Roman roads in Britain

Roman roads in Britain

Roman roads, together with Roman aqueducts and the vast standing Roman Army (in the 2nd century, c. 28 legions plus auxiliary units, totalling c. 400,000 troops, of which c. 50,000 deployed in Britain), constituted the three most impressive features of the Roman Empire. In Britain, as in other provinces, the Romans constructed a comprehensive network of paved trunk roads (i.e. surfaced highways) during their nearly four centuries of occupation (43 - 410 A.D.). This article focuses on the c.2,000 miles of Roman roads in Britain shown on the Ordnance Survey's "Map of Roman Britain" [ [ "Map of Roman Britain", Ordnance Survey] ] . This contains the most accurate and up-to-date layout of certain and probable routes that is readily available to the general public.

The pre-Roman Britons used unpaved trackways for their communications, including very ancient ones running along elevated ridges of hills, such as the South Downs Way, now a public long-distance footpath. In contrast, most of the Roman network was surveyed and built from scratch, with the aim of connecting key points by the most direct possible route. The roads were all paved, to permit even heavy freight wagons to be used in all seasons and weather. Most of the known network was complete by 180 A.D. Its primary function was to allow the rapid movement of troops and military supplies, but it also provided vital infrastructure for trade and the transport of goods.

Roman roads remained in use as core trunk roads for centuries after the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 A.D. Systematic construction of paved highways did not resume in England until the 18th century.

Key routes

The old Roman proverb that "all roads lead to Rome" was largely applicable in Roman Britain ("Britannia") to London ("Londinium"), the city founded on a virgin site by the Romans, which soon became the province's capital and largest city. The most important trunk roads (Fig.1) were those that linked London with (a) the key ports: Dover ("Dubris"), Chichester ("Noviomagus") and Portchester ("Portus Adurni"); and (b) the main Roman Army bases: the three permanent fortresses housing the legions ("castra legionaria"): York ("Eboracum"), base of the Ninth Legion: "Legio IX Hispana", later the Sixth: "Legio VI Victrix"; Chester ("Deva"), base of the Twentieth: "Legio XX Valeria Victrix"; and Caerleon ("Isca Augusta"), base of the Second: "Legio II Augusta".

From Chester and York, two key roads led to Hadrian's Wall, for most of the period "Britannia" 's northern border, where most of the three legions' auxiliary units were deployed.

From London, six core routes radiated. Ignoring their later Anglo-Saxon nomenclature (see note to Saxon names of Roman roads below), they are as follows:

* London - Dover via Canterbury ("Durovernum")
* London - Chichester
* London - Silchester ("Calleva Atrebatum", near Reading). At Silchester, this route split into 3 major branches:
** Silchester - Portchester via Winchester ("Venta Belgarum") and Southampton ("Clausentum")
** Silchester - Exeter ("Isca Dumnoniorum") via Salisbury/Old Sarum ("Sorviodunum") and Dorchester ("Durnovaria")
** Silchester - Caerleon via Gloucester ("Glevum")
* London - Chester via St Alban's ("Verulamium"), Lichfield ("Letocetum"), Wroxeter ("Viroconium"), with continuation to Carlisle ("Luguvalium") on Hadrian's Wall
* London - York via Lincoln ("Lindum"), with continuation to Corbridge ("Coria") on Hadrian's Wall
* London - Norwich ("Venta Icenorum") via Colchester ("Camulodunum")

The initial road network was built by the Army to facilitate military communications. The emphasis was therefore on linking up army bases, rather than catering for economic flows. [Cambridge Ancient History, Vol , "The Augustan Empire"] Thus, three important cross-routes were established early (by 80 A.D.) as the frontier of the Roman-occupied zone advanced:
* Exeter - Lincoln (Fosse Way)
* Gloucester - York (Icknield Street)
* Caerleon - York via Wroxeter and Chester.Later a large number of other cross-routes and branches were grafted onto this basic grid.

Historical development

The earliest roads, built in the first phase of Roman occupation (the Julio-Claudian period 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 (69-96), the roads to Lincoln, Wroxeter and Gloucester were extended (by 80) to the new (and definitive) legionary bases at York, Chester and Caerleon respectively. By 96 further extensions from York to Corbridge, and from Chester to Carlisle and Caernarfon ("Segontium"), were completed as Roman rule was extended over Wales ("Cambria") and northern England ("Brigantia"). Stanegate, the military road from Carlisle to Corbridge, was built under the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117 A.D) along the line of the future Hadrian's Wall, which was constructed by his successor Hadrian in 122-132 A.D.

