Graphic elaboration showing the traces of the Romanisation of the area to the north of Padua
European High Speed corridors in Roman timesThe road network of ancient Rome – an example for today’s designers
The idea of ‘flow’ is probably best expressed by man’s ‘invention’ of the road. Every strip of land traced on the ground had the function of enabling the transit of people, animals and goods, thus originating flows, often two-way, of an economic, intellectual, technologic-scientific and artistic kind. The modern evolutions of land roads are the invisible routes that cross the planet furrowing the skies or the super-fast cable networks that transfer virtual flows of data and information, beating time barriers at stupefying speed.
In the ancient world, the concept of road and the functions connected with it inevitably lead to the Romans. Although the contribution of archaeological and ethno-anthropologic documentation shows that the Romans weren’t the only builders of roads, it is still incontrovertible that, in ancient times, they were the most able organisers and managers of an unequalled road network. The more than 120,000 km of roads that branched throughout the empire, from Europe to Africa and Asia and, rationally integrating and connecting, offered the real impression of a deferential convergence on the capital and created a true myth. Michele Fasolo who, in a recent editorial in the magazine Archeomatica entitled ‘La strada è tecnologia’ (The road is technology), stated, “Let’s take Roman roads, the excellent triumph of the algorithmic concept of savoir-faire which clarifies the etymology of the term technology. On this point, the Roman road system was a truly extraordinary fact. It was not only one of the fundamental structural components, integrated with the network of marine transport, through which the Roman state first confirmed and then deployed its dominion over peoples and lands for at least 1,000 years but it also determined enormous cultural consequences so deep and lasting that they continue to this day, with the many linguistic, artistic and scientific events that started on the way and were spread through it.”1
The greatness of the enterprise was not only engineering but also cultural. The Roman network responded to precise logistic and strategic purposes, all indissolubly linked to the area it extended over. Roman roads were essentially started for military reasons but, after the pax romana had brought order and stability once more, they turned into corridors of incessant flows of cultural, economic, technological and intellectual progress. It was through the ordered road network that Rome could, using a capillary process of Romanisation of areas made possible by the construction of penetration routes, ensure the loyalty of populations which had opposed it for centuries. In this sense, the Romanisation of Gallia, Germania and Britannia, provinces of the empire, destined to assume the continental leadership of technological and industrial progress in the centuries to come, is indicative. The arrival of the Romans in these provinces and the construction of military penetration routes, connection with the interior (as in Rhenish Germania) or the re-adaptation of pre-Roman paths in accordance with Italic tradition (as in Gallia) triggered virtuous processes of economic development. Once the immediate military needs had terminated, commercial flows of raw materials and craft and industrial products moved along the roads towards the internal markets or also the external ones along the commercial routes of the Mediterranean. Forms of urban culture no less than those of Italian towns developed in centres like Arles, Lyon, Narbonne, Mainz, Trier, Cologne and London with the start of an urban, business and industrial middle class, which developed due to the economic advantages offered by the existence of an organised road network.
An essential fact that we can gather from these events is the intimate and indissoluble link between the Roman road and the lands it passed through, promoted and valorised by the crossing not just in terms of rational organisation but also integration in a wider system of contacts and exchanges mediated by the road network. Quoting Fasolo once more, it can certainly be agreed that “once and for all, the milestone unequivocally fixed the point in space and also ended up marking the time. In this way, immense areas took on certain outlines, permanent military and economic reference points for the first time and travelling times were established.” So the roads defined the lands that the Roman state progressively included in its dominion. The road/land link, still legible today through the remains of centuriation (the agrarian division performed using geometric methods and religious ritual) adopted first in Italy and then exported to the provinces, created the conditions for the rise of urban agglomerations and rural communities, the latter served by the secondary roads (viae vicinales). It is no exaggeration to state that while the legionnaires conquered the lands of the empire, possession was certainly consolidated by the sappers.
The heritage left by the Romans forces us to ask a legitimate question – As 21st century people, what is our relationship with this extraordinary work of the past and what can we learn from it? After setting aside the rhetorical enthusiasm which, especially during the 20th century, harmed the image of Rome and being Roman and was essentially concerned with highlighting just the technological and military aspects as reflection of an indispensable and fatal desire for power, it is certainly opportune to reflect today on the cultural values that the Roman roads portrayed. For the European who is currently observing the slow, difficult and often dramatic construction of a European Union, the reflection seems essential. The geographic area that was once mainly included in the borders of the north-western part of the old Roman Empire is now crossed by a multiplicity of commercial, technological and human flows, some of which follow old routes traced in the ancient world. Flows that are infinitely faster but not always attentive to the needs of man and the surrounding environment. Even in the ‘super-fast’ era, Roman roads can still be a model of sustainability.
1. La strada è tecnologia (M. Fasolo), in Archeomatica 4, 2015