The question of whether the Romans could have crossed the Atlantic in a storm has already been answered and the answer seems to be: yes but unlikely.

Could the Romans have crossed the Atlantic in a storm

Following on from this question I would like to ask if the Romans could have crossed the Atlantic deliberately rather than accidentally and if so could they have colonised the new world and subdued the locals (Maya or ancient Mexicans)?

Two key reasons why the Romans did not cross the Atlantic:

  1. They didn’t know there was any land west of the Atlantic and assumed it was all ocean.
  2. They would have had little reason to travel to such a remote location even if they had known of its existence. Especially as the journey there would have been very hazardous and the return journey even more so.

To counter these two issues assume that the Romans held a strong religious belief that all lands must be explored and conquered to increase the glory of Rome. Now assume one of the Emperors has a vision that there are more islands to be conquered west of the Canaries. The exact time frame is not critical but any time in the first two centuries CE. Perhaps one of the Romans military campaigns did not take place and the resources went into the Atlantic adventure instead.

Also assume the following:

  • The emperor can devote considerable funds to his pet project for ten or twenty years.
  • Studying the winds and currents gives them a very crude route to follow. South and west on the Canary current and trade winds until land was found, then north to find the north westerly winds on the return.
  • Although the Romans did not have the compass they would have been able to navigate crudely by the position of the sun and stars.

They would not be using triremes but strengthened versions of their own merchant ships capable of carrying 400 tons or more such as this:

Roman grain ship

They might have also made use of the experience of the peoples who sailed the coastal waters of the Atlantic such as the Gaul’s who built very sturdy ships. As noted by Julius Caesar.

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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to Close-Voters: The OP can't fix the problem if he is not made aware of it. I wouldn't say this is opinion-based. I'm voting to leave this question open and not put it on hold. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Sep 18, 2017 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ @ The close voters – yes please give some feedback so that I can improve the question. Unfortunately there has been a lot of speculation over my assumptions, some valid, but not strictly relevant. I almost think there would have been less argument if I had suggested some sort of magic portal to bring the Romans into contact with the Maya. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 18, 2017 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ Could they? Did they? Would they? The answers posited generally seem to revolve around one of these variations of the question. Yes they could have, but it would have been very expensive (it would take something along the lines of the Venetian Arsenal, 800 AD and on link); perhaps they did, there is some anecdotal evidence, but if so they quickly abandoned the attempt; and it is a big stretch to come up with some reason as to why they would, given all of their more pressing priorities.. $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2017 at 5:33
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    $\begingroup$ I'd think everything in world-building is opinion-based. $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2017 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think there is a preponderance of close votes based on the opinions of the close-voters that they just don't like the question, therefore it is not a good question. If this question is so 'not appropriate', then why has it generated so much traffic? $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2017 at 12:34

8 Answers 8


The Romans, or rather the Greeks, because in Roman times the vast majority of mariners were Greek, and possibly Phoenician, could have crossed the Atlantic. Technically. The classical world had extensive long distance maritime trade; ships went from Egypt to India and back routinely. They also had ships larger that the ships used by Columbus. They had lateen sails. But --

  • They didn't know the Americas were there. As far as they knew, there was no land between Europe and Africa and Asia, and they knew perfectly well how big the Earth was. (This was the reason Columbus had so much trouble getting the funds for his expedition; he wanted to sail west to Asia and he insisted that the Earth was a lot smaller and Asia a lot bigger; all professional geographers knew that his numbers were wrong.)

  • They didn't know how to navigate in open sea, or at least they didn't like it, not one bit; but that was a cultural and not a technical limitation. They could have learned quickly if they had a reason to; but they didn't, because in the Mediterranean they didn't have to.

  • They also had no idea of the volta do mar, which makes returning from the Americas quite iffy. To learn this they would have needed to colonize the Canary Islands and the Azores, which they didn't although they knew perfectly well they were there.

Basically, the navigation was not a show-stopping problem.

The fundamental problem was that the Romans were simply not explorers; the genius of the Romans was in administration, in justice, in engineering, in matters military. Exploring was not in their world-view. All the great explorers of the Ancient world had been Greek or Phoenician -- Pytheas, Simmias, Megasthenes, Hanno, Himilco and so on. Not one Roman among them.

