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Could a classical era or middle ages civilization advance in shipbuilding technology alone and develop ships like carracks that could circumnavigate a world's oceans allowing them to colonize other continents then enter a 'medieval tech' colonial era? Would it require other technologies advancing simultaneously other than developing compasses? Could the Roman Empire, for example, have advanced so far in shipbuilding, and colonized the Americas?

Generally, in many middle ages low-tech and fantasy settings carracks as well as other large ships are not seen though the ships in the GRRM's Game of Thrones world appear to be able to circumnavigate a world if they decided to do so. Most settings depict kingdoms and civilizations primarily passing smaller bodies of water.

The Phoenicians and later Carthaginians were the master shipbuilders of the classical era though the Greeks also developed ships early in this period. The Roman Republic would later develop shipbuilding from the Carthaginians. These ships could not navigate the deep seas. Generally, caravels and then carracks were used in the Age of Discovery and later for colonization.

In the Middle Ages, the Chinese were the most advanced shipbuilders with large junks that would later develop into massive ships compared to European models.

Vikings were likely the first Europeans to discover the 'new world'. Leif Erikson, in particular, led the first known expedition to likely sight North America beyond Greenland. This did not lead to widespread permanent colonization though the Vikings were thought to have established settlements in Vinland known today as Newfoundland.

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    $\begingroup$ The caravels which discovered America were built in middle age Spain... $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Oct 23 '17 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ The other issue you need to look at is the population drive behind the historical imperialist colonisation drive in Europe that led them to push into the Indian and Pacific Oceans and eventually across the Atlantic to the Americas. The Vikings had the population pressure to support a colonisation drive East into Russia, South into the Danehold and West as far as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia but Classical Rome was far more self sufficient than 9th Century Scandinavia so they didn't/don't have that pressure on them. There were religious overtones to the conquest of the New World as well. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 23 '17 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ The ships in the GRRM's Game of Thrones probably can't circumnavigate the world. They can cross the Narrow Sea and reach different islands, but can't cross the Sunset Sea (which really is an ocean). $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 23 '17 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ OK I don't see it alluded to but not specifically stated. You need population to create a successful colony. Scandinavians made it to the new world but one article suggest they could not generate enough people in Greenland to really make a dent into setting up large scale conversations. So maybe it’s not good enough ships but good enough plows that lead to far flung colonies. heritage.nf.ca/articles/exploration/norse-north-atlantic.php $\endgroup$ – P Chapman Oct 23 '17 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: The Viking longships that voyaged to Iceland, Greenland, and North America were, I'd think, pre-Middle Ages technology. Greek and Roman ships also traded at least as far as India and Sri Lanka (though of course there were also land routes). See e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periplus_of_the_Erythraean_Sea $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 23 '17 at 18:13
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The Vikings definitely colonized Vineland (L'Ance aux meadows). The archaeological evidence is clear. The problem for the Vikings was that Nfld has a difficult climate and poor agricultural land. Even the so-called natives, the Beothuk, actually lived in Labrador and came over to hunt and fish. Their settlements were not permanent. Global cooling in the later medieval period made the colony unsustainable. Added to that, the North Atlantic is challenging.

It seems that the Vikings had some armed conflicts with the Beothuks, which discouraged the Vikings. Later European colonization succeeded because the Europeans, by that time, seriously outgunned the populations they met.

Apparently, fishermen came over from Brittany and had semi-permanent settlements in NFLD for at least a hundred years prior to John Cabot, but they kept the Grand Banks a secret, for professional reasons.

There is also reason to believe that Irish monks made it to Nfld and Labrador before the Vikings on leather hide ships. A successful recreation of this was done in the 70's and featured in National Geographic.

So I would say that a Maritime Medieval nation could establish a colony of sorts, if it had reason to do so. Imagine that Newfoundland were bathed in a warm current like the Gulf Stream, so that agriculture could prosper there, and imagine also that the Black Death never happened -- thus allowing Medieval population pressures to increase. Things were getting crowded even by 1200 AD (cf development of cities).

