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Roman road

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Roman road

For the TV Drama, see Roman Road (TV Drama).

Roman roads (in Latin, viae - singular via) were vital maintenance and development of the Roman state, and were built from about 500 BC through the expansion and consolidation of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.[1] They provided efficient means for the overland movement of armies, officials and civilians, and the inland carriage of official communications and trade goods.[2] Roman roads were of several kinds, ranging from small local roads to broad, long-distance highways built to connect cities, major towns and military bases. These major roads were often stone-paved and metaled, cambered for drainage, and were flanked by footpaths, bridleways and drainage ditches. They were laid along accurately surveyed courses, and some were cut through hills, or conducted over rivers and ravines on bridgework. Sections could be supported over marshy ground on rafted or piled foundations.[3][4]

At the peak of Rome's development, no fewer than 29 great military highways radiated from the capital, and the Late Empire's 113 provinces were interconnected by 372 great road links.[3] The whole comprised more than 400,000 km of roads, of which over 80,500 km were stone-paved.[5][6] In Gaul alone, no less than 21,000 km of road are said to have been improved, and in Britain at least 4,000 km.[3] The courses, and sometimes the surfaces of many Roman roads survived for millennia. Some are overlaid by modern roads.


The Latin word for "road" was via, plural viae, once thought to be etymologically related to the English way (Old English weg) and weigh — these words are all derived from the Indo-European root, *wegh-, which means "to move or convey"[7] — but this derivation is no longer accepted by The Oxford English Dictionary.[8][9]

Roman systems

"The extraordinary greatness of the Roman Empire manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads, and the construction of the drains."

Livy mentions some of the most familiar roads near Rome, and the milestones on them, at times long before the first paved road—the Appian Way.[11] Unless these allusions are just simple anachronisms, the roads referred to were probably at the time little more than levelled earthen tracks.[11] Thus, the Via Gabina (during the time of Porsena) is mentioned in about 500 BC; the Via Latina (during the time of Coriolanus) in about 490 BC; the Via Nomentana, or Via Ficulensis, in 449 BC; the Via Labicana in 421 BC; and the Via Salaria in 361 BC.[11]

In the Itinerary of Antoninus, the description of the road system, after the death of Julius Caesar and during Augustus tenure, is as follows:

"With the exception of some outlying portions, such as Britain north of the Wall, Dacia, and certain provinces east of the Euphrates, the whole Empire was penetrated by these itinera (plural of iter). There is hardly a district to which we might expect a Roman official to be sent, on service either civil or military, where we do not find roads. They reach the Wall in Britain; run along the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates; and cover, as with a network, the interior provinces of the Empire."[11]

A road map of the empire reveals that it was generally laced with a dense network of prepared viae.[11] Beyond the borders were no roads; however, one might presume that footpaths and dirt roads allowed some transport.[11]

For specific roads, see Roman road locations below.

Laws and traditions

The laws of the Twelve Tables, dated to approximately 450 BC, specified that a road shall be 8 ft (2.45 m) wide where straight and 16 ft (4.90 m) where curved.[12] Actual practices varied from this standard. The Tables command Romans to build roads and give wayfarers the right to pass over private land where the road is in disrepair. Building roads that would not need frequent repair therefore became an ideological objective, as well as building them as straight as possible in order to build the narrowest roads possible, and thus save on material.

Roman law defined the right to use a road as a servitus, or claim. The ius eundi ("right of going") established a claim to use an iter, or footpath, across private land; the ius agendi ("right of driving"), an actus, or carriage track. A via combined both types of servitutes, provided it was of the proper width, which was determined by an arbiter. The default width was the latitudo legitima of 8 ft (2.4 m). In these rather dry laws we can see the prevalence of the public domain over the private, which characterized the republic.

Materials and methods

Viae were distinguished not only according to their public or private character, but according to the materials employed and the methods followed in their construction. Ulpian divided them up in the following fashion:[11]

  1. Via terrena: A plain road of leveled earth.
  2. Via glareata:[15] An earthed road with a graveled surface.
  3. Via munita:[16] A regular built road, paved with rectangular blocks of the stone of the country, or with polygonal blocks of lava.

The Romans, though certainly inheriting some of the art of road construction from the Etruscans, borrowed the knowledge of construction of viae munitae from the Carthaginians according to Isidore of Sevilla.[11]

Via terrena

The Viae terrenae were plain roads of leveled earth. These were mere tracks worn by the feet of men and beasts, and possibly by wheeled carriages.[17]

Via glareata

The Viae glareatae were earthed roads with a graveled surface or a gravel subsurface and paving on top. Livy speaks of the censors of his time as being the first to contract for paving the streets of Rome with flint stones, for laying gravel on the roads outside the city, and for forming raised footpaths at the sides.[18] In these roads, the surface was hardened with gravel; and although pavements were introduced shortly afterwards, the blocks were allowed to rest merely on a bed of small stones.[17][19] An example of this type is found on the Praenestine Way. Another example is found near the Via Latina.[19]

Via munita

The best sources of information as regards the construction of a regulation via munita are:[11]

  1. The many existing remains of víae publicae. These are often sufficiently well preserved to show that the rules of construction were, as far as local material allowed, minutely adhered to in practice.
  2. The directions for making pavements given by Vitruvius. The pavement and the via munita were identical in construction, except as regards the top layer, or surface. This consisted, in the former case, of marble or mosaic, and, in the latter, of blocks of stone or lava.
  3. A passage in Statius describing the repairs of the Via Domitiana, a branch road of the Via Appia, leading to Neapolis.

