This week we’re taking a brief look at Roman roads because that was the topic which won out on the latest ACOUP Senate poll and on this blog we conform to the mos maiorum by following the Senatus Consultum.1 In particular the question here was from Matthew Runyon who asked, “What was so revolutionary about Roman roads and if they were so successful, why didn’t anyone else build them the same way?”
And I think those are both really fascinating questions, because Roman roads, in one sense, weren’t revolutionary. They were an old idea, but an old idea employed on a much larger scale and as is often the case differences in scale and implementation can become differences in kind. But those differences also go a long way to explaining why subsequent states in the region weren’t all rushing to set up their own, similar road networks.
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(Bibliography Note: There is a lot written on Roman roads so this bibliography will be far from comprehensive and I may end up missing some more recent works, since I don’t, myself, work on Roman roads. The classic reference is R. Chevallier, Les Voies romaines (1972), available in English in two translations, both entitled Roman Roads, one by N.H. Field and the other by A.L.F. Rivet; I cannot advise you on which translation is better. For the narrower topic of Roman roads in Italy, which also conveniently covers the origins and political motives of the system, the standard work is R. Laurence, The Roads of Roman Italy: Mobility and Cultural Change (1999). There is a very good, if quite short, introductory chapter on what we know about Roman roads and the state of the debate on them by Anne Kolb, “Via Ducta – Roman Road Building: An Introduction to its Significance, the Sources and the State of Research” in Roman Roads: New Evidence – New Perspectives, ed. A. Kolb (2019).2 On other comparable roadways, note R. Talbert, “Roads in the Roman World: Strategy for the Way Forward” in the same volume. Also useful for thinking about the place of the Roman road network in Roman understandings of space and empire is R. Talbert, Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (2010). Finally, this being a topic in which there is a lot of classical geography, I would be remiss if I did not note that the Atlas of Classical History, eds. R. Talbert, L. Holman and B. Salway (2023). has gone into a second edition (in color, this time!) and is really handy.)
The first thing worth clearing up about the Roman roads is that, contrary to a lot of popular belief, the Roman roads were not the first of their kind. And I mean that in a variety of ways: the construction of roadways with a solid, impermeable surface (that is, not just clearing and packing dirt) was not new with the Romans, but more importantly the concept of knitting together an empire with a system of roadways was not new.
The oldest road network that we have pretty good evidence for was the Persian Royal Road of the Achaemenids but these too were not the first (the Achaemenid dynasty ruling a vast empire from 559 to 330 BC; this is the Persian Empire of Xerxes and Darius III). Even before them the Assyrians (Middle and Neo-Assyrian Empires running from 1363 to 609 BC)3 had build roadways to hold together parts of their empire, though I confess I know very little of the extent of that road system except that we’re fairly sure it existed and like the later systems we’re going to talk about, it included not just the physical infrastructure of the roads but a sophisticated relay system to allow official messengers to move very rapidly over the network.
The modern perception of the Persian Royal Road is conditions perhaps a bit too much by Herodotus who described the royal road – singular – as a single highway running from Susa to Sardis. Susa was one of several Achaemenid royal capitals and it sat at the edge of the Iranian plateau where it meets the lowland valley of Mesopotamia, essentially sitting right on the edge where the Persian ‘heartland’ met the area of imperial conquests. Meanwhile, Sardis was the westernmost major Achaemenid administrative center, the regional capital, as it were, for Anatolia and the Aegean. So you can see the logic of that being an important route, but the road system was much larger. Indeed, here is a very rough sketch of how we might understand a whole system:
Compare the dashed line – the Royal Road as described by Herodotus – with the solid lines, the rest of the system we can glean from other sources or from archaeology and you can see that Herodotus hasn’t given us the whole story. For what it is worth, I don’t think Herodotus here is trying to lie – he has just described the largest and most important trunk road that leads to his part of the world.
This system doubtlessly emerged over time. Substantial parts of the road network almost certainly predated the Achaemenids and at least some elements were in place under the first two Achaemenid Great Kings (Cyrus II, r. 559-530 and Cambyses II, r. 530-22) but it seems clear that it is the third Achaemenid ruler, Darius I (r. 522-486; this is the fellow who dispatched the expedition defeated at Marathon, but his reign was far more important than that – he is the great organizer of the Persian Empire) who was responsible for the organization, formalization and expansion of the system. And in practice we can split that system into two parts, the physical infrastructure of roads and then the relay system built atop that system.
