A Journey Through Britain's Roman Roads

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Roman Roads in Britain

Most tours of Roman Britain by now follow a well established route through the country. Starting with grand Roman palaces and mosaics near the capital in the south, tours then move up through the baths of the midlands to Hadrian’s Wall and the Vindolanda fort in the north, before concluding in Scotland for a day tour of the Antonine Wall. As far as archaeological sites go, these ruins constitute some of the most fascinating examples of Roman wealth and power in Europe. They convey the magnitude of the imperial machine, and daily lives of the men and women who operated it. However, one must look beyond the traditional tour guide to find one of the most defining legacies of the ancient Roman empire. This legacy resides in the web of roads that were constructed throughout their empire, whose ancient tracks can be found everywhere from the Northumberland national park to central Syria.
This may feel like an ill-fitting conclusion to one of the most prolific empires in history. Roman roads can seem unassuming when compared to the most popular historical sites. The Vindolanda fort was demolished and rebuilt nine times in 400 years to keep up with ever-changing military needs, and its army museum offers a brilliant day tour for any small group. Equally, the grand roman palace at Fishbourne was built on an area of land larger than Buckingham Palace, and bares many of the luxuries of modernity. Both are a far more obvious adverts for Rome’s dominance of antiquity.
Amidst this great history, why would one care to read about the paths that the Roman legionaries marched on, the roads that bore the weight of their trade, or the streets in which their emperors paraded? But in fact, to ignore Rome’s roads is to ignore the story that explains the military advancements at Vindolanda, or the wealth at Fishbourne. In fact, Rome’s roads constitute the most remarkable culmination of its technological, logistical and bureaucratic achievements. Even a brief understanding of their history and significance can enrich your experience walking tour of Britain.

 

Of course, the Romans were far from the first peoples to construct roads.

Most of the great ancient empires, from the Hellenic world across to the Chinese dynasty, embarked on similarly mundane infrastructural projects. However, the sheer scale and remarkable longevity of the Roman road building enterprise differentiates them from all prior civilizations. Over 60,000 miles of roads were laid down during the ancient roman empire, extending from northern Britain to southern Egypt, constituting a fascinating systematization of the known world through hard infrastructure. More impressive than scale was the quality of the projects. It took the people left behind by the Roman retreat in Britain well over a thousand years to build a comparable – let alone more extensive – system of roads, such was the complexity of the operation.

Why was it so hard for later generations to follow in the footsteps of their Roman ancestors and construct roads of a similar quality? What is it about road building, to us such a mundane function of society, that was became so difficult to replicate after roman times? Through these questions, Roman roads provide a fresh perspective into how one Italian city state came to dominate the world.

 

An Introduction to the Romans in Britain

 

In 55 BC Julius Caesar launched the first roman invasion of Britain. Landing on the beaches with only two legions at his side, Caesar was massively under-prepared, and was forced into a swift retreat. In 54 BC Caesar tried again with a much larger force, and though initially successful, revolts on the mainland together with strong guerrilla resistance in Britain made sustained occupation financially untenable.
Roman Invasion of Britain
Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain
Britannia was largely forgotten as a military target close to a hundred years, as fears of over-extension gripped the senate in Rome. However, the assassination of the mad Caligula brought Claudius, to the throne, an unproven candidate plucked from relative obscurity. As a new Roman emperor with much to prove, Claudius set out for Britain in 43 AD, his mind driven by glory and legitimacy as much as gold. Claudius landed with an invasion force of 40,000 at a point near Richborough in Kent.
However, the Catuvellauni, the hegemonic power in Britain, based their capital in Colchester, north west of landing beach. After crushing the Catuellauni near the River Medway, the Roman army slowly forced his way north. Fighting siege after siege, the technological prowess of ancient Rome triumphed as ballistas, onagers and scorpios blitzed through the once-great hill forts of the northern tribes. After success of the initial invasion in the south and midlands, a few incursions were made into the land of the Picts in present-day Scotland. Here, progress was slowly halted after a  series of failures, and the construction of Hadrian’s Wall by 130 AD effectively marked the end of Roman expansion northwards in Britain.
Roman standing guard over valley

The Romans governed over most of the British Isles for close to four centuries.