After the civil engineer looked over the site of the proposed road and determined roughly where it should go, the agrimensores went to work surveying the road bed. They used two main devices, the rod and a device called a groma, which helped them obtain right angles. The gromatici, the Roman equivalent of rod men, placed rods and put down a line called the rigor. As they did not possess anything like a transit, a civil engineering surveyor tried to achieve straightness by looking along the rods and commanding the gromatici to move them as required. Using the gromae they then laid out a grid on the plan of the road.

The libratores then began their work using ploughs and, sometimes with the help of legionaries, with spades excavated the road bed down to bed rock or at least to the firmest ground they could find. The excavation was called the fossa, the Latin word for ditch. The depth varied according to terrain.

The method varied according to geographic locality, materials available and terrain, but the plan, or ideal at which the architect aimed was always the same. The roadbed was layered. The road was constructed by filling the ditch. This was done by layering rock over other stones.

Into the ditch was dumped large amounts of rubble, gravel and stone, whatever fill was available. Sometimes a layer of sand was put down, if it could be found. When it came to within 1 yd (1 m) or so of the surface it was covered with gravel and tamped down, a process called pavire, or pavimentare. The flat surface was then the pavimentum. It could be used as the road, or additional layers could be constructed. A statumen or "foundation" of flat stones set in cement might support the additional layers.

The final steps utilized concrete, which the Romans had discovered.[20] They seem to have mixed the mortar and the stones in the ditch. First a small layer of coarse concrete, the rudus, then a little layer of fine concrete, the nucleus, went onto the pavement or statumen. Into or onto the nucleus went a course of polygonal or square paving stones, called the summa crusta. The crusta was crowned for drainage.

An example is found in an early basalt road by the Temple of Saturn on the Clivus Capitolinus. It had travertine paving, polygonal basalt blocks, concrete bedding (substituted for the gravel), and a rain-water gutter.[21]

Obstacle crossings

Romans preferred to engineer solutions to obstacles rather than circumvent them. Outcroppings of stone, ravines, or hilly or mountainous terrain called for cuttings and tunnels. An example of this is found on the Roman road from Cazanes near the Iron Gates. This road was half carved into the rock, about 5 ft. to 5 ft. 9 in. (1.5 to 1.75 m), the rest of the road, above the Danube, was made from wooden structure, projecting out of the cliff. The road functioned as a towpath, making the Danube navigable. Tabula Traiana memorial plaque in Serbia is all that remains of the now-submerged road.

Bridges and causeways

Main article: Roman bridge

Non-military officials and people on official business had no legion at their service and the government maintained way stations, or mansiones ("staying places"), for their use. Passports were required for identification. Mansiones were located about 15 to 18 miles (25 to 30 km) apart from the next one. There the official traveller found a complete villa dedicated to his use. Often a permanent military camp or a town grew up around the mansio. For non-official travelers in need of refreshment, a private system of "inns" or cauponae were placed near the mansiones. They performed the same functions but were somewhat disreputable, as they were frequented by thieves and prostitutes. Graffiti decorate the walls of the few whose ruins have been found.

Genteel travelers needed something better than cauponae. In the early days of the viae, when little unofficial provision existed, houses placed near the road were required by law to offer hospitality on demand. Frequented houses no doubt became the first tabernae, which were hostels, rather than the "taverns" we know today. As Rome grew, so did its tabernae, becoming more luxurious and acquiring good or bad reputations as the case may be. One of the best hotels was the Tabernae Caediciae at Sinuessa on the Via Appia. It had a large storage room containing barrels of wine, cheese and ham. Many cities of today grew up around a taberna complex, such as Rheinzabern in the Rhineland, and Saverne in Alsace.

A third system of way stations serviced vehicles and animals: the mutationes ("changing stations"). They were located every 20 to 30 km (12 to 18 miles). In these complexes, the driver could purchase the services of wheelwrights, cartwrights, and equarii medici, or veterinarians. Using these stations in chariot relays, the emperor Tiberius hastened 296 km (184 mi) in 24 hours to join his brother, Drusus Germanicus,[24][25] who was dying of gangrene as a result of a fall from a horse.

Post offices and services

Two postal services were available under the empire, one public and one private. The Cursus publicus, founded by Augustus, carried the mail of officials by relay throughout the Roman road system. The vehicle for carrying mail was a cisium with a box, but for special delivery, a horse and rider was faster. A relay of horses could carry a letter 800 km

  • Page 9
  • ↑ Page 320.
  • Corbishley, Mike: "The Roman World", page 50. Warwick Press, 1986.
  • Page 9.
  • Michael Grant, History of Rome (New York: Charles Scribner, 1978), 264.
  • Definition of way. Oxford Dictionaries (US English). (cf., "Old English weg, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch weg and German Weg, from a base meaning 'move, carry'")
  • The ten men who judge lawsuits.
  • Subordinate officers under the aediles, whose duty it was to look after those streets of Rome which were outside the city walls.
  • also, glarea strata
  • also lapide quadrato strata or sílice strata
  • ↑ Page 57–92.
  • Page 66.
  • ↑ Ancient Roman Street re-emerges close to Colleferro. October 10, 2007.
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