Ancient Rome: Roads of Winners

Ancient Roman roads were obviously built for military and political purposes in the first place. As the Empire expanded Roman roads became the critical arteries of communication between the center of authority and far-away parts of the Empire. Roads gave power, control and mobility to the army. Any troubled area could be reached within the shortest time to the place of turmoil and stop it, no matter how far it was. Ancient Roman roads functioned also as a sign of authority over a newly conquered territory. They helped to maintain new areas and laid the cachet of the Roman Empire upon the conquered lands.

As we know, Roman Empire was very enthusiastic about the veni vedi vici approach and the standards were set very high. If Romans started a building it meant to be glorious. If they made concrete it was made of materials, producing structures that can survive thousands of years (think of the PantheonCastello Sant'Angelo, the Colosseum). As for the roads, those had to be always straight, super endurable and everlasting no matter what obstacle might there be on the way to perfection. As a result, till today there are buildings, fountains and roads that have challenged time since they were built in early antiquity. The big question now is how it is possible that any structure or road can endure a lapse of time equelled to over 2000 years.

Queen of All Roads - the First Highway of the Empire

The legendary first Roman road was called Via Appia Antica - the Appian Way. The first part of it was built by Appius Caecus in 312 BC and since then it became one of the greatest landmarks of Rome. Due to the tradition that appeared after the death of Appius, people started first burying great Romans along the Appian Way and then it became prestigious to build luxurious villas for living. As a result, today we have a big number of sites that are concentrated within the first 7 km along the Appian Way. Many of the sites are on the list of must-see places in Rome. It’s interesting that not long ago in the 1980 the tradition to live along Via Antica returned and many famous Italian celebrities, such as Valentino or Gina Lollobrigida, moved into this neighborhood, which again shows that nothing dies out in Rome completely. As usual Rome is eager for transformations. 

Ancient Rome: Road System

The Ancient Rome road system was divided into districts. Each one was supervised by a curator, who was in charge of the road maintenance of his area. To maintain the roads wasn’t an easy task due to their length, high imperial standards and earthquakes that were not rare. In fact, road building was among the Empire’s priorities and those who held responsibilities of a certain district got easy access to power, which promised future promotion in politics. A good example of that would be Julius Caesar. He started obtaining his power when he held the position of a censor of the Appian Way. 

How Roman Roads Were Different

Ancient Roman roads were constructed in an absolutely different way from those known to the world. They were absolutely straight and had to be the shortest way between Rome and other destination points no matter what difficulties might there be on the way: rivers, ravines, deserts or mountains.

The main differences started from the basement layer. No one before invested into preparation of foundation as formidably. It was an innovative step and it made Roman highways stand out for thousands of years. 

First of all, a road started from a trench that was dug down to be filled with rocks and clay, then there were layers of sand, small rocks, and possibly concrete to fill the voids. Finally, the paving and curbstones had been cut and shaped by skilled stonemasons. All the stone pieces were fitted together with great precision. Nothing was left to chance. The roads were constructed a little higher in the middle, so the rain water would run off to the sides. The Romans were not very sophisticated in terms of tools they used. Ancient Rome roads were made by simple tools like hammers and chisels, but the real job in constructing these roads was done obviously by slaves, who did the hardest parts of building, and soldiers who were, too, often employed to do repairements on the way to war. Unbelievable, but wheelbarrows were not yet part of European technology then! Nonetheless, no matter how challenging the task was, for the Romans it was never insurmountable. 

Roman Milestone

In order to orientate on the roads Roman engineers also built milestones to measure the distances. They called it miliarium from the word milia, which meant one thousand. In other words, a milestone was an interval of 1000 military paces, which was a little bit less than a mile today. Thus, every Roman mile of the road was signed with a stone, called a milestone.

As we know, in Ancient Rome Milliarium Aureum - the famous golden milestone - stood exactly in the center of the Roman Forum and signified kilometre zero, from which all the Roman roads started and to which all of them led back. In practice chariots could only reach the gates of the Roman Forum, so the Golden Milestone was built by the Emperor Caesar Augustus only as a metaphorical center of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, the Golden Mile disappeared completely and no one knows where it is today. 

Why Romans Were So Effective

  • They had clear aims - to expand and hold their borders. The roads were made in order to ensure that no places of the Roman Empire are going to be isolated from the central authority. 
  • Romans had unlimited resources to execute even most sophisticated ideas and they used them wisely.
  • They planned way ahead and established quality over speed. As the empire was vast and wide the infrastructure was intended to be as durable as it is only possible. 
  • The Romans had an infinite source of human labor: slaves. The bigger the Empire became, the more slaves appeared. They did the harshest work on the roads, laid the basement layer and brought the stones, working in the sun all day long.
  • Apart from slaves, the Romans also took full advantage of their armies, giving the soldiers work to do about the road they were using to get somewhere. Thus, they killed two birds with one stone. On the one hand, repairment works on the roads were done even in the far-away lands. On the other hand, this prevented rebellions among the soldiers.

All roads lead to Rome is a saying that has always implied good communication between different cities of the Empire and its only center - Rome. You may not be impressed today with amazing Roman roads since a good transport system is part of our life today we have got completely used to. But give it a second thought, imagine civilizations 2000 years ago with almost no good roads at all as compared to the Roman Empire with its intricate traffic system consisting of convenient thousand-mile roads covering all the needed destinations around the Great Roman Empire. That was exactly the matter, Roman roads were a miracle for those times and the main reason for the continuous Roman reigning over almost half of the world. 

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