Roman roads

While rivers have always played an important role in commerce and conquest, if you really want to get things done, you have to have roads. The Romans understood this better than anyone, and their road network is a testament to their foresight, energy, and engineering acumen.

Why discuss Roman roads in a website devoted to the eighth century? Because the roads were essential to Carolingian expansion and imperial development, just as they were to the Romans. Let’s consider an example.

In 734 Charles Martel was expanding his kingdom into Provence. One of the lordlings who offered resistance was chased from Marseilles into Avignon, at which point he made the unfortunate decision to ally himself with the Muslims of Septimania. Charles proceeded to lay siege to Avignon and defeated Frank and Arab alike. After defeating the occupiers Charles turned west and laid waste to a host of Muslim towns in Septimania, from Nimes to Narbonne. He then turned and besieged Avignon a second time, as the Muslims had made a second sortie and recaptured it. All of this was accomplished in the span of a single campaign season.

Were the armies tramping across field and hill and river, it would seem completely unreasonable to assume that they could move so fast. Avignon to Narbonne is 250 miles, round trip.

The answer is that they were marching on a good quality road, not over broken fields. The Via Domitia was the first of the roads built in Gaul, by the emperor Augustus. There is a ten span bridge still in existence over the river Herault, ten miles east of Beziers. Other parts of the road are still visible, even in downtown Narbonne. Considering how quickly you can watch the roads in your own neighborhood descend into wrack and ruin, the survival of a road for two thousand years is a stunning achievement. Of course, a little maintenance never hurts.

[T]he Carolingians pursued policies that were intended to sustain elements of the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and canals, that were fundamental to moving the supplies needed by the army. The road system of the Roman Empire was still intact throughout the greater part of the land of the regnum Francorum. Even the mansiones, the stopping-ff places along the Roman roads, were maintained along these routes. The early Carolingians also maintained the “ancient custom” (antiqua consuetudo) that the local authorities keep roads in good repair.1.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.137. He cites two capitularies that unfortunately have never been translated into English.

Not only were the roads well built, but perfectly situated. Part of the reason so few remains of the original roads remain is that future roads were built right on top. Many European highways follow the same routes the Roman engineers laid down two millennia previously.

We have an amazing tool from Stanford Libraries that illustrates the complete road network. On the map you can enter your location and destination, and find the fastest, cheapest, or shortest routes. Since rivers and coastal journeys were also possible, you can opt to include or exclude those options, depending on if you were a courier or an army.

Note that road building did not cease with the dissolution of the western empire. While the physical quality may not have been as high, later empires continued to build. We have an amazing single document that illustrates the breadth of the European and road network, veritable Rand McNally of the medieval world. The Tabula Peutingeriana was drawn in the thirteenth century on eleven scrolls of parchment. You can examine the whole thing at your leisure, in high-res.

You might find the going a bit of a slog, since the map was created to be more a reference, not an accurate representation of the physical world. Fortunately an extraordinary Dutchman named Rene Voorburg has created a true work of love, and transcribed the entire Tabula Peutingeriana onto a Google Map. He has included a feature that creates the optimal route given your location and destination, and then lists all of the way stations through which you would pass on your journey.

Thank goodness for people like Rene, and the internet.

Atlas Obscura recently posted a nice overview of the Roman road network, with some good pics. There are plenty of other resources available online, just start Googling. Happy travels!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.137. He cites two capitularies that unfortunately have never been translated into English.

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