THE ROMAN ROADS

 

versión española

 

The construction of a road by the Romans obeyed to strategic and military reasons more than to simple economic reasons.  The roads allowed a quick movement of the Romans troops from one place to another along their empire; only in a secondary way these roads made easier the transport of any kind of merchandise, although most part of this transport was made by maritime routes, due to their rapidity, in the naves onerariae, the cargo ships with a weight up to 200 tons that supplied merchandises to all the empire during centuries.

 

 

 

The Roman roads were made on previous roads, on paths and grounds ways, but they needed a hard work to drain, to dig, to smooth, etc., until their final paved aspect.  The roads kept solidly disposed, making firm on a layer of crushed stone, on a layer of mortar and finally with big flagstones.  In Latin the word used to layer, pavement and road is the same: strata; from this word we have in Spanish estrato with the meaning of layer, but with a meaning related to roads we have in Italian strada –road- and autostrada –motorway-, and, finally, in English and German the words street and Strasse, respectively.  The principle of building was to find the straight line whenever it was possible, so that they some times resorted to complex engineering works to save the natural obstacles: bridges, galleries dug in the rocks or to cut across the rocks in the mountain passes.

 

 

 

At first, its building consisted on putting big blocks of stone o big flagstones that kept fixed by their own weight.  However, this system was improved and we know its building thanks to Vitruvius, who explained how to construct a road.  To its building the Romans defined the route and they marked two parallel furrows separated each other 2,5 metres; they dug the space between the furrows and they filled the hole with four layers of different materials, being the last layer the pavement; the layers were first the statumen –big rolling stones-, second the rudus –medium-sized rolling stones-, third the nucleus –crushed stones with small rolling stones- and, finally, the pavimentum or summa crusta –big plane flagstones-.  All these layers as a whole were 1 meter deep and the durability and the strength of the road resided in its foundations, its first layer.  Nevertheless, every zone needed a thicker or thinner layer of statumen: in Africa and in the mountain passes it was hardly ever used, but in the rest of Europe it was very necessary; in addition, the statumen had to be thicker where there was more traffic in order to not to be damaged.  Depending on the ground, the Roman sometimes put trunks in the sides to hold the road structure; this is the case of the marshy zones, e. g., in Britannia.

 

Section of a Roman road, according to the Vitruvius' description, taken from HAMEY, L. A. y HAMEY, J. A.: Los ingenieros romanos, Madrid, 1990

 

 

 

On the other hand, to avoid an accumulation of water on the roads, which could suppose their cave-in, the Romans made them convex, i. e., tilted, so that the rain water evacuated to the exterior and it did not keep held up on the middle surface of the road; they dug a small drainage channel –fossa- both sides of the road, like the modern ditch, 2 or 3 metres far away from the road, without vegetation to accumulate this rain water.  For the same reason, the Romans usually constructed their road on a rampart –agger- 1 metre high –or even more- to eliminate the water and to have a better view of an area, when the Roman army crossed them.

 

Section of a Roman road in Rochester (United Kingdom) with superpositioin of modern roads, according to HAMEY, L. A. y HAMEY, J. A.: Los ingenieros romanos, Madrid, 1990

 

 

 

The pavimentum had to be hard and uniform; in some occasions that depended on the stones they used; in some roads the flagstones of the pavement were polished and they were put on a nucleus of sand or sand and lime; these flagstones used to have a pyramidal shape and their points were sunk in the nucleus, obtaining in this way a better hold; it was necessary two men to move these flagstones; nevertheless, due to their pyramidal shape, the workers had to make authentic puzzles to insert them and to level them.  In other occasions the road had crushed stones that were rolled by big trunks or big blocks or stone to obtain a compact and uniform surface.

The Roman roads used to be 4 metres wide, although we know that in some occasions they could be even more than 6 metres wide and, in general, in the access to Rome they were 12 metres wide with a third of the surface dedicated to sidewalks.

 

Construction of  a  Roman road, picture from HAMEY, L. A. y HAMEY, J. A.: Los ingenieros romanos, Madrid, 1990

 

 

 

The Romans put along their roads miliaria or lapides, “milestones”, i. e., they put stones with inscriptions where they indicated the mile where the traveller was on a road; in other words, these miliaria were like the modern milestones that we can see in the roads or motorways, indicating the kilometrical point.  Octavius Augustus ordered to erect a miliarium in the Forum Romanum covered by golden bronze –it was called the Miliarium Aureum-, where the Romans could read in thousands of miles the distances between Rome and the main cities in its empire; it was like the kilometre 0 that we can see in the Puerta del Sol (Sun Gate) in Madrid.  By the way, the Romans measured in miles, i. e., milia passuum, “thousands of steps”; if we considered that a step measures 1,472 metres, a mile had 1,472 kilometres.

