Well-known sayings: “All roads lead to Rome”
The Romans were famous for their roads. They were constructed in such a durable way that some sections still remain today. The road network provided the Romans with a great advantage when it came to the cultivation, administration and expansion of their empire.
During the empire’s heyday, no less than 29 main military roads led from the center in Rome to all the empire’s provinces. The Roman roads covered 400,000 kilometers in total, of which about 80,000 kilometers were paved.
Since 20 BC, the starting point of all the roads was the “Milliarium Auream”, the golden milestone at the Forum Romanum. The distances to all the provinces were measured from this point and the stone is also the source of the proverb “all roads lead to Rome”.
The Roman roads’ main purpose was to allow troops to be quickly moved from one part of the empire to another. Many attacks and revolts could only be averted, because, thanks to the road network, troops were quickly available. The Roman roads also proved to be a real advantage for correspondence as well as communicating orders.
Moreover, the roads served as important trade links. The exchange of goods with its European provinces provided Rome with large quantities of money. Although many of these goods were transported by ship, the roads were still the most important trade routes for commodities.
The Romans did not find any pre-existing roads in the Central European regions they conquered. The Teutonic and Celtic people made do with trails, simple paths and occasionally, in wetlands, with boardwalks, which consisted of a mesh-work of branches and tree trunks.
The Roman roads were famous for being very straight. Yet the Romans favored to circumvent obstacles instead of crossing them or having to bridge them. Usually they built their roads on watersheds, the ridges of mountain ranges or at least on slopes, to avoid swampy underground and damage from water.
As the Romans did not have compasses or theodolites, they had to use other tools, mainly the so-called Groma. It was a rod, on which two boards were tacked down in a horizontal angle, forming a cross. From all four ends of the boards, weights were suspended. If one of these plummets hung right in front of the other, the surveyor could define a straight line. Once the surveyor was sure to have defined a straight line, wooden posts were dug in to mark the future route of the street.
Then the road’s foundation was excavated. Depending on the ground quality, this could be up to one meter deep. The foundation was then laid with multiple layers of stones, rubble and clay, with ever finer pieces towards the top. Right at the bottom were rough, fist-sized stones. A layer of rubble, cement and clay followed. This was followed by a layer of a mixture of pebble, clay, spall and cement. Only then was the surface layer added.
Important roads were paved and curbstones lain, simple roads in the province were covered only with a surface layer of fine, compact gravel. The surface was curved in the middle towards the edges so that rain water could run off better.
A great amount of the work was done by Roman soldiers, who had substantial expertise in construction and soil work, but captives and slaves were also used in road construction. The materials were gathered from the ground of the areas around the new road where possible. Sometimes ditches were installed left and right of the road in order to better protect it from water damage.
The typical Roman road was wide enough for two carts to pass each other. But most people walked the roads on foot, since mounts, horse and cart and other vehicles were quite expensive. In regular intervals, guest and posting houses were built, where messengers could refresh themselves and change horses.
Roman roads were built in a way that allowed them to outlast centuries. Sections of old Roman roads still serve as hiking paths for pilgrims in Spain today. Even some modern highways still rest on the foundations the Romans had once laid. For example the A15 in England: From Lincoln towards the north it directly follows the route once marked out by the Romans.