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In the year 73 a. C. Vespasianus and Titus, when they were censores, took a census of the Roman streets and measured them; the reckoning of the length of the Roman streets was 60.000 Roman feet, i. e., about 85 kms.  Rome was not created like our modern cities or districts with straight streets and wide avenues; quite the reverse; the orography of Rome with its hills, the capricious bed of the Tiber river, the primitive marshy zones, the old city zone and the public buildings with their disproportionate sizes were the main reasons of a street network inextricable and narrow, where, in addition, the numerous population and the incessant traffic of merchandises and people made worse the situation and the problem of a lack of planning. 

Instead of a rational system of communications, the streets in Rome were a tangle without form that in some aspects had inherited a primitive agricultural conception, dividing their streets into three different types: itinera –roads only for pedestrian-, actus –roads exclusively for one chariot- and viae –roads where two chariots could circulate in both directions or at par-.  In a first period only two streets were called viae inside the republican walls: the via Sacra and the via Nova, that crossed the Forum Romanum and they were not excessively long; between the republican walls and the limits of the fourteen districts into which Rome was divided, there were 20 streets with the category of viae, most of them were the starting point of the Roman roads in Italy: via Appia, via Latina, via Ostiensis, via Labicana, etc.


A street in Pompeii with narrow margines and enough wideness to a chariot -actus-; we can see the furrows of the wheel tracks made by the chariots on the road.  (Photo: Javier J. Boix Feced 31/07/2005)

These viae were between 4,80 and 6,50 metres wide, a measure established in the XII Tables, a law promulgated between 451 and 449 b. C., in the first times of the Republic, where it is indicated that the viae must had to be 16 feet wide, i. e., 4, 80 metres.  In Rome the rest of the streets, called as a whole vici, were not such wide; some of them were mere passageways –angiportus- or paths –semitae- with a wideness of 10 feet, i. e., 2,90 metres in order that they could build balconies both sides of the streets.  We have to add that many streets zigzagged, especially, in the slopes of Rome; these steep streets were called clivi: clivus Capitolinus, clivus Argentarius, etc. 


A via in Pompeii with margines and a wideness to two chariots.  You can see the street bended to the extremes to evacuate the rain water.  (Photo: Javier J. Boix Feced 31/07/2005)

The Roman streets were not clean: the neighbours threw out their rubbish through the window to the street and many streets were not paved, so, when it rained, they became authentic mud holes.  Iulius Caesar tried to take measures to improve the situation, inviting the inhabitants of Rome to clean that part of the street corresponding to the walls of their houses, while the ediles in every district make up for the needs hiring companies that cleaned the streets; however, the ediles did not received the necessary funds nor the adequate means and these measures had not effect.  Iulius Caesar proposed that all the streets had sidewalks –margines or crepidines- and paving –sternendae viae-, but these measures neither could be taken.


Detail of the pavement in a street in Pompeii.  (Photo: Javier J. Boix Feced 31/07/2005)

In the night the streets kept in a deepest darkness, because there were not oil lamps, torches or street lamps that illuminated them; so, the night was very dangerous to those who dared to walk through the streets; people usually shut themselves in their houses, bolted the doors and spent the night at home.  If it was necessary to go out in the night, the rich citizens were accompanied by slaves with torches to light up and to protect their masters.  However, in the city there were groups of night watchmen with torches –sebaciaria- that watch over a district of the city, usually too much extended.  So, in the night, there were many killers –sicarii-, bandits –effractores- and all kind of assailants –raptores-. 

