Of all the infrastructure the Roman Empire left behind, perhaps nothing was more important than their network of roads. Why did they decide to build roads?
The Romans built roads to enable quick, safe movement around their vast empire. This included transporting goods such as food for supply and trade, relocating their army and sending messages.
For more on the Roman road network and how it let the Empire function, read on.
At its peak, the Roman Empire was enormous, spreading across Europe, along the North African coast, and spreading east into western Asia. While this was a reflection of the empire’s immense power and influence at the time, it also caused problems..
It was relatively straightforward to transport people and cargo around the Mediterranean coast by ship but there was greater difficulty in trying to move them across the land. The terrain varied greatly throughout the empire, as did the weather, and trying to move a horse and cart across wet fields and rocky ground would have been extremely difficult.
For the Romans, the solution was to build a vast network of roads that stretched across the empire. Being connected to the rest of the empire by road meant that settlements were not isolated from one another.
Troops, food, animals, and whatever else was required could be quickly moved from place to place. Roads served as a skeleton holding the huge body of the Roman Empire together and meant that it could continue its expansion without fear of being unable to travel or communicate effectively.
Messengers used the roads, usually traveling as far as 50 miles per day on horseback. Soldiers, officials, and traders all used the roads, which were generally reserved for what was deemed essential use. The general public was allowed to use roads but was required to pay a small toll for the privilege.
Travel by road and sea worked in conjunction with each other. By connecting settlements to their nearest ports, people and goods could be transported around the empire with a great deal of haste.
Emperor Tiberius is famously said to have ridden approximately 215 miles in one day to reach his brother, who was on his deathbed, in 9 BCE. Without the Roman road system, such a feat would have been impossible.
Given the vastness of the empire and the number of different people who worked on them, Roman roads varied greatly in style. There were, however, key design elements that became common across the empire.
A Roman road was placed on higher ground than its surroundings, on top of a wide bank known as an agger. They placed strong foundations, building the agger out of stone or gravel if available, or wood if stronger materials were inaccessible.
Large stones would then be placed on top of this foundation, which covered with smaller stones or gravel. Ditches ran along either side of the road, providing drainage and ensuring that a Roman road would not become unusable due to heavy rains or flooding.
In remote areas, this level of construction was unachievable, lacking the necessary natural resources. In some cases, even Roman roads amounted to little more than a raised agger covered with a layer of gravel.
The legacy of the Roman road network is still visible in Europe, whether the original roads are still in use or they have served as the foundation for modern replacements placed over them.
While the Romans laid many thousands of miles of road, they also upgraded many existing roads. Ancient roads that were among some of the oldest in Europe, such as the Via Domitia between Italy and Hispania, were upgraded with more modern paving.
There are many examples of original Roman bridges that can still be visited, though some of these have been damaged by the elements, centuries of use, and intentional destruction during the two World Wars.
While the visible remains of Roman roads are prominent in Italy, France, and Spain, they are less so in Germany and Britain. The Roman Empire faced constant battles against their enemies in Germania and so there was little in the way of permanent infrastructure.
The Romans built an extensive road network in Britain, which provided much of the inspiration for the country’s modern travel roads. However, those roads were largely ignored after the Roman withdrawal and fell into disrepair. Having been replaced by modern roads, there are few remaining examples of original Roman roads in Britain.