Most tours of the main modern cities of Europe at least point out or, more commonly, start with their Roman foundations whether these be roadways, bridges, aqueducts, city walls or major buildings such as basilicas. And even without mastery of a timeline of ancient history, this likely comes as no surprise. After all, we know ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ and, equally that ‘All roads lead to Rome.’
When some of the detail underlying these sayings becomes evident, you can’t but marvel at the ambition of the Roman vision, engineering expertise, and construction quality, and, of course, the follow-through. Over two thousand years later we see the foundations of modernity in the over 400,000-kilometer road system that connected Rome to its empire, at its height extending from North Africa and the Middle East to Britain in the north, from the Iberian peninsula to modern-day Turkey and beyond at the eastern edge.
Roman roads first and foremost served a military purpose. They were cobblestoned paved often with markedly uneven results. Alright for foot soldiers but a challenge for carts and other wheeled vehicles, especially if driven at a speed of more than a few miles per hour. For experienced infantry, organized into self-sufficient legions with each soldier typically carrying 15 days’ worth of supplies and other paraphernalia, a rate of travel of 30 miles per day was sometimes achievable.
Perhaps on the proposition that the shortest distance – and therefore the shortest and easiest road construction – between two points is a straight line early Roman roads were often built perfectly straight over challenging terrain resulting in gruelingly uphill and downhill challenges. Later on, perhaps in more relaxed and affluent times, the engineers allowed for the now conventional switchback design to deal with the hilly terrain.
In modern times with macadamized – blacktop – roadways, we see ever-increasing sophistication, all moving towards interactive road systems with vehicles and the roadway cooperating to bring the driver/passenger to their destination with minimal human input. The Roman soldier who had to march 30 miles a day with a load of impedimenta would certainly be impressed.
We may impress ourselves with our modern achievements in transportation, but the dark side of all of this is that the landscape is being paved over in the form of roadways and associated infrastructure at an alarming rate largely for the benefit of private motor vehicles. How many more roads can we build for untold numbers of motor vehicles before it all starts to look pretty absurd? As the singer said, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”