In terms of the physical infrastructure, as far as I can tell, the quality of Persian Royal Roads varied a lot. In some areas where the terrain was difficult, we see sections of road cut into the rock or built via causeways over ravines. Some areas were paved, but most – even most of the ‘royal’ roads (as distinct from ancillary travel routes) were not.4 That said, maintenance seems to have been more regular on the royal roads, meaning they would be restored more rapidly after things like heavy rains that might wash an unpaved road out, making them more reliable transport routes for everyone. They also seem to have been quite a bit wider; Achaemenid armies could have long logistics tails and these roads had to accommodate those. Several excavated sections of royal roads are around 5m wide, but we ought to expect a lot of variation.
On top of the physical infrastructure, there was also a system of way-stations and stopover points along the road. These were not amenities for everyone but rather a system for moving state officials, messengers, soldiers, and property (like taxes). While anyone could, presumably, walk down the road, official travelers carried a sealed travel authorization issued by either a satrap (the Persian provincial governors) or the king himself. Such authorizations declared how many travelers there were, where they were going and what the way-stations, which stocked supplies, should give them. Of course that in turn meant that local satraps had to make sure that way-stations remained stocked up with food, fodder for animals, spare horses and so on. Fast messengers could also be sent who, with that same authorization, would change horses at each way-station, allowing them to move extremely fast over the system, with one estimate suggesting that a crucial message could make the trip from Sardis to Susa – a trip of approximately 2,500km (1,550 miles, give or take) in twelve days (by exchanging not only horses, but riders, as it moved).
All of which gives some pretty important clues to why royal roads were set up and maintained. Notice how the system specifically links together key administrative hubs, like the three main Achaemenid capitals (Susa, Ekbatana and Persepolis) and key administrative centers (Memphis, Sardis, Babylon, etc.) and that while anyone can use the roads, the roads serve as the basis for a system to handle the logistics of moving officials and state messages, which of course could also serve as the basis for moving armies. After all, you can send messengers down the royal roads, through the existing system set up for them, to instruct your satraps to gather local forces or more importantly to gather local food supplies and move them to the road in depots where the army can pick them up (and perhaps some local troops) as it moves through to a nearby trouble spot (while the nice, wide road allows you to bring lots of pack animals and carts with your army).
In short this is a large, expensive but effective system for managing the problem of distance in a large empire. Cutting down travel and message times reduces the independence of the satraps, allowing the Great King to keep an eye on them, while the roads provide the means to swiftly move armies from the core of the empire out to the periphery. We can actually see this play out with Alexander’s invasion. He crosses into Asia in 334 and defeats the local satrapal army at Granicus in 334. Moving into the Levant in 333, he’s met at Issus by Darius III with a massive army, collected from the central and western parts of the empire – which means that news of Alexander’s coming has reached Darius who has then marshaled all of those troops from his satrapies (and hired some mercenaries), presumably using his efficient message system to do it and then moved that force down the road system to meet Alexander. Alexander defeats that army, but is met by another huge army at Gaugamela in 331, this time gathered mostly from the eastern parts of the empire. While the Persian army fails in defeating Alexander, the exercise shows the power of the system in allowing the Great King, Darius III to coordinate the military efforts of an enormous empire.
So this is a system meant to enable the imperial center to control its periphery by enabling the court to keep tabs on the satraps, to get messages to and from them and move armies and officials (and taxes!) around. And doubtless it was also not lost on anyone that such a visible series of public works – even if the roads were not always paved and had to be repaired after heavy rains and such – was also an exercise in legitimacy building, both a visual demonstration of the Great King’s power and resources but also a display of his generosity and industry.
And I lead with all of that because the Roman road network works the same way, just on an even larger scale. Which isn’t to say the Romans were copying the Achaemenids (they don’t seem to have been) but rather that this is a common response to the problem of managing an uncommonly large empire.
All of which brings us to:
The first thing to note is that when we talk of ‘Roman roads,’ we almost always mean the viae publicae, roads built by public officials (Initially censors who let out the contracts to build such public works, although later roadways get named after the consuls and praetors constructed them as the Romans build more of them) and was maintained by the state. But of course these major state highways existed within a wider network of local roads (a via vinciales or actus, pl. actus – everybody loves the Fourth Declension! It’s a step in the right direction) which might or might not be private (a privatum iter). That distinction is important, because it wasn’t that all Roman roads were of the high quality we tend to think of – the roads we’re thinking of were prestige projects undertaken by the state, but a whole less of private lanes and dirt paths existed too.
