Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 6


Here then, sitting upon this Roman road I considered the nature of such men, and when I had thought out carefully where the nearest Don might be at that moment, I decided that he was at least twenty-three miles away, and I was very glad: for it permitted me to contemplate the road with common sense and with Faith, which is Common Sense transfigured; and I could see the Legionaries climbing the hill. I remembered also what a sight there was upon the down above, and I got upon my horse again to go and see it. Hilaire Belloc1

The road system of Roman Britain cannot be viewed in isolation. In many ways, it could be argued that it is not only a metaphor for the Roman occupation as a whole, but also for our approach to the study of the period. Far from being an isolated incident which quickly passed, the Roman occupation latched onto an existing, receptive environment, and in turn left behind a framework that enabled the development of medieval society into the post-medieval world. It is difficult not to see continuity there and, at its heart, thoroughly integrated, that brief, often despised interlude of the Roman presence. Our secret history of the Roman roads of Britain can thus be summarized as a series of ‘secrets’ that have been overlooked or underplayed, rather than suppressed: the wise reader should always be suspicious of any book that claims archaeologists have indulged in a conspiracy.

We have seen how wheeled traffic, and the roads which it required in order to be of use, existed long before the Romans came and probably evolved out of the tracks made first by animals and then by the hunters pursuing them. The invading Roman army certainly revolutionized the road network, there is no doubt about that, but they did not invent it. What we perceive as the Roman network also seems not to be the whole story, not just because research has yet to reveal all of the formalized roads in use, but also because much of the prehistoric network appears to have continued in use at the same time. So our first ‘secret’ is that the Romans did not give us a new road network, they merely adapted an existing one.

Once the army had arrived on the shores of the south coast of England, they needed to move inland rapidly to achieve their goals. The existence of a prehistoric system of roads made this possible during the campaigning season, whereas constructing the necessary backbone for an advance de novo was outwith even their renowned engineering capabilities. So it is that the formalized network so familiar from maps of Roman Britain was a consolidation of what was already there, improved upon and prioritized where necessary in order to meet a new set of criteria. For, once the Roman army no longer needed to retain a large field army in one place, they were obliged to spread it out and supply it, providing a series of garrison points for this very purpose. This network of strong points provided the troops to secure the supply chain, along with safe havens for overnight stops. Were they doing this because they feared an invading enemy army or merely as a precaution against low intensity insurgency, a technique of warfare to which the Britons had all too readily adapted themselves in the decades immediately after the invasion? We can certainly see the same approach being used from the earliest stages of the occupation right through to the end of Roman rule, although in the aftermath of the initial advance, when Roman towns were being encouraged, an alternative to military fortifications became available. The Roman army seems to have been ubiquitous, linked together by a communications network that was focused along roads. Moreover, many ‘frontier systems’ actually seem to have been no more than fortified roads. Thus our second ‘secret’ is that, rather than staring forlornly across frontiers, the Romans looked along their roads.

‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ is by now a familiar refrain, the joke deriving from the long accompanying list of benefits of Roman rule. However, it could be argued that the Romans never intended their road network for anybody but themselves, but that the Law of Unintended Consequences ensured that it went on to facilitate civilian movement and trade, just as the military roads of the Highlands were to do in the eighteenth century. This helped bolster the status of some settlements so much that, when Roman rule ended, many of them continued to be of consequence up until modern times. Our third secret, then, is that the provision of an all-weather road network for military purposes, when combined with the existing pre-Roman network of tracks and roads, had unexpected benefits for the inhabitants of Britannia.

A road network is not a monolithic entity, however, and the system in Roman Britain not only changed with the arrival and departure of the Roman administration, but continued to evolve during the Roman period. This is hardly surprising: after all, the equipment of the soldiers tramping along those routes changed over the four centuries of their presence in the island and it would be truly remarkable if the road network did not also undergo a subtle yet potent evolution. Many factors could dictate why a road should start to be used more or to fall from favour. Perhaps a new shrine might be constructed, or an old one closed; equally, a long-established garrison might move on and not be replaced, or a new fort be constructed. This brings us to our fourth secret: the road network as it is (admittedly imperfectly) reconstructed is a palimpsest, an accumulation of many different networks, perhaps even an expression of the changing identity of Roman Britain.

The Romans left an important legacy for their successors and it is one that was exploited in full measure. Of course, this was not only the formalized all-weather system of roads, but also the prehistoric system they had in turn inherited. However, those toughened military roads were always going to be attractive for armies on the move, so it was inevitable that opposing forces would meet on or near Roman roads in times of conflict. In the immediate post-Roman period, this was probably occurring on an almost exclusively Roman system but, as time went on, it became more of a Roman-influenced network, particularly once turnpiking began in earnest. Nevertheless, Roman roads and the settlements they established lay at the heart of medieval England, both in times of conflict when armies used the network, and in peace when kings exploited it for their itinerant perambulations around the island. Our fifth secret is therefore that the Roman system definitely had a profound effect on medieval life, both martial and peaceful, and that it probably still exerted some influence in the later periods, to the point where most of the post-Roman battles in England and Wales (and a good few in Scotland too) were fought on or next to a Roman road.

This leads directly to consideration of a rather useful by-product of this continued use of the old Roman road system. Since it provided a ready-made infrastructure for army movements, it was bound to be exploited by armies in the post-Roman period. This doubtless decreased with time, but since even the newly minted turnpike network of the seventeenth century and later made bold use of its Roman predecessor, it continued to exert an influence on post-medieval army movements. The sixth secret is that our knowledge of the Roman road network can be a valuable tool in assessing the location of unknown or poorly attested battle sites. This is a two-edged sword, since well-known battle sites might indicate previously unsuspected Roman roads.

The study of the Roman roads of Britain is dominated by Ivan Margary and his magisterial book. His approach was not without its faults for, just as his predecessor Thomas Codrington had been criticized by Haverfield for not getting the ‘big picture’, so Margary provided a reasoned catalogue prefaced by a methodology which now seems outdated and almost trite. It would be churlish, however, not to acknowledge the vast contribution his work has made to the subject, not least in the way it dominates the sites and monuments/ heritage environment records of counties and regions, as well as the various national monuments records. It is significant (if a little depressing) that there has been no successor to Margary, particularly now that the tools for the study of the road network have so drastically improved. Digital mapping, sub-metre-accuracy lidar survey, a wide range of geophysical survey techniques, and readily available neogeographical tools like virtual globes and geographical information systems all make his achievement that much more remarkable, equipped as he was only with paper maps, cameras, and a car. And so our seventh and final secret is that the study of the Roman road network in Britain is patently incomplete, but rests upon a solid foundation provided by a number of scholars, both professional and (like Margary) amateur, so there is much that can and should be accomplished. The works of Field, Waddelove, Davies, and Poulter hint at the ways in which this might develop in years to come.

The secret history of the Roman roads of Britain does not really contain any secrets at all, in all honesty. Many have been quietly uttering most of what appears in this book for many years, but it has generally been ignored. However, if a thing is worth repeating, it should be repeated. So next time you see traffic roaring along a modern road, die-straight on top of its Roman predecessor, give some thought to its meandering origins, long before an all-weather surface was laid down on this carefully surveyed course, and to those that came after and whose continued use of it ensured it would survive until today as a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure. Only then should you ponder what the transport network will look like in 2,000 years’ time.

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