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.
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.
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.
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)