Our coin is back on its journey through the Roman Empire, having changed hands by sheer accident. In the baths of Vindolanda, as the decurion undressed and hurriedly rolled his clothes into a bundle, his mind occupied by his desire for a nice bath, the purse hanging from his belt turned upside down and the sestertius fell out, dropping to the floor of the little niche that served as a locker in the dressing room.
Nobody noticed it for several days, until another customer of the baths, passing by with an oil lamp, noticed a little twinkle of light, reached out his hand, and grabbed it.
Now it’s in the purse of a wine merchant who has just delivered some amphoras of wine to the edge of the empire and is on his way back home. Britain is behind him, and the coin has returned to the continent and is traveling along a big road in the province of Lugdunensis, in the heart of what today is known as France. The merchant is on horseback together with his trusty slave. They’ve been riding along at a slow pace for hours, under the pouring rain.
How do the Romans protect themselves from the rain? If you think that umbrellas are a modern invention, you’re mistaken. They existed even before the time of the Romans. Archaeologists have discovered several of them in Etruscan tombs. They were a little different from ours, lacking thin metal spokes or springs. They were very similar, however, to Chinese umbrellas, with thick, rigid wooden staves. But the use they made of them was quite different. The Etruscan umbrella preserved in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome, for example, is made of ivory, which means it was used by wealthy people, a true status symbol of the aristocracy. And it was used for protection not from the rain but from the sun. To keep their skin from becoming tan, noblewomen carried umbrellas, or parasols, exactly as women did in Europe in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, and as women still do today in the Far East. In fact, the Latin name was umbrella, from umbra, meaning “shade,” the same name that is used today in English and Italian (ombrello).
So how did they fend off the rain? With an invention we wouldn’t necessarily associate with the Romans: the poncho! The two men on horseback, and some of their fellow travelers on foot, are wearing leather ponchos (paenula), made waterproof by a coating of grease. Others, like the legionnaires, use ponchos made of boiled or felted wool, soaked in olive oil to keep water out.
The poncho always includes a hood, which is often pointed. From far away, therefore, a group of Romans in the rain looks like little walking pyramids, with their faces peeking out through a round opening.
The Skeleton of Roman Globalization
Neither of the two men on horseback realizes it, but the gravel-covered road they have been traveling on for hours will go down in history as one of humanity’s greatest masterworks. It is part of the incredible network of roads that radiate throughout the empire.
To be sure, when we ask ourselves what is the greatest monument built by the ancient Romans, we instinctively think of the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, or the baths of Caracalla. But actually it’s the roads. They are without a doubt the most enduring monument left to us, constituting a network measuring over eighty thousand kilometers, or forty-eight thousand miles. In other words, with the roads they built, the Romans could have ringed the earth twice—an extraordinary accomplishment in any age. Why did the Romans build such an extensive network of ground transportation and communication? Initially, their purpose was military: the roads enabled the legions to deploy rapidly anywhere in the empire in order to deal with possible threats. In this sense we can think of the Roman roads as the aircraft carriers of antiquity.
They served this purpose for centuries. But almost immediately they came to be used for other purposes as well, especially economic ones, with the circulation of merchants, merchandise, and sesterces. And for cultural purposes too, because they permitted the circulation throughout three continents of people and ideas, artistic styles and fashions, information and knowledge, laws and religions.
The roads, along with maritime routes, allowed Roman civilization to expand and put down its roots everywhere, and also to acquire ideas, ways of living, and products from other cultures, creating a society that was diverse, multiethnic, and dynamic, as we are only now beginning to do again. In this sense, the roads were initially the muscles of the Roman civilization; then they became its circulatory system, and finally its nervous system.
Without the roads and maritime skills, history’s first globalization, the one brought about by the Romans, would never have happened. Roman culture could still have spread in a limited way along the seacoast, as the Phoenician, Aegean, and Greek cultures did, but it would not have united millions of people with the same language, the same body of laws, the same way of dressing, eating, and living. And our world would look very different today.
The Highways of Antiquity
What was so special about the Roman roads?
Firstly, the Roman concept of the road is incredibly similar to our own. The proof of this is right before our eyes every day. We in Italy don’t notice it, but in our cities we continue to use Roman roads to go to work, go into town, take our children to school, go shopping, and leave the city for an outing in the countryside. In many cases, modern asphalt has simply covered over the ancient roadbed designed and built by Roman engineers; or else it runs parallel to it. This is the case for the famous consular roads, such as the Flaminia, the Cassia, the Appia, the Salaria, and the Aurelia.
Then there is also a whole network of lesser roads in rural areas, which are still unchanged, demonstrating the validity of Roman transportation planning and design. Their needs were very similar to ours because their world was very similar to ours.
