Topographical issues in the Itinerarium Egeriae : An essay on the modalities of travel in the fourth century AD

Cristina Corsi (Università di Cassino)

Since the relatively recent discovery of the parchment reporting the incomplete narrative of a journey undertaken to the Holy Land, the text of the so-called Itinerarium Egeriae (formerly known as Peregrinatio Aetheriae) has attracted an amazing attention from scholars. Actually, the parchment, written at Montecassino and dated to the eleventh century, was found only at the end of the nineteenth century by Gian Francesco Gamurrini in the library of the Confraternita dei Laici in Arezzo.

At the stage of its first publication, the incompleteness of the text, missing its first and last parts and affected by two large lacunae, generated many speculations. These mainly concerned the origin, the status, the social level and even the name and identification of the woman that featured in the text as the leader of the small group of pilgrims headed to the Holy Land.

Actually, the text is a narrative in epistle style of the journey from a western province to Palestine and Mesopotamia. The initial missing part of the text might have contained information about the protagonist, a woman who Gamurrini identified with St. Silvia from Aquitania, to the point that he entitled the work “Sanctae Silvae Aquitanae Peregrinatio”.

The lacunae are partially filled by information coming from other texts. The Liber de Locis Sanctis written by Peter the Deacon, abbot of Montecassino in 1137, and a letter addressed by a monk named Valerius to his brothers in the monastery of El Vierzo in the seventh century, allow us to established the western origin of the protagonist (Gallia or Galitia) and the correct spelling of the name of the woman as Egeria and not Aetheria, as often reported in the less recent literature.

Also the exact date of the journey has been long debated. The most documented hence reliable date seems to be the one established by Devos, who fixes the arrival in Jerusalem before Easter of AD 381, and the return journey at the earliest in the Spring of AD 384.

Schematic map of the trips undertaken by Egeria. Copyright: Creative Commons :

Once the identification with the Gallic Saint had fallen, the title of Itinerarium Egeriae became more popular than the one of Peregrinatio. The actual title highlights the first part of the text, with the description of the peregrinations undertaken in several regions of the Middle East, and of the inbound trip from Jerusalem to Constantinople. The most recent designation also assimilates this document to the few known Roman itineraria, with the Itinerarium Burdigalense vel Hierosolymitanum, the punctual description of the journey undertaken in AD 333-334 from Bordeaux to Jerusalem by an anonymous pilgrim, as main comparative document. Certainly, even without the maniacal precision of the report of the Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who annotated all main and intermediate stops along the route and the distances in between all of them, the Itinerarium Egeriae contains some interesting information about the modalities of travel at the end of the fourth century. Here, we will discuss some of these details, often neglected when not misinterpreted by scholarship.

Conversely, we will not discuss here the matters related to the origin or the status of Egeria, even if – for the sake of this research – it is essential to underline that we will consider the pilgrim as a wealthy yet not aristocratic woman, definitely a lay and not a nun. The same Egeria, even if for modesty sake, claims herself to be an ‘unimportant person’ (Eg., V, 12). We will also stress that the comparison with other famous pilgrim women, like Melania Junior, Melania Senior and Paola, shows that, notwithstanding the fact that Egeria seems to enjoy a special treatment by the local clergy, she probably was offered the same treats as other pilgrims that, mainly when departing from far lands, clearly were able to afford such a demanding trip. For instance, it is evident that the monks and the other ‘men of God’ or ‘holy men’ who act as ‘holy guides’ are very experienced in the tours through the pilgrimage sites and sanctuaries, as they were regularly engaged with them.

The same applies to other ‘services’ like the military escort along the road through the desert in the Sinai peninsula: such protection was surely offered to all travellers, caravans and convoys.

One essential point for this essay is the discussion of the argument that Egeria was awarded the right to make free use of the infrastructures of the cursus publicus, the imperial office in charge of the management of traffic related to official business.

