Principal Roman Roads

Roman Road

Roman roads in Britannia were initially designed for military use, created by the Roman Army during the nearly four centuries (AD 43–410) that Britannia was a province of the Roman Empire.

It is estimated that about 2,000 mi (3,200 km) of paved trunk roads (surfaced roads running between two towns or cities) were constructed and maintained throughout the province. Most of the known network was complete by 180. The primary function of the network was to allow rapid movement of troops and military supplies, but it subsequently provided vital infrastructure for commerce, trade and the transportation of goods.

A considerable number of Roman roads remained in daily use as core trunk roads for centuries after the end of Roman rule in Britain in 410. Some routes are now part of the UK’s national road network. Others have been lost or are of archeological and historical interest only.

After the Romans departed, systematic construction of paved highways in the United Kingdom did not resume until the early 18th century. The Roman road network remained the only nationally managed highway system within Britain until the establishment of the Ministry of Transport in the early 20th century.

Overview of Roman Roads

Prior to the Roman conquest of Britain, pre-Roman Britons mostly used unpaved trackways for travel. These routes, many of which had prehistoric origins, followed elevated ridge lines across hills, such as the South Downs Way. Although most routes were unpaved tracks, some British tribes had begun engineering roads during the first century BC.

Beginning in AD 43, the Romans quickly created a national road network. Engineers from the Roman Army, in most cases, surveyed and built them from scratch. Key locations, both strategic and administrative, were connected by the most direct routes possible. Main roads were gravel or paved, had bridges constructed in stone or wood, and manned waypoints where travellers or military units could stop and rest. The roads’ impermeable design permitted travel in all seasons and weather. Following the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410, the road system soon fell into disrepair. Parts of the network were retained by the Anglo-Saxons, eventually becoming integral routes in Anglo-Saxon Britain, but large sections were abandoned and lost.

Historical development of Roman Roads

The earliest roads, built in the first phase of Roman occupation (the Julio-Claudian period, AD 43–68), connected London with the ports used in the invasion (Chichester and Richborough), and with the earlier legionary bases at Colchester, Lincoln (Lindum), Wroxeter (Viroconium), Gloucester and Exeter. The Fosse Way, from Exeter to Lincoln, was also built at this time to connect these bases with each other, marking the effective boundary of the early Roman province.

During the Flavian period (AD 69–96), the roads to Lincoln, Wroxeter and Gloucester were extended (by CE 80) to the legionary bases at Eboracum (York), Deva Victrix (Chester) and Isca Augusta (Caerleon). By 96, further extensions were completed from York to Corbridge, and from Chester to Luguvalium (Carlisle) and Segontium (Caernarfon) as Roman rule was extended over Cambria (Wales) and northern England (Brigantia). Stanegate, the military road from Carlisle to Corbridge, was built under the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98–117) along the line of the future Hadrian’s Wall, which was constructed by his successor Hadrian in 122–132.

Scotland (Caledonia), including England north of Hadrian’s Wall, remained mostly outside the boundaries of Britannia province, as the Romans never succeeded in subjugating the entire island, despite a serious effort to do so by governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola in 82–84. The Romans maintained a system of forts in the lowland region c. 80–220 to control the indigenous population beyond Hadrian’s Wall and annexed the Lowlands briefly with the construction of the Antonine Wall in 164. This barrier, across the ‘neck’ of Scotland, from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth, was held for twenty years.

The Romans’ main routes from Hadrian’s Wall to the Antonine Wall, built by c. 120, were:

  • Corbridge to the Roman fort at Cramond, Edinburgh (certain) and (likely) to Carriden (Veluniate) on the eastern end of the Antonine Wall, via High Rochester (Bremenium) and Melrose (Trimontium);
  • Carlisle to Bothwellhaugh (certain) and (likely) to the Antonine.

There was also a certain road beyond the Antonine Wall to Perth (Bertha) from the Antonine fort at Falkirk. Indeed, it has been thought that the Roman road to the north of the Forth, to Stirling and Perth, dates from the expedition of Severus to beyond the Dee in 209; it may be doubted whether there was time in that campaign for such a work, and the road may well belong to a period before the construction of the Antonine Wall in 140.

The core network was complemented by a number of routes built primarily for commercial, rather than military, purposes.

Examples include: in Kent and Sussex, three certain roads leading from London to the important iron-mining area of the Weald; and in East Anglia, the road from Colchester to Norwich, Peddars Way and the Fen Causeway. These eastern and southern routes acquired military importance from the 3rd century onwards with the emergence of Saxon seaborne raiding as a major and persistent threat to the security of Britannia. These roads linked to the coastal defensive line of Saxon Shore forts such as Brancaster (Branodunum), Burgh Castle (Gariannonum) near Great Yarmouth, Lympne (Portus Lemanis) and Pevensey (Anderitum).

Construction and maintenance of Roman Roads

Standard Roman road construction techniques, long evolved on the Continent, were used. A road occupied a wide strip of land bounded by shallow ditches, varying in width from 86 pedes (25.5 m or 84 ft) on Ermin Way in Berkshire to 338 pedes (100 m or 330 ft) on Akeman Street in Oxfordshire. A trunk road in Britain would typically be 5–8 m (16–26 ft) in width, with a gauge of 7 m (23 ft) being the most common.[4] Watling Street was 10.1 m (33 ft) wide while the Fosse Way was little more than half that. Several unnamed roads were wider than Watling Street, such as the Silchester to Chichester road at 11.2 m (37 ft).[5]

In the centre a carriageway was built on a raised agger after stripping off soft topsoil, using the best local materials, often sand or sandy gravel. The two strips of ground between the agger and the boundary ditches were used by pedestrians and animals, and were sometimes lightly metalled. The agger was sometimes, but not always, bordered by deep ditches to take rainwater and keep the road structure as dry as possible.

The metalling was in two layers, a foundation of medium to large stones covered by a running surface, often a compacted mixture of smaller flint and gravel. About one quarter of road pavements were “bottomed” with large stones, mostly in the north and west where stone was more readily available. Some high-status roads in Italy were bound together by volcanic mortar, and a small minority of excavated sites in Britain have shown concrete or limestone mortar. Road surfaces in the iron-producing areas of the Weald were made from iron slag. The average depth of metalling over 213 recorded roads is about 51 cm (20 in), with great variation from as little as 10 cm (4 in) to up to 4 m (13 ft) in places, probably built up over centuries.

The main trunk roads were originally constructed by the Roman army. Responsibility for their regular repair and maintenance rested with designated imperial officials (the curatores viarum), though the cost would probably have been borne by the local civitas (county) authorities whose territory the road crossed. From time to time, the roads would be completely resurfaced and might even be entirely rebuilt, e.g. the complete reconstruction and widening of the Via Aemilia in northern Italy by the Emperor Augustus (reigned 37 BC – AD 14), two centuries after it was first built.

After the final withdrawal of Roman government and troops from Britain in 410, regular maintenance ended on the road network. Repairs became intermittent and based on ad hoc work. Despite the lack of any national management of the highways, Roman roads remained fundamental transport routes in England throughout the Early, High and Late Middle Ages. Systematic construction of paved highways did not resume until the building of the first turnpikes in the early 18th century.

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