If you take a close look at a consular road like the Appia Antica, which runs straight for miles, you realize that the Roman engineers had already come up with the modern concept of the highway: a road that cuts through the territory in a straight line, bypassing smaller towns and settlements, and not succumbing to obstacles such as mountains, valleys, or cliffs, but overcoming them in spectacular fashion (whereas before, roads adapted to the terrain, going around hills or valleys, winding up and down mountainsides, etc.).
Indeed, when the Romans had to build a road that was important for the legions and for the economy, they didn’t adapt to nature but rather, in many cases, they adapted nature to their needs: they pulled down entire coastal cliffsides (like the tagliata, or cut, near Terracina, a mighty cliffside that was cut away by picks on orders from Trajan to let the Appia continue on its way); built tunnels (like the Furlo tunnel on the Flaminian Way in the Marche region, authorized by Vespasian, where you can still see the marks left by Roman chisels); or carved roads or arches directly on rocky mountainsides (as can be seen at Donnas in Val d’Aosta).
The Romans had the capacity to build roads through mountain passes at altitudes over eight thousand feet (like the Great Saint Bernard Pass) that were then used by wagons and carriages for centuries until the advent of the automobile. Viaducts, arches, and bridges allowed for relatively swift passage through valleys and passes while maintaining a maximum slope of 8 to 9 percent (with rare exceptions of 10 to 12 percent).
All of this made the Roman roads (it has not been said often enough) a truly revolutionary accomplishment: for the first time Europe was united by a network of stable and sturdy roads, an achievement that has endured even in language. The Roman name for a road is via strata, which means “paved way”; hence the Italian via and strada but also the English street and the German Strasse.
The Secrets of Roman Roads
When we examine a Roman road in Rome or at an archaeological site, we ask ourselves how it is possible that it is still intact after almost two thousand years, when our roads, without regular and careful maintenance, deteriorate so easily into fields of potholes. The same question was asked during the Middle Ages when people continued to use Roman bridges and ways, calling them “paths of the giants” and “bridges and roads of the devil.”
The secret is in their structure. They were roads that were designed to last.
The two travelers carrying our sestertius can see it with their own eyes. It has stopped raining, but the road has not turned into a quagmire and there are no puddles. The water hasn’t stagnated, the internal structure of the road has allowed the water to run off and drain, just as on our highways. How did they do it?
The two travelers are now passing an area where some roadwork is in progress. The road has been opened up as for a surgical operation, and the two of them stop, curious to see its anatomy.
Generalizing and simplifying, we might say that building a road starts with digging a big ditch, from fifteen to twenty feet wide and maybe six or seven feet deep. Basically it looks like a long canal running through the countryside.
Then it’s filled in with three layers of stone: on the bottom, a layer of large rounded rocks, followed by a layer of medium-sized stones, and finally the layer closest to the surface, which is a mixture of gravel and clay (which must not come from the local area; that’s something the Romans are adamant about). The use of concrete, starting around the time that we’re talking about, made the road sturdier.
This layering of the stones, from the largest and coarsest to the smallest and finest, is the real secret of Roman roads. Like a filter, the road carries the rainwater down off the surface, keeping it from stagnating.
And it’s not over yet: the whole road surface is now covered with a last layer of large volcanic stones, arranged in a tortoiseshell pattern. When we see these stones today, they seem like thin flat slabs placed one against the other. But actually they are very thick, real blocks of stone similar to large cubes; their weight and mass are what make the road so stable. They are placed in such a way that the surface looks rounded, like a donkey’s back, so that whatever rainwater hasn’t drained down through the various layers will run off to the sides (exactly what happens on our streets).
This description of the structure of a Roman road refers to an ideal type. In actual fact, more often than not the engineers find themselves confronted with soils so geologically diverse that they have to make adjustments to their construction methods each time. And it is exactly this great (and complex) variety of solutions that allows us to appreciate the surprising capabilities and competence of Roman engineers.
Local conditions permitting, the roads are about thirteen feet across, wide enough to allow two wagons to pass. On the sides there are ten-foot-wide walkways for pedestrians. You can see, then, that a lot of films and paintings are mistaken when they show people walking in the middle of the road; it’s much more comfortable to walk on the raised, flat sidewalk than on the convex road surface. If you were to ask a modern legionnaire (a member of those historical associations, the so-called reenactors, who perform a precious service of experimental archaeology by dressing and living as soldiers or people of antiquity) to walk on a Roman road paved with volcanic stone like the ones you see in Rome, Ostia, or Pompeii, he would find it difficult. Why? Because his militarycaligae with their metal cleats will cause him to slip and slide as though he were walking on ice.
