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Traffic jams in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman mosaic showing transport of animals to games
Roman mosaic showing transport of animals to games

In ancient Rome, as today, there were traffic jams, which the authorities tried to remedy in various ways. The streets of Rome were crowded with both pedestrians and sledges. The Eternal City was problematic in terms of traffic because of: irregular city buildings, high population density and warm climate, which encouraged people to leave their homes.

Titus Livy stated that the lack of thought-out architecture of Rome resulted from the fact that the Romans after sack of the city in 390 BCE by Gauls, had to rebuild the capital in a hurry. At that time, there was no time for order and accuracy.

In Rome there were only a few more important streets wide enough for two carts to cross each other. Most of the Roman streets were narrow and usually had a width from 1.20 to 2.4 meters. The horse-drawn carriage had huge problems to maneuver in such a small space, especially if there were many crowds in the streets. Usually, the coachman sent a slave forward to pave the passage or properly instructed another oncoming driver, for example, forcing a temporary stop. In this way, you could go through a bigger crush.

It is worth mentioning that Rome was a really heavily crowded agglomeration. A city with an area equal to half of the area of ​​Alexandria or Antioch had practically twice as large a population (respectively, one million to 500,000). The rulers tried to regulate traffic problems. However, they did not always do it skilfully, eg. transport of building materials was possible at any time of the day or night, which in the case of continuous construction guaranteed blockages. The first restrictions were introduced during Julius Caesar reign. He forbade moving around Rome horse-drawn carts from dawn to dusk, because they caused too much noise and confusion on the streets, and harnessed horses contaminated the city. Such a law gradually became effective in other urban centers.

Emperor Claudius, in turn, forced private people to move around in Italian cities, either on foot or in a litter. Such a provision resulted from the fact that the streets were mostly filled with pedestrians. They were mostly clients who went to their patron’s house in the morning for alms. The master then counted in support of his interests. However, there were also casual pedestrians, vendors or rich people going to the villas outside of the city. Interestingly, even in the third and second centuries BCE in republican Rome, women could not travel with carts. In this way, the paternalistic senate wanted to curb the ostentatious lifestyle of rich Roman matrons. It is worth mentioning that it was the time of the second Punic war and was aimed at maintaining moderation during the great danger of Carthage.

Later, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, limits were imposed on the total number of sledding rides to Rome to maximize the capacity of the streets.

  • Ermatinger James W., The World of Ancient Rome: A Daily Life Encyclopedia

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