How innovative were Roman roads and the Roman Empire’s transport network for the age?
Road networks existed prior to the Romans (the massive Persian Empire was put together in about 30 years in the mid-7th-century BCE because Cyrus the Great (ca 600-530 BCE) took advantage of the existing roads and built others across the vast Persian territories). Roman roads became quite famous as a by-word for efficiency (‘All roads lead to Rome’) because of how quickly they were built, and that they were built to last.
The impetus behind building roads quickly, thoroughly and directly was so that the Romans could move their army from one end of the empire to the other. It was the soldiers who did the work, digging out the foundation on which layers of stone, gravel and drainage channels were placed. The roads were as straight as possible to be the quickest distance (marked by regular milestones) between, initially, flashpoints; later, as the army became less of a mobile fighting force and more of an entrenched defensive force on the frontiers, the roads were important for getting goods and supplies to the troops.
Of course, other people took advantage of these roads as well. Merchants and salesmen travelled across the empire on them, bringing goods from one end of the state to the other. Imperial couriers and a sort of postal system used the roads, and there was fairly efficient communication established along Roman highways. There were also travellers and tourists – a number of descriptions of marvels and wonders to be found in the empire were published by authors in antiquity, such as Pausanias (ca 110-180 CE). However, there is some evidence that some of the wonders described might be exaggerated if not fabricated whole-cloth by certain authors who, in fact, were writing from the comforts of their homes. While strangers into town might be regarded with suspicion, they were also welcome for their stories of the places they had been and the things they had seen. Examples of travellers for the sake of travel can be found in Apuleius’s 2nd-century novel Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass; real-life upper-class tourists included people such as Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE), his wife and a number of their friends. Hadrian travelled for travel’s sake, as he was not only impressed by the vast differences in culture across the empire, but wanted to emphasise it as a feature of being Roman. One of the stops on his trip was Egypt, where he and his party were disappointed that a pair of so-called ‘Singing statues’ (the Colossi of Memnon) didn’t pay off; the graffiti expressing their disappointment is still visible on the base of one of the statues.
In general, travel in antiquity, no matter how well made the roads were, was slow and difficult, and anyone travelling was in danger of being attacked by bandits or ripped off by the numerous inns that sprang up along the most popular routes. Still, there is evidence that people travelled quite a bit in Roman times. For example, there is a tombstone in the British Museum dedicated to a woman called Regina, who died in the north of Britain in the 2nd century CE; she was born a slave in the south of Britain, and by the time she was a married adult, freed by her husband, she had moved quite a long way from home – but not as far as her Palmyran spouse who not only created her tombstone but wrote on it in both Latin and Palmyran. Other good examples of how efficient communication and trade was even to the farthest reaches of the empire come from the Vindolanda letters, found at a fort on Hadrian’s Wall – these letters indicate not only how many supplies regularly arrived at the fort for the everyday needs of the soldiers, but also the most mundane – thank-you notes for socks and underwear are found among the surviving letters.
The efficacy of Roman roads is thrown into stark relief by subsequent travel in the Middle Ages: once the roads and routes fell into neglect, travel became even more perilous and expensive. In the early Middle Ages, in Charlemagne’s kingdom of the late-8th, early-9th century, travel became near-impossible in winter, and due to banditry, so trade and goods’ manufacture became far more local due to the huge costs in transportation and shipping. The durability of Roman roads is shown in how many remained in use until the 20th century, and how many can now still be walked on and used for light traffic throughout many countries today.
Carey Fleiner is a senior lecturer in classical and medieval history at the University of Winchester