They also lacked any incentive to cross the ocean in search of land. There was land aplenty at hand, for example the vast plains of Ukraine, well within the Roman sphere of influence. When they didn't bother to colonize the Ukrainian plains, of which they knew, from where they imported wheat, it's useless to speculate about ocean-crossing exploration.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2017 at 1:33

The Romans did not conquer all the lands that they could have. As regards Ireland, for example:


The evidence against an invasion is quite strong: no ancient source known specifically mentions one. But if there was no invasion or if there was an unsuccessful foray which was not followed up, why was this the case? Around this time there is a loss of impetus generally in the Roman conquest of Britain, possibly caused by military problems elsewhere in the empire, in the Rhine and Danube regions. The Roman army was not large enough to fight on many fronts, and thus soldiers may have been withdrawn from Britain to conflicts elsewhere. The drive to expand in Britain never really returned, which may explain why there was no subsequent invasion of Ireland. After the mid-second century, Roman frontiers were always under pressure from some direction. By this stage they certainly knew what Ireland was like and that it probably was not worth the trouble of invasion.

Ireland was a bunch of mean barbarians with a nice lawn, but what about Bactria? The Greco-Bactrian kingdom was

...highly urbanized and considered as one of the richest of the Orient (opulentissimum illud mille urbium Bactrianum imperium "The extremely prosperous Bactrian empire of the thousand cities") Justin, XLI,1

greco-bactrian kingdom

This empire was contemporaneous with that of Rome (250 BC to 10 AD). The Romans were great admirers of Greek culture and would not have considered the Bactrians barbarians. This empire had contacts both with the great civilizations of China and India. If Alexander can take an army into this part of the world, certainly the Romans could have.

I conclude the Romans realized they could only administer an empire of a certain size. The world was big then and travel was slow. Far flung provinces are difficult to keep. Armies at a distance are difficult to resupply. This is no doubt the explanation for Ireland and Bactria. It would be even more true for the Americas.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 because you are doubly right. First, many emperors, beginning with Octavian, explicitly put the brakes on expansion. Second, a large part of the empire's territory was acquired consensually and not by conquest: for example, southern Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis) became Roman early, peacefully and by mutual consent; Cyprus and most of Asia Minor (modern Anatolia) were left to the Roman Republic by their last kings in their wills; Syria became a Roman province essentially as a collateral effect of Pompey's war against Mithridates. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 17, 2017 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this quite answers the question posed, which is could the Romans have colonised the New World, given the right motivation and/or some slightly different conditions. This seems to be an answer to why the Romans didn't colonise the New World in reality. $\endgroup$ Sep 17, 2017 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Nathan: It is like why lions don't routinely attack elephants. Could lions attack an elephant? Sure. But the fact that they almost never try suggests the lions know something about their own abilities and the likelihood of a successful outcome. The same goes for the Romans. The fact that they did not try to add these far flung areas to their empire suggests that they thought the chances for a good outcome (successful colonization) were slim. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 18, 2017 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ If Alexander can ... but there's a reason that Alexander is called "The Great". $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Sep 18, 2017 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ Your reasoning seems plausible for the actions of the real world Romans but as I said, the question isn't about why the real world Romans didn't colonise the Americas, it's asking you to speculate on whether an alternative version of the Romans could have done so with different motivation (a religious belief in exploration) and the necessary resources. My reading of this is that the OP wants you to speculate on whether these theoretical Romans would have had the technical, logistical and military capability to support such a remote colonisation effort. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 2:51

A contrafactual means of getting the Romans to the new world would involve going not south across the Atlantic, but rather the same northern route the Vikings took centuries later.

If the Romans had either conquered Britannia or Germania, then they would have had knowledge of the Faroe islands. Traders would have incentive to sail there to purchase the fish catch and the harvest of walrus ivory, seal blubber and oil and the occasional whale. Large Roman "Roundships" would have been able to make the voyages with little difficulty, and eventually evolved the sorts of sailing rigs that later European ships developed for the same purposes.