Their occupation stretched from Emperor Claudius’ successful invasion in 43 AD, following Julius Caesar’s two aborted attempts a century earlier, to their gradual exit by 425 AD at the latest. During these centuries, the continental invaders attempted to ‘romanise’ the islands’ barbarian landscape, establishing new military, political and cultural practices. After a century of prosperity and romanisation, cracks started to emerge in Britain as enemies of the roman republic hounded all corners of the empire. The decline was gradual at first, accelerating rapidly by the fourth century, until by 425 AD at the very latest, nearly all sings of roman life in Britain had disappeared, either fleeing to the continent or re-integrating into local culture. However, most of these imports quickly faded away with the retreat of the Roman Empire by the 5th century, and instead it is the roads that the Romans built that have become one of their most defining legacies in Britain.
The first roman roads in Britain were built in the immediate aftermath of the roman army‘s victories in 43 AD. As later campaigns were conducted further north, roads would quickly follow, and so the history of Britain’s roads was intimately tied to the requirements of warfare. Having secured peace, military roads quickly became key arteries of trade. The first road that the Romans built was stretched from London to Dover, in order to speed communications and supplies to the new front line. The road is known today as Watling Street, and though covered by a series of modern roads, the original route can still be traced through the heart of London’s financial district.

Two Common Myths

 

Such is the remarkable nature of Roman roads that nearly everyone has been told two things about them at some stage in their life, regardless of their actual desire to hear so.

The first maxim dictates that all roads lead to Rome, and the second that all road lines up straight as the crow flies. The first maxim is rarely taken at face value, and although the second is often accepted as a rule, it is even less true. Apart from anything else, the Romans were a pragmatic people, and so rarely would you find them bulldozing through miles of steep rock for the satisfaction of a perfectly straight road. Instead, surveyors would perform a detailed study of the relevant terrain between two points. They would then divide the route into multiple sections, each a couple of miles long, typically divided between major geographical features. Each individual section would form a straight line, but consecutive sections could run off each other at gentle angles, sometimes paving a mild zig-zag through the countryside.

 

Roman Colosseum, Rome.

How Were Roman Roads Constructed?

 

The standard roman road would first be mapped and planned by a small collection of expert engineers, who used a groma, an instrument resembling a wooden cross, to line up the road. They would then start digging out two drainage ditches, around two meters apart, through which the road would run. The soil from these excavations would then be used to build up the middle path between the ditches into a raised section on which the road would follow, called the agger. The mounded agger was then covered with metalling, large stones would be rammed into the earth, created a firm bases on which smaller stones would be compacted into. If you were to leave the road at this point, then it would be referred to as a metalled road, from the Latin metallum, which means ‘quarry’. Some roads, depending on the local environment, importance of road and available wealth, were constructed with culverts – draining channels – that ran beneath the road and helped to keep it dry.

Size did matter, and the wider the roman road the richer the region, the more important the route. A standard metalled road stretch to 20 pedes wide, an ancient measurement that approximately equals two lanes in a modern motorway. This was designed to accommodate two-wheeled horse drawn vehicles, the basis of internal trade in the Roman empire. However, Watling street was an important route. Not only did it carry much of the trade from the southern ports into the capital, but marked the route of the successful campaign into Britain, and was also one of the first signs of Rome that a new traveler to Britain would see. Therefore, the road was extended in width to 34 pedes in places, or five lanes of a modern motorway. Watling street ended its journey in Rutupiae, a walled city near the white cliffs of Dover, where the Romans designed an imposing victory monument to tower over the surrounding landscapes, so tall that it could be viewed from sea. Through the example of Watling street it is clear that roman roads sat at the confluence of economic activity, military need and imperial pride.

