A 12th Century Tour, Part 2 - Italy

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela traveled from his home in northern Spain to Baghdad and beyond. He followed pilgrimage and trade routes, visited scattered communities of Jews through the Mediterranean, and recorded where he visited. I'm turning his record - his itinerary - into a series of posts on medieval travel.

I'm not the first person to discuss medieval itineraries in this context. Daniel Sell covered some basic rules for generating your own and using them to run an exploration- or trade-based game.

Series: Part 1

Part 2: Italy

From Marseilles one can take ship and in four days reach Genoa, which is also upon the sea. Here live two Jews, R. Samuel, son of Salim, and his brother, from the city of Ceuta, both of them good men. The city is surrounded by a wall, and the inhabitants are not governed by any king, but by judges whom they appoint at their pleasure. Each householder has a tower to his house, and at times of strife they fight from the tops of the towers with each other. They have command of the sea. They build ships which they call galleys, and make predatory attacks upon Edom and Ishmael and the land of Greece as far as Sicily, and they bring back to Genoa spoils from all these places. They are constantly at war with the men of Pisa. Between them and the Pisans there is a distance of two days' journey.
I can't find any good articles on the towers of Genoa, but they must have resembled the famous and mysterious Towers of Bologna. "Edom and Ishmael" here means "Christian and Muslim"; the Genoese did not discriminate. Genoa used dromon-type galleys, crewed by up to 1,000 men.
Pisa is a very great city, with about 10,000 turreted houses for battle at times of strife. All its inhabitants are mighty men. They possess neither king nor prince to govern them, but only the judges appointed by themselves. In this city are about twenty Jews, at their head being R. Moses, R. Chayim, and R. Joseph. The city is not surrounded by a wall. It is about six miles from the sea; the river which flows through the city provides it with ingress and egress for ships.
From Pisa it is four parasangs to the city of Lucca, which is the beginning of the frontier of Lombardy. In the city of Lucca are about forty Jews. It is a large place, and at the head of the Jews are R. David, R. Samuel, and R. Jacob.
Both Pisa and Lucca continued the tower-building trend. The parasang is a variable unit.10 parasangs make a day's journey.
Thence it is six days' journey to the great city of Rome. Rome is the head of the kingdoms of Christendom, and contains about 200 Jews, who occupy an honourable position and pay no tribute, and amongst them are officials of the Pope Alexander, the spiritual head of all Christendom. Great scholars reside here, at the head of them being R. Daniel, the chief rabbi, and R. Jechiel, an official of the Pope. He is a handsome young man of intelligence and wisdom, and he has the entry of the Pope's palace; for he is the steward of his house and of all that he has. He is a grandson of R. Nathan, who composed the Aruch and its commentaries. Other scholars are R. Joab, son of the chief rabbi R. Solomon, R. Menachem, head of the academy, R. Jechiel, who lives in Trastevere, and R. Benjamin, son of R. Shabbethai of blessed memory. Rome is divided into two parts by the River Tiber. In the one part is the great church which they call St. Peter's of Rome. The great Palace of Julius Caesar was also in Rome.
Benjamin took the coast road, avoiding Florence entirely. Pope Alexander VI is, of course, the most famous of his name, but Benjamin is referring to Pope Alexander III. His papacy was not a quiet one; he endured a papal schism, arrest, detention, exile, and an ecumenical council. In fact, when Benjamin visited Rome, the Pope was likely in exile. He lived in France from his election in 1159 until 1165, then Benevento from 1166 to 1176. Benjamin probably visited Rome in 1165 or 1166.
There are many wonderful structures in the city, different from any others in the world. Including both its inhabited and ruined parts, Rome is about twenty-four miles in circumference. In the midst thereof there are eighty palaces belonging to eighty kings who lived there, each called Imperator, commencing from King Tarquinius down to Nero and Tiberius, who lived at the time of Jesus the Nazarene, ending with Pepin, who freed the land of Sepharad from Islam, and was father of Charlemagne.
Rome, in the 12th century, was not a grand metropolis. Any traveler could clearly see the "ruined parts", the abandoned palaces, the empty roads. A city built for over a million inhabitants housed only 30,000 when Benjamin visited. Benjamin skips the Roman Republic, moving directly from the ancient kings of Rome to the early Emperors. "Sepharad" is another name for Spain.
There is a palace outside Rome (said to be of Titus). The Consul and his 300 Senators treated him with disfavour, because he failed to take Jerusalem till after three years, though they had bidden him to capture it within two.
This story is entirely legendary and is probably taken from the Josippon, but you can see why Benjamin would record it. Tour guides haven't changed much over the centuries.
