Roman roads were one of the greatest achievements of the engineering genius of the Romans. The network built by the Romans facilitated the movement of legions, facilitated trade, and allowed faster transmission of information by means of state mail organized along roads (cursus publicus). Numerous sections of Roman roads have survived to this day.
Military, commercial and political needs forced the Romans to create a wide road network. The road through the Romans was called via, in the plural viae.
The first roads were created as early as the 4th century BCE and were modelled on those built by the Etruscans. These routes led to neighbouring cities in Lazio and Etruria. These were, among others, leading to Ostia, Via Ostiensis, leading to Laurentum, Via Laurentina and Via Ardeatina, which could reach Ardea. Their surface, however, was made of compacted soil, and the roads themselves matched the terrain. So these were not yet examples of Roman genius.
The first truly Roman road was already paved via Appia, started in 312 BCE by the censor Appius by Claudius Caecus, which connected two large cities, Rome with Capua. The road was laid out in such a way as to shorten the distance to a minimum. For this purpose, a road was created, which stretched for kilometres in a straight line, according to the Roman plan. Another important element of this road was the huge viaduct over the Arriccia Valley. The creation of Via Appia also brought a new precedent, naming the road from the name of the official who ordered its construction.
Roads were built by praetors and consuls. In the provinces, this function was performed by propretors and proconsuls. This group also includes censors, who, however, erected roads only around Rome. During the empire, the roads were supervised by the emperor, who issued decisions on their construction or renovation. Even during the republic, road supervision was entrusted to special officials, curatores viae. This office was reorganized by August, who in 20 BCE established new curatores viarum. They supervised the construction works on the roads and determined the scope of necessary maintenance works and oversaw their implementation. subprocuratores and tabularii, emperor’s freedmen who kept the accounts, helped them with the classes. From the second century CE to the duties of inspectors, the provision of food was also added.
In the following centuries, the desire to obtain the shortest distance was a characteristic feature of Roman road construction. It forced builders to build numerous bridges, viaducts, embankments, excavations and tunnels.
Bridges were very important to the Romans. The title of the high priest – Pontifex Maximus, literally means “the highest bridge-builder”. Beautiful Roman bridges have survived in Spain, min. in Martorell, Merida, Salamanca, Toledo and Alcantara. We know the name of the creator of the latter exceptionally. He was Gaius Julius Lacer, who was so attached to the work that he had been buried nearby. He also ordered to carve on the arch of the bridge: “PONTEM PERPETUI MANSARUM AND SAECULA MUNDI FECIT DIVINA NOBILIS ARTE LACER” (“The illustrious Lacer, with divine art, made the bridge to last forever in the ages of the perpetual world.”). Many bridges, although with a slightly changed appearance, have survived to this day in Italy and Asia Minor.
Over time, Roman roads evolved into a huge communication system, which together with the sea routes merged an empire stretching for thousands of kilometres on three continents. Research carried out at the request of Emperor Diocletian on the length and number of Roman roads showed the existence of 372 roads with a total length of 52.819 Roman miles in the empire or 85,004 kilometres.
The most famous roads of Italy include: via Appia, via Aurelia, via Flaminia, via Salaria.
Latin road names
By the roads, milestones (miliarium) were set up, according to the Roman mile, i.e. every 1478, 5 meters. Their name comes from milia passuum, meaning “one-thousandth of pieces”. Their goal was naturally to inform about the distance to specific places. Every 5 miles, so-called a courier stone (lapides tabulari) for orientation when travelling quickly.
The first milestones were built during the construction of via Appia, but their regular construction along the roads took place only after 124 BCE. The milestone was a round column with a solid, rectangular base embedded in the earth by about 60 cm. The column itself was 1, 50 m and 50 cm in diameter. Together, the whole structure weighed almost 2 tons. The stones were usually made of marble, granite or local stone, and then concrete. The base had a mile number, and at eye level on the column the distance to the Roman Forum. Other official parts of the column contain other official information about renovations made to date.
The most famous milestone is the golden miliarium aureum, placed on the Roman Forum at the Temple of Saturn in 20 BCE by Augustus. It had a column covered with gold-plated sheet metal. This stone stood where the Via Aurelia, Ostiensis, Flaminia, Salaria and Appia crossed. connecting Rome with all the provinces of the Empire – hence the saying that “all roads lead to Rome”.
Narrow paths for humans and pack animals were also made on major routes. Every now and then stones were placed along the road to facilitate boarding.