On the other hand, thanks to a law made by Iulius Caesar, the night was the territory of the beast of burden, carters and suppliers.  The Roman dictator, conscious of the amount of people that circulated during the day through the Roman streets, in order to avoid accidents and agglomerations, arranged that from the sunrise up to the twilight the chariots could not circulate inside the city; when the day came up, the vehicles must have kept empty and parked, in case it had not possible for them to go out of the city on time; these restrictions were not applicable to the chariots for solemn ceremonies, to the chariots for the celebration of a military triumph by a general, to the chariots for the celebration of public games and for the chariots necessary to work in the collapse of houses in bad conditions.  Thanks to these rules, only pedestrians, riders and citizens transported in bunk beds circulated during the day in Rome, although the nocturne peace in the city was steadily interrupted by the crackle of the chariots on the streets.  These rules were applied to all the Italic municipia by the emperor Claudius and to all the cities along the empire by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, while the emperor Hadrian limited the number of vehicles that entered in Rome and their weight.


A via in Vasio (nowadays,  Vaison la Romaine, Provence, France).

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 06/08/2007)

Nevertheless, during the day the uproar and the bustle of the Roman streets were tremendous and incessant:  any kind of open business, people walking from here to there, and all the workshops with their craftsmen working in full output.

The amount of population and the large number of streets, squares, houses and districts supposed a big problem to locate somebody’s address, especially if the searcher did not know Rome nor live in it.  We have to add that the Romans never applied the numbers to the houses and streets and many streets had no name.  So, when they indicated an address, there was not a short and clear formula, like the modern addresses, but they had to use large circumlocutions to determinate the exact location of an address.  As an example, it was very frequent that the masters hung on the slaves’ neck a disc –bulla- where it was inscribed the master’s name and his address; we know bullae with texts like these: tene me et revoca me Aproniano Palatino ad mappa(m) aurea(m) in Aventino quia fugi (“stop me and return me to Apronianus Palatinus near the golden linen in the Aventine, because I escaped”) o tene me quia fugi, reduc me ad Flora(m) ad to(n)sores (“stop me because I escaped; bring me near the temple of Flora in the barbers’ street”).

Copy of the medal of a collar belonging to an slave; we can read TENE ME NE FUGIA(M) ET REVOCAME AD DOM(I)NUM EVVIVENTIUM IN ARA CALLISTI ("Stop me in order that I don't run away and bring me to my owner, Euviventius, (who lives) in the temple of Callistus") (CIL XV 7193)


A via in Pompeii with wide margines to two chariots; you can see the blocks of stone that were used as zebra crossing to not be soiled when they crossed the via,; at the same time these blocks separated two lanes to chariots.  (Photo: Javier J. Boix Feced 31/07/2005)

So, in the ancient Rome people used to say “to live near something or somwhere” instead of saying, like nowadays, “live in”; in other words, the addresses were expressed by proximity and not by accuracy.  Except the most famous people and the richest families, nobody had an exact address.  This fact is due to an original village flavour, like a small village where every body knew the rest of the people.  The large viae, which were the starting point of the Roman roads, had name, but its length made fruitless to indicate that somebody lived, e. g., in the via Labicana; except these viae, the streets started to have their own name attending to different reasons: due to the big place where they are connected, due to the presence of a monument, a fountain, a statue, a column, a temple, a public building, a gate, a headquarter, a porch, a granary, a garden, a sacred wood, a tree, etc.  In this way, the addresses started to be more precise, but never exact: “in the via Sacra, under the Velia, where the temple of Vica Porta is”.  They had to add some other expressions that located more precisely the address:  “at the beginning of the street”, “in the first stretch of the street”, “in the middle of the district”, etc.; or even they had to give definitive details:  “ at the entrance of the Suburra –a Roman district-, where tormentors’ scourges hang on”, “just in the point where you go down to the Forum from the Palatine”, etc.

Maybe one of the best methods to name  a place or an address was the neighbouring shops; in the medieval and Renaissance ages this method was very usual and there are many streets in many European cities with these names.  In Saragossa still exist streets such as Tenerias, where the dying of clothes workshops were, or Cereros street, where the wax and candle making workshops were, etc.  In Rome there are examples of people living inter falcarios (“between the sickle makers”) or even mixed indications, Hercules olivarios (“the sellers of olives near the statue of Hercules”).




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