River boats

There were no passenger boats in the Roman Empire, so people who wanted to travel by river or sea had to negotiate a lift on a cargo boat. There were many different kinds of ships, boats and barges, and goods like the African pottery and barrels of wine or fish products carried on the Lady Luck were transported by water.

This 4th century Roman map shows the huge Rhodanus (Rhône) river, with its three outlets to the Mediterranean Sea, the confluence with the big Druentia, and the road route (in red) from Arelate towards Avennio (via Ernaginum). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Barges full of cargo were dragged upstream against the strong flow of the river by teams of up to fifty men walking on the riverbanks. The work was very slow and very hard. Roman writers describe their bent backs and the noise of their shouts, and sculptures show them walking with sticks, pulling ropes tied to a towing mast. The barges could return downstream more quickly by floating with the river current.

Roman sculpture showing men hauling a barge carrying barrels, southern France. Photo Carole Raddato via followinghadrian.com

We modelled the Lady Luck on a real barge found by archaeologists in the Rhône River at Arles.  This boat, which is on display at the Museum of Ancient Arles, is very long and thin and shallow, to navigate the rough waters of the river. 

The real Rhone river barge found at Arles, on which the Lady Luck in the story is based. Photo Finoskov via Wikimedia Commons

The name of a boat owner called Anatolius was found on a bronze token in Arles, so we gave his name to the captain of the Lady Luck. It is possible that he or his family came from Anatolia (modern Turkey). You can see the token here.

The details of the journey in Chapters 16-25 are based on Roman writings and images, descriptions of the life of the Rhône barge men in medieval documents and the book Lord of the River set in 1840, when barges were towed by horses but the river conditions were little changed. A wooden bailer like Borius’s was found in a Roman boat wreck in Italy.


Not much survives of Roman Avennio (now Avignon) apart from the remains of a huge row of arches along the Rhône, so we had to imagine where the Lady Luck would dock in Chapter 25. There was probably no bridge yet over the river, and it is likely that there were lots of small islands instead of the one large one we see today. Crossings would have been made by boat. Luxury villas had private river docks, so Caelius Saturninus Dogmatius and the other visitors arrive by boat in Chapter 34 and the children leave Villa Fontanicum by boat in Chapter 41.

The remains of a huge row of arches of Roman Avennio, each originally nearly 5 m high and stretching more than 250 m along what was then the bank of the Rhône. Photo Véronique PAGNIER via Wikimedia Commons

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