In Rome is also the palace of Vespasianus, a great and very strong building; also the Colosseum, in which edifice there are 365 sections, according to the days of the solar year; and the circumference of these palaces is three miles. There were battles fought here in olden times, and in the palace more than 100,000 men were slain, and there their bones remain piled up to the present day. The king caused to be engraved a representation of the battle and of the forces on either side facing one another, both warriors and horses, all in marble, to exhibit to the world the war of the days of old.
I'm not sure which palace Benjamin saw; it's possible it no longer exists.
In Rome there is a cave which runs underground, and catacombs of King Tarmal Galsin and his royal consort who are to be found there, seated upon their thrones, and with them about a hundred royal personages. They are all embalmed and preserved to this day.
I have no idea what Benjamin saw here. King Tarmal Galsin could be the Emperor Galba, but I've never heard of a preserved Imperial court in the Roman catacombs.
In the church of St. John in the Lateran there are two bronze columns taken from the Temple, the handiwork of King Solomon, each column being engraved "Solomon the son of David." The Jews of Rome told me that every year upon the 9th of Ab they found the columns exuding moisture like water. There also is the cave where Titus the son of Vespasianus stored the Temple vessels which he brought from Jerusalem. There is also a cave in a hill on one bank of the River Tiber where are the graves of the ten martyrs. In front of St. John in the Lateran there are statues of Samson in marble, with a spear in his hand, and of Absalom the son of King David, and another of Constantinus the Great, who built Constantinople and after whom it was called. The last-named statue is of bronze, the horse being overlaid with gold. Many other edifices are there, and remarkable sights beyond enumeration.
The bronze columns no longer exist. The equestrian statue is probably that of Marcus Aurelius, not Constantine. Benjamin is listing the major Jewish religious tourist sites of Rome, like any pilgrim. I think his description of Rome is one of the best I've ever read. It's a wonderful blend of myth, half-truth, history, and condensed fact.
From Rome it is four days to Capua, the large town which King Capys built. It is a fine city, but its water is bad, and the country is fever-stricken. About 300 Jews live there, among them great scholars and esteemed persons, at their heads being R. Conso, his brother R. Israel, R. Zaken and the chief rabbi R. David, since deceased. They call this district the Principality.
The "fever" here is malaria, a particularly deadly scourge to travelers.
From there one goes to Pozzuoli which is called Sorrento the Great, built by Zur, son of Hadadezer, when he fled in fear of David the king. The sea has risen and covered the city from its two sides, and at the present day one can still see the markets and towers which stood in the midst of the city. A spring issues forth from beneath the ground containing the oil which is called petroleum. People collect it from the surface of the water and use it medicinally. There are also hot-water springs to the number of about twenty, which issue from the ground and are situated near the sea, and every man who has any disease can go and bathe in them and get cured. All the afflicted of Lombardy visit it in the summer-time for that purpose.
Benjamin's legend of the origin of Pozzuoli is... spurious, at best, but sunken city he describes really did exist.
From this place a man can travel fifteen miles along a road under the mountains, a work executed by King Romulus who built the city of Rome. He was prompted to this by fear of King David and Joab his general. He built fortifications both upon the mountains and below the mountains reaching as far as the city of Naples. Naples is a very strong city, lying upon the sea-board, and was founded by the Greeks. About 500 Jews live here, amongst them R. Hezekiah, R. Shallum, R. Elijah Hacohen and R. Isaac of Har Napus, the chief rabbi of blessed memory.
The tunnel Benjamin describes is not fifteen miles long, but it is still very impressive. King Romulus was probably not afraid of King David and Joab; even in the stories, King David lived two centuries before Rome's mythical founder. Some commentaries express doubt that he visited the site in person and attribute these tales quoting Josippon again.
Thence one proceeds by sea to the city of Salerno, where the Christians have a school of medicine. About 600 Jews dwell there. Among the scholars are R. Judah, son of R. Isaac, the son of Melchizedek, the great Rabbi, who came from the city of Siponto; also R. Solomon (the Cohen), R. Elijah the Greek, R. Abraham Narboni, and R. Hamon. It is a city with walls upon the land side, the other side bordering on the sea and there is a very strong castle on the summit of the hill. Thence it is half a day's journey to Amalfi, where there are about twenty Jews, amongst them R. Hananel, the physician, R. Elisha, and Abu-al-gir, the prince. The inhabitants of the place are merchants engaged in trade, who do not sow or reap, because they dwell upon high hills and lofty crags, but buy everything for money. Nevertheless, they have an abundance of fruit, for it is a land of vineyards and olives, of gardens and plantations, and no one can go to war with them.