The link with the cursus publicus has been ‘automatically’ created since the term mansio, erroneously considered a technical term of the state service, is eventually used in describing some routes. A critical analysis of the contexts in which the term is used rather shows that, in most cases, mansio is a general term to indicate a place where it is possible to stay, directly deriving from the verb manere. The term is used in Eg. III, 1 in the sense of ‘to spend the night’: ‘Ibi ergo mansimus in ea nocte’ (see: Eg., V, 2; VI, 1; XXIII, 1; XXIII, 6 and 7). Furthermore, sometimes mansio indicates a shorter stay (only one night), compared to a longer stay (e.g. the resumendum biduo and the stativa triduana, being respectively a rest of two days and a stay of three nights). The periphrastic formula ‘mansionem facere’ is used in several passes of the Itinerarium Egeriae (e.g. Eg., IV, 8), and finds some comparative uses. In other occasions, mansio is used as a unit of distance (e.g.: Eg., VII, 2; XIII, 2; XVII, 2; XX, 12). In other occasions (e.g. Eg., IX, 7; XVI, 7) the expression ‘per singular mansiones’ is linked to the action of ‘iter facere’ to describe the way in which the route was followed.

The preserved part of the text starts when the small group of pilgrims has already reached Jerusalem, the narration of the outbound journey being completely lost. However, since it is said that the return itinerary followed the same route, we have a rough idea of the route from Jerusalem to Constantinople. The long stay in Jerusalem is enriched by the description of the liturgy in use in the Holy Town; in this case, some interesting information about the modalities of travel leaks from the tale of the places where Egeria and her travel companions overnight. Such is the case of the ecclesiae offering lodging, where indeed Egeria stays 3 consecutive nights (Eg., XIX, 3; supra).

We are informed that the group has already made several ‘excursions’ in Judea, Samaria, Galilea, up to the region of Thebes in Egypt, and the Sinai, where Egeria returns a second time. It is during the return trip from Sinai, via Pharan and Clysma, that we pick up the narration of the peregrinations. More in detail, thanks to the integration with the testimony of Peter the Deacon, we can establish that the coastal route that Egeria follows from Jerusalem to Pelusium, east of the Nile Delta, in Egypt, back to Clysma on the Gulf of Suez, where the pilgrims undertake the visit of the Sinai peninsula, includes 22 stopping places, whereas the route from Pelusium to Mount Sinai is divided in 12 staging posts (Pet.Diac., Y4, see Wilkinson 1999, p. 101).

Clysma is the basis from which the pilgrims undertake the ascend to Mount Sinai, that is reached usually after an overnight in a monastery (Eg., III.1) and that implies a stop-over at the Burning Bush. On the way back, it is customary to overnight in Pharan (current Feiran, where the party possibly stopped also on the outbound journey), where the party stays for a two-days rest (Eg. VI, 1).

After leaving Pharan, Egeria moves on briskly and reaches a mansio in the desert of Pharan, where she already stayed. There it is possible to obtain a supply of water and take the road toward the sea. There are another 5 stopping-places to return to Clysma, reaching first the mansio supra Marem, where, referring to the facilities for travellers, Egeria comments the skill of the camel-drivers (Eg., VI, 2), disclosing the possibility that even her party has made use of these animals. As already noted above, it is evident that the party makes use of mounts: in VI, 1 it is said that they are riding so close to the Red Sea that the sea water bathes the animals’ feet. Even if in the opening of the preserved text, just at the beginning of the ascend of Mount Sinai, it is explicitly said that the hike has been done on foot (I.1), further in the storytelling, Egeria unambiguously explains that the climb of the peak of Sinai is impossible to be done on a mount, implying that she is used to ride an animal. Moreover, in Eg. VI.1, it is said that the distance from the Mount of God to Pharan is 35 miles, a leg that is hardly possible to cover in one day on foot. The whole party then, including the holy men that escort the pilgrims from Mount Sinai to Pharan, must have been provided of a mount.

Mount Sinai. Public Domain:

This fact in no way proves that Egeria belonged to the highest level of society, neither that she was using the Cursus Publicus.

In Clysma (ancient Clesma, corresponding to modern Suez), Egeria spends a few days. The return journey until the so-called mansio Arabia (probably a term indicating a small settlement), which encompasses 4 stops in mansiones, is done with the support of a military patrol, escorting the group from one stop to the following, the stop being described as a mansio, a monastery but also a castrum (Eg., VII, 2). This ‘militarised’ route probably follows the border between Egypt and Palaestina Salutaris, and it is clear from Eg. VII, 4 that, in this stretch of road, this escorting service is customary.

