Houghton Mifflin English

Research Report

Roman Roads

By Christina C.

Have you ever heard the saying “All roads lead to Rome”? At one time, this was pretty much true. During the Roman Empire, extensive roads were constructed in order to move armies, send messages by courier, and facilitate trade. This construction work went on for five centuries! If all the roads built during the Roman Empire were put together end to end, they would circle the equator twice. Amazingly, many stretches of these Roman roads still exist.

The network of Roman roads was begun in 312 B.C. Appius, a Roman official, suggested this construction project to the senate. The project was approved immediately. The first great Roman road was called the Via Appia, or the Appian Way, named after Appius. It went from Rome to Capua, 132 miles to the south. It was later extended to the port of Brindisi, on the Adriatic Sea. Other important roads included the Via Flaminia, named after the emperor Flaminius, and the Via Valeria, named after the emperor Valerian. Other roads were named after people or places.

Appius demanded that the roads be built strong so that they would not crumble. Roman soldiers, supervised by engineers, laid down the roads in a special pattern of layers. Though there is some variation, many sources state that a typical road was about fifteen feet wide and three feet deep. The first layer was made of sand. Next, the builders added rocks and rubble. On top of these materials came gravel. On this solid foundation, the road builders placed paving stones and fit them so close together that not even a knife could be inserted between them. These roads had excellent drainage and could last for centuries.

Also, Roman roads were cambered. This means that they were built higher in the middle than on the edges, allowing rainwater to run off, which prevented flooding. We use the same technique in building roads today. Yet even with such good engineering, the Romans ran into trouble when constructing roads over marshes and hills. They chose flat marshland and built the roads six feet above land, to make sure the roads didn't flood. First, the builders drove thick wooden piles into the marshy ground. Then they filled the spaces between the piles with loose rock and packed it down with gravel. On this solid base they set paving stones. The Romans also laid out roads over hills when necessary, setting them down in a zigzag pattern to make the ascent more gradual.

Why didn't the Romans simply run roads around marshes and hills? Well, whenever possible, the Romans built roads in a straight line, going directly through such obstacles. Because a straight road meant greater speed in travel, the extra work required to build them seemed worthwhile.

All Roman roads had milestones, placed every thousands paces (a Roman mile). The milestones told when the road was built, who was emperor at the time, the road's destination, how far the traveler was from the destination, and how many miles had been traveled since the beginning of the road. This information was a great help to travelers.

Because of their excellence in construction, it really is no surprise that many stretches of Roman road still exist today. Even parts of the ancient Via Appia are still intact, and one milestone reads, “Via Appia, CXXXII miles, CCCXII,” in Roman numerals, of course. These roadways are one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Roman Empire.


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