The Strategic Importance of Roman Roads

 

Britain is home to two Roman roads that are particularly non-straight, meandering through the countryside in a particularly non-Roman manner. These roads were, however, deliberate and very strategic. The first, the Stanegate Road, was constructed in Cumbria across the northern frontier between the River Tyne in the east, and the River Solway in the west. The second was the Military Way, built a century later further north.

 

Hadrian's Wall, Northern England
Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England.

 

Both examples highlights the centrality of roads within the strategic approach of Roman military commanders.

The roads were integral to the defense of the northern frontier against attack from the fearsome Picts, a confederation of tribes who maintained their independence from the Romans in what is now modern-day Scotland. The hard-wearing surface ensured that troops could march across the frontier to deal with attacks at any point across the region, enabling the maintenance of a strong border with minimal resources. The construction of the road was dictated by the local topography, as its architects prioritized the strategic need to hug the high ground in unstable regions. This explains why both roads curve beyond the traditional idea of a roman road.

The two roads were used as the basis for two of the most imposing roman constructions in Britain. Hadrian’s Wall runs across the breadth of the Stanegate Road. Built around 122 AD on the orders of Emperor Hadria, the defensive fortification ran a total of 117 kilometres across the north, and was guarded by a range of Roman buildings, settlements and forts. Many spots along its route have been excavated become popular tourist attractions, like the defensive fort at Vindolanda, which is home to some remarkable archaeological finds, including a roman temple, roman gardens and late roman church. The museum at Vindolanda gives a rare insight into the life of a roman legionary in Britain, as the archaeological excavations include a range of very personal finds, from writing tablets to boards games.

 

Roman standing guard over Hadrian's wall
Hadrian’s Wall.

 

The Antonine Wall was built several decades later, and marked the high-water mark of Roman conquest against the Picts barbarians in the north. However, these gains were proven to be short-lived, as the roman garrisons retreated southwards to Hadrian’s Wall barely 20 years later. Underlying all this history is the roads and infrastructure that enabled the provision of goods, the speed of transport and the strength of borders required to maintain peace in the provinces.

The two roads were used as the basis for two of the most imposing constructions built by the roman army Britain. Hadrian’s Wall runs across the breadth of the Stanegate Road. Built around 122 AD on the orders of Emperor Hadria, the defensive fortification ran a total of 117 kilometres across the north, and was guarded by a range of Roman buildings, settlements and forts. Many spots along its route have been excavated become popular tourist attractions, like the defensive fort at Vindolanda, which is home to some remarkable archaeological finds, including a roman temple, roman gardens and late roman church. The museum at Vindolanda gives a rare insight into the life of a roman legionary in Britain, as the archaeological excavations include a range of very personal finds, from writing tablets to boards games.

Why Did Road-Building Stop with the Romans?

 

Rome’s exit from Britain was a painful and slow process. Towards the end of the 4th century, much of the empire was under attack, and so most of the legionaries in Britain were sent back to defend the Italian heartlands. Eventually, the steady shipments of pay, in the form of imported gold, to the remaining soldiers ceased, and with it the central Roman authority collapsed. The roads were generally left to crumble away, and by the 6th century it was common to see of travelers walk on either side of an old roman road, at that point preferring the soft grassy banks to the central rubble.

 

Roman ruins

Roman technology, like roads, dissipated so quickly because they were reliant on a far broader socio-economic structure.

