Ancient Roads Around the World
By Marco Stojanovik
For thousands of years roads have played a vital role in the development of human societies. For trading civilisations, they facilitated the exchange over vast distances of specific goods in short supply and high demand. For sprawling empires, they allowed for the domination and administration of their territories. Stretching back to antiquity, people, goods, knowledge, ideas, technology, and religious practices all travelled along them. At their intersections, cities spawned and cultures merged.
This article explores seven ancient road networks that connected the world, intended as background reading for a number of Odyssey Traveller tours. In our international tours, we have drawn upon ancient trading, exploration, and pilgrimage routes as a point of entry to understand our location, whether that’s tracing medieval European pilgrimage routes such as the Camino and the Via de la Plata in Spain; or following the ancient Silk Road through China and Uzbekistan. Now, we have drawn from ancient Aboriginal trading routes to build our Australia tours, enabling us to understand the history and significance of the landscape that surrounds us.
1. Amber Road
From around 1500 BCE to 300 BCE amber was a major commodity, recognised as “northern gold”, traded from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean area. Amber deposits are still present under the Baltic Sea, where they formed millions of years ago; and in Samland, in the south east of the Baltic region, this gem washes up on the beach in huge quantities. Harvested from these shores in the time of the Amber Road, it was traded to areas where it was in short supply, valued for its use in manufacturing adornments, implements, utensils, and even incense.
The gemstone was transported overland from the Baltic by way of the Vistula and Dnieper rivers to Italy, Greece, and the Black Sea. Other courses included a sea route spanning across the Baltic and North Seas towards Britain, then to the Mediterranean and several other areas, including Egypt and Syria. It adorned the breast ornament of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankkhamun (c. 1333-1324 BCE), was sent to the temple of Apollo at Delphi as an offering, and has been found at Mycenae in Greece and in the Royal Tomb of Qatna in Syria.
In Roman times, the Amber Road took the form that’s most known today. A main route ran vertically south from the Baltic coast in modern-day Lithuania, through modern-day Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, to the head of the Adriatic Sea (Aquileia by the modern-day Gulf of Venice) and to Rome. Other paths branched out from this main route, transporting amber all across Europe and into Asia.
Oher commodities, such as animal fur and skin, honey and wax, travelled along with amber into Rome, exchanged for Roman glass, brass, gold, tin and copper. Roman military fortifications were constructed along the route to protect merchants and traders along the lucrative route from Germanic raids.
2. Incense Route
The incense trade route was a network of land and sea trading routes linking the Mediterranean world with the Levant and Egypt, through North-eastern Africa and Arabia, to India and beyond. Flourishing between roughly the 7th century BCE and the 2nd century CE, the route transported Arabian frankincense and myhrr; Indian spices, previous stones, pearls, ebony, silk, and fine textiles; and East African rare woods, feathers, animal skins, slaves, and gold.
Frankincense and myrrh were particularly hot commodities around this time, only found in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula (modern-day Yemen and Oman), making the region imminently important in trade. Both products are procured from tree sap dried in the sun and have long been used as incense and perfume, burned frequently in many places around the world to cover up the not-so-pleasant smells of the time. With the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all using the incenses in large quantities, at its height as much as 3,000 tons is said to have moved along the route every year.
Beginning in present-day Yemen, the route travelled north on two basic roads, passing through arid deserts, lush forests, and exotic oases. The two roads split around the oases of Najran in modern-day southern Saudi Arabia, with the eastern road supplying Mesopotamia and the western, more mountainous route going to Egypt and the Mediterranean. The later route took 62 days to traverse with camel caravans, according to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, although at times the exact route shifted to avoid greedy settlements demanding exorbitant taxes.
Beginning around the last century BCE, the route began to transition to a maritime route, made more attractive by improved boat design. From the Arabian Sea boats would sail eastwards to India and China, as well as northwards to the Red Sea to deliver incense to Egyptian ports. By the first century CE, with the overthrow of the South Arabian kingdoms, the ancient overland route (which was mostly controlled by Arabians) ended altogether and the maritime trade to flourished.