From the Faroes, it would be a short step to head out to Iceland (known in the Middle ages as "Tilley"). Mariners would be aware that there was an island or some land in that direction with clues like weather, migrations of birds and so on. From Iceland, mariners would be able to deduce the existence of Greenland, and sailing around Greenland eventually discover the Canadian arctic, and sail south to Newfoundland and Labrador (Vineland for the Vikings).

enter image description here

Crossing the Atlantic in a series of steps is easy

All along the way, mariners would discover rich new resources to harvest or trade, from whales to walrus ivory to the immense harvest of cod off the Grand Banks, which would entice people to settle to become part of the rich new economy, and also distant from the various tax collectors and petty bureaucrats of Rome. Rome itself could solve the problem of awarding land for time expired legionnaires by encouraging emigration.

So we have a reasonable means of getting there, an economic incentive to create and maintain the bridgehead (of course in Roman times, the European Warm Period had not started yet, so farming in Greenland would not be possible, much like today). Roman military forces would not be overly taxed so long as they maintained defensive positions in a series of forts in the New World ports, since the natives had Neolithic levels of technology and organization. Marching out into the dense forests would invite the same sort of cutting off and defeat in detail as the Romans suffered in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, but the Romans were generally adept enough not to be lured into traps like that (barring the occasional glory hunting Tribunes).

enter image description here

Typical Roman Fort (Castrum) by the water. Erecting a series of fortified positions at suitable ports would be a way of starting Roman settlements

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    $\begingroup$ This suggests that the smallest world-changing counterfactual would be the desire of the Brits and Irish to secure and enjoy the benefits of the Pax Romana, instead of fiercely maintaining their independence from Roman domination. This might have occurred had the Romans stopped at the channel and then engaged in extensive trade across the water. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 3:58
  • $\begingroup$ This same proclivity to trade at the edge of expansion might also have made "a series of forts in the New World ports" a culturally acceptable alternative to bringing civilization to the natives at sword point. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think farming in Greenland is not possible today? It is: npr.org/sections/thesalt The idea that the Viking settlements only survived because of the so-called "Medieval Warm Period" is a myth. What happened is that they over-used limited resources, and were unable or unwilling to adapt. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Sep 18, 2017 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ To change the Romans from conquerors and administrators to explorers and traders is to make them into something other than the Romans. - But you could introduce a counterfactual captive trade tribe -- a sort of class of Roman, derived from one of the absorbed peoples, that was allowed to explore and trade, across selected peaceful and secure boundaries, on behalf of a certain Roman faction. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 4:14
  • $\begingroup$ There were a great many traders in the Roman Empire, and the lure of new sources of wealth would have brought them to Britannia or Germania in droves. Wealthy Romans would stay behind to finance the traders, but there were plenty of traders and even poor Roman citizens who would be willing to take a chance and head out to In Nova Patria for land and wealth. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Sep 19, 2017 at 3:32

If you want Romans in the Americas, why not send them east?

About a thousand years or so after Julius Caesar, the Vikings did sail west to Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. But they didn't conquer and didn't try to sail back east. And they had comparatively advanced navigation techniques. They'd sail out of sight of land. The Romans did not have that.

Rather than send them on a trip that might rarely work and where it would be even rarer for them to be able to return, it would make more sense to have them finish exploring Europe, Africa, and Asia. The linked question's answers suggest that most who would attempt it would fail. So they might send such an expedition, but most of the time it wouldn't reach the Americas. The few times it did reach the Americas, it probably wouldn't be able to make it back, especially if it tried to conquer first.

To counter these two issues assume that the Romans held a strong religious belief that all lands must be explored and conquered to increase the glory of Rome.

This incentive to explore and conquer the Americas would apply even better to Europe, Africa, and Asia. So why wouldn't they conquer those places first? And once they did that, the Americas can be reached by exploring land that can be seen across the sea. They wouldn't have needed to make a long sea voyage.

All that assumes that these Romans would be better conquerors. In the real world, Rome was unable to conquer all of Great Britain and never reached Scandinavia. It doesn't appear to have gone for sub-Saharan Africa nor that far into Asia. It never attempted any long range sea expeditions because it didn't need to do so. It reached its maximum extent with just the Mediterranean and some trips by land.

This is conceivable, but it is such an unlikely series of events. First, they have to send an expedition across an ocean despite it being well known that sailing out of sight of land was often deadly. Then they'd have to actually succeed in the journey. Then they'd have to stay alive and resupply in the Americas. Then they'd have to make their way back, which is harder. The currents and trade winds make it easier to go west than east. All those things are less likely than not.