The mountains between Naples and Salerno make sea travel advisable. The Schola Medica Salernitana was at the height of its influence when Benjamin visited Salerno. It was, arguably, the first university in the western world, complete with unlikely teachers, an extensive library, and a charming Hogwarts-like founding myth. Benjamin's description of Amalfi neglects to mention that the city was captured and sacked in 1133, 1135, and 1137.
Thence it is a day's journey to Benevento, which is a city situated between the sea-coast and a mountain, and possessing a community of about 200 Jews. At their head are R. Kalonymus, R. Zarach, and R. Abraham. From there it is two days' journey to Melfi in the country of Apulia, which is the land of Pul, where about 200 Jews reside, at their head being R. Achimaaz, R. Nathan, and R. Isaac. From Melfi it is about a day's journey to Ascoli, where there are about forty Jews, at their head being R. Consoli, R. Zemach, his son-in-law, and R. Joseph. From there it takes two days to Trani on the sea, where all the pilgrims gather to go to Jerusalem; for the port is a convenient one. A community of about 200 Israelites is there, at their head being R. Elijah, R. Nathan, the expounder, and R. Jacob. It is a great and beautiful city.
Benjamin cut across the ankle of the boot of Italy, heading inland to reach the eastern coast.
From there it is a day's journey to Colo di Bari, which is the great city which King William of Sicily destroyed. Neither Jews nor Gentiles live there at the present day in consequence of its destruction.
Bari was destroyed by William the Bad in 1156 and ordered to be rebuilt by William the Good in 1169. Convenient.
Thence it is a day and a half to Taranto, which is under the government of Calabria, the inhabitants of which are Greek. It is a large city, and contains about 300 Jews, some of them men of learning, and at their head are R. Meir, R. Nathan, and R. Israel. 
From Taranto it is a day's journey to Brindisi, which is on the sea coast. About ten Jews, who are dyers, reside here. It is two days' journey to Otranto, which is on the coast of the Greek sea. Here are about 50 Jews, at the head of them being R. Menachem, R. Caleb, R. Meir, and R. Mali. From Otranto it is a voyage of two days to Corfu, where only one Jew of the name of R. Joseph lives, and here ends the kingdom of Sicily.
Corfu changed hands many times in the 10th-14th centuries. Norman adventurers, Genoese pirates, Byzantine nostalgists, Venetian militants, and probably a few short-lived governments that escaped the official records.

Trade Route Map of Part 2


Representative Map of Part 2

This map uses only Benjamin's descriptions, ignoring actual geography. It loops back and forth like the Tabula Peutingeriana.

Summary of Part 2

From Marseilles to Otranto, Benjamin traveled 997 miles or 1,603 km. Estimated travel time is (because he doesn't list a few short trips) is 27 days. His average overland travel rate for this leg is consistent with Part 1, at 41 miles or 66km per day.

He writes of:
-A city of pirates
-A city (or several cities) where people build towers and fight each other from their tops
-A giant city full of ruins of the ancient world
-A remote and disfavoured palace of a king who failed to take a city
-An arena full of bones
-An arena three miles in circumference
-An embalmed emperor and his court in the catacombs
-A city with bad water and constant fever
-Medicinal petroleum
-A sunken city
-Healing hot springs
-A titanic tunnel connecting two cities
-A medical school founded by four unlikely people
-An island that changes hands every few years

In Part 3, Benjamin travels through Greece and Byzantium, and reaches the crown jewel of the 12th century Christian world - Constantinople.


  1. 41 miles or 66km per day seems like a high average if on foot. Do you know if he rode or maybe just traveled very purposefully (or did he break for a while between each city)? 20 miles ≈ 35 km is a fairly manageable hike pr. day and should be sustainable over several weeks for people in good health. I'd say more than that quickly becomes strenuous.

    1. Great stuff btw! The points on your summery all sounds perfect for a hexcrawl!

    2. He absolutely took breaks. Depending on whose timeline you trust, he was in Rome in either 1159 or 1165 (1165 being more likely). According to some notes, he must have left Greece (part 3) in 1167. The travel times seem short, but they were not continuous. He also may have traveled by cart or horseback for portions of the trip.

    3. Thanks, that makes perfect sense. I suppose he’d need some time to actually talk to all those rabbis and congregations as well. Looking forward to the rest of it!

  2. I like the parasang unit (but prefer to call it league). You can even use an hex map an say that each hex is 8 leagues wide (for 24 mile hex) which is a more manageable number I guess.

  3. Interesting how the number of Jews increases as he moves south (granted, Rome is quite a bit bigger than Pisa, but Naples and certainly Salerno are not bigger than Rome).

    I also wonder whether when he mentions numbers of Jews, he is talking about total numbers of people, or just heads of households, excluding women and children. 200 Jews total seems very low for Rome, and 20 for Pisa is miniscule.

    1. Adler says he's listing heads of households, so it could be families. Later, when he starts talking in terms of 10,000 or 100,000, he's clearly making very broad estimates or relying on the estimates of others.