Engineering Rome

Road Construction through expansion and consolidation of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire

All images are created by the author unless otherwise noted

By Thomas Le


Roadway construction was the backbone of achievement and convenience, which paved the way for the Romans to be considered the largest and most successful civilization of all time. Dirt roads no longer sustained the needs of the growing civilization. As war fueled the Roman economy, enormous resources were put towards ‍building roads for the legions, allowing them to move across conquered land with ease and efficiency. Roman roads covered a distance of over 400,000 km (248,548.47 miles), with more than 120,000 km (74,564.54 miles) being classified as ‘public roads’. Spreading across the Romans’ vast conquered land from Great Britain in the north to Morocco in the south, and from Portugal in the west to Iraq in the East, they allowed people and goods to travel quickly from one part of the empire to another(Mingren, 2018). Roads were used for other means such as transportation of commerce and communication that were key in maintaining the empire. The extent of these roadway systems can be seen in Figure 1. This ‍article ‍will evaluate and review how Roman roads were financed, why they were built, who built them, who was in charge of their upkeep, and how they were ultimately used.

Figure 1: Subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire of ca. 125 AD(Trubetskoy, 2018)

The purpose of Road Construction

1. Military

The Romans were considered the largest civilization in the world during its time. This was because the Romans were all about conquering, which was usually done through the use of the military. Roman troops had to travel great distances in order to go to battle for new land. Moving military equipment, soldiers, horses, and all the other items needed for battle was difficult on the dirt paths (Docevski, 2018). As more land was colonized, Romans built many roads in the provinces for military and administrative purposes. The Romans built new highways to link conquered cities with Rome and establish them as colonies(Simkin, 2014). This allowed the Romans to map their growing empire, claiming their territories, see Figure 2. The routes that the Roman military built not only helped them out-pace and out-maneuver their enemies, it also helped maintain order for the Empires. This reduced travel time and marching fatigue allowed the fleet-footed legions to move 20 miles a day to respond to outside threats and internal uprisings(Andrews, 2014). Even the most isolated territories of Rome were easily supplied and reinforced with troops in the event of an emergency due to having paved roading.

Figure 2: Map of the Roman Empire in 125 CE with routes (Nacu, 2012)

2. Transporting Goods

As the population in Rome increased rapidly, to as high as one million people, trading was vital to Ancient Rome. Such a vast population required goods brought back via trade, people all over the city could buy goods they might not otherwise have had. The transportation of goods across areas could be swift because there were paved roads that carts sped through effortlessly. Trade could be easily established between regions across the land because of the convenience of roads(Ahm, 2010). Trade involved foodstuffs (e.g. olives, fish, meat, cereals, salt, prepared foods such as fish sauce, olive oil, wine and beer), animal products (e.g. leather and hides), objects made from wood, glass, or metals, textiles, pottery, and materials for manufacturing and construction such as glass, marble, wood, wool, bricks, gold, silver, copper, and tin(Cartwright, 2019). See Figure 3 for the trade network. In addition, Romans tied the tax levy to the tradition of the territory and the former regime. The convenience of roads helps the Romans easily transport taxes collected from the provincial border(Andrew, 2014).

Figure 3: Trade network of the Roman Empire in A.D. 117 (National Geographic Society, 2018)

Roman Law for Road Construction & Classification

Dated about 450 BC, The Laws of the Twelve Tables were created and ancient Romans were governed by it. The Laws of the Twelve Tables specified that a road shall be 8 ft (2.45 m) wide where straight and 16 ft (4.90 m) where curved. Roman law defined the right to use a road as a servitus, or claim. The ius eundi (“right of going”) established a claim to use an iter, which means the right of walking or passing along. The ius agendi (“right of driving”), an actus, which means the right of walking, passing and driving cattle or light vehicles along a road(Smith, 1898). The tables command Romans to build roads that combined both types of easements and give wayfarers the right to pass over private land where the road was in disrepair. As a result, building roads that would not need frequent repair became an ideological objective. In addition, constructing roads that are straight helped build the narrowest roads possible to minimize distance traveled, and thus save on material(“Viae: The Roads of Rome,” 2009).

There is an apparent differentiation between the types of roads in relation to their nature. Roman roads were vital to the maintenance and development of the Roman state and were built through the expansion and consolidation of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The Roman roads were known as ‘viae’. The word is related to the English word as ‘way’.  Roman roads were classified into three types:

  1. Viae Publicae, Consulares, Praetoriae or Militares
  2. Viae Privatae, Rusticae, Glareae or Agrariae, 
  3. Viae Vicinales.

