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The Roads Of The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire in the time of Hadrian (r.  117–138), showing the network of main Roman roads.

Omnes viae Romam ducunt” or “All roads lead to Rome”: this phrase summarises succinctly the importance of Roman roads. At the peak of its expansive phase, it had developed a road network to make it easy to travel to Rome from anywhere within the network.

The streets of ancient Rome represent an extraordinary feat of engineering still to this day. It also reveals an acute understanding on the part of the Empire of the role and importance of a road network for military and economic purposes.

The road network built by the ancient Romans can still be used after serving the empire well for military, political and commercial purposes. It helped the Roman Empire impose its hegemony across the lands it conquered.

These ancient Roman roads called “pretorie” or “consolari” contributed to the development of ancient Roman civilisation throughout its dominion. The Empire pursued infrastructure works up until the twilight of its hegemony, ensuring strategic links with sound and innovative construction methods from the point of view of engineering and architecture.

The roads of ancient Roman are a testimony to the civil engineering skills at the service of the Empire, enabling it to conquer lands, dominate peoples and defend its borders.

How did the Romans build their roads

The method at the base of the construction of roads in the Roman Empire was rather complex. The first step was to define the edges and dig a deep trench. Inside this trench were placed four layers of various materials. The technical term “via strata” is the origin of the word “road” or “street” in Italian: “strada”. The “viae” were the roads that connected Rome with other cities, while the those within urban centres were known as “strate”.

Our knowledge of the construction of roads by ancient Rome, usually for military then communication and commercial purposes, is thanks to literary testimony by writers like poets Publio Papinio Stazio or Livio. Archaeology has also helped: The first of the four “strata” or layers was the “statumen”, a base made up of blocks 30 centimetres high. The second layer was the “ruderatio” made of round stones mixed with lime. The third layer was the “nucleus”, gravel levelled with heavy rollers. The fourth layer was the “pavimentum”, big, hard, stone slabs that were virtually indestructible. The curved surface of the completed road allowed for rain water to flow to the sides where channels would disperse it. As for the measurements of these ancient Roman streets, the standard ranged between four and six metres in width. The bigger ones designed for the passage of two carriages were between 10 to 14 metres in width. Sidewalks, or pavements, for pedestrians were beaten down earth between three and 10 metres wide. Where roads were heavily used, these sidewalks were used by pedestrians as well as horses.

The art of road construction in ancient Rome

The construction of roads during the time of ancient Rome also include bridges to cross streams or rivers. Many of these are still crossed today.

If a planned route met an obstacle like boulders or a mountainous terrain, tunnels were excavated by hand. So nothing ever came in the way of the construction of a road. And they were always straight. Along the side of these roads were milestones, small columns that marked the distance in miles, the unit of measurement adopted by the ancient Romans, deriving from the “Miliario Aureo” or “Milliarium Aureum”, a marble column in gilded bronze erected inside the Roman Forum in 20 B.C. under Caesar Augustus. It represented the starting point for all the roads in the empire.

The “consulari”, or roads, owe their names to the consul who ordered their construction. In other cases, they were named after the purpose for which they were built. They all started from the Roman Forum near the Temple of Saturn.

1. Via Appia (Appian Way)

Starting Point: Rome, Italy Finishing Point: Brindisi, Italy

The Via Appia, also known as the Appian Way, is one of the most famous Roman roads. It was constructed in 312 BC by the Roman censor Appius Claudius Caecus. Stretching over 350 miles, it connected Rome to the southeastern port city of Brindisi. The Appian Way played a critical role in the expansion and maintenance of Roman control over Southern Italy.

2. Via Augusta

Starting Point: Narbonne, France Finishing Point: Tarragona, Spain

The Via Augusta, also known as the Via Claudia Augusta in some sections, was a vital trade and military route that connected the Roman cities of Narbonne in Gaul (modern-day France) to Tarragona in Hispania (modern-day Spain). This road was crucial for the Roman Empire's communication and commerce across the Pyrenees Mountains.

3. Via Claudia

Starting Point: Augsburg, Germany Finishing Point: Ostiglia, Italy

The Via Claudia, often referred to as the Via Claudia Augusta in its northern sections, was a significant Roman road that ran from Augsburg in Germany to Ostiglia in Italy. It played a pivotal role in connecting the Roman provinces of Raetia (in modern-day Germany and Austria) with Italy, contributing to the region's economic and cultural integration.

4. Via Egnatia

Starting Point: Dyrrachium (Durres), Albania Finishing Point: Byzantium (Istanbul), Turkey

The Via Egnatia was a crucial Roman road that connected the Adriatic Sea to the Bosphorus Strait, stretching from Dyrrachium (modern-day Durres, Albania) to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). This road facilitated trade, military movements, and cultural exchange between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire.

Legacy and Modern Influence

The legacy of Roman roads is evident in the road networks of modern Europe. Many of today's major highways and routes follow the paths of these ancient roads. The Romans' engineering techniques, such as the use of concrete and well-planned gradients, continue to influence road construction.

Roman roads also left their mark on European culture, serving as symbols of Roman power, unity, and civilization. Their durability and strategic importance contributed to the long-lasting impact of the Roman Empire on Europe's development.

The history of Roman roads in Europe is a testament to the engineering genius and organizational skills of the Roman Empire. These roads connected distant regions, fostering trade, military conquests, and cultural exchange. Their legacy endures in the modern road networks of Europe, reminding us of the enduring influence of one of history's greatest civilizations.


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