Roman Roads​—Monuments to Ancient Engineering

WHICH is the most significant of Roman monuments? Would you say the Colosseum, the ruins of which are visible in Rome? If we want to consider the Roman constructions that have lasted the longest or that have helped to shape history, we would have to think about the roads.

More than just goods and armies have passed over Roman highways. Epigraphist Romolo A. Staccioli says that along the road “moved ideas, artistic influences, and philosophical and religious doctrines,” including those of Christianity.

In ancient times, Roman roads were considered monuments. Over a period of centuries, the Romans built an efficient network that ultimately stretched for over 50,000 miles [80,000 km] in an area that now belongs to more than 30 countries.

The first important via publica, or highway as it would be called today, was the Via Appia, or Appian Way. Known as the queen of roads, it linked Rome with Brundisium (now called Brindisi), the port city that was the gateway to the East. This road took its name from Appius Claudius Caecus, the Roman official who started building it about 312 B.C.E. Rome was also served by the Via Salaria and the Via Flaminia, both of which stretched east toward the Adriatic Sea, opening up the way to the Balkans as well as to the Rhine and Danube regions. The Via Aurelia headed north toward Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula, and the Via Ostiensis toward Ostia, Rome’s preferred port for voyages to and from Africa.

Rome’s Biggest Construction Project

Roads were important to Rome even before her inhabitants started building new ones. The city arose where ancient routes converged at the only existing ford of the lower Tiber River. According to ancient sources, to improve the roads they found, the Romans copied the Carthaginians. But the real forerunners of the Romans in the art of road construction were probably the Etruscans. The remains of their roads are still visible. Moreover, before Roman times many well-traveled paths existed in the area. These may have been used to take animals from one pasture to another. The roads were difficult to travel, however, as they were dusty in the dry season and muddy in the wet. The Romans often built their roads over such tracks.

Roman roads were carefully designed and were built to be solid, useful, and beautiful. Ideally, the roads connected a starting point with a destination by means of the shortest possible route, which explains why many have long straight stretches. Often, though, the roads had to follow the natural contours of the terrain. Where possible, in hilly and mountainous areas, Roman engineers built their roads halfway up the slopes, along the sunny side of the mountain. For road users, this position minimized any inconvenience  that might be caused by adverse weather conditions.

Just how did the Romans build their roads? There were variations, but here is basically what archaeological excavations have revealed.

The course of the road was first defined. This job was assigned to the surveyors of that era. Then, the backbreaking work of digging was left to legionnaires, laborers, or slaves. Two parallel trenches were dug. The minimum distance between them was about 8 feet [2.4 m], but the usual distance was 14 feet [4 m], and they were even wider on curves. Finished road width could reach a total of 33 feet [10 m], including footpaths on both sides. The earth between the two trenches was then removed, forming a hollow. Once a solid base was reached, the hollow was filled in with three or four layers of different materials. First might be large stones or rubble. Then would come pebbles  or flat stones, perhaps held together with concrete. This was followed with compressed gravel or crushed stones on top.

The surface of some Roman roads was no more than compacted gravel. Yet, it was the paved roads that sparked the admiration of the ancients. The top surface of such roads was formed by large stone slabs, usually of rock that could be found locally. They were cambered, having a slight upward curve, to favor rainwater drainage from the crown of the road into gutters on either side. This construction has contributed to the durability of these monuments and the survival of some until our day.

About 900 years after the Appian Way was built, Byzantine historian Procopius described it as “marvelous.” Concerning the slabs that formed its surface, he wrote: “Despite the great amount of time that has elapsed and the many carriages that have passed over them day after day, their composure has not in any way been disturbed, nor have they lost their smooth finish.”

How could these roads pass over natural obstacles, such as rivers? One key was bridges, some of which still stand, testifying to the outstanding technical ability of the ancient Romans. The tunnels in the Roman road system are perhaps less well-known, but their construction was even more challenging, given the techniques of that era. Says one reference work: “Roman engineering . . . obtained results that were destined to remain unmatched for centuries.” An example is the tunnel at the Furlo pass on the Via Flaminia. Back in 78 C.E., after careful planning by engineers, a 130-foot [40-meter] tunnel, 16 feet [5 m] wide and 16 feet [5 m] high, was dug out of solid rock. That was a truly impressive accomplishment, considering the tools available at the time. Building such a road system was one of the greatest of human enterprises.

Travelers and the Spread of Ideas

Soldiers and tradesmen, preachers and tourists, actors and gladiators all used these roads. Those traveling on foot could cover some 15 to 20 miles [25 to 30 km] a day. Travelers could get information about distances by consulting the mileposts. These stones of various shapes, usually cylindrical, were positioned every 4,854 feet [1,480 m]​—the length of a Roman mile. There were also rest areas, where travelers  could change horses, buy something to eat or, in some cases, stay overnight. Some of these service areas developed into little towns.

Shortly before the birth of Christianity, Caesar Augustus started a road maintenance program. He appointed officials to care for one or more roads. He had what was known as the miliarium aureum, the golden milepost, erected in the Roman Forum. This column with gilded bronze letters was the ideal end-point of all Roman roads in Italy. This gave rise to the proverb: “All roads lead to Rome.” Augustus also had maps of the empire’s road system put on display. It seems that the network was in optimum condition for the needs and standards of the times.

Some ancient travelers even used written guides, or itineraries, to facilitate their journeys. These guides provided such information as distances between the various stopping places and descriptions of services that were available at such locations. The guides, however, were expensive and therefore not available to everyone.

Even so, Christian evangelizers planned and undertook many long-distance journeys. The apostle Paul, like his contemporaries, tended to travel by sea when he was going eastward, to take advantage of the prevailing winds. (Acts 14:25, 26; 20:3; 21:1-3) In the Mediterranean, these blow from the west during the summer months. When Paul traveled westward, however, he often went overland, using the Roman road system. Following this pattern, Paul organized his second and third missionary journeys. (Acts 15:36-41; 16:6-8; 17:1, 10; 18:22, 23; 19:1) * In about 59 C.E., Paul traveled along the Appian Way to Rome and met fellow believers at the busy Appii Forum, or Marketplace of Appius, 46 miles [74 km] southeast of Rome. Others awaited him nine miles [14 km] closer to Rome at the rest area of Three Taverns. (Acts 28:13-15) About 60 C.E., Paul was able to say that the good news had been preached “in all the world” as then known. (Colossians 1:6, 23) The road system had a role in making that possible.

Roman roads, then, have proved to be extraordinary and lasting monuments​—and ones that have contributed to the spreading of the good news of God’s Kingdom.​—Matthew 24:14.

[Footnote]

^ par. 18 Consult the map on page 33 of “See the Good Land,” published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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A Roman milepost

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Via Appia on the outskirts of Rome

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A road in ancient Ostia, Italy

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Ruts made by ancient carriages, Austria

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Part of a Roman road with mileposts, Jordan

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Ruins of tombs on the Via Appia outside Rome

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Furlo Tunnel on the Via Flaminia, in the Marche region

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Bridge of Tiberius on the Via Emilia at Rimini, Italy

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Paul met fellow believers at the busy Appii Forum, or Marketplace of Appius

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Far left, Ostia: ©danilo donadoni/​Marka/​age fotostock; far right, road with mileposts: Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.