You also need to decide if your new country is empty (or nearly so), and your colonists simply move in -- or if it is established, in which case you need an invasion force.

Note that advanced ship-building is not the only requirement of colonization. If your new country is rife with diseases to which the colonists have no immunity (I'm looking at you, Africa, white man's graveyard), then colonization will be delayed pending advances in medicine.

However, I believe that if colonization had happened in the Middle Ages, the colony would have diverged rapidly from the mother country and de facto acquired independence much sooner than occurred in real life. It would have been too difficult to maintain rapid communications. This possibility might lead the rulers of the home country to discourage further emigration.

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    $\begingroup$ Not to forget people arriving in New Zealand around 1280 AD. Hawaii and Easter Island is settled around 900 AD. $\endgroup$ – BentNielsen Oct 23 '17 at 19:11
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Both classical and medieval shipmakers had capability to built ships seaworthy enough to cross the Atlantic. Some information about Roman commerce ships (sail powered and not rowing boats as virtually all warships) can be found here; they mainly had square rigs, but some early Latin sail was found; they didn't go to into the Atlantic, but they surely traded across Indian Ocean

If memory assists I recall even a "experimental archeology" was done with papyrus boats believed identical to those used in Nile river more than two millennia ago and succeeded. As requested by comments I fished details. The successful boat was Ra II built by Thor Heyerdahl.

The real problem was that no one had any interest going there because:

  • either they were convinced Earth was flat, so they would fall-off the rim.
  • or they knew Earth is round and they had a fairly good estimate of the circumference.

To discover Americas it was needed:

  • either someone "getting seriously lost" while traveling in Atlantic (e.g.: Erik the Red).
  • or someone with very bad nautical maps believing Earth circumference to be one half of its true value (e.g.: Christobal Colon; Note this is the Spanish name of Cristoforo Colombo, Italian, please avoid anglicizing the name, thanks).

Shipyard technology was already there to allow for the trip (safety is another thing, of course).

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    $\begingroup$ Seaworthiness is not everything. The ships of classical antiquity were great, but as far as I always understood it the weren't really sailing ships but could only make good pace thanks to massive galley slave effort. That's all fine if you can replentish supplies every couple of days from the coast, but I don't think it's at all practical for crossing an ocean. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Oct 23 '17 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ You are confusing battleships with cargoes. All naval battles were with rowers, not so cargo boats which had (mostly) "Latin sails" (even if they could barely go against the wind because of the lack of drop keel). You are right about their navigation mainly along the coasts, but that was because Mediterranean ("Mare Nostrum") allowed it without effort (and navigation aids like compass were quite rare). $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Oct 23 '17 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, then perhaps you'd like to add to your answer some specific reference as to what kind of ships you have in mind with which the Romans could have crossed the Atlantic? $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Oct 23 '17 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ Another way to discover the Americas is to "island hop" around the northern edge of the Atlantic. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 23 '17 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ The lateen rig is ill suited (dangerous) in open seas. The square rig is much safer in this environment. This is the reason Christopher Columbus re-rigged the Ninã as a caravel redonda (square rigged caravel) at the Canary Islands, before setting out for the ocean voyage. (and yes, three-masted ship of later times had a lateen sail at the mizzenmast, but this was to aid in steering and was more often not clawed down at the foot, to stop it being sheerer overboard). $\endgroup$ – Jacco Oct 23 '17 at 20:36
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Depending on assumptions made it might be possible. But would have been a very difficult undertaking and would not have been very practical.

Two key issues for the Romans were: The knowledge that the Americas existed at all. The desire to travel to such a remote location even if they had known it existed.

See may similar question

There seemed to be a general hostility to my premise concerning the Romans desire to cross the Atlantic. It was considered to be an un-Roman thing to do notwithstanding my initial premise much of the discussion centred on why it was a bad premise rather than the question itself.