3. Persian Royal Road
The Persian Achaemenid dynasty king Darius the Great (521–485 BCE) reorganised and paved an ancient track to build the Royal Road, putting it into regular use, in the 5th century BCE. It was built to facilitate rapid communication throughout his empire, which at the time was geographically among the largest in the world, to fundamentally maintain control over his conquered cities and distant subjects. Ironically, it later contributed to the downfall of the Persian empire, used by Alexander the Great (356-232 BCE) to convey his troops and conquer critical parts of the empire.
The exact course of the road has been constructed from the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, archaeological research, and other historical records. The main branch stretched 2,699 km in length from Sardis in the west near the Aegean coast of Lydia, through Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and the cities of Kirkuk, Nineveh, Edessa, Hattusa, to the Persian capital Susa in the east. From Susa the road connected eastwards to Persepolis in the Zagros Mountains and India and intersected with other road systems leading to the ancient allied and competing kingdoms of Media, Bactria, and Sogdiana.
More of a network than just roads, it also included rivers, canals, and trails, as well as ports and anchorages for seaborne travel. One canal built for Darius I, for example, connected the Nile and the Red Sea.
The Royal Road was put into use for trade, the military, and mail. It is said that mounted couriers could travel along the main branch from Susa to Sardis in nine days thanks to a system of relays and 111 posting stations maintained with a supply of fresh horses. In comparison, the journey on foot would normally take 90 days.
Herodotus praised the couriers accordingly: “There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
The Royal Road demonstrated to contemporary civilisations the utility and value of such a road. In doing so, it helped to inspire similar projects to link the parts of large empires. This process culminated in the extensive network of the Roman roads.
4. Roman Road Network
The network of public Roman roads was vital to the maintenance and development of ancient Rome, built from about 300 BCE through the expansion and consolidation of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. They ranged from small local roads to broad, long-distance highways built to connect cities, major towns, and military bases. They were notable for their straightness, cambered surfaces for drainage, and use of concrete made from pozzolana (volcanic ash) and lime. Plus, they included bridges, tunnels, viaducts, and many other breath-taking but highly practical architectural and engineering feats.
Construction of the first great ancient Roman road, the Via Appia (Appian Way), began in 312 BCE. Known to the Romans as Regina viarum or ‘Queen of Roads’, once completed it stretched 261 km all the way from Rome to Tarentum (modern-day Toranto) in as straight a line as possible.
A few other roads also ran from Rome at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, including Via Aurelia, Via Flaminia, Via Aemilia, Via Valeria, Via Latina, Via Appia. Their numerous feeder roads and paths extended far into the Roman provinces and could be used to reach Rome, thus the proverb, ‘All roads lead to Rome.’
At the peak of Rome’s power, 29 great military highways radiated from the capital, and the late Empire’s 113 provinces were interconnected by 372 great roads. It is estimated the network was more than 400,00 km long, 80,500 km of which was stone-paved. In all, the roads extended from Britain to the Tigris-Euphrates river system in southwestern Asia and from the Danube River to Spain and northern Africa.
The Roman road network made possible the Roman conquest and maintenance of vast territories. The roads permitted the rapid deployment of troops, and served as visible demonstrations of Rome’s authority, many beginning and ending in a triumphal arch for this reason. Connecting cities and provinces, and facilitating communication and transport, the network unified a vast melting pot of cultures, races, and institutions and made extended rule possible.
5. Silk Road
The Silk Road is perhaps the most famous ancient road and has been described as the longest road in the world, connecting East Asia and Southeast Asia with South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and Southern Europe. Established during the rule of China’s Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), the road traversed the Eurasian step overland, and in later periods also involved maritime routes across oceans and seas.
The 6,400 km road originated in Xi’an (Sian), following the Great Wall of China to the northwest, before bypassing the Takla Makan Desert, climbing the Pamirs (mountains), crossing Afghanistan, and then continuing to the Levant. From here merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Historians now prefer the term ‘Silk Routes’, which more accurately reflects that the fact that it didn’t consist of just one road, but rather a large network of roads, paths, trading posts, and markets.
