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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