Roman Roads by Rail – Discovering Ancient History in Italy

The Romans are famous for their roads. They built massive public roads, called viae, that spread across the empire. They paved these viae with material collected from nearby municipalities.

They designed their roads to accept big up front costs while keeping long-term maintenance demands low. This required a lot of state capacity – something Rome’s successors seemed to lack.

1. The Via Appia

The Via Appia barreled through cities, villages, mountains, and farmland as it facilitated Roman military domination of Italy. It was a tool for the empire’s expansion and its commanders were well-acquainted with its layout and features.

Romans were masters of road construction. They would dig a trench, lay down rock for the foundation, and then cover it with a layer of gravel. Skilled craftsmen then placed interlocking stones for the surface of the road (Tom Rankin).

When they reached an obstacle like a river or mountain, they would bridge it with a wooden or stone arch design. These crossings are often visible along the Via Appia Antica and provide a tangible link to the past.

2. The Via del Corso

The Romans called their main roads viae and their secondary ones viae rusticae. They were usually paved. They ran outside the city gates and were often crossed by bridges. Military roads were especially important for the military’s return with spoils from conquered lands back to Rome. They were also used for military parades.

Roads were inspected regularly and rebuilt when needed. The emperors kept a close watch on the condition of these public highways. They were adorned with their names in inscriptions.

The most common form of transport on these roads was the raeda, a wheeled coach. It was a four-wheeled vehicle with high sides and a cloth top. It carried several passengers and their luggage. Itineraries were published by the emperors from time to time. Milestones (miliarium) divided the roads into numbered miles, the modern equivalent of five Roman paces.

3. The Via Flaminia

A well-maintained road was vital for the Romans. As the emperors expanded the empire, they needed an effective way to transport their armies and goods to new areas. It also allowed them to tax the people who used the roads. This could be done by collecting a toll or a tax on goods (Crystalink).

A civil engineer would look over the site of the new road and determine where it should go. Then a team of workers called the gromatici would place rods along it and draw lines with the device called a groma.

The main coach on a Roman road was the raeda, or reda. It was a four-wheeled vehicle with high sides and a box for seats that could carry several people with their baggage. It was pulled by oxen, horses or mules and could have a cloth top for weather protection.

4. The Via Tiburtina

A team of architects and classical archaeologists has taken a fresh look at one of Rome’s ancient roads, the Via Tiburtina. They have published a book, Space, Movement and Artefacts in the Urban Landscape, which is an exploration of the road through a variety of different perspectives.

The Via Tiburtina ran from Rome to Tibur, then known as Albulae Aquae. It would have passed through the well-preserved Porta Tiburtina (now Porta San Lorenzo) in the Aurelian Walls and out to the travertine quarries at Tivoli. Mounted messengers galloped along it, and blocks of travertine were probably shipped down it for use in the building of Rome’s mushrooming empire.

Romans were good at solving geographical challenges. They built bridges where rivers or mountains crossed the road, and they built tunnels when crossing a hilly region was the only alternative.

5. The Via del Corso

With its directional straightness, the Corso connects major landmarks in Rome like the northern gate to the city (Porta del Popolo) and Piazza Venezia. A few steps down the street and you can visit Santa Margheriti dei Cerchi, Dante’s parish church where he is said to be buried with his muse and one true love Beatrice.

Roman construction took a directional approach with an emphasis on ruler-straight sections. They were designed to eliminate as many obstacles as possible including valleys, mountains, swamps, forests, and rivers (Cartwright).

Genteel travelers needed something better than cauponae and often frequented the tabernae along the way. These became more luxurious and developed reputations for good or bad service. Local and private roads were also built for cities, towns, and individual houses and were maintained at the expense of the owner at the time of building or upon passage through (Crystalink). Taxes on imports and exports and tolls at bridges and entrance into cities were collected for maintenance.

6. The Via Appia

As a way to ensure that travelers always had the best possible experience when traveling along a via, laws required that frequented houses were obligated by law to offer hospitality on demand. These became tabernae – the forerunners of today’s taverns.

Roman road builders aimed for a regulation width (see Laws and Traditions). It was also common to build bridges over rivers and mountains as well as tunnels when such challenges presented themselves.

Often roadside milestones were built displaying the distance in Roman miles to the next destination. This was helpful for both military and civilian travel. Milestones were also used to display who oversaw the maintenance for that particular section of the road. The whole public-funded system served multiple purposes – it was a military artery, a means of economic control and governance as well as a platform for political communication and spectacle.

7. The Via Flaminia

The Via Flaminia was named for its “father,” the consul Caius Flaminius. It took thousands of slaves to construct its imposing stretches, and it had a system of way stations where drivers, passengers and animals could be serviced.

When the road crossed a river or an obstacle, the builders would often build a bridge or tunnel. They might also lay a crepido, a raised footway that separated pedestrians from the traffic.

Along the way, genteel travelers would find tabernae to spend the night in. These hostels were required to offer hospitality on demand. They often had good or bad reputations, depending on the quality of their facilities.

8. The Via Tiburtina

A rare pomerium cippus (engraved travertine stone marking the outer limits of Rome) recently surfaced in the course of redevelopment work at Piazza Augusto Imperatore. The stone dates to 49 AD and bears the inscription announcing that Emperor Claudius extended and redefined Rome’s outer limits, known as the pomerium, where fighting, construction and farming were banned.

Surveyors would consider valleys, mountains, swamps, forests, rivers and towns when determining the best route for a new road. They often sought out ruler-straight sections, but this was not always possible.

The Via Tiburtina ran east-northeast from Rome to the town of Tivoli, where it changed name to become the Via Valeria, continuing northeast towards Cerfenna. It may have been named after the censor Marcus Valerius Maximus. Inscriptions commemorate the officials charged with overseeing maintenance of this important road. Augustus, finding the collegia ineffective, reduced the board from 26 to 20 members and eliminated the duoviri boards which dealt with road maintenance.

9. The Via Appia

Although the building of new roads was a state responsibility, maintenance was left to the province. This was not inexpensive, and financing was often difficult. The curatores viarum sought money in a variety of ways. Private citizens were asked for contributions, high officials distributed largesse, and taxes were collected.

One branch of the Via Appia ran north from Rome to Fanum Fortunae (Fano), then crossed the Apennines and joined the coastal road at Tarracina (Terracina). Strabo seems to have regarded this western route as the’real’ Appia.

From around 250 BC, milestones were marked along the Appia and other viae with numbered mile posts (milia passuum). The modern word’mile’ comes from this practice. In addition to the milestones, many of the viae were paved and provided with mounting-blocks for horsemen. Some were accompanied by wooden causeways over marshes and swamps.

10. The Via Flaminia

An effective road system was vital to the Romans. A network of public roads was funded by the government, and required regular maintenance.

The emperors kept close track of the condition of the roads. Gaius Gracchus, while Tribune of the People (123-122 BC), paved or gravelled many of them, and erected milestones. He also built the Bridge of Augustus over the Nera in the Roman city of Narni.

Civil engineers surveyed the roads by walking along them with rods, and directing gromatici to mark them with markers. Tolls were collected to keep the roads in good working order. This was one of the ways in which taxes were collected by the Romans, and it allowed them to track both travelers and goods (Crystalink). The Via Flaminia reached Fano (Fanum Fortunae) where a single great arch was erected, known as the Arch of Augustus.

Related Posts