As the name suggests, the major commodity traded was Chinese silk, for which they exchanged gold, silver and wool from Europe. But silk wasn’t the only export. Among other goods traded included fruits and vegetables, livestock, grain, tea, leather and hides, glassware, tools, religious objects, artworks, perfumes, medicines, and precious stones and metals. Additionally, the rich spices of the East also quickly became popular in the West, changing the cuisine across much of Europe.
In addition to fostering trade, the Silk Road also provided the means for the spread of technology, knowledge, religion, and culture, religion. Paper and gunpowder technology, for example, both invented by the Chinese, were widely traded and had obvious and lasting impacts on culture and history in the West. Meanwhile, China received and Buddhism from India, which had a tremendous effect on its art and culture. Trading centres which sprang up along the route became important centres to exchange knowledge and ideas.
As the Roman Empire gradually declined and lost territory in Asia in the fourth century CE, the Silk Road became increasingly unsafe and untraveled. This was until it was revived in the 13th and 14th centuries under the Mongols, during which time it was used by the Italian explorer Marco Polo to travel to China. Today there are several projects under the name of “New Silk Road” that seek to utilise the historic overland and maritime routes, most notably China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative to connect the country with Europe.
6. Inca Road System
The most extensive transportation system in pre-Columbian South America, the Inca road system formed a network known as the royal highway or qhapaq ñan which covered at least 40,000 km. It was based principally on two main highways running north to south across the Inca Empire, through modern-day Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. The western highway ran down the coast, while the eastern route ran inland high in the puna valleys and mountain ranges from Quito (Eucador) across to Mendoza (Argentina). Criss-crossing these main roads were some 20 other secondary routes, with many smaller trails branching out.
The network was composed of formal roads, carefully planned to be long lasting, working with the landscape, built with local materials and in accordance with local conditions. They built supporting walls, water drainage systems, bridges over water courses and narrow valleys, and stairways on steep terrain to gain elevation and counter erosion. Plus, they paved surfaces when necessary to protect from ice and snowmelt. Incredibly, all was constructed entirely by hand, without iron or wheeled transportation.
An invaluable part of the Inca empire, the roads allowed for the expansion and maintenance of power over and area almost 2,000,000 km2 and inhabited by about 12 million people. They connected settlements and administrative centres, while facilitating the movement of information, goods and tributes, armies, and people across plains, deserts, and mountains. The prime users were imperial soldiers, porters and llama caravans, nobility, and individuals on official duty; while ordinary people needed official permission before they could walk the roads and sometimes had to pay tolls for the privilege.
Because the Incas did not use wheeled vehicles for transportation, people almost exclusively walked the roads, sometimes accompanied by pack animals such as llamas. Placed at even intervals along the roads about every 20km were luxurious complexes (tambos), where travellers could spend the night and refresh. Administrative centres with warehouses for redistribution of goods were also found along the roads.
Runners (chasqui) carried both messages and perishable items such as fresh marine fresh for the Inca nobles. Operating in relays, the information and items were passed on to a fresh runner stationed ever six to nine kilometres, and could travel up to 140km in a single day.
7. Australian Aboriginal Trading Routes
Trade was a central part of life in Aboriginal Australia prior to British settlement. Trading routes criss-crossed the breadth of the continent, flowing from one nation to the next, dispersing goods information, technologies, and culture. These routes were not necessarily narrow, well-defined trails, with some passing haphazardly between local group to local group. Some, however, did travel constantly for considerable distances in definite directions and through the same tribes as others before them.
A number of these routes travelled astounding distances in the process, reaching thousands of kilometres away from their origins. Following the movements of the Dreamtime ancestors (spiritual creator beings), often along coastal estuaries, river systems and catchment areas, they acted as roads which allowed Aboriginal travellers to move deep into the Australian heartland.
