Roman roads permitted a rapid movement of the Romans’ troops to where they were most needed. They also permitted Roman trade, transportation and faster communications, to the point that a veritable postal system also took shape during various periods of the empire.
The famous motto “All Roads lead to Rome” is a witness of how significant the Roman road network really was. The motto alludes to the way in which a number of roads radiate out from the centre of Rome, from the Capitol in fact, where the mile 0 was measured from.
There were seven roads major roads, known as “Consular roads” which lead out of Rome. The first of these was started by Appius Claudius who had the Roman job of being a Censor in 312BC and was named after him: The Appian way, which is still partly visible today. Appius Claudius also started the first aqueduct, which gives us a strong sense of how many great public works in ancient Rome were directly inspired by powerful individuals.
The construction of this road met up with a great deal of opposition in the Roman Senate but it soon proved its worth as a source of stable occupation and then as an extremely efficient means of moving troops. In the year 267BC it reached as far south as the port city of Brindisi and came to symbolise Roman conquest of southern Italy.
The Appian way is considered the first of the Roman roads, particularly because of the new conception of direct means communications. It was in fact preceded by two existing routes to the north of Rome: the Via Tiberina and the Via Salaria, both of which are rather more tortuous as they followed the Tiber river valley. The first derived its name from the Tiber itself, whilst the second gained its name from the very important salt trade (sale=salt) which moved along it (the myth of the Roman rape of the Sabine women seems to be an allusion to the Roman taking of the profitable salt trade).
Construction of Roman Roads
The construction of new roads was frequently associated with military conquest and control of new territories. This meant that planning and construction were often undertaken in a hurry by the legionaries themselves. The planning and civil engineering were meticulous and pragmatic, balancing the primary considerations of construction speed, versus the cost of long-distance transport of heavy materials. This meant that local materials were used wherever possible as they did with housing and other architecture. Britain, for example, provided a wide range of materials whilst some other countries might be more limited to one or two materials: for example, it was very difficult to find plentiful wood in the Middle East!
The Romans clearly understood the importance of good foundations as a basis for the quality and durability of the final result. Where possible this implied digging down into the ground a couple of feet in order to rest the work onto a more solid base. This itself would be compacted and prepared with sand and compacted stones. Where necessary drainage and other hydraulic works would be installed underneath the road level, particularly in totally new urban areas. Where solid ground was not available a stronger foundation could be provided through wooden piles and “tramlines” over which the road would be laid.
We all consider the “typical” Roman road as having been surfaced with large durable stone slabs, but this was not always the case. Several centuries of road construction work inevitably led to a variety of construction techniques. Some sources suggest that at least into the first century BC it was normal to lay slabs on the urban sections of roads only, whilst the cross-country sections (the majority) would be surfaced with sand and compacted stones.
Certainly, volcanic lava basalt rock was used around central Italy, which has a volcanic geology, but the weight of the block and the labour required to lay them meant that in many areas the road could have different types of surface and differing degrees of durability. Each of the lava rocks employed in the more durable roads was some 1½ ft (45cm) in length, breadth, and height and weighed about as much as a person! It is not so surprising therefore that the first consular road, the Appian Way, is only said to have been completed with slabs well into the second century: nearly 500 years after it was started! (Have to say that modern roadworks don’t seem to fare much better…)
The image below shows a minor Roman road a few kilometers/miles to the north of Rome. In spite of being of lesser importance it is interesting to note that it is well paved, and also had clear demarcation of the road’s edge.
This other image is of a road in a city centre – from Pompeii. It is interesting to note the ‘tram lines’ worn by continued use of hard cart wheels over centuries. Getting across the streets could be difficult for pedestrians particularly if it was raining heavily, so large stepping stones or bollards were often used at crossings.
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