AD100 Roman Roads

Ancient tracks that date back thousands of years are found all over Britain, but the earliest road network was set up by the Romans, who invaded this country in AD43. They brought their own road-building skills that had been perfected as their military power steadily penetrated Europe. These roads established lines of communication for - at first - purely military purposes. Radiating outwards from London into the habitable regions, they connected forts or posting stations 10 to 15 miles apart, which was approximately a day's march for a legionary. The forts, in turn, protected the roads as they were developed into trade routes, while the forts themselves might grow into settlements of considerable importance. Why would this communications network exert such a 'civilising' influence?

Roads built by the Romans formed the first integrated transport system in Britain. These extraordinarily sophisticated road-builders were colonising what was still predominantly an undeveloped, woodland country. There is a remarkable consistency in the way they surveyed and engineered their roads, suggesting that everything was done 'by the book'. After surveyors had aligned the route from hilltops and other sighting points, the first task was to clear a swathe perhaps 90ft wide. Then the line of the road itself would be marked out by ploughing parallel ditches some 30ft apart. Between these, a low embankment or 'agger' would be built up, topped by layers of successively smaller stones to form the actual roadway, cambered to give good drainage. Much of the work would appear to have been done by the legionaries themselves, though there is evidence that forced labour might have been used for less skilled tasks. As well as providing communication between forts - the illustration shows the gateway from the reconstructed Lunt fort, near Coventry - the grid of roads would be very useful in cordoning off an area in the event of local disturbances. In due course, new towns were developed on suitable sites close to water - the Romans were excellent bridge-builders — and the roads became important trade routes, bringing tin from Cornwall, for instance, or copper from North Wales. The evident ease with which large numbers of troops and exceptionally heavy objects - massive chunks of masonry, for example - could be moved about on this road system suggests very high standards of design and maintenance, as well as skill at constructing carts suited to the purpose. Contrary to popular belief, though, Roman roads tended to follow the contours, and rarely ran in dead straight lines mile after mile. To build them thus, ignoring difficulties presented by the rise and fall of the land, would have involved steep gradients and many unnecessary earthworks.


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