 

Miliarium of Sora, found in the mountains of Sora, near Castejón de Valdejasa (Zaragoza), in the Roman road that communicated Caesar Augusta (nowadays Zaragoza) and Pompaelo (the current Pamplona) in the mile XXVI or XXVII (38 kms. far away from Zaragoza); this road was designed by the emperor Augustus with his legions VI Victrix and X Gemina to to fasten a quick para asegurar una rápida communication with the Ebro valley and Cantabria. The miliarium is dated in the year 32 a. C.; this fact means that the emperor Tiberius took part in the construction of the road.  The text says:  TIBERIUS CAESAR DIV(I) AUG(USTI) F(ILIUS), DIV(I) IULI N(EPOS), AUGUSTUS, PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, CO(N)S(UL) V, IMPERATOR VIII, TRIBUNICIA POTESTAS XXXIV, MILIA XXVI- (Translation: "Tiberius Caesar Augustus,  divine Augustus' son, divine Iulius' grandson, Highest Pontífex, Consul five times, Emperor eight times, having obtained the Power of Tribunus thirty four times,  mile XXVI(I)").

Museo Provincial de Zaragoza. 

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 03/01/2008)

 

 

 

The Roman roads were called in Latin viae and every one of them had the name of the magistrate –normally a censor- who proposed or had in charge their construction.  So, the first Roman road was the via Appia, built by the censor Appius Claudius the blind in the year 312 b. C.; this road connected Rome and Capua, in the south of Italy.

Logically, the first road network connected Rome and the rest of the Italic peninsula; afterwards, the Romans built two roads to go out from this peninsula, one of them to the west, to Gaul and Hispania, and the other one to the east, to Greece and Asia Minor.  Most of the Roman roads in Italy had Rome as starting point, except the via Aemilia and the via Postumia.  The Roman roads in Italy were the following.

 

The net of Roman roads in Italy and the roads to Gaul and Hispania and to Greece and Asia Minor, according to HACQUARD, Georges: Guía de la Roma Antigua, Madrid, 2003

 

Via Salaria

Through the region of Sabina up to the Adriatic sea in Truentum; it is the route of the salt and it had this name because it connected Rome and Sabina with an important salt mine.

Via Latina

To the southern Italy up to Capua

Via Apia (312 a. C.)

To the southern Italy, first up to Capua by the coast, afterwards up to Brindisium (nowadays Brindisi) (495 kms.)

Via Clodia

Up to the Tyrrhenian sea in the cape Corso, in frot of Corsica

Via Aurelia (241 a. C.)

By the coast of the Tyrrhenian sea up to the Ligurian region, up to Genoa (220 kms.)

Via Cassia

Up to the Etrurian regio, near the currrent Florence

Via Valeria

Through central Italy, Tibur (nowadays Tívoli) y Corfinium, up to the Adriatic sea in Aternum

Via Flaminia (220 a. C.)

Through the Umbrian region up to Ariminum (the current Rimini) (314 kms.)

Via Postumia

From Genoa to Achileia

Via Aemilia (187 a. C.)

From Ariminum to Placentia (nowadays Piacenza) (249 kms.)

Via Annia

From Capua to Regio in the Straits of Mesina

Via Valeria

In Sicily, from Mesina to Palermo

 

In the II century b. C. the Romans built the road that connected Dyrrachium (Durazzo, in the modern Albania) and Byzantium (the current Istambul, in Turkey); it was called via Egnatia; and in the 121 b. C. they started to build the road that connected Italy and Hispania through the Gaul Narbonensis, called via Domitia.

 

 

 

In the II century b. C., Caius Gracchus made a law about roads and he supervised the construction of some of them; the Romans said that this Roman politician took in charge to measure the roads in miles and to erect the miliaria.  To measure them and to erect the miliaria it was invented a chariot with an instrument called hodometrus –from the Greek ὁδόμετρος “measurer of roads”- that left falling a little stone in a bowl every mile thanks to a mechanism of gears connected with the chariot wheels.

 

Hodometrus, according to HAMEY, L. A. y HAMEY, J. A.: Los ingenieros romanos, Madrid, 1990

 

 

 

After the Iulius Caesar’s conquests and in imperial age, the Roman road network was extended along all the conquered territories; the emperors developed this provincial road network, creating an especial magistratura for the roads, the curatores viarum –“curators of the roads”-; the emperor was in charge of the nomination of these curatores who adjudged the works to different companies –if the legions did not make the roads- and the companies were paid from the imperial treasure, through the exchequer and the taxes; in the republican age, the roads were financed from the public funds.

The cost of making and maintenance of a road was enormous; we know that in the year 82 b. C., the Romans repaired a section of the road that crossed the Alps; the cost was more than 150.000 sestertii, when a worker earned 3 sestertii a year.

Juridically and administratively the Roman roads were divided into private roads –viae privatae-, military roads –viae militares- and public roads, which were divided also into main public roads –viae publicae- and secondary public roads –viae vecinales-.

Some researchers called this road network “la piovra” in Italian, i. e., “the octopus”.  The main provincial road networks were the following:

 

Gaul

Made by Agrippa (39-38 b. C.) under Augustus; the via Claudia-Julia-Augusta crossed the Alps through the current Brenner

Hispania

Made by Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian and Caracalla

Britannia

Made by Hadrian, it had as starting point Londinium (the current Londres)

Ilyiricum, Dalmatia, etc.