That said and considering your broader question I think it would have been possible, but greatly inhibited by the first two points I made above. Additional handicaps would have included:

The inability to navigate accurately, which even with a compass would have been rudimentary.

Lack of understanding of winds and currents far off shore and the inability to return home against the winds and currents.

Lack of awareness of the severity of storms and hurricanes in the open oceans. Vessels would have been susceptible to loss due to lack of structural strength, lack of sufficient pumping capability and lack of control causing broaching.

Miscalculation of the amount of supplies needed and their suitability, lack of vitamin C and poor conditions would have led to much wastage and rot and disease.

In summary crossings oceans would have been possible in earlier times, but the earlier the time the less likely and the more hazardous. Colonisation would have been even more unlikely due to the great losses in shipping that would have occurred for the reasons outlined above making regular traffic a highly hazardous affair with prohibitive losses.

The best approach would be stepwise via land as the Vikings did.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Fascinating thread on could the Romans colonize America, but I expand the playing field by giving the Romans or equivalent civilization 15th century shipbuilding technology. Of course the cultural trait of the Romans was not exploration, and Bactria was a great example of how the Romans did not expand further east as they could have though no one mentioned the Persians that presented a barrier there. It sounds like the answer to my question is certainly yes, but it would have to be a concerted effort or project on the part of the civilization like the Spanish Empire's colonization. $\endgroup$ – Seanchaí Oct 23 '17 at 12:48
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Classical era civilizations usually lack motivation: They're the only big fish in the pond, they don't have to seriously compete with anybody, their main concern is internal instability.

Roman Empire could conquer any swath of land they wanted but had troubles ruling what they already had. For them, the whole Europe and North Africa was ripe.

Same thing for classical China. Capacity is here but motivation isn't.

European naval powers (Portugal, Netherlands, England) had a little territory with high competition. Overseas was their only direction to expand.

How you can fix this? Make landmass smaller. Archipelagoes instead of continents maybe.

Several clashing classical civilizations? Note that it might fail miserably, see "invasion of sea people".

Consider also exodus instead of colonization. Like flight of Aeneus to England but for real, or how there are Chinese in Indonesia. Leave in a small group, remake the place of arrival. Kinda like Andals in GoT.

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One of the primary problems relating to intercontinental sea travel prior to the Enlightenment, notwithstanding the ability to build ships sturdy enough to survive the high seas, was the lack of ability to accurately measure longitude. This wasn't really solved in any satisfactory way until the early 18th century with John Harrison's invention of a portable naval clock of sufficient accuracy to track the divergence between local noon (solar zenith on the ship) and noon at the point (longitude) of departure (via the clock).

Given this means, or any other reasonable means by which a ship crew could effectively navigate, then such long distance journeys would easily be achievable with the naval technology of much older periods. It was the deficiency in navigation (inability to know one's longitude at sea) that made the trans-Atlantic journeys so perilous.

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The Austronesians colonized everywhere from Madagascar to Hawaii with stone and wood tools. Although, granted, they didn't seem to have much success at colonizing places that were already inhabited when they got there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe New Zealand instead of Madagascar? And yes, they were able to make incredible voyages just by navigating by stars, with no clock for longitude and just stone tools. No paper maps. Finding islands by interference of waves, observing birds, and having lots of courage. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Oct 23 '17 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ Austronesians arrived on Madagascar about two thousand years ago, and modern Malagasy people still speak an Austronesian language (Malagasy, a Barito language, related to many indigenous languages of Borneo). $\endgroup$ – Daniel Bensen Oct 24 '17 at 6:25
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    $\begingroup$ Fantastic, I had no idea. Even more incredible sea-faring skills. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Oct 24 '17 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ The eastern trans-pacific travels of the Austronesians, however, happened at very infrequent intervals (many, many years apart) as they required favourable winds. The prevailing winds in the south pacific drive east to west but very occasionally reverse, which gave the occasional opportunity for westerly exploration and colonization. $\endgroup$ – J... Oct 25 '17 at 9:18

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