The success and extent of the ancient Roman empire could only exist because of the advanced transport network. The military were generally charged with the construction of roads in new territories, utilising local materials.
The roads themselves were then open to be used by the Roman population at large, generally by horse drawn carriage or on foot. But this is only a limited thought…
developed because of the intersection of various factors
Transport Technology (the vehicles/animals and the industry around them)
Large infrastructure like roads, ports, bridges, sewers etc
Services like legal, political, job specialisation…
The logistic needs of the armies
Growing urban centres and civil life
Highly articulated economies creating a demand for civil transport
Roman dominance over the seas and growing Roman expertise with ships meant that by the end of the Republic it would be quite easy for people to travel to a wide variety of locations with little trouble.
It was common for rich students to travel to more distant parts of the empire in order to improve their skills. Dominance of the seas came thanks to the historic victory over the Carthaginians and Pompey’s victory over the pirates who were well known to pillage coastal towns or take dignitaries in exchange for ransom. A particularly well remembered occasion is when Julius Caesar himself was taken in his youth (he gained their respect and later came to order their deaths by capital punishment).
Transport of mercantile goods in Ancient Roman trading was forbidden to the upper classes who therefore had to resort to their clients to take care of business on their behalf. This limitation was not only one of social stigma but also imposed through legal limitations on the size of ships the senatorial class were allowed to own (claudia lex).
Within the context of Roman mercantile trade and the roman economy it is interesting to note that transportation of goods by ship was far more economical than by road. This had a clear impact on the location of production sites and trade of various goods such as the Roman wine trade. For example, high quality wine or wine which could be competitively sold abroad would be produced in locations closer to sea ports, for example sites such as Pompeii. On the other hand, wine for local popular consumption – that we might call “a table wine” – would have been produced close to the locations where it would have been consumed since it wouldn’t be economical for it to travel more than some 60miles (100km) by road.
The amazing size of the greater roman engineering achievements also belies a particular ability with the transportation of heavy goods in great quantities although even in then it was very expensive. There are a variety of accounts of how gigantic statues or obelisks came to be transported with trains of elephants.
There is a particularly telling passage from Suetonius which shows how in fact Roman technology wasn’t always fostered since its social implications were of particular concern (Life of the Caesars, Vespasian – chapter 18)
“To a mechanical engineer, who promised to transport some heavy columns to the capitol at small expense, he gave no mean reward for his invention, but refused to make use of it, saying: ‘You must let me feed my poor commons.'”
Going back to the military (the backbone of Roman society), transportation was a particularly important logistical issue, particularly when one bears in mind that a moving army was rather like a moving the pre-fabricated city which the soldiers were capable of carrying and installing in wondrously short periods of time – so much so that many modern cities (eg see cities which have a name which ends in “chester”) are the evolved result of ancient Roman military camps (“castrum”).
This kind of transport was generally with carts drawn by the usual animals but we shouldn’t forget the soldiers themselves who were known to carry amazing quantities of equipment, armor and rations for huge distances on foot. This began during the republican period when General Marius was called on to defend Rome against the barbarians invading from the north. He took his time to set up a professional army which he trained to undertake amazing physical feats. His men came to be popularly known as Marius’ Mules.
Conclusion: Ancient Roman Transport
So given the above, it is easy to see how transport played a vital role in the development of Roman society and as a vital enabler of the Roman economy. Individuals could travel to study or to seek better fortunes, goods could be brought to centralised markets and traded, raw materials could be procured and brought to industry, troops could control larger areas of territory (eg Hadrian’s wall), hence extending the beneficial effects of the “pax romana“.
As can be perceived from the “castrum” – “chester” example above the importance and effect of ancient Roman transport networks can be seen and lived to this day either in the form of modern cities built over the ancient Roman military posts or indeed in the form of roads laid directly on top of those planned and built by the Romans. How many “old Roman road” are there in Britain? Many. Certainly the major arteries out of Rome itself are to this day tarmacked over portions of the older ancestor with portions of the original basalt slabs still poking out here and there.