We tend to joke that ‘All roads lead to Rome’, but actually they did – and indeed they led away from Rome too.
The Romans never set out to create an empire but they did, from Britain in the north, to Algeria in the south, Spain to Israel, the Nile to the Rhine. Rome built its empire from the ground up, connecting people and places in a way that had never been seen before. One of the Roman Empire’s greatest legacies was its roads.
In our Book of the Month for January 2023 – The Road: A Story of Romans and Ways to the Past – Christopher Hadley takes us on a lyrical journey searching for an elusive Roman road that sprang from one of the busiest road hubs in Roman Britain. While time and nature have erased many clues, Hadley gathers traces of archaeology, history and landscape in a mesmerising journey into 2,000 years of history only now giving up its secrets.
But what difference did Roman roads make to the conquered lands they built them in? Here we explore the impact Roman roads had on the Roman Empire, in Britain, and their legacy today.
The impact to the empire
Roman roads still lie under many of our transport routes today. These roads served a crucial purpose for the Roman Empire – explaining not only how it grew so large, but also why it remained so powerful for so long.
Roman roads served more than simply for transport functions; they were a means of putting Rome’s stamp of authority across a new territory and then maintaining that territory. A road to a Roman was like a map is to us today.
It’s easy to forget quite how revolutionary it was to go from a system of windy, local dirt tracks, to great paved highways striking out across the continent. The idea that you could start out in Rome, get on a road and end up in Spain or Greece, was entirely new. Like sinews crossing the empire, the Romans built a network of roads over 80,000 km long, not only creating a new geography, but introducing an entirely new Roman way of thinking about the world.
The significance of milestones
Roman roads had a series of ‘milestones’ that were set every Roman mile (about 1.5km), along all the major routes, which had the emperor’s name and titles written on them so people knew who was responsible for the road.
Underneath was a number, showing how many miles you were from the nearest staging point. This meant people knew exactly where they were – for the first time, people could place themselves in the world.
A symbol of power and a connected world
Once off the beaten track and in the countryside, life went on as usual, but where there were Roman roads, things changed significantly, sometimes not necessarily for the better. Roman roads could be built straight through someone’s land, and much like today, Romans also complained about bad food and exorbitant prices at the ancient equivalent of service stations.
For some though, these new roads were a cause for celebration, and helped facilitate the creation of new towns – such urbanisation was another marker of Roman presence on the landscape. All over the Empire, towns needed infrastructure, including roads and impressive aqueducts which helped to serve as a symbol of the Roman’s power and grandness.
Rome was at the centre of the Empire, but while roads led there, roads led away from Rome too, creating a joined-up world. They were a statement of Roman power and control, and a network of connectivity, joining up places that had never before been joined.
In this new connected world, the demands of the Roman state, including over a million consumers in Rome itself, could be met by producers many hundreds of kilometres away. This transformed the countryside.
The Roman Empire ran on olive oil (which was used for cooking, lighting, and as an equivalent of soap) and thus the hills of southern Spain became a giant olive farm. The production of olive oil and the resulting infrastructure this required such as warehouses, bottling plants or ports – made it a highly profitable industry, further interconnecting the empire.
The role of the military in road creation
While roads also acted as borders, their primary function was the transportation of goods as well as the Roman military. All the roads of the Roman Empire were built by the Roman military.
The first main Roman Road was the Appian Way, began by Appius Claudius Caecus while he was censor in 312 BC. At the time most roads were Etruscan and served the needs of their culture so roads that would facilitate Roman military transport were of the utmost importance to the Republic.
By the end of the Republican era, Romans were masters of road making and their roads branched out from the capital and extended throughout Italy. By 200 AD a network of ‘first class’ Roman roads spanned some 80,000 km in total. First class roads were characterised by a minimum width of 5 metres and a surface of drained stone.
The world’s first dual carriage way was also a Roman road, the Via Portuensis, which connected Rome and its port of Ostia.
The golden milestone
The central forum of Rome contained a monument – the Millarium Aureum or Golden Milestone – erected by Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus in 20 BC. It is believed that the milestone listed all of the Empire’s major cities and their distance from Rome – a symbol of the Roman culture’s greatness in engineering, and where the idea that ‘all roads’ emanated from.
Roman Roads in Britain
For 2,000 years, the roads the Romans built have determined the flow of ideas and folktales, where battles were fought and where pilgrims trod. Almost everyone in Britain lives close to a Roman road if they knew where to look.
As Christopher Hadley references in his book, Watling Street was the first road scored on British land when the invading Romans arrived in Kent in 43 AD. Soon, campaign roads rolled out in all directions, forcing their way inland and as the Britons fell back, the roads followed, carrying troops, supplies and military despatches.
In the years of fighting that followed, as the legions pushed onwards across what is now England, into Wales and north into Scotland, they left behind a vast road network, linking marching camps and forts, and changing the landscape.
In the four or so centuries the Romans were in Briton, they built some 3,000 kilometres of roads and tracks, allowing the flow of imperial troops and supplies, as well as assisting trade, industry and civilian travel. Some of the routes they carved out can still be followed today, marking the arteries of former Roman Britain.
After the Romans established a settlement on the banks of the Thames in around 47-50 AD, they constructed a narrow bridge over the river, and London was born.
The A10 is one of London’s oldest Roman roads, spanning from London Bridge to the port town of King’s Lynn, in Norfolk. Its path from London to Royston, in Hertfordshire, passing the towns of Ware and Cheshunt, largely retraces the route of an ancient Roman road: Ermine Street, an ancient pathway that led all the way to York in its heyday.
Ermine Street has now been weathered by time, turmoil and redevelopment, yet portions can still be traced today. Another example is Fosse Way, which once connected Roman Exeter with Lincoln and now follows portions of the A46, A37 and A30.
As in Britain, many other countries still bear signs of Roman roads which had the same impact of facilitating troops, supplies, trade and travel across the Roman empire. This interconnectivity was revolutionary, and showed foresight into how we live our lives today in our global economy.
Christopher Hadley is a journalist and the acclaimed author of Hollow Places: An Unusual History of Land and Legend. His book, The Road: A Story of Romans and Ways to the Past is our Book of the Month for January 2023. It is published by Harper Collins Publishers, and available to buy now.