Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/The Roman Highways

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THE Romans were noted for many things, but for nothing do they better deserve fame than for the system of roads which connected every part, even the remotest province of the empire, with Italy and the capital During the golden days every road literally led to Rome, for outside the limits of the Roman world there were no roads worthy of the name, and within its limits every highway was but a part of the system which had its center in the Appian Forum.

The system was worthy of the conquerors of the world. Starting from the Forum, the great Appian Way, the first which was built, passed through the Porta Capena and swept off to the south, through the Three Taverns, where Paul met the Christian Church, through Terracina, through Capua to Brundisium, where sailing craft and rowboats were always ready day and night to take the traveler over to Dyrrachium. Landing on the Macedonian coast near the modern city of Valona, the traveler might traverse a good Roman highway in an almost direct line seven hundred miles to Byzantium. In Asia the great highway again began, trended off to the south, followed the coast to Troy, sent off branches to numerous and populous cities of Asia Minor, across the mountains to Ancyra, followed the coast to Tarsus, thence to Antioch, to Tyre, and to Jerusalem. It is probable there was also a highway from Jerusalem to Alexandria in Egypt. There were certainly roads from Jerusalem east to the Euphrates, and up and down that mighty stream. Egypt had its own system of roads, beginning at Alexandria and continuing south to the Cataracts, while North Africa was also provided with internal arteries of commerce, starting from various seaports and penetrating the interior until lost in the sands of Sahara.

The Appian Way was the great highroad to the south of Italy and to the East, but the empire was provided with a northern system also. The northeast road started from Rome, crossed the Apennines on the upper waters of the Tiber, and continued through many important cities to the base of the Alps. South of Trent the road divided: one branch turned east, passed through what are now the territories of Austria, Bosnia, Servia, and Bulgaria to the Black sea; the other continued to the north and traversed the terrible passes of the Tyrol to the lower lands of South Germany. There was yet another great central highway which started like the others from Rome, went directly north, continuing, however, east of the Apennines, and following the east coast passed through or near the present cities of Genoa, Nice, and Marseilles. There it divided: one branch turned north directly through France, passing by many important cities till it reached a point near Boulogne, where, as at Brundisium, boats were always in readiness to carry passengers to Britain; the other branch, starting from Marseilles, traversed the Spanish Peninsula to its remotest part. England had its own roads; beginning near Dover, a leading artery ran to the north almost straight to York, while the others traversed the island from east to west.

The length of the Roman system of roads from the Wall of Antoninus in Britain to Jerusalem was four thousand and eighty miles, and, to the extreme limits of the empire on the Euphrates, about four thousand five hundred miles. From city to city the Roman roads usually went in a straight line, property being condemned and appropriated for the public use without the slightest regard for the feelings or rights of its owners, while natural obstacles were almost ignored. Mountains were tunneled, morasses filled with stones and earth; up one side of a hill and down the other went the road, for, as travel was altogether on foot or on horseback, and wheeled vehicles were not used in the country, a steep grade was no objection. Bold arches of heavy, solid stones were thrown across the smaller streams, while great bridges spanned the rivers. Trajan's bridge over the Danube had twenty-one piers of stone built on piling; each end was fortified by a camp and outworks, and when the structure was destroyed its ruins blocked the river. Many Roman arches over mountain gorges and smaller streams are still in existence. In Wales, the Devil's Bridge near Aberystwyth bears testimony to the solid and lasting character of the work done by Roman engineers; in Spain and Portugal many Roman arches remain to show that honest building could be done in the days of the Cæsars. Here and there in the Alps, in the Pyrenees, in the Tyrol, in the Balkans, the remains of a Roman road lead up to the side of a mountain where a half-closed or entirely blocked tunnel once pierced the giant mass. Here and there in the lowlands of the Danube, in the plains of the Po, on the lower waters of Belgium, the trace of a highway leads into the depths of now impassable quagmires, which, however, were no obstacles to the indefatigable road builders.

