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What was it like to live in ancient Rome? Cities and roads – heritage of antiquity

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Reconstruction of Trajan's Forum
Reconstruction of Trajan's Forum

Roman cities were carefully planned, built on a grid of streets intersecting at right angles. The Romans borrowed this idea from the Greeks. Streets divided the city into quarters, just like in some modern cities, such as New York. A wall was built around the city to mark its border. Roman cities were bustling, populous and full of large, magnificent buildings. In the 1st century BCE Rome had over a million inhabitants.

In the center of every Roman city there was a large open square called the forum. It was a market square and a meeting place where business was discussed and politics was made. Public buildings rose around the forum: a basilica serving judicial functions, thecuria-seat of the senate, and temples.

Roman roads

The Romans were the world’s greatest ancient road builders. Around 200 BCE they already had a network 85,000 km long, reaching every corner of the empire.

The roads were primarily used by moving troops. The first great road was the Via Appia, leading from southeast Rome to Capua. Its construction began in 312 BCE and lasted a hundred years.

Roman roads were laid out along the shortest, simplest and most direct line connecting two cities. First, a trench was dug about 1.5 m deep and filled with layers of sand, crushed stone and cement.

Flat stone slabs were placed on top. The roads were slightly raised in the middle, with drainage ditches running along the sides into which rainwater flowed.

Ancient Roman roads consisted of several layers:

  • Foundation soil – the base on which the road was built was compressed to make it compact and avoid construction settlement, and then covered with sand or mortar.,
  • Statumen – a layer laid on compacted foundation soil, consisting of crushed rock with a minimum grain size of 5 cm. The thickness of this layer was from 25 to 60 cm.
  • Rudus – a 20 cm thick layer consisting of crushed stone with a diameter of 5 cm in cement mortar.
  • Nucleus – a concrete base layer of cement, sand and gravel; thickness 30 cm.
  • Summum dorsum – final layer consisting of large rock blocks 15 cm thick.

In addition to soldiers, the roads were also used by merchants and the postal service – cursus publicus. Riders or horse-drawn carts, changing every section of the road, delivered mail throughout the empire. Every 30-40 km on each road there were post stations where riders could rest or change horses.

Author: Paulina Bieś (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Anita Ganeri, Dziedzictwo starożytności, Warszawa 2001

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