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 82-4 A.D. However, the Romans maintained a system of forts in the lowland region from c.80-220 A.D. to control the indigenous population beyond Hadrian's Wall and annexed the Lowlands briefly with the construction of the Antonine Wall in 164 A.D. This barrier, across the 'neck' of Scotland, from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth, was held for some twenty years. The Romans' main routes from Hadrian's Wall to the Antonine Wall, built by c.120 A.D., were: (1) Corbridge to the Roman fort at Edinburgh (certain) and (likely) to Carriden ("Veluniate") on the eastern end of the Antonine Wall, via High Rochester ("Bremenium") and Galashiels ("Trimontium"); (2) Carlisle to Bothwellhaugh (certain) and (likely) to the Antonine. There was also a certain road beyond the Antonine Wall to Perth from the Antonine fort at Falkirk.

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. However, these Anglian and southern routes acquired military importance from the third 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 e.g. Brancaster (Branodunum), Burgh Castle ("Gariannonum") near Great Yarmouth, Lympne ("Portus Lemanis") and Pevensey ("Anderitum").

Construction and maintenance

Standard Roman road construction techniques, long evolved on the Continent, were used. An 8m-wide ditch was initially dug, and then filled with three layers of locally quarried materials- in Britain most commonly clay, sand, gravel and flint- to provide stability and durability ("street" derives from Latin "strata" meaning "layers"). The top layer (known as metalling) was often a mix of flint and gravel bound together by mortar or iron slag to form a kind of super-hard concrete (Fig.4). The surface of the road was elevated and cambered so as to permit run-off of rainwater, with ditches on both sides of the road to drain it away. A trunk road in Britain would typically be 5 - 8m (15 - 25ft) in width, with a gauge of 7m (22 ft) being the most common. [L.V. Grinsell, "The Archaeology of Wessex" (1958), p.255] For more detail on construction technology, see A. Pawluk's paper. [ [ Pawluk, A, "The Construction & Makeup of Ancient Roman Roads"] ]

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 N. Italy by the Emperor Augustus (r.37 B.C.- 14 A.D.), two centuries after it was first built.

Archaeological evidence

Extant remains of Roman roads are often much degraded or contaminated by later surfacing. Well-preserved sections of Roman road include Wade's Causeway in Yorkshire, Blackstone Edge on Rishworth moor near Halifax, and at Blackpool Bridge in the Forest of Dean- although their integrity as original Roman surfaces is not certain. In many sections, Roman roads were built over in the 18th century to create the turnpikes. Where they have not been built over, many sections have been ploughed over by farmers. However, there are numerous tracts of Roman road which have survived, albeit overgrown by vegetation, in the visible form of footpaths through woodland or common land. e.g. the section of Stane Street crossing Eartham Wood in the South Downs near Bignor (Sussex). This and others like it are marked on Ordnance Survey maps with dotted lines and the rubric "ROMAN ROAD". Peddars Way in Norfolk is a Roman road converted into a long-distance footpath

Wayside stations have been identified in Britain. Roman roads had regularly spaced stations along their length - the Roman equivalent of motorway service areas. Roughly every 5 miles (8 km) - the most a horse could safely be ridden hard - there would be a "mutatio" (literally: "a change"), essentially stables where mounted messengers could change horses and a tavern to obtain refreshment. Relays of fresh riders and horses careering at full gallop could sustain an average speed of about 20 mph (32 km/h). Thus an urgent despatch from the Army base at York to London - 200 miles (320 km), a journey of over a week for a normal mounted traveler - could be delivered in just 10 hours. Because "mutationes" were relatively small establishments, and their remains ambiguous, it is difficult to identify sites with certainty.

Approximately every 15 miles (24 km) - a typical day's journey - was a "mansio" (literally: "a sojourn", from which derive the English word "mansion" and French "maison" or "house"). This was a full-scale wayside inn, with large stables, tavern, rooms for travelers and even bath houses in the larger establishments. "Mansiones" also housed the detachments of troops, especially Roman auxiliaries, that regularly guarded the roads along their whole length. These would check the identities, travel permits and cargoes of road users. "Mansiones" may also have housed the agents of the imperial procurator (the chief financial officer in the province) who collected the "portorium": an imperial tax on goods in transit on public roads that was levied at 2% - 2.5% of the value. The tax would be exacted when the goods crossed fixed toll points along the roads, which likely were located in or near "mansiones". [J. Wacher (ed.), The Roman World (1987) Vol. I. 428. Vindolanda tablet 154, a "renuntia" (daily deployment report) of auxiliary regiment "cohors I Tungrorum", records the absence from regimental base of 3 small detachments of 6-11 men, each under the command of a centurion, at indeciphrable locations, possibly "mansiones"] At least half a dozen sites have been positively identified as "mansiones" in Britain. e.g. the excavated "mansio" at Godmanchester ("Durovigutum") on Ermine Street (nr. Huntingdon, Cambs.) [ [ Green, M, "Godmanchester Roman History - The Mansio", "Current Archaeology", number 16, September 1969 pp133-138] ] .

