The general appearance of such a metalled road and footway is shown in an existing street of Pompeii.

  1. Native earth, leveled and, if necessary, rammed tight.
  2. Statumen: stones of a size to fill the hand.
  3. Audits: rubble or concrete of broken stones and lime.
  4. Nucleus: kernel or bedding of fine cement made of pounded potshards and lime.
  5. Dorsum or agger viae: the elliptical surface or crown of the road (media stratae eminentia) made of polygonal blocks of silex (basaltipositionc lava) or rectangular blocks of saxum quadratum (travertine, peperino, or other stone of the country). The upper surface was designed to cast off rain or water like the shell of a tortoise. The lower surfaces of the separate stones, here shown as flat, were sometimes cut to a point or edge in order to grasp the nucleus, or next layer, more firmly.
  6. Crepido, margo or semita: raised footway, or sidewalk, on each side of the via.
  7. Umbones or edge-stones.

A roman road. Roads were usually very straight and carefully built with a camber (hump) so that rainwater drained off into ditches. This made the roads usable in all weathers. They were made up of several levels, with a firm foundation. Gravel or stone slabs covered the surface.


The Romans were not the first people in the ancient world to build large-scale roads. The Assyrians, Persians, Etruscans, and Greeks constructed roads, and the techniques they used directly influenced Roman road builders. However, the road systems of these earlier peoples paled in comparison with those built by the Romans. Large numbers of Roman roads were expertly paved and graded for great distances and proved so durable that some are still in use today. Moreover, the sheer size of the Roman road system dwarfed all others constructed in the world until the twentieth century. By about A. D. 300, the Roman Empire had over 370 fully or partially paved major highways, totaling some fifty-three thousand miles in all. Thousands of smaller roads branched out- ward from these main roads, creating a total mileage, in all likelihood, in the hundreds of thousands. An engineering achievement of the first order, this road system not only facilitated trade and tourism, but also, by allowing the swift movement of armies, proved a crucial tool for maintaining and expanding Rome’s vast Mediterranean realm.

The Romans built various kinds of roads, with numerous names and classifications. One of the more familiar road names, via, meant a road (or sometimes a city street) wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other; this is the term that be- came most commonly applied to major highways, such as the first major Roman road, the Via Appia (or Appian Way), begun by and named after the censor Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 B. C. The general term for a city street was vicus, while the term agger, which meant an embankment or mound, was often applied to a road built atop a raised mound or causeway. A single-lane country road, usually originating as a trackway for cattle and other animals, and almost always having a dirt rather than a paved surface, was called an actus.

In addition to these and other individual names for roads, the Romans had general road classifications. A first-century A. D. Roman surveyor named Siculus Flaccus wrote a treatise that lists the four official classes of road recognized in his day. This breakdown was based on which party or parties bore the financial responsibility for the road and included public highways (viae public ae) military roads (viae militares), which were originally built for the army but later came into general use; local roads (actus)’, and private roads (privatae), which were paid for by private parties. Still another way the Romans classified their roads was by the ways these routes were surfaced. The term via terrena, for example, referred to a simple dirt road. A via glarea strata, on the other hand, had a more durable surface of gravel. More durable still was the surface of a via silice strata, a road or stretch of road paved with blocks of stone. By the first century B. C., most of the streets in the larger Roman cities were paved, as were large sections of the Via Appia and other major high- ways leading to and from the capital city.

During the Republic, the responsibility for the building of public roads fell on the censors, who decided on new construction projects and awarded the contracts for them. On the other hand, resurfacing, cleaning, and otherwise maintaining public roads were the tasks of the aediles, who maintained public works. In 20 B. C., at the dawn of the Empire, Augustus set up a special board of curators-the curatores viarum-to manage public highways in Italy. In the provinces, the governors had overall charge of roads; customarily, a governor contacted a local community and ordered its magistrates either to repair an existing road or to construct a new one in the vicinity of that community.

Roman roads featured many conveniences and amenities. Major roads were cambered (curved so that the middle was slightly higher than the sides) to make rainwater drain away from the surface. Also, in stretches where a road was steep, prone to being slippery, or otherwise dangerous, the builders carved artificial ruts into the surface to guide the wheels of carts and chariots, ensuring that these vehicles would not skid. They also placed high, flat-topped stones at intervals along the roadside so that travelers with horses could mount their steeds easier (since stirrups, taken for granted today, had not yet been invented). In addition, milestones (miliaria) marked intervals of one Roman mile. Like modern road signs, these provided information about distances between towns and cities along the road.