Basically made by Trajan

Africa

Made by Tiberius and Hadrian

Asia

It is the more careless road, with discontinuous pavement; in spite of this, it was an important road

 

The Roman road network should reach about 90.000 kilometres.  This extension made that in some occasions the secondary roads and the roads in remote areas in the provinces were poor and soon careless.

 

 

 

The increase in the traffic of merchandises, post, troops, etc., and the conditions of the roads made it necessary to control the speed and the load of materials carried through them.  So, the light vehicles, for the post, could transport a load between 65 and 100 kgs.; the vehicles to transport travellers, between 200 and 330 kgs.; and the vehicles with heavy load, up to 500 kgs.  On the other hand, the average speed was 30 kms. every day for the merchandises; the private post companies could not exceed the 60 kms. every day and the imperial post –cursus publicus- could reach 150 kms. or even more every day, but they travelled 24 hours a day, with the system called “staging post”, i. e., changing their horses and even the messenger.

However, L. A. Hamey and J. A. Hamey offered us a table with distances and travelling times that the ancient sources documented.

 

Date of the travel

Length of time and details of the travel

4 a. C.

Especial messenger from Lycia (Asia Minor) to Rome: 3.100 kms. in 36 days

31 a. C.

Imperial post from Rome to Antioch (Asia Minor) by the sea with bad weather: 2.500 kms. in 3 months

43 a. C.

The emperor Claudius, in his way to Britannia, from Massilia (nowadays Marsella, France) to Bononia (nowadays Boulogne-sur-Mer, Belgium): 870 kms in 10 days

68 a. C.

Especial messenger from Rome to Clunia (Coruña del Conde-Peñalba de Casto, in Burgos, Spain): about 2.000 kms. in 6 days and a half

68 a. C.

Imperial post from Rome to Alexandria (Egypt) by sea: 2.000 kms. in 28 days or less

69 a. C.

Especial messenger from Mogontia (nowadays Mainz, Germany) to Durocortorum (nowadays Reims, France) and then to Rome: more than 2.100 kms. in about 9 days

193 a. C.

Imperial post from Rome to Alexandria (Egypt) by land: 3.500 kms. in 63 or 64 days

238 a. C.

Imperial post from  Achileia (near the current Trieste, Italy) to Rome: 750 kms. in 3 or 4 days

 

That is the reason why along the Roman roads there were establishment where travellers could buy food, spend the night, post the mails, change the horses, etc.

 

 

 

Probably the biggest problem of these roads was the fact that they were not suitable for horses and other beast of burden without horseshoe due to the hardness of the pavement.  Travelling through these roads was very hard, especially if people did not ride a horse, a mule or a donkey.  As mean of  transport for people, the Romans used different kinds of chariots with two or four wheels: the cisium, similar to a calash, suitable for short journeys and very light because they did not carry loads; the essedium, a solider chariot, but fast, based on the Gallic war chariots; and the carpentum, a luxury, comfortable and smart carriage.  The petorritum and the raeda were four-wheeled chariots, tougher, suitable for long journeys, but used for both,  people and merchandises transport .  The pilentum was similar to the carpentum, but four-wheeled; first of all it was used by priestesses and matronae, but afterwards its use was generalized; the carruca was a luxury four-wheeled chariot, with fine decoration and very fast; it was considered a luxury vehicle.  To the transport of merchandises it was used the plaustrum, a two-wheeled wagon with an only piece wheels, without spokes and drawn by oxen, donkeys or mules, or the serracum, a solider and tougher four-wheeled chariot due to its smaller wheels, suitable for heavy loads; the carrus, of Gallic origin was for military use, while the arcera, a kind of chariot-bunk was used to transport ill people.

 

Roman way between Caesar Augusta (nowadays Zaragoza) and Pompaelo (now Pamplona) in the area of Castejón de Valdejasa (Zaragoza); in the photo you can see the wheel tracks that the chariots left on the road, becoming finally authentic furrows.

 (Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 10/11/2008)

 

 

 

The Roman road network is still valid, because, there where the Romans built a road, nowadays there are roads, motorways or railways; if they are not on the ancient Roman road, they runs parallel to the Roman road at a short distance.

In desert areas, like Syria, Lybia, etc., the Romans not only made roads with basalt flagstones, but, in addition, they cleared the ways to make the transit of the camel caravans easier, cleaning the ancient paths and tracks and keeping land tracks without stones and without obstacles.

However, the construction of the roads supposed the increase of a phenomenon that developed like a cyst during the empire and, especially, after its disappearance:  the bandits and the attacker of the roads, who saw in these roads a place where they could find a sure plunder.

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:

- AA. VV.: Atlas ilustrado de la Antigua Roma: de los orígenes a la caída del imperio, Madrid, 2002

- CARCOPINO, Jerôme: La vida cotidiana en Roma en el apogeo del Imperio, Madrid, 1993

- GABUCCI, Ada: Roma, Barcelona, 2006

- HACQUARD, Georges: Guía de la Roma Antigua, Madrid, 2003

- HAMEY, L. A. y HAMEY, J. A.: Los ingenieros romanos, Madrid, 1990

- PAOLI, Ugo Enrico: URBS.  La vida en la Roma Antigua, Barcelona, 1990