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All roads lead to Rome: The ingenuity of Roman road construction endures today


Can you imagine still using roads that were built centuries ago? Can you imagine the changes they brought about in society and the magnitude of their construction?

A view of the construction of a Roman road.

The roads of ancient Rome, named viae Romanae in Latin, were first constructed around 300 B.C. to connect and consolidate the Roman Republic and the expanding Roman empire. They provided efficient means for the overland movement of the Roman military, officials, civilians, and to send official communications and to trade goods.

The Romans built their roads over established routes but also created many new ones. Engineers planned the routes to run in as direct a line as possible regardless of geographical obstacles and costs. A number of these roads became famous and are still recognized today for their importance. The first major Roman road, the Via Appia or Appian Way, was built in 312 B.C. between republican Rome and its allies in Capua. The Romans also referred to the road as the Regina Viarum or “Queen of Roads.” We would consider this a major highway in today’s world because it went directly to the next large city and did not pass by smaller villages or towns.

The first stretch from Rome to Terracina was about 90 kilometers (56 miles) and took about four years to build. It was later extended to Brindisi. This is a city in the region of Apulia in southern Italy, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, which was a traditional launching point for armies and travelers to the East. It played a pivotal role in both the Punic wars and Roman civil wars. The total length of the road would become 569 kilometers in length, or 385 miles.

The “Golden Milestone” listed important Roman roads and their distance from Rome.

Many significant events took place along this road but perhaps it is most famous for its role in the slave revolt lead by Spartacus in 73 B.C. After the Roman army subdued the insurrection they crucified more than 6,000  slaves and lined the Appian Way for 130 miles with their bodies. It is also believed that the Via Appia Antica was the road where St. Peter met Jesus during Saint Peter’s escape from Rome.

Once engineers chose and surveyed the route, workers would face formidable challenges in the actual construction. They were tasked with draining marshes, cutting through forests, diverting waterways, and building bridges to cross rivers. They also had to deal with viaducts that crossed valleys and building tunnels through mountains.

Construction began by digging a trench and laying a foundation set between stone slabs using rough gravel, crushed brick and clay materials or wooden piles in marshy areas. A layer of finer gravel was added on top and the road was then covered with blocks or slabs. In the mountains they may have placed ridges across the surface to allow for better traction and include ruts in the stones to guide wheeled vehicles.

Roads had solid foundations and often allowed for a slightly arched surface or the digging of drains or ditches to facilitate drainage. In addition to the layers of small pebbles they often used concrete made from pozzolana (volcanic ash) and lime. Though adapting their technique to materials locally available, the Roman engineers followed basically the same principles in building abroad as they had in Italy.

Major roads were around a standard 4.2 meters (13 feet, 9 inches wide), which would allow the passing of two-wheeled vehicles. It was standard to also include a gravel path for pedestrians alongside the road with a curb made of regular vertical slabs to separate vehicles and pedestrians who often traveled with animals. In addition, every 3-5 meters (10 to 16.5 feet) there were larger block to prevent collisions between vehicles and pedestrians which also doubled as mounting posts for horses or pack animals.

Sheep and goats cross the Via Appia as they would have when the road was first built.

By the beginning of the 2nd century B.C., four other great roads radiated from Rome: the Via Aurelia, extending northwest to Genoa; the Via Flaminia, running north to the Adriatic, where it joined the Via Aemilia, crossed the Rubicon, and led northwest; the Via Valeria, east across the peninsula by way of Lake Fucinus, and the Via Latina, running south-east and joining the Via Appia near Capua. All of these were extended over time and these roads and others became so famous that they became the names of places and regions where they were built.

The network gradually spread across the empire from Britain to Syria, and certain roads became as well-known and well-travelled as those around Rome itself. The Via Domitia (begun in 116 B.C.) went from the French Alps to the Pyrenees and was used for troop movements in the campaigns in Spain. Via Egnatia (begun in the mid-2nd century B.C.), crossed the Balkan Peninsula and ended at Byzantium. This road became a vital land route between the western and eastern parts of the empire.

Milestones on the roads showed the date of construction. During the Empire, the emperor’s name was included. Some markers were places that provided a place for water for humans and horses. They also might have included distance in Roman miles to important places or the endpoint of the road.

After nearly five centuries, engineers and workers had completed a road system that extended to every corner of their empire and eventually covered over 80,000 kilometers (50,000 miles) of first-class highways and about 320,000 kilometers (200,000 miles) of secondary roads. Their existence was a very visible symbol of the power of Rome. The connections they made helped unify what was a vast melting pot of cultures, races, and institutions.

Many roads began and ended in a triumphal arch. The prestige associated with funding a project was often honored by naming the roads after the donor. For example, the Via Appia takes its name from the censor Appius Claudius Caecus.

This system established strong foundations to build upon which has supported various kinds of traffic for more than 2,300 years. In Rome, The Via Appia begins at the Roman Forum and passes through the Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla. It then extends all the way into the suburbs of Rome which was previously known as port Appia. While there is some vehicle traffic today most of the road is walked or biked.

Along the way you can visit several cata combs and churches. There are also tombs along the road including the well-known Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella. This popular destination can be found three miles down the Appian way Rome. It was erected in
the honor of Caecelia Metella the wife of Marcus Licinius Crassus. He served under Julius Caesar and had the means to build this impressive resting place for his wife. Beyond this point the road becomes increasingly rural but it is certainly a must see if one has time while visiting Rome. It is not uncommon to see riders on horseback or livestock crossing the road as they would have centuries ago.

Think of the expression “All roads lead to Rome.” The idea probably comes from the so-called “Golden Milestone,” a marker in the Roman Forum listing the roads leading throughout the Empire and their distances from the milestone. In visiting a site such as the Via Appia Antica, or other roads built by the Romans throughout Western and Eastern Europe, one can truly experience the enduring ingenuity of Roman road system.

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