Or they could just explore in more normal ways. They knew about Europe, Africa, and Asia. Why not conquer those places? Even if you gave them some explore and conquer imperative, why would that send them west across the ocean rather than south, north, and east? Even a religious imperative wouldn't explain why they wouldn't do the easier, incremental explorations first.

  • $\begingroup$ The eastern route sounds interesting. This answer mentions routine shipping between Egypt and India and we know they had trade with China. Beyond that, it would probably have to be mostly exploration rather than conquest or trade. $\endgroup$
    – JollyJoker
    Sep 18, 2017 at 9:16

The Americas was so remote and hard to reach in those times that even if they would have been able to colonize it, the Romans in the Americas would immediately consider themselves a seperate civilization since they would have to be completely self reliant and could not possibly count on any support from Rome. Just dispatching a message would have taken months.

Food supplies would have been expired on arrival. Many of the reinforcement troops would die along the way.

As a Roman general during that time it wouldn't take too long to realize that if you stop sending ships filled with gold you don't really have to expect Rome to dispatch a vast army by ship to reprimand you. It would definitely be nicer to just keep all that stuff for yourself and run your own empire.

  • $\begingroup$ Spain did it though... with slow boats and no way to send big armies quickly to beat up unruly conquistadores. $\endgroup$
    – Shautieh
    Sep 20, 2017 at 11:36

To think about why the Romans did not colonize the New World (and conversely whether they could have), it is better to return to the (obvious) economic reason why the Spaniards and the Portuguese started long distance ventures along the oceans in the first place. That should clarify immediately the key reason why the Romans did not sail west.

The biggest source of trade both in Ancient Times and the Middle Ages was Central and Far Asia, particularly the Silk Road. The value of goods traveling from east (China) to west (Roman Empire) vastly exceeded the value of goods traveling in the opposite direction -- hence the focus on imports (the tradition of Made in China is pretty old). This was big money, so Western merchants vied to act as intermediaries as far east as possible, so that they could buy the goods as cheap as possible and make the highest possible profits from those imports. Conversely, the precious metals paid by Westerners to buy those precious goods were piling up in China and the West never had enough precious metals left to buy more (hence the crave for them).

The normal outlet in Roman times was the Eastern Mediterranean, which the Romans already controlled. Furthemore, the Romans did have free access to sea trade with India.

The problem of the Franks (to use the name of the Western Europeans used by other peoples) was that they did not have free access to this traffic, since the Eastern Mediterranean and Arabia were controlled by the Turks while the rest of Asia was in the hands of the Mongols. At some point, only Genoa had access to the Silk Route, through the Black Sea. It meant in particular that Spain and Portugal were cut off from the lucrative trade with Asia. That is why they started circumnavigating Africa -- and indeed why Columbus gathered capital to sail West. The incentive was initially not America but China and India.

The Romans did not have that incentive: in order to get to India, they simply had to hop the Red Sea and navigate the busy routes along the coast of the Indian Ocean (see Wikipedia article on the subject). The economic incentive was to have emporia and trade partnerships in India and likely in Central Asia.

So the key incentive why Columbus sailed West was simply missing in Roman times. It is only later, when the Spaniard and Portuguese discovered the silver and gold deposits in the Americas, that they realized their "good luck"... which wasn't because (as Montesquieu already explained in the 18th century), increasing the amount of precious metals without producing more goods only created inflation, while making the foreign countries that sold manufactured goods (now the Netherlands and England) immensely rich. And the latter became so powerful that they challenged and then defeated Spain and Portugal on the seas.

The bottom line is that the Romans didn't discover (and colonize) the Americas because they already had access to India. And perhaps it is lucky for them that they didn't, because they would have only made the Indians and Chinese exporters fabulously rich and powerful with all those precious metals, while "buying themselves out of existence"... who knows, the whole world might have become a Chinese empire?

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    $\begingroup$ An interesting and valid point. Although the question assumes they are going to go for religous reasons or what ever and asks could they have done so? $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 18, 2017 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ It is true. I answered only in the perspective of history, hence for a fiction, you would have to set a situation where this could happen without the economic incentive of the Middle Ages. The official Roman religion was either state-oriented or very personal, and not likely to inspire many people to do great deeds together. Since one the most unpredictable elements in the Roman society was the emperor (from brilliant to educated, down to crackpot and criminally insane) it would be belivable to attribute such a project to an emperor. Though it might also need some other incentive.... which? $\endgroup$
    – fralau
    Sep 19, 2017 at 6:29


Three things allowed Spain to take over most of the american continent, and contrarily to the common belief, gunpowder was not one of them.

