Historical Science & Technology, Science & Society, Technology, World-Changing Inventions

Roamin’ Roman Roads

Romans built roads so they could roam around Rome. Specifically, the Romans’ roads were built for military use, but they also played a major role in the maintenance and expansion of the Roman state.

Travel, Communication & Trade

Construction of these roads lasted from 500 BCE until the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire, roughly 500 years later. (Keep that in mind next time a roadwork project in your neck of the woods takes a week or two longer than scheduled.)

Though civilian traffic was often restricted to keep the roads open for military use, Roman roads were used for public travel, for carrying official communications throughout the land, and for the movement of trade goods.

A surviving Roman road.

A surviving Roman road.

At the peak of Roman civilization, there were over 53,000 miles of paved, interconnected roads throughout the Empire. These were the most advanced and well-built roads in the history of civilization, and would remain so until the 19th Century CE.

Construction

The construction of Roman roads was no small undertaking. A trench, often down to the bedrock, was dug the full length and width of the road’s intended length (obviously, the roads started small—or short—and were extended from there). This pit was filled with rocks, gravel, and sand, which was then covered with a layer of concrete. Flat, loosely interlocking rock slabs were then laid over the concrete.

Larger roads were cambered for drainage, with drainage ditches running parallel on either side. Many roads were also accompanied by footpaths. Bridges were built to span rivers, waterways, and ravines. Hills were cut through in many places to create flat, level roads. In marshes and other areas with unstable ground, piled foundations were built for support.

The Roman roads were incredibly well-constructed, and were resistant to floods and other weather and environmental factors. The roads remained in use for more than 1,000 years, and many modern roads in Europe are built on top of Roman roads.

Layout

Nearly all Roman cities were built on a square grid, with four main roads leading outward from the center of the city. These larger roads were akin to modern highways, connecting cities, towns, and military installations. Within the city, smaller roads connected the four main roads and formed the streets where people lived.

Nearly 30 major highways led in and out of the Roman capital at the Empire’s zenith. The 113 provinces that made up the Roman Empire were joined by a series of 372 interconnected roads.

Between towns and cities, way stations were built at regular intervals. Official and private couriers had their own separate stations for changing horses (and riders), which allowed communication to be carried up to 500 miles in a 24-hour period.

Photo credit: KJGarbutt / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Science & Society

Luddites: The Yin to SMHTS’s Yang

Whereas the Sandy Mountain Historical & Technological Society (SMHTS) seeks to keep the history of America’s, and the world’s, industrial manufacturing technology alive, the Luddites sought the polar opposite. A group of early 19th century protesters made up of textile artisans and other displaced laborers, the Luddites damaged and destroyed countless newly-created labor saving machines during the later days of the Industrial Revolution.

Rapid industrialization throughout England at that time had left many textile craftsmen without work. New equipment like spinning frames and power looms was replacing skilled laborers, providing a faster and cheaper method of production. The Luddites, supposedly following the example of folk hero Ned Ludd, attacked the equipment and factories that had cost them their livelihood, destroying them with brute force for a six-year period between 1811 and 1817.

Though the targets were the labor-saving machines, the Luddite cause was not based on an aversion to the technology itself. Rather, it emerged from the harsh economic climate in England during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Companies with new, industrialized equipment could easily replace their (relatively) expensive skilled laborers with cheaper, unskilled laborers, leaving those who had worked for years on their chosen craft without employment or recompense.

Far from random, haphazard attacks, Luddite activities were often practiced maneuvers designed to wreak maximum destruction. The Luddites burned mills, smashed machinery with sledgehammers, and regularly clashed with the British Army. Local magistrates were rumored to have infiltrated the Luddite ranks via agents provocateur, while, on the flip side, Luddites sent anonymous death threats to—and often physically attacked—those same magistrates.

The last major Luddite act was the Pentrich Rising, an armed uprising of approximately 250 displaced workers led by Jeremiah Brandeth in June 1817.

Agricultural laborers, losing their jobs to threshing machines and similar technological advancements of the time, joined the ranks of the Luddites much later, around 1830. This second wave of Luddite activity followed a similar style as the original, textile-working Luddites’ attacks, though, obviously, focusing on different mechanical targets.

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Planned future articles on Sandy Historical will expand on some of the concepts mentioned here. Please visit this page again soon for links to further reading.