, and army camps. For this project we need to further define segments of waterways (e.g. between settlements, ports, road intersections, ...) and add the attributes described above. Basic data on hydrology and ge-omorphology (with further literature) are available in Rivers of Europe, for the Rhône/Saône, Rhine and Meuse basins. (Tockner e.a. 2009; on fluvial landscape archaeology see Bonnamour 2000; Edgeworth 2011; Vermeulen and Dapper 2000; Dapper e.a. 2009) More detailed data for the Rhine basin are available in Franconi's PhD (cf. also Franconi 2016). For the Rhône basin and several other French rivers and lakes information has been collected by Bravard and Leveau. (Bravard 1986; Bravard et al. 2002; Leveau 1999). Besides the already mentioned epigraphic data, archaeological data concerning the remains of boats, quays, warehouses etc. will be used to identify and date functional features. (Wawrzinek 2014) offers a catalogue and synthesis of the archaeological remains of river and lake ports. A list of shipwrecks and further bibliography is available on the website of the Rheinisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (; cf. Mees e.a. 2002) Iconographic sources have been stud-ied by Ellmers (1978), Zimmer (1982) and Langner. In addition to identifying potential transport routes based on connected places we will use (when available) provenance data of archaeologi-cal remains. There are a plethora of useful studies on ceramics—amphorae (e.g. Martin-Kilcher 1987; Freeden and Martell 2006) as well as fine ware (e.g. Lewit 2013; Mees and Dannell 2015, Hartley e.a. 2008 (cf. Recent dendrological provenance data are available for some barges and ports in the Rhine area (Haalebos 1996; Jansma e.a. 2007; 2014; Domínguez-Delmás e.a. 2014; cf. also Thiébaux 2011 (Pommeroeul); Djaoui e.a. 2011 (Arles)). Prof. De Clercq is engaged in a mineralogical research project to estab-lish the provenance of the Nehalennia monuments found in Domburg and Colijnsplaat. The thus reconstructed transport network will then be studied using the Spatial Analyst and Network Analyst tools in ArcGis. These will allow us to generate detailed accessibility maps and to identify optimal routes under various seasonal conditions for a selected range of parameters, e.g. speed, tonnage, costs, reliability etc.. The inclusion of attributes expressing institutional compe-tence of agents will allow us to compare the impact of societal and institutional changes on the performance of the transport network.

The output of the project will consist first of all of a PhD thesis and research articles directly related to the project. The final envisaged output is a scholarly book that is innovative in its field but also accessible to non-ancient historians, archaeologists and social scientists. Besides the envisaged interim articles, we intend to present the project in conference papers and guest-lectures. The transport network model will be made available online, enabling researchers to generate maps and possible transport routes. The datasets will be made available on a CC-BY license and will thereby contribute to existing online resource depositories and projects mentioned above—Orbis, Pleiades, Digital Atlas of the Roman World, Trismegistos—that likewise operate on a CC-BY license basis. 


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  • Communication to a non expert audience
  • The topic of this project is well suited for popular lectures and publications. The research group Classical History at Ghent University hosts the local (Oost-Vlaanderen) branch of the Nederlands Klassiek Verbond. This is a non-profit organization with as a mission the popularization of Clas-sics research. NKV also publishes a bi-monthly magazine (Hermeneus) with popularizing articles. The web-version of the transport network will be easy to use by undergraduate students and amateurs.