That said, for the major viae publicae, the combination of archaeologically preserved examples and a few references in literary sources gives us a good sense of what ‘best practices’ for Roman road construction were. To start with, obstructions were cleared and then a trench was dug where the road would go. The trench was then filled with three packed layers: a stone layer, then a gravel layer and finally a sand or cement layer. On this was placed the surface of stone blocks, cambered so that rainwater drained to the sides of the road. The stone surface was then held in place by an umbo (literally a ‘knob’ or ‘swelling,’ the same word is used for shield bosses) on the edges of the road. Within a town, the umbo might in turn border a stone sidewalk, but out in the countryside, that wasn’t present.
On the one hand, we know that the high-quality construction of Roman paved roads impressed in the ancient world; Dionysius of Halicarnassus proclaims them one of Rome’s three most magnificent works (alongside aqueducts and sewers, Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 3.67.5; note also in this vein Strabo 5.3.8; Plin. HN 36.125). On the other hand, we also know that not all Roman roads were built to the same high standard. While we know that various Roman legislation spelled out required road widths, for instance, the actual width of Roman roads varied widely. And while we’re here, I should note, the story you have heard that modern roadway width or standard railway gauge being based on Roman road width (or, heaven help us, Roman ‘war chariots,’ a thing the Romans did not have) is rather wrong. Nor were they always well-constructed or maintained; Julian, for instance, bemoans a poorly maintained road in a letter to Libanius in 363.
Also, if I may stop a moment, one thing I hear frequently said about Roman roads is that their survival serves as some sort of indictment on modern road construction, “they don’t build them like they used to!” There are a few layered bad assumptions here. The first, of course, is survivorship bias; that road outside of Chalcis that Julian complained was sinking into a swamp probably isn’t available for us to see and similarly badly maintained or poorly constructed Roman roads are simply gone or only visible with archaeological methods and so unavailable for comparison. At the same time, modern roads are asked to do things which ancient roads were not; I do not suspect many Roman roads would last very long if hundreds of 20-ton (or more) trucks were rumbling over it daily. Indeed, preserved Roman roads outside of the cities often have deep ruts worn several inches deep in the stone from the passage of carts (carts and other vehicles were generally banned inside of Roman cities; city streets were for pedestrians). Finally we know that Roman roads, just like modern ones, required maintenance and reconstruction fairly regularly in the period of their use; Laurence (op. cit., 66) has a neat table of inscribed milestones on the Via Appia, for instance, referring to repair or reconstruction, with sections of the roadway repaired in stages from 97 to 110AD.
Nevertheless, the generally high quality of Roman roads, as noted, was recognized in antiquity and is still apparent in their survival today. In contrast to many unpaved sections of Persian royal roads, for instance, Roman viae publicae were paved as a matter of course and standard widths (c. 3.5m wide; the oldest Roman laws, the Twelve Tables, set a minimum width on straights of c. 2.4m though as noted this was not always followed) were fairly generous. And they tended to be well-engineered, with relatively flat surfaces (which are often quite a bit less flat today due to ground shifting as well as the erosion of concrete between paving stones) and straight lines, though the notion that all Roman roads were ruler-straight is, of course, wrong (though some are!). In particular, the Roman system of road construction, while it demanded considerable up-front labor costs, was seemingly designed to keep long-term maintenance demands low. This was a style of road building which accepted big up-front costs in exchange for lower long-term maintenance, which of course demands a lot of initial state capacity to manage the costs and labor demands (something Rome’s successors would mostly lack).
So as roads go, the Roman ones were uncommonly good (albeit with a wider degree of variation than is often appreciated), but the marvel of the Roman roads is not that they had a few good, paved roads – states had been building paved roads for some time, as noted above – but that they had a massive system of them. Scale, more than quality, was the Roman achievement here, though the quality was also quite high.
The Roman Road System
The earliest roads of the Roman Republic were, of course, dirt roads; the first major paved Roman road to be built was the Via Appia, begun by Appius Claudius Caecus during his censorship (312-307BC). While the Via Appia would eventually become the road which connected Rome to Brundisium (modern Brindisi) – important for being the logical port to use when sailing eastward to Greece – the initial construction only went as far as Capua. The timing, coming during the Second Samnite War, was not an accident; the war was pulling central Italy, especially Campania (of which Capua was the chief city) into Rome’s political orbit. A road served to move Roman armies into the theater of conflict, but also to bind this new region more closely to Rome.