1. Viae Publicae, Consulares, Praetoriae or Militares

Roads that were considered as Viae Publicae, Consulares, Praetoriae or Militares were usually named after the censor who ordered the construction or reconstruction. These roads were public high or main roads. It was constructed at the expense of the public, and with their soil vested in the state. Such roads led either to the sea, public river, town or some other public road. They were placed under the supervision of the curators(commissioners) and were repaired by the Redemptoris(contractors) using the public expense: a fixed contribution being levied from the neighboring landowners(Smith, 1898).

2.Viae Privatae, Rusticae, Glareae or Agrariae

These roads are the second category of roads which included private or country roads. This type of road was constructed by private individuals, in whom their soil was vested, and who had the power to dedicate them to the public use. Under the heading of Viae Privatae also included roads that led to particular estates or settlements. The main roads were connected to secondary roads called Viae Rusticae. Both main or secondary roads may either be paved or left unpaved, with a gravel surface. Roads that were prepared but unpaved was considered as Viae Glareae. Beyond the secondary roads were other small roads that were not paved at all. These were referred to as the Viae Terrence or dirt roads(Smith, 1898).

3.Viae Vicinales

The last road classification consists of ancient Roman roads in the village, district, crossroads leading through or toward vicus(village). They were considered public or private depending upon the funds from which they were constructed, that is, private or public. The repairing authorities were the Magistri Pagorum(magistrates of the pagus or canton). They could require the neighboring landowners either to furnish labor or to keep in repair, at their own expense, a certain length of the road passing through their respective properties(Smith, 1898).

Example of Roman Road Construction and Its Usage

During the Second Samnite War, Appius Claudius Caecus took a position as a censor in 312 BC. Appius sought to increase his image with the public and build his clientele through political acts to win the favor of his clients(MacBain, 1980). According to Grout, during the war, he advocated The Roman Republic to create a fortification against the Samnites & Etruscans and establish their hold on the fertile lands within Capua in Campania. As a result, Via Appia, the earliest road serves as the main route for military supplies and was built running from Rome to Capua(Grout, 2019). Construction began in 312 BC, that same year, it was named ‘‘Via Appia’’ (the Appian Way), after its commissioner Appius Claudius. The construction of the compacted, gravel-finished Via Appia began in 312 BC and was completed around 308 BC. According to Grant, Via Appia ran 132 miles(Grant, 2001). 

Via Appia became a key instrument in the Second Samnite War for two reasons. The first was the increased mobility of ‍troops‍, couriers, and supplies between Rome and the southern offensives. This was due to the incorporation of large, straight compacted road segments into the Via Appia. These sections allowed the legions to move 25 miles per day even in the presence of inclement weather, as road disintegration through heavy use was mitigated and the straight nature of the road reduced wasted travel time (Thompson, 1997). The route supported the legions to out-pace and out-maneuver their enemies to respond to a threat(Andrew, 2014). The second reason was the added protection the Via Appia provided to travelers. The Via Appia mostly traverses the coastal plain and thereby avoided possible Samnium attacks previous inland routes were susceptible to (Grant, 2001). To combat the activities of thieves and highwaymen, most Via Appia was patrolled by special detachments of imperial army troops known as “stationarii” and “beneficiarii.” These soldiers manned police posts and watchtowers in both high traffic and remote areas to help guide vulnerable travelers, as well as protecting goods that were transported (Andrew, 2014).

Construction of the Via Appia was a success, which led to a continual extension, crossing Italy from the West Coast to eventually end at the East Coast town of modern-day Brindisi by 264 BC(Grant, 2001). See Figure 4 for a better understanding of the given information. Later on, more roadways were constructed as the conquered land expanded.