At the intersections, shrines dedicated to lares (lares compitales) were placed. They were deities, Lares Compitales and Lares Viales, guardians of the roads and their crossroads. Numerous post stations and inns (mansiones) were established along the roads, where couriers, official representatives of the authorities, business people and ordinary travellers stayed.
The rapid expansion of Rome, the political and economic development of the state forced the Romans to establish contacts with many countries, and this entailed the need to send missions and delegations, and when Rome’s influence began to reach beyond Italy, the provinces had to be reckoned with and the need for rapid introduction there military force. It was realized that the rapid introduction of troops and adequate supply of food to the army required proper roads and high roads. It was also known that cities along good transport routes had greater chances for development, and commercial interests were once again associated with this.
As for personal needs, people went to health resorts, and young people more often went to study abroad: to Athens – to study philosophy and pronunciation, to Rhodes – to study with famous rhetoric, to the island Kos – to master medical art. Eagerly visited places associated with the names of famous people, cities with tradition.
The tourist movement also developed, which became fashionable during the empire; traveled a lot and often, comfortably and safely. Traveling for religious or research purposes was often associated with visiting interesting objects and watching curiosities. The guides served the visitors with explanations – not always true. In places associated with the worship of a god or hero, the guides were mostly local priests, well-versed in the history of worship and familiar with the peculiarities of the place. But there were also amateur guides who provided information for a fee; they did not attach great importance to historical accuracy, let their imagination run free, just to tell stories colorfully and arouse the interest of tourists in myths and fantastic stories.
The road building technique was taken over from the Etruscans and initially followed closely. With time, new technologies were only beginning to be adopted. The turning point was the rise of via Appia in the 4th century BCE, the first Roman paved road. In the end, a clear pattern was not formed according to which all subsequent roads were created. However, two rules were unconditionally observed: adaptation to local conditions and securing the route against the damaging effects of water.
The construction of the road began with determining its width by digging two ditches called sulci. The native soil was removed from such a trough until it encountered a rock, i.e. at a considerable depth. The next step was to lay a layer of sand, which was compacted and profiled. 1 or 2 layers of flat stones were laid on the prepared substrate, they were covered with cement mortar or silted with clay. Instead of mortar, volcanic ash (puzolana) was also used. This formed the lower road layer, statumen, 20-30 cm thick, sometimes reaching 0.5 m. Statumen was framed with curbs weighing from 10, 15 kg to 50 kg, it was intended to strengthen the edges of the road. The next layer called rudus or ruderatio 20-30 cm thick consisted of crushed sandstone, crushed brick or crushed stone. They were beaten with carefully forged wood rammers. All this was poured with a mortar with a ratio of crushed brick and calcium – 3: 1.
Then the foundation was laid, the first layer of which was nucleus, i.e. cement with fine stone chips, slag, clay and sand. The whole formed a layer of impermeable, sealed fine-grained concrete. The approximate composition of this half-meter layer was 3 parts brick poppy and 2 parts calcium.
The upper layer, summum dorsum, was made of gravel with a grain size of up to 6 cm, called gloren stratata or polygonal stone tiles, silicea stratata.
A profiled and carefully leveled surface, parimentum, was laid with 5 cm thick stone slabs with a fall of 1:60 and an area of 30 to 100 cm.
The total thickness of the Roman road ranged from 1 m to 1.5 m with different thickness variants of individual layers. In later times the roads were lined with stone slabs.
Depending on what materials the road was made Ulpian divided them into the following types:
- Via terrena – a normal road with leveled surface.
- Via glareata – gravel road covered in gravel.
- Via munita – road covered and made of stones or polygonal lava blocks.
(A) Leveled ground
(B) Statumen, palm-sized stones
(C) Audits, crushed stone or concrete consisting of lime and crushed stones
(D) Nucleus, a layer of good cement
(E) Dorsum or agger viae, elliptical surface, crowning the road (media stratae eminentia), made of polygonal basalt lava blocks or rectangular saxum qitadratum blocks (travertine, peperino or other local stone). This surface was made in such a way that during rain water was directed to the edge of the road (turtle shape)
(F) Crepido, margo or semita – pavement
(G) Umbones or the edges of stones
Roman roads were of different width, depending on the purpose:
- the widest roads were up to 15 m wide, but most often they did not exceed 5 m. They were built mainly for commercial and military purposes. The most common roads were about 3.5 m wide, which allowed two cars to pass each other.
- actus, a local road, 1, 20 m wide. Used to drive cattle out.
- iter, a pedestrian and horse path, 60 cm wide.
- semita, 30 cm wide field path.