Ancient Roman Roads and Transport

Ancient Roman Roads | Expanding the Empire

Under the Republic, life in ancient Rome was plagued by a number of problems such as the increasing numbers of the poor and the abundance of wealth for the senators and the wealthy. In addition, the streets of Rome had become increasingly unsafe. The transition to the empire began with Julius Caesar who started making changes; however, it was his nephew Augustus who became the first emperor and the founder of the Roman Empire which lasted from 27 B.C. to 476 A.D. During the Roman empire, life in ancient Rome was one of philosophy and decadence, violence and architectural genius. It was also a time of war and conquest as the empire expanded, spreading to encompass Spain, the Middle East, North Africa, England, and France. Eventually it became so large that it was divided into two empires, the east and the west. The West Roman empire fell in 476 A.D.; however the East Roman empire, which had become known as the Byzantine Empire, continued for nearly another 1,000 years.

Ancient Roman Roads

Ancient Roman roads were vital to the expansion of Rome and are the ancestors of the roads in use today. They were constructed to be wide and sturdy enough to allow horses, chariots and soldiers to travel on them – approximately twenty-four feet across. They were constructed in as straight a line as possible with all of them leading back toward Rome. Roads were made in layers to ensure their sturdiness, starting with the digging of a path, or trench. The foundation was then created by packing large pieces of stone and sand in the trench. Another layer was packed on top of the original one using pebbles and gravel and topped with paving slabs or stones. The roads were made high so that water could drain from them into the ditches that were dug along the side of the road. Roads were marked by milestones, which were spaced according to every 1,000 Roman steps. These markers were useful on ancient Roman roads as they gave travelers important information on the distance they had traveled.

From a military standpoint the roads allowed the Roman armies to move more quickly and efficiently on their quest to expand the Roman empire through war. Prior to roads, ancient Roman transportation occurred over surfaces that were less than suitable. The ground was unsuitable for the weight and number of horses, soldiers, carts and other equipment carried by Rome’s military. This was particularly true during the wet seasons. This had impeded the movement of military forces until the introduction of proper roads. In addition to military uses, roads were also useful for trade, the transportation of goods, and communication throughout the empire.

Ancient Roman Ships

Sea vessels also played a part in ancient Roman transportation, primarily in terms of goods, the military ,and the spread of Rome’s empire. Ancient Roman ships contributed to the expansion of Rome by allowing her to meet and overcome forces by sea. Originally, Rome’s ability to travel by water was limited to merchant ships, with little need for a military marine presence. Merchant ships, or navis onerarius, were ships that relied on the use of sails and did not use rowers. They were used to transport food and other goods, including cattle, oil and wine. The largest of the transport ships was able to also transport horses and people. Even battering rams and other military weapons of war were frequently transported on the merchant ships.

Navis Longa, or warships, were soon developed by the Romans. The original ships were known as triremes and had three banks, or rows, of oars. These ships were relatively light and were made of soft timber such as pine, cedar and fir. The hulls were often made of oak, which was ideal for its strength. The development of larger, heavier warships came as the result of battles with Carthage. Rome was not equipped to battle the superior Carthagian navy. As a result, Rome used a ship known as a quinqueremes, as a template to create a fleet of vessels to engage Carthage in battle. These ships were larger and heavier than the triremes and had five rows of oars as opposed to three. Warships were made with bronze or iron rams in the front and had a boarding device known as a corvus. The corvus was a type of bridge with a spike at the end that attached onto an enemy ship and allowed for boarding during battle. These had a down side, however, as they were heavy and posed a capsize risk. Later, faster and even lighter ships called liburnians were created based off of pirate ships.


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