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Roman Period

Viae: The Roads of Rome

"Omnes viae Romam ducunt"

The engineers of ancient Rome built an unparalleled network of roads in the ancient world. At the height of the Roman Empire there were more than 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of roads stretching from Britain to Mesopotamia, spreading its legions, culture and immense influence throughout the known world.

System of Roads

The mainstay of the Roman military control of Italy first, and of the whole empire afterwards, was the splendid system of roads. As the supremacy of Rome extended itself over Italy, the roman road system grew step by step, each fresh conquest being marked by the pushing forward of roads through the heart of the newly-won territory, and the establishment of fortresses in connection with them.

Like most major Roman fortifications and public works, Roman roads were primarily built by the legions themselves, as they stretched the frontiers. Engineers were regular members of the Roman army and their expertise in roads, forts and bridge building was an invaluable asset unmatched by any other culture for 2 millenia. Estimating the cost of road building varies dramatically depending on the era and terrain, but there is no question regarding the cost effectiveness. As the empire expanded the cost responsibility for building and maintaining the roads were borne by local populations and tribes rather than by the Roman treasury itself.

As Roman generals marched with their legions, they were expected to provide road construction from their own resources. However, with complete authority in any given jurisdiction, those resources turned out to be mostly collected from locals, in coin, raw materials and additional labor. Essentially for 7 centuries, Roman road building continued and was well maintained, until economic decline and external pressure began to give way. By the fall of the west in 476 AD, the condition of the roads paralleled the circumstances of the empire, and many roads would fall into disuse, disrepair and ruin throughout the medieval age.

Outside of the speed and accessibility provided to the Roman legions, the roads also provided an opportunity for trade, travel and communication unknown to the rest of the world. While travel of any considerable length was generally limited to the wealthy, theoretically one could travel from Spain to Greece without ever stepping off a road. While having obvious advantages for trade, once again, the roads were never a primary source of commerce. Most trade and transportation occurring on roads was limited to short routes, as sea traffic was by far the more attractive alternative. Road routes allowed the convenience of moving goods from the source, directly to a nearby port, or legionary supplies by sea could be moved to their final distance by road. The heaviest traveled roads were those connecting inland towns to nearby ports in the provinces and from ports, such as Ostia, to Rome in Italy.

A sort of ancient pony express was also developed along with a vast network of postal way stations along the road routes. Both horse driven carts and ridden horses were used for fast delivery of correspondence to distant places. For the first time in history it was possible to receive a letter in Rome, from as far away as northern Gaul, in as little as a few days. While military couriers were a considerably more common occurrence, dispatching letters between commanders, the Senate, the Emperor or various installations, the civilian mail service was a booming business as well.

From Rome itself roads radiated in all directions. Communications with the south-east were mainly provided by the Via Appia (the "queen of Roman roads," as Statius called it), and the Via Latina, which met close to Casilinum at the crossing of the Volturnus, 3 miles N.W. of Capua, the second city in Italy in the 3rd century B.C., and the center of the road system in Campania. Here the Via Appia turned eastward towards Beneventum, while the Via Popilia continued in a south-easterly direction through the Campanian plain and from there southwards through the mountains of Lucania and Bruttii as far as Rhegium.

Coast roads of minor importance as means of through communication also existed on both sides of the toe of the boot. Other roads ran south from Capua to Cumae, Puteoli (the most important harbour of Campania), and Neapolis, which could also be reached by a coast road from Minturnae on the Via Appia. From Beneventum, another important road centre, the Via Appia itself ran south-east through the mountains past Venusia to Tarentum on the south-west coast of the heel, and thence across Calabria to Brundusium, while Trajans correction of it, following an older mule-track, ran north-east through the mountains and then through the lower ground of Apulia, reaching the coast at Barium. Both met at Brundusium, the principal port for the East. From Aequum Tuticum, on the Via Traiana, the Via Herculia ran to the south-east, crossing the older Via Appia, then south to Potentia and so on to join the Via Popilia in the centre of Lucania.

The only highroad of importance which left Rome and ran eastwards, the Via Valeria, was not completed as far as the Adriatic before the time of Claudius; but on the north and northwest started the main highways which communicated with central and northern Italy, and with all that part of the Roman empire which was accessible by land. The Via Salaria, a very ancient road, with its branch, the Via Cĉcilia, ran north-eastwards to the Adriatic coast and so also did the Via Flaminia, which reached the coast at Fanum Fortunae, and thence followed it to Ariminum. The road along the east coast from Fanum Fortmrnae down to Barium, which connected the terminations of the Via Salaria and Via Valeria, and of other roads farther south crossing from Campania, had no special name in ancient times, as far as we know. The Via Flaminia was the earliest and most important road to the north; and it was soon extended (in 187 B.C.) by the Via Ĉmilia running through Bononia as far as Placentia, in an almost absolutely straight line between the plain of the Po and the foot of the Apennines. In the same year a road was constructed over the Apennines from Bononia to Arretium, but it is difficult to suppose that it was not until later that the Via Cassia was made, giving a direct communication between Arretium and Rome. The Via Clodia was an alternative route to the Cassia for the first portion out of Rome, a branch having been built at the same time from Florentia to Lucca and Luna. Along the west coast the Via Aurelia ran up to Pisa and was continued by another Via Ĉmilia to Genoa. Thence the Via Postumia led to Dertona, Placentia and Cremona, while the Via Aemilia and the Via Julia Augusta continued along the coast into Gallia Narbonensis.