They did their work well. When a route had been surveyed and a line of road from eight to twenty feet wide was staked out, the surface of the earth within the inclosed limits was all removed until the clay bed was reached. This was densely packed with rammers: a layer of small stones was placed in position and rammed into the clay with heavy mallets, then another layer of stones and sand with cement; then a layer of sand or gravel with lime mortar; then layer after layer of broken stones cemented into one mass, and above all these layers, aggregating more than two feet in thickness, were placed bowlders of basalt or granite, from the size of a man's head to that of a half barrel. The sides were roughly trimmed to make the joints even; the tops were hammered to present a smooth surface to the foot of the traveler, and the whole was cemented together with such skill that after two thousand years of wear many of these roads may still be used. Near the cities more pains were taken; the granite blocks were hexagonal, carefully trimmed and evenly jointed. On the Appian Way the pieces were so neatly fitted together that even to-day it is difficult to detect a joint. The center of the road was the highest; on each side were gutters to carry off the water; if the road ran through a flat country, the gutter became a ditch; if through a country where the fidelity of the inhabitants was doubted, a breast-high wall on either side of the road made it an almost unassailable fortification. In country districts no house might stand within two hundred feet of any road, nor were any trees or bushes allowed to grow in the same limits, for the Roman highway must be safe, and robbers and evildoers must have no place of concealment in its immediate vicinity.

The country roads had at every half mile a block of stone placed by the wayside for the convenience of the traveler in remounting. On the Appian Way, for a distance of twenty miles from Rome, stone seats were placed for travelers at every forty feet; wherever a spring sprang from the earth near a road, a well was hollowed out and a cup provided at the well, and chained to a large stone, in order that travelers might quench their thirst and leave the cup for the next comer.

The roads were military in their character, the prime object being to facilitate the march of the legions. No country was considered conquered until roads had been constructed in every part, and an evidence of their value may be found in the fact that the first step taken by rebels in every local insurrection against the Roman power was to tear up the roads and destroy the bridges. These efforts were generally unsuccessful, for only gunpowder can prevail over such layers of stones and cement as constituted a Roman road, and the barbarians had no powder. In times of peace, the legionaries were employed in road building to keep the men out of mischief, but soldiers were not the only road workers. Criminals and slaves were set to work to make and mend the highways, and, where none of these were available, persons were hired to repair and construct the roads. Every governor of a Roman province had the strictest orders to see to the roads, and when a new line was projected through provincial territory it sometimes happened that the whole male population was summoned to assist in the undertaking. Captives were frequently employed on the road. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, the spectacle of Jewish chain gangs at work on the highways was a common sight all over the empire, and the spectacle again became familiar to Roman travelers sixty-five years later, after the unsuccessful rebellion of Bar-Chochebas, when the Romans, after almost incredible butcheries, determined to depopulate Judea as the best way of solving the question in that province.

Although the prime object of the roads was military, the emperors availed themselves of these admirable highways to obtain quick intelligence from all parts of their extensive dominions. All roads were divided by mile posts, and at every fifth mile on the Roman highway stood a posthouse. Forty horses were always in readiness at each station, and with rapid changes it was possible for an imperial messenger to travel one hundred miles a day, or even more. During the reign of Theodosius a messenger bearing news of a dangerous revolt rode post from Antioch to Constantinople, leaving the former city at night and arriving at Constantinople on the sixth day at noon, thus traveling seven hundred and twenty-five Roman or six hundred and sixty-five of our miles in five days and a half. Sometimes the use of the emperor's posts was granted to ministers, and to favorites whom the emperors delighted to honor. It was, however, a rare favor. Pliny sent his wife on post horse from Rome to the country, and, although a minister, came near having trouble with the emperor in consequence of doing so, for the post horses were as a rule employed only on government business. It was one of these posts that brought Augustus the news of the loss of Varus and his legions; it was a post that brought Nero the tidings of Galba's insurrection.

Crude as we should deem them, the Roman roads were strongly built, safe, and permanent, and even their ruins are among the greatest remaining wonders of that remarkable people.


Prof. W. McK. Cattell, writing of anthropology at Columbia University, finds it natural that that branch of research should be relatively late in coming to the front, because science must first cover the fields where the material is most stable and most accessible to experiment. "Thus, during the first half of the present century the most important advances were made by the physical sciences; then biology made the greatest progress; now, at the end of the century, it seems likely that the sciences concerned with man will become leading." This science has not been fostered by the universities, but has developed till it has compelled recognition. It is cultivated in the German universities, is recognized by a considerable school in Paris, and in chairs of criminal anthropology in Italy, and courses in it have been established in the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania and at Columbia.