In time, other, more elaborate amenities sprang up alongside the major Roman highways to give aid and comfort to the many kinds of travelers who frequented these roads. Such facilities included posting stations, inns, eating places, stables, markets, chapels, and so on, clusters of which often developed into full-fledged villages and towns. In this way, travel along these roads became more inviting to even more people, who built still more roads, which stimulated the growth of more towns, and so forth, continuing the development of formerly undeveloped regions. Moreover, as the major roads carried their services and amenities to distant parts of the realm, these microcosms of Roman life and customs spread Roman civilization far and wide.

What kind of prospering worldwide empire, then, did Hadrian’s Wall enclose at its northernmost point? A thumbnail sketch of the empire at peace might begin with the soldiers inhabiting the barracks close to the wall. The Latin accents and second languages that would have been heard paint a picture of extraordinary fluidity. The soldiers came not only from Britain, but from Belgium, Spain, Gaul and Dacia. Stationed at Arbeia (the fort at present-day South Shields) there was even a naval auxiliary unit from Mesopotamia. The beautifully sculpted tombstone of Regina, the British wife of a man called Barates, tells an equally fascinating story. It shows how this man, possibly a soldier or camp follower, came all the way from Palmyra in Syria, fell in love with his female slave from Hertfordshire, freed her and settled down to married life in Britain. His valedictory inscription to his dead wife is written in Aramaic, his native tongue. The name of one Arterius Nepos is similarly revealing. It crops up in records in both Armenia and Egypt, before finding its way to northern Britain.

The theme of fluidity is important. The Roman armies on the frontiers were not fixed garrisons. Locally, and from province to province, the legions and the auxiliary units were recruited and deployed with great flexibility; they were constantly on the move. The visibility and presence that this mobility gave them was the key factor in the Roman army successfully controlling an area far larger than it was possible to garrison.

At one fort near the wall, Vindolanda, an unprecedented discovery was made in the 1970s and 1980s – a haul of several hundred wooden writing tablets all found at the one site. Many record administrative matters, such as financial accounts and requests for leave. Others make for more entertaining reading. For example, there is an affectionate invitation to a birthday party from one garrison commander’s wife to another, and a soldier’s receipt of fresh supplies of socks, sandals and underwear to keep out the winter chills. These letters would have reached the forts from the wider empire through the imperial postal service. Coursing along a network of roads some 90,000 kilometres (56,000 miles) long and connecting Carlisle to Aswan, the letters reached Hadrian’s Wall courtesy of the cursus publicus (the postal service for official Roman business). Replies were dispersed in exactly the same way. The postmen who collected and delivered these letters stayed at inns en route, and the roads they travelled on were designed for easy drainage and marked by milestones.

The correspondence filtering into the channels of the imperial post also reveal how Hadrian’s empire was run. It is extraordinary to think that any one of the empire’s 70 million Roman citizens could in theory appeal to the emperor for help. He was the final arbiter. It’s no less surprising that citizens could expect a response. As we shall see, emperors such as Hadrian liked to cultivate an ideology of accessibility. The reality of course was very different. The sheer numbers of petitions and requests for imperial favour from this or that community, for adjudication in a matter of law for this or that individual is salutary. Exact figures are not known, but in this period of Rome’s golden age the governor of Egypt is said by one source to have fielded an extraordinary 1208 petitions in a single day. One can only imagine how many the emperor Hadrian in Rome received.

Clearly, in order to process all the petitions, the emperor and his provincial governors relied on a huge bureaucracy of administrative advisers with wide, albeit circumscribed, areas of responsibility. The preserved correspondence between the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny the Younger, and Trajan reflect the vitality of that relationship and where those limits of accountability lay. Pliny’s letters to Trajan and others are works of world literature. There was, however, no space for creative flourishes in the bulk of functional, administrative correspondence. In one letter Pliny complains that one of the chores of being a public servant was having to write a vast amount of ‘highly illiterate letters’.

Although one might imagine the Roman emperor, governor or commander perfunctorily signing off the replies to the mass of mundane requests that either they or their subordinates had dealt with, one thing is certain. The replies and the resolution of the problems presented – be it a dispute over land, a question of divorce or the matter of citizenship – would transform the lives of the petitioners. The successful running of the empire and the happiness of its citizens thus depended on delegation on a massive scale.

