Modern travelers take the open road for granted. We can hop into exquisitely engineered modern vehicles, pop onto smooth, straight freeways, well lit, with excellent signage and many roadside conveniences. We can cover as much ground as we might like in any direction, in relative comfort and safety.
Much that we love about modern road travel was actually available 2500 years ago to the ancient Romans. They created the template for a system of interconnected roads and conveniences that we have simply adapted during the 20th century as the automobile became the mass method of conveyance. The road system that they built to connect their far-flung empire is still in use in many places.
As the Roman Empire flourished, conquered and consolidated new lands and needed to efficiently administer these territories the necessity for a durable network of roads became obvious to the ruling class. Prior to Roman ascendancy roads around the world were simple unpaved paths cut into the landscape by pack animals, carts and people moving goods to trade, barter and local markets.
The Romans prospered by trading in the lands they conquered, but they also needed to move great armies, control supply lines and have the ability to quickly transport edicts, orders and news to the far corners of the empire in a timely manner. To build this essential intra-state network of highways the Romans utilized the manpower always available in their army legions.
The quality and durability of Roman roads still amazes. Depending on topography Roman roads were famously straight for as far as the eye could see. This engineering feat was accomplished without any of the modern surveying equipment used by road builders today. The Romans invented a simple device called the gromma and this became the principal tool utilized for accurately surveying roads and thoroughfares.
The gromma ingeniously uses two strings with a weight tide to the end of each. The strings are attached to the ends of a length of wood. The surveyor would simply line up the strings until they appeared as one, and would have assistants plant stakes approximately every 100 yards apart . The surveyor, using the gromma as a guide, would have the assistants slightly adjust stake placement until the strings of the gromma and the line of stakes appeared as one. The result was a roadbed that was true, precise and easily utilized by the construction crews.
The Romans laid rock above the roadbed so the surface was higher than the land next to the road. This enabled water to drain off to the side and meant that roads did not wash out in inclement weather. Gravel was placed on both sides of the roadway to act as a sort of gutter to carry away runoff.
This system, when viewed on a modern map, appears much as the present day system of interstate highways is constructed. Spain, Gaul (modern France), Italy, Germany, the British Isles, Greece and Northern Africa all were tied closely together by this amazing transport network. Modern roadways parallel this grid in most countries where the Romans built their highways.
The Romans built over 2000 bridges. Many are in use, carrying traffic to this day. The arches they crafted were amazingly strong, with strategically placed keystones supporting the massive weight and pressure of these utilitarian edifices. In addition, these bridges are some of the most beautiful structures ever built. The Roman word for bridge was “pontificat”. Today we apply the descriptive name “Pontiff” to the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, as the Pope acts as the bridge between heaven and earth.
Hundreds of tunnels had to be built through the rugged topography of central Europe in order to move traffic to the most expeditious routes. The Romans had no power tools to gouge through rock. They had no dynamite. The technology to construct these tunnels was primitive, but most effective. Engineers would build massive bonfires right against the rock face of the surveyed tunnel. Then they would boil vinegar and have this splashed against the burnt rock face. While the effect of the heat and vinegar was greatest sappers would begin to chip at the weakened surface with chisels and hammers. Some of the tunnels took 20 years to complete.
As the road system grew, the need for roadside services became acute. Travel was typically undertaken in approximately 20-mile daily chunks. As a result every 20 miles or so, along the breadth of the massive Roman network of roads, there were roadside inns, workshops to repair transit vehicles, and stables to care for livestock. Maps were prevalent and indicated not only place names, but distances, accommodations, levels of luxury, services, and military garrisons.
As distance was crucial in planning itineraries the Romans perfected the odometer 2000 years ago. They utilized a 42-inch diameter wheel and a series of gears that engaged each time the wheel made a full turn. The interlocking gear system was calibrated so each gear turned as it was activated until a Roman mile (approximately 5000 modern feet) was covered. Then a gravel pellet would fall into a container as holes in the gears came into alignment. This amazingly accurate measuring system enabled the Romans to mark their maps, and place stones alongside the roadsides marked with precise distances covered and to the next town or service stop.
Today, travel has become a hugely popular experience enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Whether a brief weekend road trip, a cruise or an international vacation, people love to go. So did the Romans. The Romans were the richest people in the history of the world to that time. The system of roads they built were heavily utilized for recreational travel, the first time in history that people had the wherewithal to move freely about for strictly leisure purposes.
Travel guidebooks were omnipresent in ancient Rome. The travel guidebook for the many attractions of Greece, for example, was 20 full papyrus pages long. Inns and eating establishments were rated for economy, luxury, cleanliness and safety. The modern Michelin and Fodor guidebooks are simply successors of the Roman travel guides.
At most major crossroads on Roman roads there was a sign offering directions, distances and recommended stops for repairs, refreshments or relaxation. Many also included a news board with recent proclamations, travel warnings and local notices. These were the world’s first billboards.
As travel grew in popularity so did the menu of services available to the traveler. Chariots, sedan chairs, carts, wagons and covered wagons with swivel seats and dice tables (for the rich) were available for rent. Accommodations varied widely in cost and quality. Hostels, servants quarters, private sleeping rooms, luxury quarters with fire, bathing and mattresses were on offer depending on one’s pocketbook. Food was offered in similar variety.
The world’s first fast food was also available from some purveyors. The cart simply pulled to a door or opening, the menu card was reviewed and the order placed and delivered to the vehicle to be consumed as the journey continued.
The Roman Empire began to consume itself around the 5th century. The pursuit of luxury, greed and laziness made the Empire corpulent, vainglorious and decadent. The same roads that had been so crucial in their military, recreational and commercial enterprises came to haunt the Romans. Their many enemies utilized this road network to attack their former masters. The Visigoths, the Franks and the Mongols used the Roman roads to carve back lands formerly taken from them and to attack Rome mercilessly. By the end of the 6th Century Roman hegemony was long a thing of the past.
The demise of the Roman Empire meant that the maintenance and continued construction of the roads came to a halt. This had the unintended consequence of leaving huge swaths of the system in areas where there was no effective government. Trade came to a halt. The roads were deserted. In many areas, especially North Africa, Britain, Spain and France the Roman highways disappeared beneath weeds and fauna.
The result was the commencement of the Dark Ages. People stopped travelling for almost any reason. Until the Crusades there was almost no interaction between peoples and cultures. The insularity of tribes and fiefdoms lead to a reawakening of ignorance, disease, superstition and hate.
For six centuries the Romans ruled the known world. Their ability to create, invent and improvise has served mankind ever since. The vast Roman network of interlocking roads, tunnels, bridges, mapmaking, services, commercial enterprises and exploration is the guide we utilize to this day in communication, logistics and locomotion. We have much to thank these brilliant Romans for as we utilize so many of their inventions to this very day.