So we must conclude that the legions, when presented with roads paved with stone slabs, preferred to walk in rank and file on the sidewalks. And that’s not all. There are a lot of little details that seldom get mentioned. The border of the sidewalks is usually made of long stone beams laid end to end, like our city sidewalks. But there’s a difference: at regular intervals, every few yards or so, a little stone block (gomphus) would appear, like a wayside post. What might this be used for? For dismounting or mounting a horse. In an age when stirrups still didn’t exist, these blocks were the equivalents of a stool. And they are useful to someone who needs to get down off a wagon.
The Romans’ practicality emerges from the details of their roads. Another curiosity is that in flat areas the roads tend to be raised, so that they can be recognized under the snow and protected from water. In the Veneto, for example, they are raised fifteen to twenty-two feet above ground level and built on embankments that are forty yards wide. Moreover, they tend to be built on hillsides rather than on the valley floor, to avoid flooding from overflowing rivers and to ensure a favorable position in case of enemy attack. Finally, in the mountains, the roads are often scored with concave tracks, like tiny canals, so wagon wheels won’t skid or slide off the road into the valley below.
But is it really true that Roman roads never had potholes like our roads today? Actually, the quality of the roads changed depending on the location. While in Italy every road had a curator, a superintendent in charge of maintenance carried out by a sort of service guard (similar to a highway administration), in the provinces things were done differently. By order of the proconsul, it was the local communities that had to provide for the proper functioning and maintenance of the roads. And in many cases, since they were already oppressed by taxes, they didn’t always provide adequately, or at least not quickly. So in certain parts of the empire there certainly were potholes, or their ancient equivalent, and then some—a further resemblance to the modern era.
Another myth to be dispelled is the idea that Roman roads were always covered, throughout the empire, by slabs of basalt, as was the Appia Antica. This is absolutely not the case. In reality, you only find paved road surfaces on the main streets of cities (not on side streets). Outside of urban centers the pavement continues for only a short distance and then disappears, replaced by a fine crushed stone. The reason is that it cost too much. Between one city and another, in other words, a road, even though it still has all of its deep “draining” layers of stone and rubble, no longer has its stone slab pavement and it becomes essentially glarea strata, as the Romans call it, that is, a road of gravel or crushed stone. A curiosity: these roads were very dusty, so much so that numerous Latin authors complained about them. In his Letters to Atticus, Cicero speaks openly of aestuosa et pulverulenta via (“a burning and dusty way,” Att. V., 14, 1). These roads turned into a real nightmare when they went through tunnels, as Seneca notes, when he describes his passage through the Crypta Neapolitana, the tunnel that connects Naples to Pozzuoli (Epist. V., 57, 1–2).
One feature that is always present, however, and which is essential to travelers, is the milestone. These are small pillars placed, as the name suggests, “a thousand paces,” or one Roman mile (4,860 feet), apart.
If you do the math, a stride of nearly five feet might seem to be rather long for the person who is walking, but “pace” is defined here as the moment that the same foot touches the ground for the second time, completing the cycle of the step. So, in reality, it is a double step (exactly like a marching platoon counting cadence).
The pillars are the travelers’ odometer. Written on them are the number of miles traveled from the city of departure and sometimes other information as well, for example, how far it is to the final destination or to some important place along the road, or even the names of the magistrates who have provided for road repairs, etc.
The zero point of the empire’s vast network of roads was the miliarium aureum, or golden milestone, a marble column clad in gilt bronze and placed by Augustus at one end of the Roman Forum, on which were engraved the distances between Rome and the most important points in the empire.
Part of this concept of the centrality of the Roman Forum to the system of consular roads still survives today. If you take the Via Cassia from the center of Rome you will read on the marble street signs that the numbering of the houses corresponds to the metric distance from the Capitol, that is, from the place that was the heart of ancient Rome, right next to the Forum.
When Paris Was Smaller than Pompeii
It’s stopped raining, and the two men on horseback are making their way down a road with a long aqueduct running alongside it. Through the aqueduct’s arches you can see the tombstones of a necropolis, a sign that the city is near. Cemeteries, in fact, are always just outside the city. At the end of the road the first houses come into view. Very soon the two men find themselves in the midst of a noisy crowd of people on the main street. But what city is this?
They notice a sign on the entrance to a tavern. Along with the prices there’s also the name of the establishment and a figure: Lutetia’s Rooster. So, we’re in Lutetia Parisiorum, the future Paris!
It’s unrecognizable, an anonymous town with maybe eight to ten thousand inhabitants. It’s smaller than Pompeii, which has a population of twenty thousand. The area it occupies is just a little bigger than the future Latin Quarter of Paris.
It’s astounding to see that the future capital of la grandeur française is the size of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and that today Paris, Texas, has three times the population of its namesake. But that’s the way it was in the Roman era.
