Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Roads From Rome

Roman road-building has an excellent reputation, and on the whole it is justified. Examination of the remains of many roads over the last century or so has shown that in Britain, Roman roads were largely well-metalled, with good drainage, and aligned so that they took a fairly direct line between origin and destination. Yet there are many misconceptions about how the roads were designed. The reputation of the Romans for order has led some to believe that the road network demonstrates a grand geometric strategy, with roads imposed on the landscape in a series of regular, rectangular patterns. However, at many towns, such as Silchester, Verulamium, Leicester and Ilchester, roads which arrive at an oblique angle change direction at the town gate or boundary to match the street grid. This indicates that the grids predate the roads, and that roads were built to serve settlements, at least the larger ones, rather than being arbitrarily imposed across the landscape.

Roman roads also changed over time. The network observed today through survey and archaeology is the cumulative result of four centuries of development. At the start of the period, the conquering Roman army would not have waited for well-engineered roads to be built before moving into enemy territory--it would have used any suitable local tracks. As the front line advanced, the road builders would have followed, initially with a rapidly-built--probably lightly-metalled - road to guarantee the armys supply line. More substantial roads would only be built, over the top of the earlier road, once a region was secured.
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