"Mutationes" and "mansiones" were the key infrastructure for the "cursus publicus" (the imperial postal system), which operated in many provinces of the Roman Empire. The "cursus" was primarily concerned with the carriage of government or military officers, government payload such as monies from tax collection and for military wages, and official despatches, but it could be made available to private individuals with special permission and for a fee. In Britain, the Vindolanda tablets, a series of letters written on wooden tablets to and by members of the garrison of Hadrian's Wall, show the operation of the "cursus" on the island.

Milestones, of which 95 are recorded in "Roman Inscriptions of Britain" [ [ Collingwood RG, Wright RP, "The Roman Inscriptions of Britain" (RIB 2219 - 2314)] ] . Most of these date from the later part of the Roman period (250 A.D. onwards), since it was the practice to replace a road's milestones when a major repair was carried out. Milestones were usually cylindrical and 2 - 4m in height. Most contain only the customary dedication to the current Emperor and the number of miles to a particular destination (Fig.5). Only three provide additional information: two are dedicated by the public works departments of a "civitas" (county) ("Dobunni") [RIB 2250] and a city (Lincoln) [RIB 2240] , showing the involvement of local authorities in road maintenance; and the third [RIB 2228] records that the Emperor Caracalla (r. 211-217 A.D.) "restored the roads, which had fallen into ruin and disuse through old age".

Maps and Itineraries of the Roman era, designed to aid travelers (Fig.6), provide useful evidence of placenames, routes and distances in Britain. The most important is the Antonine Itinerary [ [ "Antonine Itinerary",] ] , dating from the later third century, which contains 14 itineraries on the island.

Post-Roman legacy

After the final withdrawal of Roman government and troops from Britain in 410, regular maintenance and repair of the road network probably ceased, and was replaced by intermittent and ad hoc work. Nevertheless, the Roman roads remained the fundamental arteries of transport in England for centuries, and systematic construction of paved highways did not resume until the building of the turnpikes in the 18th century.

In some places, the origins of the roads were forgotten and they were ascribed to mythical Anglo-Saxon giants and divinities: for instance, Wade's Causeway in North Yorkshire owes its name to Woden, the supreme god of Germanic and Norse mythology. Chaucer's pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales almost certainly used Watling Street to travel from Southwark to Canterbury.

Many modern roads continue to use the old Roman alignments. Much of Watling Street, for example, is now under the A2 and A5.

Many English placenames derive from a position on or near a Roman road, usually denoted by the element "-street" (also "strat-, strait-, streat-" and other variants). Thus, for example, "Stretham" means "homestead or village on a Roman road" and likewise "Stretford" means "ford on a Roman road".

Table of Roman roads by Saxon name

Unlike their counterparts in Italy and some of the Roman provinces, the original names of Roman roads in Britain are not known, due to lack of literary and inscription evidence. Instead, there are a number of names ascribed to them by the Anglo-Saxons during the post-Roman era (the "Dark Ages"). The English classification of a road likely does not correspond to the original Roman one. e.g. the Anglo-Saxons gave the name of Watling Street to the entire route from Dover to London to Wroxeter. But the Romans may have regarded the first section (Dover-London) as a separate road (with a different name) from the second section.

The only Saxon name which may echo an original Roman name is the Fosse Way from Exeter to Lincoln. Even then it is likely to derive from the popular, rather than official, Roman name for the road. "Fosse" may derive from Latin "fossa", meaning "ditch". But officially a road would normally be named after the Emperor in whose reign it was completed e.g. the Via Traiana from Rome to Brindisi in S. Italy, named after the Emperor Trajan (r.98-117 A.D.). Thus the Dover to London section of Watling Street may have been known to the Romano-Britons as the "Via Claudia" after the Emperor Claudius (r.41-54 A.D.) who was responsible for the original Roman invasion of Britain in 43 A.D.

* Sections of modern road that lie directly above the Roman road. Such stretches are marked "ROMAN ROAD" on Ordnance Survey Maps.

** Not to be confused with Icknield Way, a pre-Roman trackway from Bucks. to Norfolk. Although the known road ends at Templeborough, it almost certainly continued to Doncaster ("Danum") to join a branch of Ermine Street to York.

*** This is not a Saxon name, but a Latin one invented by 18th century antiquarians to define a putative route. It amounts to just a series of cross routes to reach Watling Street from Colchester.



cite book
last = Margary
first = Ivan D.
year = 1973
edition = third edition
title = Roman Roads in Britain
publisher = John Baker
location = London
id = ISBN 0-212-97001-1

ee also

Roman road

External links

* [ Codrington's Roman Roads in Britain]
* [ Map of Roman roads in Britain] — very large map
* [ Channel 4's big Roman dig]
* [ Info]
* [ Maps of Roman roads in England]

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