The extent of trade was vast, with all routes integrated into an overarching economic network and it likely that nearly every tribe in Australia traded something with others. This exchange created a common Indigenous way of life, linking Aboriginal peoples around mainland Australia and Tasmania. For Isabel McBryde – ‘the mother of Australian archaeology’ – these Aboriginal trade networks were ‘among the world’s most extensive systems of human communication recorded in hunter-gatherer societies’.
Goods and people travelled vast distances: the Dieri people, east of Lake Eyre, South Australia, for example, visited places at least 800 kilometres apart; while shell from Papua New Guinea reached western New South Wales. Ochre, stone, and pituri (a bush tobacco) were also amongst the most widely traded items.
Many of the most successful exploits of Australian settlers, pastoralists and explorers was thanks to their making use of older Aboriginal trade routes. John McDouall Stuart, the first European to cross the Australian continent, for example, followed an Aboriginal route that led traders from spring to spring in the harsh South Australian outback, linking Cape York and the Kimberley to the southern coast. This route was used in the 1870s to establish the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, connecting Port Augusta to Darwin, with the help of camels and camelmen from the Middle East and Asia.
The trading pathways have remained alive, as many of the already cleared traditional routes evolved to become cart-tracks, communication paths, and eventually bitumen covered highways, forming the modern road network in Australia. Many if not all of Australia’s highways and arterial roads are built on remnant Aboriginal sites. Some examples include the famous route across the Nullarbor between Perth and Adelaide, the Stuart Highway linking Port Augusta and Alice Springs, as well as the highway between the Kimberleys and Darwin,
Tour of Australia
Odyssey Traveller has drawn on the ancient Aboriginal trading paths in designing our new tours of Australia. From our escorted tour of Aboriginal World Heritage Sites in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, to our tour of the spectacular scenery of Kakadu National Park, and even our Marvellous Melbourne tour, we take the time to learn about the ancient history of our destination, showing how the places we encounter were at the heart of pre-settlement Aboriginal lifeways.
Odyssey Traveller has been designing international tours for mature and senior travellers since 1983, with an emphasis on educational tours, designed to give you an in-depth experience of your travel destination. We are now pleased to announce that we are running new tours of Australia. An Odyssey guided tour is not your typical Australia vacation – Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour, and the Great Ocean Road – but a chance to get off the beaten path.
On one Australia tour we explore stunning coastline on a trip around the Eyre Peninsula – better than Bondi Beach, Byron Bay or the Gold Coast, and without any of the crowds of the East Coast! Another small group tour sees us explore Adelaide and surrounds, making a day tour to beautiful Kangaroo Island. Or why not choose our tour of the Kimberley, on the remote north west coast, for your next Australia trip?
Our tours are really small group tours, generally including 6-12 travellers accompanied by an expert tour operator/tour guide. The tour package price generally includes accommodation, transport in a comfortable vehicle, access to attractions, and several meals, to give you the opportunity to get to know the rest of your small group tour passengers.
Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:
- The Kimberley: A Definitive Guide
- Uncovering the Ancient History of Aboriginal Australia
- Aboriginal Land Use in the Mallee
- Understanding Aboriginal Aquaculture
- Mallee and Mulga: Two Iconic and Typically Inland Australian Plant Communities (By Dr. Sandy Scott).
- The Australian Outback: A Definitive Guide
- The Eyre Peninsula: Australia’s Ocean Frontier
- Archaeological mysteries of Australia: How did a 12th century African coin reach Arnhem Land?
For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.
External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:
- John Mulvaney: ‘… these Aboriginal lines of travel‘
- Queensland Historical Atlas: Aboriginal dreaming paths and trading ways
- National Museum Australia: Trade with the Makasar
- Fish traps and stone houses: New archaeological insights into Gunditjmara use of the Budj Bim lava flow of southwest Victoria over the past 7000 years
- Isabel McBryde: Exchange in south eastern Australia
- Shells, not pearls, were the real prize in traditional Aboriginal culture
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.
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