All Roads Lead to Rome

Nicholas Malinak

            Even one and a half millennia after the fall of the Roman Empire, the phrase all roads lead to Rome continues to invoke the picture of Roman cultural and military dominance.  But, more than just a metaphor, this phrase captures the importance of roads to the ancient Romans.  The development of these roads was shaped by root Roman cultural practices that defined the military, governance, and commerce within the Ancient Roman Empire.  And as these routes became increasingly vital to Rome, they began to shape Roman culture.

            Roman imperial power came first and foremost from the military, and so fittingly it was the Roman Army that built and maintained the roads.  Engineers and surveyors were members of the military and the process fell under the purview of a consul.  Local populations, however, were often called upon to bear the financial burden of these endeavors, relying on local supplies instead of the central treasury.  The cultural importance that Romans placed on the military and its ability to demand resources from local municipalities facilitated the development of an effective road-building mechanism.

            The construction of Roman roads suggests that the Roman civilization placed a significant emphasis on their importance.  Instead of roads or paths that were created by extended periods of use or simple techniques, the construction of Roman roads followed a process that rivals modern day techniques in its complexity and durability.  Much like today’s roads, Roman roads were built on embankments to insure drainage of water and preserve the road for extended periods of time.  Following the construction of this embankment, the Romans would dig a hole and place in gravel, stones, or some other type of fill that would allow for the drainage of rainwater.  Sometimes other layers would be added depending on the conditions of the area and the materials available.  The top layer would consist of finely packed gravel, a concrete mixture, or flat stones to create a durable and relatively smooth service.  These different layers could easily add up to more than a dozen feet below the ground, and show how the Roman belief in creating lasting improvements had a physical effect on the construction of roads, as did local materials and financial resources.(1)

            The importance of Roman navel vessels cannot be overstated in the expansion of the Empire, and the growth of the empire favored settlements and conquests on the Mediterranean Coast.  As the empire expanded, however, thin coastal territories far from Rome would be at significant disadvantages, including a vulnerability to land forces and a separation from the people and resources that existed in the areas not directly on the coast.  This allowed legions to expand with significant numbers into inland regions and greatly expand the Empire into areas that previously would be difficult to capture and nearly impossible to hold over an extended period.

            While Roman roads played an important role in expansion of the Empire, they were even more vital in the consolidation of landlocked territories.  They provided stable routes of transportation for the legions, allowing armies to travel quickly and messages quicker still.  This allowed for the placement of large forces in strategic locations while not requiring the drain that a permanent garrison would place on the overall military strength.  The speed that these roads provided military travelers, including way-stations that could supply fresh means of transportation, allowed for the coordination of military tactics over vast areas.  In Northern Africa following the fall of Carthage, the Roman’s consolidated their territory with the creation of a road system that effectively brought the rest of the Mediterranean into the Empire. The increased speed that the Roman roads offered was vital in expanding Roman military might.(2)

            While the military purpose was the primary catalyst for the creation of the Roman road system, some of the greatest advantages of the system were non-military in nature, including the ability to govern the rapidly expanding (and eventually declining) Empire.  As the Empire expanded out of the Italian Peninsula, it became necessary for provinces to provide greater internal governance.  For the areas of the provinces that did not directly touch the sea, reliable systems of communication and travel were necessary to support the government infrastructure that was vital to the Roman culture.  Safe routes of transportation that often included way-stations for government travelers were essential for a growing bureaucracy.  And for much of the travel between neighboring provinces that did not rely on ships for transportation, these networks of roads were vital in linking the Roman Empire together.

            The post office is one manner in which Roman governance was expanded through the use of roads.  Without the road system, mail could only be transported long distances reliably through ships, which made sporadic trips and only traveled between sizable cities on the coasts.  With the development of the road system came a postal system on those roads.  The transportation of the mail of officials was provided by the cursus publicus(3), a system set in place by Augustus to quickly transport mail and allow for the governance of the Empire.  In addition, a private network of slaves carried private mail for a price, allowing the well-to-do to enjoy quick and reliable communication.  While bandits abounded on these roads, the significant Roman presence protected mail carriers more than back roads even could.

            Roman roads also encouraged the expansion of the Roman cultural presence separate from the government.  Previously “barbaric” peoples had direct links to Rome through the roads, and over these routes, much of the less civilized interiors of the continents could encounter the cultural practices that had existed on the Mediterranean shores.  During the rise of Christianity, the road system allowed for the spread of the religion even when the government prohibited it, and contributed to the eventual adoption of Christianity by the Empire.(4)  The expansion of the empire through migration was also facilitated by the road network, and with this migration came the sharing of cultural practices not only from Rome, but the entire Mediterranean region.  The proverb “all roads lead to Rome” emphasizes the centrality of the cultural that spread from Rome itself, and because all roads on the network did indeed lead to Rome (saving, of course, those in the British isles and other water-locked provinces), it was the Roman culture that eventually came to hold so much sway over such a large area, which may have included as many as 50,000 miles of roads.(5)

            The vast wealth that helped Rome last for so many years was based not on the road system, but the ocean.  It was Rome’s maritime commerce that provided the greatest wealth and supported the vast government and military.  The technology available at the time was a major factor in the superiority of the seas; all land commerce relied on relatively small cargoes that could be pulled or carried by animals, while large ships could travel swiftly over the ocean in a short amount of time.  The location of the Empire, centered on the Mediterranean Sea, and the geographic formation of Italy as a peninsula also encouraged trade by sea.  Roads did, however, play an important role in Roman trade.  It provided a means of travel that theoretically allowed people to trade to wherever a road was present, a vast network at the heyday of Rome.  Perhaps the most important trade function of Roman roads was to connect resources directly with ports, allowing the transportation of large quantities of materials.  With a reliable road system in place, good in the interior of the continents were now available for the entire Empire; the fringes of the Empire could now support the “glory of Rome.”

            The Roman road network also encouraged a sort of “roadside” culture to develop and take advantage of the trade opportunities provided by the roads.  Early hostels sprung up to house travelers, and often expanded into large facilities.  Tradesmen specific to road travel such as wheelwrights and veterinarians could set up shop and be guaranteed a steady supply of work.  Eventually, entire towns sprung up along the roads, not only to utilize their trade potential, but tap directly in the jobs that could be created by the road network.

            For 350 miles in modern Italy stretches the Appian Way (Via Appia), an over 2,000 year old relic of ancient Rome. (6)  Constructed beginning in 312 B.C., the Appian Way was the first in the network of ancient Roman roads.  It has been used over the Millennia for war and peace, commerce and government.  It’s still straight path and smooth surface are a testament not only to Roman engineering, but the legacy of a culture and technology that were intertwined and live on today.




Charles F Baker (2005, November). ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROMECalliope, 16(3), 20-21. Retrieved March 29, 2006, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 978204641).


Returnto ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 3/29/06