Rome's roads constitute the most remarkable culmination of its technological, logistical and bureaucratic achievements. Even a brief understanding of their history and significance can enrich your experience walking tour of Britain.
28 Nov 19·14 mins read
Roman technology, like roads, dissipated so quickly from Britain because road building demanded a complex and well-developed web of socio-economic structures and processes. Many of Rome’s roads were centrally paid for by the empire’s coffers. Hard-wearing roads were the luxury of a wealthy empire, and simply not seen as a necessity in Anglo-Saxon Britain. More than wealth, the construction of large networks of roads required an organised bureaucracy, which can co-ordinate the scale of a national project, rather simply abiding to parochial interests. This enables the construction of roads that connect richer regions to poorer ones, or sprawling metropolises to military outposts, rather than simply aligning roads with the specific demands of a local elite.
Similarly, the society must be confident in the security of an army, wherein the state has a monopoly on violence, to allow the extension of roads into a barbaric wilderness.For any empire, finance and security are mutually reinforcing, and therefore equally important. The fort at Vindolanda on the northern border in Britain both provided the security which maintained the roads behind it, but was equally dependent on those same roads for the finances to maintain a standing garrison. When the income and trade from Rome dried up during its decline in the 4th century, so the garrison at Vindolanda could not be maintained, and so the imperial presence collapsed. Such is the challenge of road-building. Without a network of security and wealth, the means to construct expensive roads quickly disappears. The roads that the Romans left behind were the final fruits of a youthful empire, and the first losses of a fading power. Even as late as the Victorian period, Britain’s government could not provide for roads in such a manner, relying on a multitude of private turnpike firms to maintain the key national roads. To contrast, the Roman imperial machine had met these demands in areas as remote as the Antonine Wall and Northumberland national park, both more than a thousand miles from its capital in Rome, and each a seven week journey to their roads in Constantinople at the other edge of the empire. Many modern states would struggle with such a task. Clearly, the Roman empire was a truly remarkable machine, and its roads provide the first route into a greater understanding of its prowess.
Two Common Myths
Such is the remarkable nature of Roman roads that nearly everyone has been told two things about them at some stage in their life, regardless of their actual desire to hear so. The first maxim dictates that all roads lead to Rome, and the second that all road lines up straight as the crow flies. The first maxim is rarely taken at face value, and although the second is often accepted as a rule, it is even less true. Apart from anything else, the Romans were a pragmatic people, and so rarely would you find them bulldozing through miles of steep rock for the satisfaction of a perfectly straight road. Instead, surveyors would perform a detailed study of the relevant terrain between two points. They would then divide the route into multiple sections, each a couple of miles long, typically divided between major geographical features. Each individual section would form a straight line, but consecutive sections could run off each other at gentle angles, sometimes paving a mild zig-zag through the countryside.
Two Must-See Examples of Roman Roads in Britain
Britain is home to two Roman roads that are particularly non-straight, meandering through the countryside in a particularly non-Roman manner. These roads were, however, deliberate and very strategic. The first, the Stanegate Road, was constructed in Cumbria across the northern frontier between the River Tyne in the east, and the River Solway in the west. The second was the Military Way, built a century later further north.
Both examples highlights the centrality of roads within the strategic approach of Roman military commanders. The roads were integral to the defense of the northern frontier against attack from the fearsome Picts, a confederation of tribes who maintained their independence from the Romans in what is now modern-day Scotland. The hard-wearing surface ensured that troops could march across the frontier to deal with attacks at any point across the region, enabling the maintenance of a strong border with minimal resources. The construction of the road was dictated by the local topography, as its architects prioritized the strategic need to hug the high ground in unstable regions. This explains why both roads curve beyond the traditional idea of a roman road.
The two roads were used as the basis for two of the most imposing roman constructions in Britain. Hadrian’s Wall runs across the breadth of the Stanegate Road. Built around 122 AD on the orders of Emperor Hadria, the defensive fortification ran a total of 117 kilometres across the north, and was guarded by a range of Roman buildings, settlements and forts. Many spots along its route have been excavated become popular tourist attractions, like the defensive fort at Vindolanda, which is home to some remarkable archaeological finds, including a roman temple, roman gardens and late roman church. The museum at Vindolanda gives a rare insight into the life of a roman legionary in Britain, as the archaeological excavations include a range of very personal finds, from writing tablets to boards games.
A reenactment of a Roman patrol along Hadrian’s Wall.
The Antonine Wall was built several decades later, and marked the high-water mark of Roman conquest against the Picts barbarians in the north. However, these gains were proven to be short-lived, as the roman garrisons retreated southwards to Hadrian’s Wall barely 20 years later. Underlying all this history is the roads and infrastructure that enabled the provision of goods, the speed of transport and the strength of borders required to maintain peace in the provinces. The two roads were used as the basis for two of the most imposing constructions built by the roman army Britain. Hadrian’s Wall runs across the breadth of the Stanegate Road. Built around 122 AD on the orders of Emperor Hadria, the defensive fortification ran a total of 117 kilometres across the north, and was guarded by a range of Roman buildings, settlements and forts. Many spots along its route have been excavated become popular tourist attractions, like the defensive fort at Vindolanda, which is home to some remarkable archaeological finds, including a roman temple, roman gardens and late roman church. The museum at Vindolanda gives a rare insight into the life of a roman legionary in Britain, as the archaeological excavations include a range of very personal finds, from writing tablets to boards games.
How to Spot a Roman Road
Tours of Roman Britain are incomplete without a stop off for a Roman road. However, finding these roads, and really making the most of them, can be difficult in practice. Outside of major archaeological sites, it can be hard to distinguish the straight outline of a roman road from the faded marks of a forgotten train line. Whether planning a walk individually or with a small group, embarking on a long walking tour or simply a day tour, there are a few great tips to improve your experience of Roman roads.
Look first to the foundations of a path or road that you may have come across. Especially on rural walks, the features of Roman roads will often have survived remarkably well. You should be able to make out some of the basic features of a Metalled Road, including the larger slabs at the bottom, although the top layers are more likely to have been eroded away. Similarly, the drainage ditches will often have been filled in over time, however, the path that they took through the countryside can often be seen through faint depressions or the growth of a different plant. If you are feeling a bit more intrepid, then older OS maps tend to label ROMAN ROAD where there is clear evidence of an ancient track. On more recent maps, or in the hope of finding new roads, paths that continue in straight lines, regardless of more modern constructions around them, often indicate the presence of an old Roman road. History is always best sampled in real life, so try and get out there and marvel at the faded remnants of a truly awesome power!
Two of the Best Roman Roads in Britain
Watling Street, Central London
The start of Watling Street , the first Roman road in Britain that once connected the capital to its southern ports, is less than a 10 minute train ride from Trafalgar Square. Though a bustling city center has grown around Watling street , the centrality of the old roman road within the City of London offers an intriguing insight into the ancient history that lies very literally at the heart of our modern world.
Stanegate Road, Bardon Mill
Stanegate road, rarely followed by most tours of Roman Britain, is the infrastructural secret running literally behind the grandeur of Hadrian’s Wall. Now a modern road running near the Northumberland national park, is one of the few examples where the old Roman milestones are still in position at several paths along the route. In addition to the ancient milestones, the fort at Vindolanda provides a great example of how central Roman roads were to the broader defense of the empire.
Further Reading and Some Local Knowledge:
History Learning Site, general information on Roman roads.