  • Steel: the native americans didn't know steel. The incas had copper, silver, gold and even some bronze, but no steel. A spanish soldier with a steel brestplate, morrión (helmet) and sword was nearly unkillable, and extremely lethal. Spaniards knew this, and so they forbade selling steel tools or weapons to natives.
  • Horses: if a steel covered soldier was a nearly unkillable threat, a mounted one was god-like. He could outrun any warrior, either fleeing or chasing, and its blows were three times as mighty.
  • Germs: only one advantage the natives had, its numbers, and they were going to loose it quickly due to the old world diseases. After some number of europeans arrived to America, diseases spread killing natives and thus making big cities unhabitable. Only small communities could survive, small and isolated, and there was no way to organize any kind of armed resistance from those.

Remember, most of America was conquered by less than 5,000 spaniards. That's about a roman legion. And mostly using the same technology. As some other comments have pointed in other comments, it is only a matter of will, not lack of capabilities.

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    $\begingroup$ Ship technology only got advanced enough in the 15th century to effectively transport that many people over such distances. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ The Roman cavalry was extremely weak; it needed the development of the stirrup to become as effective as it came to be in the Middle Age. And, IIRC, their horse breeds were far smaller at that time. Also, many of the germs that decimated the Americans arrived at Europe way after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Sep 18, 2017 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @GillesLesire Citation needed. Columbus arrived to America using three caravels, the biggest of the three had less tonnage than an average roman merchant. Sure, roman ships weren't usually designed for deep sea travelling, but in absence of storms their ships could have reached America without problems. And you know that the conquistadores didn't arrive altogether in the same ship, don't you? $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Sep 19, 2017 at 7:50
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 The part about the germs is spot on. As for roman weak cavalry... it was surely stronger than the aztec or sioux cavalry of the time. There's a lot of mythification about the stirrup. Alexander the Great didn't need it to conquer half of the world, and the conquerors who came after him heavily relying on cavalry (huns, tartars, mongols...) didn't make much use of the stirrup either, preferring mounted archery instead. The stirrup and the longbow are so praised because a western centric pov, being the weapons of choice of France and England, respectively. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Sep 19, 2017 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ So Jared Diamond only got two out of three right... (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel) $\endgroup$ Sep 20, 2017 at 7:37

Depends on what you mean by Romans. I would put my money on the Greeks, link. They had the motive, the know-how, the ships and technology, and the drive.

And you have to go much further north, to Nova Scotia, for the evidence.

A Mi’kmaq legend spoke of blue-eyed people arriving from the east and disrupting their lives which contributed to the initial, relative acceptance of the arrival of the Europeans - unlike the interaction of the Beothuks and Europeans, which led ultimately to the extinction of the Beothuk People.

from link

The fact that SOME pre-1400 European contact with the aboriginals of Nova Scotia occurred is now widely accepted in Nova Scotia, supported by the archaeological record and the similarity of traditional pre-European-contact aboriginal iconography to European iconography. WHO they were is subject to debate.

Historical licence gives you permission to posit that it was the Romans.

Mind you, you have to go beyond American-centric references to find this. I mean, Americans still teach in their school system that Columbus set sail to prove the earth wasn't flat!! Absolutely absurd. There were already globes representing the world in the courts of Europe at the time.

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    $\begingroup$ That link you give does not point to any evidence except that unclear "legend". $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Sep 17, 2017 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Karl that is where the historical licence comes in. If there is a legend, there is some basis for it. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2017 at 3:52
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    $\begingroup$ I'd call that artistic license. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Karl
    Sep 18, 2017 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ Reproductions of Irish skin boats confirm that legendary saints could have sailed to North America from Ireland. We know the Vikings did it. We also know that Basque fishermen and whalers were going as far as the Grand Banks to make their catches, so it isn't beyond reason that they would have made landfall in the late 1300's or early 1400's. With tiny parties making landfall and not prepared or equipped to stay (unlike explorers in the 1500's) they would have left few definitive clues as to their presence $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Oct 25, 2017 at 19:47

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