Figure 4: Map of the original and expanded Via Appia (“Via Appia Map”, 2009)

How Road Construction Was Finance

Since the Via Appia construction is considered as a public road, it was constructed and repaired by Redemptoris and supervised by Appius Claudius. It was constructed using taxes from the neighboring landowners and with soil vested in the state. Also, the commerce between Rome and its colonies carried goods and brought vast wealth to Rome which contributed toward the construction. Appius Claudius died before Via Appia was completed, The Senate then took over the allocation of funds to complete the project(Bond, 2017). The construction cost was estimated to be 259 million sestertii(ancient roman currency) of the original stretch of the Via Appia(Berechman, 2002). According to Berechman, one million sestertii equals about 2500 metric tons of wheat. During the Ancient Roman about 435446 tons of wheat and 174.2 million sestertii, gold, silver, and iron were transported to Rome annually(Berechman, 2002). As an illustration, shown in Figure 5, it would take less than a year to break-even for the cost to construct the Via Appia from Rome to Capua. Keep in mind, The Roman Republic would have a leftover from the deduction with many other valuables that brought into the city that be can convert to money.  The Roman Republic benefited tremendously from building the roadway, providing an effective means to protect the growing Roman economy

Figure 5: Analytic work for accounting the cost of construction

Furthermore, when Rome turns from Republic to Empire, finance, and impetus to build road changes. Bond stated, road construction later used soldiers, conscripted civilians and even prisoners as a work-force(Bond, 2017). During the time of the first emperor, Gaius Octavius Thurinus, also known as Augustus, under his reign, the emperor employed his own funds to rebuild and construct roads. According to Bond, the emperor was not the only one who pitched in. Provincial cities and wealthy patrons also regularly chipped in during the Roman Empire in order to donate money to help with maintenance, protection and expansion projects(Bond, 2017). Roman civil and military engineers were attached to the legions and carried out complex surveys before construction could begin(Bond, 2017). Augustus wanted to keep the soldiers busy, stay out of trouble and have a base level of fitness for fighting in the chaos of warfare. Doing civic construction improved the strength and stamina of the legions, rendering them almost unbeatable(Crystalinks). Among the staff, officers were a unit called the architecti, “chief builders”, responsible for all military construction, which road-building was. Men that were considered as architecti required education and expertise in geometry(Crystalinks). The legions also sought involuntary assistance for their hard labor. Slaves, prisoners of war, and convicted criminals often performed tasks such as quarrying and transporting stone. These people were also used for road repair(Crystalinks).

As time goes on, the late Republic of Rome and then again in the late Roman Empire, where endless fighting, factions, distraction and political discord were commonplace. According to Bond, the political rivalries in the late Republic resulted in a federal standoff that ultimately hurt the people and the funding necessities like roads were more mundane. Political turmoil and a lack of dedicated civic patronage in the later Roman empire caused certain roads to fall into disrepair(Bond, 2017). To illustrate, in Figure 6, the condition of Via Appia seems to have been difficult to even attempt to travel on. Likewise, other ancient Roman roads suffered from the same condition, see Figure 7.

Figure 6: Bumpy road with wheel imprint
Figure 7: The condition of the road in Ostia

Modern Day Usage

Continuing with the use of the Via Appia as an example, Via Appia continues to be in use due to the excellent engineering behind its creation and history through time. Via Appia has been the site for several events and traditions. As Rome expanded, it restricted burials to the area outside the city. Tombs found themselves align with the roads and it became the norm for an ostentatious competition to provide a final opportunity to boast(FutureLearn, 2017). Catacombs, as well as various basilicas and tombs, can be found along the Via Appia. In 71 BC, nearly 6000 followers of the slave revolt led by Spartacus after their defeat were crucified along the Via Appia(Fields, 2008). In 64 AD, St. Peter became a martyr for the Christian faith after turning back from his escape along the Via Appia(Palombi, 1995). Fast forward through time, with longevity exceeding 2000 years, part of the surviving Via Appia is known as Via Appia Antica has turned into a park, see Figure 8. In 1960, the park was used for the Olympic games as a part of the marathon course(Britannica, 2019). As of today, see Figure 9, you can rent bicycles from local businesses to explore the road and view some monuments(statues, catacombs, mausoleums, and broken villas) that are left behind.

Figure 8: Via Appia Antica bike route with attractions(Via Appia Antica, 2015)
Figure 9: One of the monuments along the road and riding bike on Via Appia Antica

Engineering Insight/Conclusion

Engineering holds a much broader perspective than designing and building things. Knowledge in finance is extremely important for all engineers. Financial knowledge can help engineers who supervise projects and provides strategic direction. Understanding finance can be central to a business’s future. As has been noted from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, financing roadways construction brought vast wealth, which helped the Romans to maintain, protect and expand the kingdom. By the same token, there is no more Roman Republic nor the Roman Empire. The road that was built 2000 years ago can still be used to make money.


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