Roman road construction in Italy over the next several centuries follow this pattern (Laurence, op. cit., 14 has a handy map). The third century sees the addition of Roman roads cutting north into Etruria (the Via Aurelia (begun in 241) and the Via Clodia (paved in 225), to be joined by the paving of the Via Cassia, probably in the early second century), the Via Appia extended into Samnium (along with Roman power). The second century adds a ring road around Sicily (obtained in the First Punic War (264-241)), the Via Valeria (there are two roads by this name, I mean the one in Sicily) and the extension of the Via Appia all the way to Brundisium at last, coinciding with Rome’s building interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, the second century also sees a marked expansion of Roman road networks in northern Italy into Cisalpine Gaul, as Rome secured and then re-secured these areas before and after the Second Punic War.
These early roads, particularly the initial construction on the Via Appia, would have represented really significant efforts by the Roman state and indeed Michael Crawford supposed that the construction of the Via Appia in particular motivated some of the earliest Roman coinage issues in order to pay for it (Crawford, RRC cat. no. 13/1). As Laurence notes, that means they weren’t just expressions of Rome’s expanding empire (at this point, just in Italy) but also a product of Roman politics. Appius Claudius seems to have gained a lot of clients in the process of building the road system and road construction was a big part of Gaius Gracchus’ political program in the late second century for the same reason (Plut. C. Gracc. 6.3). But they were also very direct expressions of Rome’s growing control of Italy, the construction of a physical geography which linked Rome key settlements in what was rapidly becoming Roman Italy; it is particularly striking how the earliest Roman roads form a hub-and-spoke network (with Rome at the center), but the wheel of roads that might connect one part of Italy with another come substantially later. The road system instead mirrors Rome’s relationship with the socii: just as the Roman ‘allies’ (really, subject communities in Italy) each in theory had a bilateral relationship with Rome (which left the smaller allied communities, in theory, atomized and thus much weaker in the relationship) so too they had a road to and from Rome, but not necessarily to and from the other regions of Italy.
At the same time, as Rome expanded its empire beyond Italy, the roads went with them. The first overseas Roman road was the via Egnatia, begun by Gnaeus Egnatius during his time as the proconsular governor of the province of Macedonia almost immediately after its annexation in 146 BC. The via Egnatia probably was a formalization and paving of pre-existing roads through the region, but it is also a good example of the shaping effect Roman roads could have on military affairs: it is not an accident that several of the key battles of the Roman Civil Wars are fought on or near the via Egnatia.5 Road construction in Gaul and Spain begins with the via Domitia, begun in 122 BC and named after Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul that year); the road ran from the Rhône through southern Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis, named after the garrison Ahenobarbus placed at Narbo, which flowers into a full Roman colony; this is modern Narbonne), crossing the Pyrenees and linking up to the northern part of a road system the Romans would build down the eastern coast of Spain.
As we get into the Late Republic and especially into the Empire, it’s clear that road building has become a fairly standard element of military operations on Rome’s frontiers. Roman legions eventually came to contain specialist architecti who were specialists expected to be able to supervise a wide range of constructions, including planning out roads.6 Under Augustus, the Roman army becomes a permanent, professional standing force, meaning the legati Augusti who both governed Rome’s border provinces and commanded the armies there had access to the legion’s labor in peacetime.
At the same time, as Rome settled in to more fixed frontiers, the need for a more robust road network didn’t go away. Legions now shifting to defensive tasks needed the ability to shift along the frontier rapidly as needed, while road networks stretching into the interior where necessary for moving messages to and from the imperial center, which remained very much in Rome for the first two centuries of the imperial period. We see hints of how the military need shaped the resulting road network in its eventual layout. Edward Luttwak’s work on Roman strategy remains controversial, but one point I think he has right is that defensive concerns exerted some shaping force on roads close to the limes (Rome’s frontiers), with major roads often running parallel to Rome’s frontier (allowing forces to shift quickly to trouble-spots without opening lots of routes for enemies to penetrate deeply), while a smaller number of major trunk roads linked back to Rome (or at least to the Mediterranean, whereby one could sail there). This pattern is more clear, I should note, on the European limes than on the Eastern limes, but that’s to be expected as the character of Rome’s security challenges in those zones differed.
