During the period of ancient Rome (a timeline for which can be accessed through the link provided below), much of the known world was limited to those regions conquered and incorporated into the empire, including Europe, northern Africa, and parts of the Near East and the Caucasus. Basically, it included the Roman Empire’s territorial holdings across the vast but limited territory surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, although European holdings did extend as far north as England. The Mediterranean Sea, consequently, was central to the empire’s ability to function and survive. Toward that end, the Romans used the Mediterranean Sea for both military and economic purposes, sailing across its expanse to conduct trade and to materially support its far-flung legions. Slaves from Africa were transported across it to Rome and all manner of goods, including spices, silver, iron, timber, and other staples of Roman life were imported through the empire’s ports on the sea.
The extent to which the ancient Romans, as well as the Phoenicians and others, relied upon the Mediterranean Sea as a means of transport and sustenance was revealed with the archeological discoveries made by Robert Ballard and his team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, employing an underwater remotely-piloted vehicle called “Jason.” As the eNotes essay, the link to which is also provided below, points out,
“The wrecks found by Ballard helped confirm his earlier hypothesis that not all ancient sailors hugged the coast as they engaged in trade across the Mediterranean but rather sailed across the open sea. These ships were found along a possible open-sea trade route between Rome and modern-day Tunisia, near the ruined city of Carthage, which the Romans destroyed in the second century b.c.e. This open-sea route passed through an area that is notorious for having dangerous currents. Ancient ships traveling along the route apparently tried to avoid sinking by throwing their cargoes overboard, as evidenced by debris trails found by the submarine.”
These archeological discoveries illuminated the importance of the Mediterranean Sea to the Romans, as well as the considerable risks associated with navigating it in the boats of that era. Use of the sea facilitated both the empire’s expansion and its retention, while providing a stable source of food. Mastering the sea, to the extent any nation can fully overcome the obstacles of vast waters, enabled the Roman’s to control their known world.