How the Ancient Romans Built Their Roads, the Lifelines of Their Vast Empire

At its peak in the second century, the Roman Empire dominated nearly two million square miles of the world. As with most such grand achievements, it couldn’t have happened without the development of certain technologies. The long reach of the Eternal City was made possible in large part by the humble technology of the road — or at least it looks like a humble technology here in the twenty-first century. Roads existed before the Roman Empire, of course, but the Romans built them to new standards of length, capacity, and durability. How they did it so gets explained in the short video above.

On a representative stretch of Roman-road-to be, says the narrator, a “wide area would be deforested.” Then “the topsoil would be removed until a solid base was found.” Atop that base, workers laid down curbs at the width determined by the road plan, then filled the gap between them with a foundation of large stones.

Atop the large stones went a layer of smaller stones mixed with fine aggregates, and finally the gravel, sand, and clay that made up the surface. All of this was accomplished with the old-fashioned power of man and animal, using tipper carts to pour out the materials and other tools to spread and compact them.

Roman road-builders didn’t just use any old rocks and dirt, but “carefully selected materials of the highest quality” — including formidably long-lasting Roman concrete, the secrets of whose sturdiness have only been fully understood in the past decade. In another ingenious design choice recently discovered, “ditches were placed to prevent access to the road from unauthorized vehicles,” as well as to widen the peripheral view of the road’s users. In the video just above, civil-engineering specialist Isaac Moreno Gallo takes a closer look at a section of a real Roman road being excavated where it will intersect with a modern highway under construction. The new road will surely stand for a long time to come — but will it inspire fascination a couple millennia from now?

Related content:

The Roman Roads and Bridges You Can Still Travel Today

How to Make Roman Concrete, One of Human Civilization’s Longest-Lasting Building Materials

The First Transit Map: a Close Look at the Subway-Style Tabula Peutingeriana of the 5th-Century Roman Empire

How Did Roman Aqueducts Work?: The Most Impressive Achievement of Ancient Rome’s Infrastructure, Explained

The Roads of Ancient Rome Visualized in the Style of Modern Subway Maps

The Roman Roads of Britain Visualized as a Subway Map

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (9)
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  • William Hiller says:

    But we still have no idea what Roman Roads in Great Britain were named by the Romans, do we?

  • Macgordon Aberese-Ako says:

    Their roads were better than some modern roads in Black Africa.

  • Paul says:

    The Romans define the concept of “over engineered”.

  • E says:

    Their roads are better than a lot of modern roads in America.

  • Yasi says:

    No one cares about your irrelevant opinion

  • Yasi says:

    Why do people post degenerate and irrelevant opinions such as these

  • Nnuambua says:

    I regret what occurred tonight. It won’t occur again. Good night. LF

  • Marcus says:

    There is a well known argument that has circulated the internet that claims that the measurement for the width of the Roman chariot and the solid rocket boosters on the back of NASA’s space shuttles are the same unusual measurement of 8 feet 4 1/2 inches (around 1.4 metres). What an intrigueing idea. It goes a little something like this:
    8 feet 4 1/2 inches is the standardised (internal) railway gauge in the USA

    this is because the early railway tracks in the US were built and designed (at least in a substantial part) by British ex-pats, and, because that was the gauge the trains ran on

    because that was the railway gauge in Britain where the early trains were built.

    The trains in Britain were built to run on track this guage because railway lines followed old trolley cart/tram rail lines

    The tram lines were this gauge because they were built along pathways horse darawn carriages and carts went along

    The carriages and carts were the same measurement (from wheel to wheel) bcause they ran along ruts used by old wagons

    The medieval wagons wore ruts this size because they were standardised so they could run along the old roads between main towns

    Those old roads were mostly old Roman roads still in use

    The Roman roads were standardised to that size to accomodate Roman war chariots

    Roman chariots were standardised to this size because….

    that was the size of two (Roman?) horses’s rear ends!
    The twist in the tale follows, that the solid rocket boosters of the space shuttle are assembled in Utah (I heard Canada in the first version I came across) and need to be the same size to fit onto a railway carriage and be transported by rail through a few rail tunnels, to Florida. Hence the need for an unusal size. Dah daaah! Thus one of mankind’s most advanced machines owes part of its design dimensions to an ancient machine, linking the Romans to space flight!

  • Rob Barnes says:

    8 feet 4 inches would be nearer 2•4 metres, not 1.4

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