Like the Persian royal road, the Roman road system also hosted an official system of way-stations and messengers, strictly for official business. Scholarship tends to prefer the term vehiculatio for this system, though public-facing works often use the term cursus publicus for it. Official travelers received a permit (a diploma, a word generally used for state documents and permits) which would spell out their route and the provisions they were entitled to along the way. Part of the reason we know a lot about this system is that it was prone to abuse – officials and especially soldiers carrying a permit might have limited rights to requisition animals and vehicles from civilians as necessary as they went, with the assumption that the state would return or repay the cost of the seized property. In practice, it’s clear that system was open to abuse, with officials and soldiers requisitioning things they didn’t need or weren’t entitled to (they’re soldiers, so you’re not going to say no, because they’re armed) or which were used for private purpose (why not requisition some fellow’s cart and carry some trade goods if you’re making the trek anyway, right?). Imperial edicts cracking down on this sort of thing are a regular feature of the corpus of Roman official inscriptions. That kind of evidence is always hard to interpret: on the one hand it means cracking down on this kind of corrupt abuse was a meaningful priority for the emperors and their agents, but on the other hand it also means such abuses were never eradicated.
But the principle elements of the vehiculatio system were waystations, called mansiones and smaller stationes (relay-stations) which could provide rest-stops, fresh animals and food to official travelers. Those facilities were state run and for official business though; regular civilian travelers could not use them. We know that over time, traveler’s inns – cauponae or tabernae – sprung up along major roadways to meet the demand of travelers for rest and provisions, which of course had economic implications for the system’s greater usage (see impact below).
The scale of the resulting system was massive, with something on the order of 50,000 miles of paved roads stretching through every Roman province, with even more unpaved roads of one sort or another. As we’ll see in the next section on ‘impact’ this is where the scale of Roman roadbuilding produces an apparent difference in kind from earlier royal road systems.
But we might well ask why Rome built so much more in the way of roadways than the empires that preceded and followed them. No source, to my knowledge, tells us, but I think we can see a few factors that could contribute. One obvious factor is the resources available to the Roman state were much more vast than any other Mediterranean state until the early modern period. By the time of Augustus, the Romans already controlled a population probably around twice that of the Achaemenids (c. 50m compared to c. 25m, very roughly) and governed an economy experiencing a marked expansion from those earlier centuries. And of course, the Romans were at it longer; the first major Roman road project, as noted starts in 241 BC; by the time that Nerva and Trajan are doing major repair works on the via Appia in 97-110, the Romans have been building roads for more than three centuries and are hardly done doing so. By contrast the Achaemenid Empire only existed for 229 years.
There’s also, I think, likely a military factor here as well: the Roman Empire due to its structure had more need of roads than the Achaemenids or other empires. For one, unlike many empires that deployed long-service local governors, Roman legati and especially senatorial governors typically had short stints – often as short as a single year – in their provinces before returning to Rome. Meanwhile, the main Roman center of governance was not mobile – the Senate did not meet anywhere but Rome and until the Crisis of the Third Century, most emperors tried to spend as much time in Rome as possible because it was the political center of the empire; one may not the contrast to the Achaemenid’s multiple regional capitals enabling the king and court to move if necessary. Finally, the structure of the Roman army and the way Roman frontier defense evolved also probably provided an impetus for more roadways. Once again, this gets into a contested topic around Roman strategy, but Rome tended to employ a large number of mid-sized field armies, stationed up and down the frontier, until the Crisis of the Third Century, rather than dispatching massive expeditionary forces from a handful of key administrative centers. That might mean that the number of places that needed to be connected to the system was greater and of course it didn’t hurt that all of those armies already had the ‘road-building habit’ as it were.
Finally, the roads themselves were also an important ideological component of the program of Roman power. The political impetus to roadbuilding in the Republic continued into the imperial period: just as road building could make Roman politicians in the Republic popular, they could aid the legitimacy of an emperor who benefited both from being able to grab (on coins and milestones) about roadwork but also who could perhaps count on some gratitude from workers employed on road projects in non-military regions. And the roads were also part of the visual pageantry of the empire. Richard Talbert, for instance, has suggested that the Peutinger Map – a large, somewhat geographically distorted map of the Roman road system during the Late Empire – might have been a copy of an original displayed in a place like the reception hall of Diocletian’s palace at Split.7 Consequently, Roman emperors had plenty of reason to lavish resources on the road network and to want to be seen to have done so – and as noted, they had plenty of resources to so devote.
