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The Highway of the Sea

The coastline of mainland Greece1 was so jagged that almost all its communities were within forty miles of the sea. Most Greeks, regardless of where they lived, never traveled very far from their home; what few long-distance travelers there were customarily went by sea. Overland transport was slow and expensive because rudimentary dirt paths served as the only roads in the predominantly mountainous terrain where most Greeks lived. Their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea allowed Greek entrepreneurs to use it as a highway for contact with one another and for potentially lucrative international trade with, in particular, Egypt and the Near East. But going to sea meant dangers from pirates2 and storms, and prevailing winds and fierce gales almost ruled out sailing in winter. Even in calm conditions sailors hugged the coast as much as possible and preferred to put in to shore at night for safety. As the eighth-century poet Hesiod commented, merchants needing to make a living took to the sea “because an income means life to poor mortals, but it is a terrible fate to die among the waves.”3

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