Many of Rome’s roads were centrally paid for by the empire’s coffers. Hard-wearing roads were the luxury of a wealthy empire, and simply not seen as a necessity in Anglo-Saxon Britain. More than wealth, the construction of large networks of roads required an organised bureaucracy, which can co-ordinate the scale of a national project, rather simply abiding to parochial interests. This enables the construction of roads that connect richer regions to poorer ones, or sprawling metropolises to military outposts, rather than simply aligning roads with the specific demands of an affluent elite.
Similarly, the society must be confident in the security of an army, wherein the state has a monopoly on violence, to allow the extension of roads into the barbaric wilderness.For any empire, finance and security are mutually reinforcing, and therefore equally important. The strategic roads running Vindolanda, which provided the security that enabled the brief blossoming of Britannia’s economy, were made redundant once the roads behind it dried up of trade.
Such is the challenge of road-building. It demands wealth, security and organisational proficiency. The roads that the Romans left behind were the final fruits of a youthful empire, and the first losses of a fading power. Even as late as the Victorian period, Britain’s government could not provide for roads in such a manner, relying on a multitude of turnpike firms to maintain the main roads. The society too must have schooled engineers who survey and design a hard-wearing road.
The Roman imperial machine had met these demands in areas as remote as the Antonine Wall and Northumberland national park, both more than a thousand miles from its capital in Rome, and each a seven week journey to Constantinople at the other edge of the empire. Many modern states would struggle with such a task. Clearly, the Roman empire was a truly remarkable machine, and its roads provide the first route into a greater understanding of its prowess.

How to Spot a Roman Road

 

Tours of Roman Britain are incomplete without a stop off for a Roman road. However, finding these roads, and really making the most of them, can be difficult in practice. Outside of major archaeological sites, it can be hard to distinguish the straight outline of a roman road from the faded marks of a forgotten train line. Whether planning a walk individually or with a small group, embarking on a long walking tour or simply a day tour, there are a few great tips to improve your experience of Roman roads.
Ancient Roman Britain
Look first to the foundations of a path or road that you may have come across. Especially on rural walks, the features of Roman roads will often have survived remarkably well. You should be able to make out some of the basic features of a Metalled Road, including the larger slabs at the bottom, although the top layers are more likely to have been eroded away.
Similarly, the drainage ditches will often have been filled in over time, however, the path that they took through the countryside can often be seen through faint depressions or the growth of a different plant. If you are feeling a bit more intrepid, then older OS maps tend to label ROMAN ROAD where known. On more recent maps, or in the hope of finding new roads, paths or roads that continue in straight lines, regardless of more modern constructions, could mark the site of a roman road.
Man walking in rural Britain
However, in general, it can be hard to trace these ideas solely from a map. Indeed, there are quite a few features that one could easily mistake as a Roman road. Disused train tracks, early modern turnpike roads, and even a prehistoric track are all easily conflated with Roman roads. For this reason, it is best advised that amateurs and beginners use a local guide or follow pre-established day tour paths. In this manner, you are sure to give yourself the best opportunity to experience one of Britain’s beauties.

 

Two of the Best Roman Roads in Britain

Watling Street, Central London

The start of Watling Street , the first Roman road in Britain that once connected the capital to its southern ports, is less than a 10 minute train ride from Trafalgar Square. Though a bustling city center has grown around Watling street , the centrality of the old roman road within the City of London offers an intriguing insight into the ancient history that lies very literally at the heart of our modern world.

Stanegate Road, Bardon Mill

Stanegate road, rarely followed by most tours of Roman Britain, is the infrastructural secret running literally behind the grandeur of Hadrian’s Wall. Now a modern road running near the Northumberland national park, is one of the few examples where the old Roman milestones are still in position at several paths along the route. In addition to the ancient milestones, the fort at Vindolanda provides a great example of how central Roman roads were to the broader defense of the empire.

Further Reading and Some Local Knowledge:

 

History Learning Site, general information on Roman roads.

https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/ancient-rome/roman-roads/

Vox: The Roman empire in fascinating 40 maps.

https://www.vox.com/world/2018/6/19/17469176/roman-empire-maps-history-explained

Future Learn: information about Stanegate Road and Vindolanda fort

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/hadrians-wall/0/steps/5090

Historic UK: the Antonine Fort

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/The-Antonine-Wall/