Building Ancient Roman Roads: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Roman roads were the first type of paved roads in history. Learn their history and several facts in this lesson. You can also test your knowledge with a quiz.

Introduction: Roman Roads

The Roman Empire was a sight to see. Mighty, strong, and the largest the world had every known during its time. Lasting from approximately 27 B.C.E. until 476 C.E., Roman lands were present on three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. In addition to strong political bases, religious systems, and other areas, the Roman Empire also had a rich cultural pallet. Hints of Roman cultural influence can be seen all over the world, from columns and vaults in architecture (such as on government buildings), to mosaics and frescoes that decorate buildings (like the Sistine Chapel ceiling), to engineering feats like aqueducts (we call them sewers and water lines today) and the topic of this lesson: roads.

The Roman Empire ca 117 CE

Roman roads were originally built primarily out of need. Since the Romans were all about conquest, which was usually done through use of the military, they had to travel great distances in order to go to battle for new lands. Moving military equipment, soldiers, horses, and all the other items needed for battle was not easy on the dirt paths which were typical in Europe. So, the Romans did what any thinkers would do: they invented something different and created paved roads.

All Roads Lead to Rome

In many cases, the Roman Army would build these roads outward from the center, the city of Rome. As their empire grew combined with the thirst for new lands, so did the road network. Eventually, it seemed that All Roads Lead to Rome. Roads were mainly constructed by soldiers and their expertise was valued as more and more networks of road were built. Think of a pilot who has experience flying. If an airplane manufacturer wanted to improve their planes, why not gain the insight and knowledge of a pilot? This was the same principle.

The Appian Way: First and Famous Roman Road

Roads were generally constructed in a grid like pattern of intersecting perpendicular roads. If you have ever traveled in a rural county, roads are generally set up in this way today. Before a road was to be constructed, surveyors would use poles to trace the most direct straight route from point A to point B. If this meant that the road had to go through or over a hill or other formation, necessary adaptations were included, such as tunnels and bridges.

Builders used a specific method, dictated by Roman laws, to construct their roads. Deep trenches were dug, and the earth in them was leveled and filled with a mix of sand and small stones. The next layer was crushed rocks and gravel held together with lime mortar. The actual surface was then made of neatly arranged blocks of stone, usually what was available in the area. These pieces of stone were put together almost like puzzle pieces. Roads were angled to drain water and ditches were sometimes included on the sides for easy drainage. Not too far off from what is done today on road construction, just more lanes and traffic!

Road Building Steps in Ancient Rome

Facts on Roads

1. The most famous road, the Appian Way, was one of the first constructed, and was nearly 350 miles long. That's just under the distance from Washington, DC to Cleveland, Ohio.

2. Roman roads contained several layers which made the road extremely durable. They didn't have to be upgraded and repaved each year. But given that they were made of stone, your car's suspension might not be the biggest fan of travel if the same method was used today.

3. Engineers didn't have maps or a compass. They used a system of wooden pieces and lead weights to make straight lines.

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