Right now we’re making our way along the cardo maximus, a main north-south axis that the French will call Rue Saint-Jacques, ignoring its true origins. The houses are low, at most two stories high.
It’s intriguing to try to recognize in the Roman city the signs of the modern city of the future. There are plenty of surprises. First of all, the Roman city is not a capital but just one of many provincial towns. The provincial capital is Lyon (Lugdunum), which is much bigger, maybe the biggest city in Europe west of the Alps. Paris will be given its current name toward the end of the Roman era and will become a capital city in four centuries, in the year 508, under the Franks, who will give their name to the entire nation. Even though these barbarians gave rise to the first dynasty of kings, it’s surprising that the French, always proud of their own Gallic origins (to the point of defining almost any Roman object found on their territory as “Gallo-Roman”) have kept the name of the Franks, an invading Germanic people.
Let’s continue our visit to the city. On horseback, we pass one of Lutetia’s bistros, but actually it’s a popina, a bar-tavern like the ones that can be seen anywhere in the empire. We overhear a discussion between some men standing at the counter drinking white wine from terra-cotta glasses, literally the blanc served today in French bars.
“Not long ago, Gellanius the auctioneer was selling a girl with a less-than-sterling reputation, one of the ones who are always sitting in the middle of the brothel. Since the bids were all very low, he tried to convince everyone that the girl was a virgin and started pulling her toward him while she waved her finger at him to say “No, no.” And he kissed her one, two, three, four times. You want to know what he got for those four kisses? The guys who had been offering 600 sesterces changed their minds and lowered their bids!” A burst of laughter from his listeners.
We don’t know if the speaker’s tale is a true story or if he simply used a famous story from Martial’s Epigrams, passing it off as his own.
Let’s examine the other customers. Their faces are those of Celts and merchants who have come ashore from ships arriving on the Seine. Indeed, the situation here is reminiscent of London. Paris, too, was “invented” by the Romans.
This area was originally inhabited by the (possibly nomadic) tribe of the Parisii, a branch of the Senones. During the campaign for the conquest of Gaul, the legionnaires of Julius Caesar defeated the Parisii warriors in 52 BCE, and the whole basin of the future capital of France fell into Roman hands. Just a few decades later the city baptized Lutetia Parisiorum (Lutetia of the Parisii) was founded. The river made it possible to bring in goods and transport troops. And right in the middle of the Seine there were two islands that made it easier to ford the river and that must have reminded the Romans of Tiber Island in the heart of Rome.
So Paris was born, thanks to the Romans, in part on the left bank of the Seine and in part on the river’s main island, the future Île de la Cité.
Now, under Trajan, though still very small, Paris has all the features of a typical Roman city. The forum of the ancient city will be the site of the big buildings on the future Rue Soufflot, and the two bath complexes of Lutetia will be either overrun by throngs of tourists who have just gotten off the Métro between Boulevard Saint-Michel and Boulevard Saint-Germain, or home to the solemn environs of the Collège de France.
What stood on the site of the cathedral of Notre-Dame? We can see it now with our own eyes. We have crossed the whole city in almost no time and have arrived on the banks of the Seine, near the location of the future Petit Pont. Anyone standing here in the modern era has the romantic view of the bridges of Paris, the bouquinistes, and in the background the imposing silhouette of the cathedral. And in the Roman era?
No bouquinistes selling old books, only merchants and slaves busy unloading goods from the ships moored at the wooden docks attached to the muddy banks of the Seine. No bateaux mouches overflowing with tourists, just boats loaded with casks of wine, amphoras, and even slaves captured beyond the borders of the empire to be sold here at auction.
And above all, no Notre-Dame. It won’t be built for over a thousand years. In its place now is an imposing temple dedicated to Jupiter, with its columns and its gilt-bronze friezes. In many ways this island is to Paris what the Capitoline Hill is to Rome. After the Temple of Jupiter this same site will host a Christian basilica, then a Romanesque church, and finally the great cathedral. The sacred vocation of the place first selected by the Romans will be passed down over the course of the centuries, as in a relay race, until it is crowned by the marvelous architecture of Notre-Dame.
It all seems so different in the Roman era—or perhaps not. The romantic charm of Paris already exists. Two lovers, she blond and buxom, he tall and Celtic, are leaning against the parapet of the bridge that crosses the Seine, lost in a passionate kiss. It’s the ancient version of the famous photograph by Robert Doisneau that is admired today in so many postcards and posters of Paris.
We continue on our way. The two men, master and slave, must arrive at the last stop on their journey to organize another wine trade. Their destination is the area that produces one of the most renowned wines in the northern part of the empire, the area near the shores of the Moselle.