Impact is where we reach the point where the smaller ways the Roman road system is exceptional – unusually well-engineered, operating at an unusually large scale – come together to create a qualitative difference from the road systems which came before and after it. Again, it isn’t that Roman roads were the first state road system, or the first paved roads, or the first planned roads, or the first military roads, but this was the idea being deployed over a larger area, with far greater density of routes, constructed at a higher quality (and particularly for low maintenance).
Of course one immediate impact of the road network was the success of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was very large, but it was also built out on territory that spent the subsequent 1500 years proving that it was very hard, as a geographic matter, to hold together. The eastern parts of the Roman Empire seem to make a sort of natural unity and indeed states both before Rome (the Achaemenids and Neo-Assyrians) and after them (the Ottomans) manage to put together similar looking empires, but efforts to do the same in the west ran headlong into the difficult geographic and logistics of the task. Rome’s experience uniting Italy conditioned it to build the infrastructure that made holding western Europe, in particular, together and the Romans held it together for four centuries and change (longer in some places), in no small part because the road network enabled the quick and easy movement of officials, orders, armies and resources inland, away from the easier transport of the Mediterranean.
And of course that long Roman rule has massive downstream consequences, from the spread of Christianity to the emergence of the fourth, fifth, ninth and twenty-ninth most commonly spoken languages. Taken together, ‘bad, modern dialects of Latin,’ would be the second or third most spoken language!
Meanwhile it has generally been thought that the economic effects of the Roman road system were not only distinctly secondary but that the Romans – at least the elite Romans who built the roads – were probably broadly unaware or indifferent to them. Anne Kolb offers an effective rejoinder to this view in the opening paragraphs of her chapter (op. cit.) citing the example of Marcus Dunius Paternus, an elite of the coloniae Helvetiorum who financed the building of a substantial length of road on his own. As Kolb notes, he might have been motivated by more than just prestige or altruism – his own economic interests were heavily in timber and bulk architectural ceramics, both of which would benefit from a good roadway; it’s rare our limited sources let us see such obvious confluence of interests, but it probably happened pretty regularly.
In any case, the economic impacts do seem to have been significant. Movement through the empire, when it was not done by sea, rapidly became an exercise in following Roman roads, as the genre of itineraria – travel guides – attest. These guides listed cities in order which would be encountered on the road; so long as you followed the road, they might take much the place of maps (or even include a schematic map, perhaps a far less embellished and simple version of something like the Peutinger Map). Though we lack the evidence to quantify the impact of the road system on the economy, there’s little doubt that over time it because substantial.8
One of the reasons I think we can be sure about the economic impact is that we can see Roman roads reshaping settlement patterns in regions where they were new, even in cases where settlements were long established. J.B. Ward-Perkins, way back in 1962 did a study of the Roman road network in Etruria,9 noting that the Roman roads, built in the third and second century, reshaped settlement patterns. In particular, the via Flaminia, which cuts a straight(ish) shot through Etruria to give Roman armies a highway through the region to potential combat zones beyond, disregarded existing settlement patterns and thus doesn’t detour to hit major settlements or existing parts of the road network; the via Cassia was similar. And what we see is a movement of population away from older settlements now off of the major highways towards new settlement cropping up along them. It’s hardly the only settlement pattern change happening in this period in Etruria, but it is happening, which is really striking because urbanism in Etruria was quite old, with large, well-established Etruscan cities already existing in the seventh century.
As you might imagine then, the impact to settlement patterns in less urbanized provinces that then urbanized under Roman was even stronger. The originally Gallic settlement of Lutetia, for instance, sat on the juncture of the Seine and the via Agrippa along with several important local roads and as a result became a fairly major Roman regional center, growing in wealth and importance in parts because of its relationship to the road network. And if Lutetia doesn’t sound familiar, you may recognize it by its modern name: Paris. The fact that legionary bases (with the economic demand they created) and the road network coincided along much of the Roman Rhine-Danube frontier gave rise to new centers of urbanism; sometimes there was a previous smaller settlement present and sometimes not. Trier (Augusta Treverorum) and Mainz (Mogontiacum) are both classic examples where the confluence of Roman forts and roads produced cities that persist to the present. Even well within provinces one can see this; Lyon, the third largest city today in France, was Roman Lugdunum, a favorite of emperors because it sat almost precisely on the juncture of the different trunks of the via Agrippa and at the confluence of two rivers (the Rhône and Saône) making it an obvious administrative center in Gaul.