The road system of Cisalpine Gaul was mainly conditioned by the rivers which had to be crossed, and the Alpine passes which had to be approached. Cremona, on the north bank of the Po, was an important meeting point of roads and Hostilia (Ostiglia) another; so also was Patavium, farther east, and Altinum and Aquileia farther east still. Roads, indeed, were almost as plentiful as railways at the present day in the basin. of the Po.

As to the roads leading out of Italy from Aquileia, roads diverged northward into Raetia, eastward to Noricum and Pannonia, and southwards to the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts. Farther west came the roads over the higher Alpine passes the Brenner from Verona, the Septimer and the Splugen from Clavenna (Chiavenna), the Great and the Little St. Bernard from Augusta Praetoria (Aosta), and the Mont Genvre from Augusta Taurinorum (Turin).

Westward two short but important roads led on each side of the Tiber to the great harbour at its mouth; while the coast of Latium was supplied with a coast road by Septimius Severus. To the south-west the roads were short and of little importance.

Types of Roads

The names of the historical roads departing from Rome can be grouped in three categories:

  1. the most important roads were named after a consul (thus they are called consular roads): Cassia, Flaminia, Appia, Aurelia;
  2. local roads were named after the town they reached: Nomentana, Tiburtina, Prenestina, Casilina, Tuscolana, Ardeatina, Ostiense, Portuense;
  3. roads named after a particular use they were known for: Salaria, Trionfale.

Roman roads vary from simple corduroy roads to paved roads using deep roadbeds of tamped rubble as an underlying layer to ensure that they kept dry, as the water would flow out from between the stones and fragments of rubble, instead of becoming mud in clay soils.

A presumed Roman road in Istria leading to archeological ruins in the background (where?). The rectangularly shaped flat components shown in this photograph, however, are not characteristic of the Roman road building period.

The laws of the Twelve Tables, dated to approximately 450 B.C., specify that a road shall be 2.45 m (8 ft) wide where straight and 4.90 m (16 ft) where curved. The tables command Romans to build roads and give wayfarers the right to pass over private land where the road is in disrepair. Building roads that would not need frequent repair therefore became an ideological objective.

Roman law defined the right to use a road as a servitus, or claim. The jus eundi ("right of going") established a claim to use an iter, or footpath, across private land; the ius agendi ("right of driving"), an actus, or carriage track. A via combined both types of servitutes, provided it was of the proper width, which was determined by an arbiter. The default width was the latitudo legitima of 2.4 m (8 ft). In these rather dry laws we can see the prevalence of the public domain over the private, which characterized the republic.

With the conquest of Italy prepared viae were extended from Rome and its vicinity to outlying municipalities, sometimes overlying earlier roads. Building viae was a military responsibility and thus came under the jurisdiction of a consul. The process had a military name, viam munire, as though the via were a fortification. Municipalities, however, were responsible for their own roads, which the Romans called viae vicinales.

A via connected two cities. Some links in the network were as long as 90 kilometers (55 miles). The builders always aimed at a regulation width, but actual widths have been measured at between 1.1 m and more than 7 m.

The builders aimed at directional straightness. Many long sections are ruler-straight, but it should not be thought that all of them were. The Roman emphasis on constructing straight roads often resulted in steep grades relatively impractical for most economic traffic; over the years the Romans themselves realized this and built longer, but more manageable, alternatives to existing roads.

Viae were generally centrally placed in the countryside. Features off the via were connected to the via by viae rusticae, or secondary roads. Either main or secondary roads might be paved, or they might be left unpaved, with a gravel surface, as they were in North Africa. These prepared but unpaved roads were viae glareae or sternendae ("to be strewn"). Beyond the secondary roads were the viae terrenae, "dirt roads". A road map of the empire reveals that it was laced fairly completely with a network of prepared viae. Beyond the borders are no roads; however, one might presume that footpaths and dirt roads allowed some transport.

Important Roads

Rome expanded in great style. The region was considered especially important as a communication centre with the North and the East. Roads were built, canals dug, riverbanks raised and important cities built (Verona, Vicenza, Oderzo, Concordia, Altino). Later, when the Veneto region had already become "Xa regio, Venetia et Histria", Aquileia was founded as a bulwark against invasions coming from the East and as a great port on the Adriatic.

Some of the most important Roman roads were Via Anicia (from Ravenna to Altino), the Popilia (from Adria to Padua), the Ĉmilia (from Vicenza to Altino), the Aurelia (from Padua to the Alps), the Claudia Augusta (along the Piave Valley towards Cadore) and the Postumia (from Verona to Trieste and to Illirico). All the cities of the Veneto have traces of the Roman occupation, but this is especially true of Verona (the Arena), Vicenza, Padua, Treviso, Altino, Oderzo and numerous minor cities along the most important communication routes. Christianity arrived in the Veneto towards 400 B.C. and made Aquileia its principal centre, in fact, the town soon became a powerful patriarchate.

Via Egnatia, the first highway to cross the Balkan Peninsula, was the first road built by Romans outside Italy. It was constructed in the second century B.C. The road began in Dyrrachium (Durres), by the Adriatic sea, and passed through Serbia, Macedonia (Thessaloniki) and Thrace terminating at Cypsela (east of Evros River) and later extended up to Konstantinoupolis. The total length of the road from Dirrachium to Cypsela was about 750 km.

See also: Roman Roads in the Veneto Region (X Regio Venetia et Histria)


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  • Via Claudia Augusta -
  • Via Latina -*/Via_Latina.html

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Created: Sunday, September 27, 2009; Last Updated: Sunday, September 09, 2012  
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