How could the Roman emperor, the Roman governor or the Roman commander be sure that decent, deserving people were appointed to posts in the imperial administration and were able to discharge their duties effectively? As the wooden tablets found at Vindolanda reveal, the imperial post also delivered the all-important letters of recommendation. Among them one can read the advocacy by one friend to another of the virtues and qualities of yet another friend. Such references were vital in selecting people to play a part in the pyramids of bureaucratic administration. In short, what your friends said about you established your reputation and trustworthiness. The logic of this system was simple and effective. The more people wanted to protect their reputation, the less likely they were to recommend a bad egg and thus jeopardize their own standing in the future.

In the hands of administrators appointed by this highly personal Roman system of hiring, most issues were dealt with locally. Only when a matter became a crisis did it come to the attention and decision of the emperor. Beyond this basic prescription for government, Hadrian had also found another way of bringing his rule closer to the citizens of his empire. Under his reign, the presence and visibility of the emperor were stronger than under his predecessors for one simple reason: he liked to travel.

Hadrian spent no less than half of his twenty-one-year rule abroad. Between 121 and 125 his travels took him from his wall in northern Britain to southern Spain, North Africa, Syria, the Black Sea and Asia Minor. Later, the period 128–32 saw him in Greece, Judaea and Egypt. Whether in York, Seville, Carthage, Luxor, Palmyra, Trabzon or Ephesus, Hadrian was always within the bounds of one political state, where Greek and Latin were the commonly spoken languages and over which he was the supreme ruler. He travelled always with his wife Sabina, and their imperial cavalcade of friends, baggage-carriers, guards, slaves and secretaries stayed in the palace of the local governor or of a prominent figure from the local élite. Sometimes, in a carefully planned and executed itinerary, the imperial community set up a camp of royal tents en route.

Accordingly, and in contrast to Nero who left Italy only once (for Greece), Hadrian was seen by and interacted with more of his subjects than most Roman emperors. This contributed to his popularity and the image of an accessible, approachable emperor. One anecdote reveals how that visibility mattered. An old woman was said to have spotted the emperor’s entourage passing along a road. Sidling up, she tried to detain Hadrian and put a question to him. The wheels of the imperial train, however, did not brake and the woman was left mouthing her words into thin air. Not one to be cowed, she caught up with Hadrian and told him that if he did not have time to stop and hear her request, he did not have time to be emperor at all. Hadrian duly stopped and listened. His standing and popularity, like that of all the emperors at the high point of empire, depended on public opinion. But being highly ‘visible’ did not in everyone’s eyes make a ‘good emperor’. To be away from Rome for so long was also the neglectful characteristic of ‘bad emperors’.

On Hadrian’s travels, the heritage city of Athens, that ancient centre of learning, was of course his favourite destination, and here he made three visits. ‘In almost every city he constructed some building and gave public games,’ says one account of his rule.9 The building programme in Athens alone testifies to his favour and philhellenism. He endowed the city with a grand library, a brand new forum and a glorious marble gate. The ancient heart of the city was thus redesigned and made Roman, but Hadrian’s fingerprints made an indelible mark in other ways too. The most famous sanctuary, for example, was to Zeus, the greatest of the Greek gods, and the equivalent of the Roman god Jupiter. This temple had been started at the very beginning of the classical period in the sixth century BC; in AD 132 it was completed and dedicated in person by the man whose rule bookends that age. The achievements of the two cultures, one ancient, the other of the imperial present, were fused and celebrated as one.

The classical temples, buildings and monuments he inaugurated (not just in Athens, but in places as far apart as Smyrna in modern Turkey and his family’s town of Italica in Spain) were branded with the emperor’s name and an inscription. In response, the leading town councillors of the imperial cities that Hadrian had endowed repaid the compliment with the erection of statues, shrines and busts of the emperor. They were to be found in houses, temples and marketplaces. In his beloved Athens there was a statue of Hadrian erected in the Theatre of Dionysus. Even in those places that fell outside Hadrian’s favour, the leading citizens honoured the cult of the emperor god. It was a way of demonstrating their loyalty, improving the standing of their community in the emperor’s eyes, and putting the emperor under an obligation to help them. Through these symbols of the imperial cult the high profile of the emperor was sustained, even in places where his fondness for travelling did not take him. The same can also be said of the coins, stamped with the emperor’s image, that changed hands across the breadth of his empire.

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