Meanwhile, the robust construction of many Roman roads has meant that they have lasted. Again, not all Roman roads were built to this standard, but many of the main trunk highways were and you can still walk parts of them today. Importantly, that meant they were still available to be used after the Roman Empire was gone and so in some places continued to exert their influence on settlement and economics patterns. The phrase ‘all roads lead to Rome‘ is not an ancient saying, but a medieval one (first used by Alain de Lille in the 12th century) because even then, the major old Roman roads did lead to Rome. That doesn’t mean every change in settlement pattern was durable; Ward-Perkins (op. cit.) notes that in Etruria, after the pax Romana ended, settlements moved away from the roads and back up to more secure hilltops. But especially in the European parts of the empire, where urbanism had largely begun under the Romans, those urban centers remained to be important cities in the Middle Ages and beyond.10
At the same time, I think it matters for the legacy of the Roman Empire in the West that its collapse does not lead to the rise of another empire of comparable size or wealth. The question, ‘why didn’t the fragmented successor states of Rome build large, interconnected road systems’ is largely self-answering: because they were fragmented, lacking both the resources and the vast expanses of territory to do that kind of infrastructure or to make it make sense to do so. Rome was unique in several ways: both in that its experience of conquest in Italy conditioned the Romans to build roads to enable military operations wherever they went, but also the Roman state just had a lot more state capacity than any of the states that followed it for a long time. Those successors (again, particularly in the western part of the Roman world) didn’t build vast road networks because they couldn’t. Though to be fair, even in the east where we do see empires rise that are comparable in scale to the Roman Empire, they’re not nearly so enthusiastic as the Romans about road building either. But of course that means the Roman road network isn’t fully replaced until the early modern period; in some places it really never was, with modern roads neatly following older Roman ones. That deepens the impact of the network both on the landscape but also on cultural memory.
So to conclude, in one sense the Roman road system wasn’t ‘revolutionary’ in that it wasn’t a totally new development or a clean, clear break with the past. In another sense, by taking an old idea – state (or ‘royal’) roads maintained by the state, with a system of way-stations for official business, but with the roadway itself open to the public – and employing it on a much larger scale and at a much higher quality of construction, the Romans really did do something new and in some parts of their empire, something unique in the pre-modern period.
- Translation: we conform to tradition by following the advice of the Senate.
- Note that this volume has chapters in German, French, English and Italian. Abstracts are translated but chapters are not, which may make this volume less useful to the non-specialist who may not read all of those languages.
- The Middle Assyrian Empire and the Neo-Assyrian or New Assyrian Empires were, in fact, the same state. We split them up because of a severe contraction in Assyrian power during the Late Bronze Age Collapse.
- On this, see Henkelman and Jacobs, 727-8
- The siege of Dyrrachium and the Battle of Philippi are both on the road directly, efforts to open or block the obvious route connecting the eastern part of the empire to Italy.
- You can get some sense of the staggering range of what an architectus might be expected to know from reading Vitruvius’ De architectura. Vitruvius’ work is almost certainly more broad-reaching than the typical architectus, but the range of structures and tasks is indicative of just how much engineering a legion could do (aqueducts, siege engines, major public buildings, drainage machines, surveying, heated bath constructions).
- This is not the only proposed use of the map, but I think it fits the odd factors about the map fairly well. On this, see R. Talbert, Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (2010), 142-157.
- On this point, see Adams, op. cit. for discussion of the older view that road transport was prohibitively slow and expensive and newer arguments and evidence suggesting its valuable role in the economy.
- J.B. Ward-Perkins, “Etruscan Towns, Roman Roads and Medieval Villages: The Historical Geography of Southern Etruria” Geographic Journal 128.4 (1962): 389-404.
- I think part of the weight that Roman roads carry in the public imagination, I will say, has to do with the focus on the European parts of the Roman world. Roman settlement patterns in parts of the Middle East, for instance, are less durable, as Islamic garrison cities like Cairo and Baghdad compete with Roman era centers like Antioch or Damascus for precedence.