Later, during the long stay in the Middle East the group ascends Mount Nebo. Once returned to Jerusalem, Egeria, passing via Carneas, undertakes pilgrimages to the far lands of Mesopotamia, beyond the river Euphrates, until Edessa, where the group arrives after passing 25 (unspecified) mansiones and civitates (we are informed only that they cross Antioch, Hierapolis and Batanis), up to Charrae (Haran). She goes back to Antioch, from where she leaves to Cilicia and Isauria, diverting to the martyrium of Saint Thecla (Eg., XXII, 1 ff.)

It is evident, then, that, even if in fragmentary elements, the Itinerarium Egeriae provides us with some interesting notes about the habits of pilgrims and the practicalities of travel. For instance, in a few passes, the verb descendere indicates the action of stopping in a certain place (e.g. Eg., VII, 7), since it is related to the dismounting from the ride (e.g. Eg., XIV,1: descendimus de animalibus), whereas the verb (se) resumere refers to the act of resting more in general.

The places where Egeria and her party overnight are clearly of different type: she seems to favour monasteries and religious guest-houses or hostels, even if the terminology sounds a bit strange: in Eg. III,1 the verb describing the hosting by the monks is suscipere, contrary to the more conventional use of hospitio accipere, recipere, excipere. Moreover, it is clear that the group stops over at the road-stations set up along the road of the Roman Empire only when there is no alternative.

It is pointless to discuss whether the group is provided with the pass that awarded the right to make free use of the facilities for travellers offered in certain road-stations, included in the system of the cursus publicus. The most probable – even if less usual – interpretation is that even those road-stations inserted in that circuit were open to the general public, that had just to pay for the services.

Hartmann Schedel: DESTRVCCIO IHEROSOLIME (from the Liber cronicarum, Nuremberg 1493). (c) Public Domain

However, when we compare this document with other pilgrimage itineraries, the Itinerarium Burdigalense above all, it is clear that even if the organisation behind the management of traffic along main roads is still efficient, in the fifty years elapsed between the journeys of the pilgrim of Bordeaux and of Egeria, the attitude of pilgrims has radically changed, since they seem to favour other type of infrastructures for lodging, provided by monasteries and local churches.

It is for the many holy men that generously offered hospitality to her party that the gratitude of Egeria is reserved (Eg., IV, 12), for their tireless activity of guiding her to the places mentioned in the Scriptures. Her interest is addressed mainly in the places themselves, not in the journey to them. Fatigue and privation are of course part of the experience, but the displacement from one holy place to another is meaningful only if experienced in a religious context.

Undoubtedly our Late Roman and Late Antique sources are biased towards the ‘christianised’ journey. The analysis of the other sets of sources (juridical, literary, epigraphical) clearly shows how hard the imperial administration tried to keep not only the road network but also the whole communication and transportation system efficient. However, it is also evident that travellers progressively detached from the public infrastructures and started to consider the journey not as just functional to reach a destination but also like a path to salvation, more like an occasion for a spiritual experience than a simple displacement.


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Cristina Corsi (2017, 4 novembre). Topographical issues in the Itinerarium Egeriae : An essay on the modalities of travel in the fourth century AD. HospitAm. Consulté le 25 mai 2024, à l’adresse

Cristina Corsi

- la formation et la transformation de l'espace dans les civilisations anciennes: les dynamiques du peuplement, la formation et la transformation des villes, la continuité et la discontinuité entre les sociétés classiques et les structures de l'espace ancien de l’antiquité tardive et de l’époque médiévale; - Le processus de romanisation dans différents contextes méditerranéens; - Les routes, les réseaux de communication et les modalités de voyage dans les périodes romaines, de l’antiquité tardive et médiévales; - Les méthodologies et les bonnes pratiques dans les diagnostics archéologiques; -Fouilles et prospections réalisées dans la ville romaine d’Ammaia en Lusitanie.

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Auteur/autrice : Cristina Corsi

- la formation et la transformation de l'espace dans les civilisations anciennes: les dynamiques du peuplement, la formation et la transformation des villes, la continuité et la discontinuité entre les sociétés classiques et les structures de l'espace ancien de l’antiquité tardive et de l’époque médiévale; - Le processus de romanisation dans différents contextes méditerranéens; - Les routes, les réseaux de communication et les modalités de voyage dans les périodes romaines, de l’antiquité tardive et médiévales; - Les méthodologies et les bonnes pratiques dans les diagnostics archéologiques; -Fouilles et prospections réalisées dans la ville romaine d’Ammaia en Lusitanie.

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