It's Official: All Roads (And Legacies) Really Do Lead To Rome

LIGHT BITES

Infrastructure


An enduring legacy that has lasted a thousand years

We take a look at the enduring legacies of the ancient Roman road network — it's less boring than you think.

 The mockups made by Moovel Lab showing that indeed, all Roads Lead to Rome;  photo from Moovel Lab

The mockups made by Moovel Lab showing that indeed, all Roads Lead to Rome; photo from Moovel Lab

Everyone is familiar with the aphorism — All Roads Lead to Rome. However, how true is it really? Well, that's what the team at Moovel Lab, a Stuttgart based urban mobility thinktank, has decided to uncover. 

As the largest city in the world between 100 BC and 400 AD, Rome unequivocally dominated the European continent and its peoples as Roman rulers projected power across the continent. At its peak, the Empire even encompassed roughly 20% of the world's population counting subjects from as far as the plateaus of Turkey to the mountains and valleys of Great Britain. 

Yet, without the huge network of roads that radiated out of Rome, it would have been impossible for the Romans to achieved this level of influence. Considering how critical transport and communication was in those days in keeping the empire together, the Roman network of roads (about 80,000 km long) was immensely important After all, the Roman Civ in Civilization 6 didn't get the trait 'All Roads Lead to Rome' for no reason.  

Moovel Labs thus took this premise into the modern era in order to find out just how strong the legacy of the Roman roads are.

 
 An artistic representation of the Roman settlement of Londinium,  photo from the Museum of London

An artistic representation of the Roman settlement of Londinium, photo from the Museum of London

To generate that heart-stopping map (the header image), the team took a grid of Europe's land representing just about 26.5 million km squared and painstakingly defined 486,713 starting points (ie. cities) across the continent. They then developed an algorithm to find out the shortest route between these cities and the current Italian capital of Rome. What's clear from their investigation is that European's modern transport infrastructure (it's roads at least) is still heavily reliant on the work of their Roman predecessors.

Stretching back into history, it is also interesting to see how the Romans used their road network to easily found cities and dominate the continent. For one, the Mediterranean route along the Iberian coast connects Rome to cities like modern-day Valencia (Roman Valentia) and Barcelona (Roman Barcino). Similarly, the landmark conquest of Great Britain is well represented on the map as a direct route extends from Rome towards current-day London (Roman Londinium).

Curiously though, what do those thick lines represent?

Well, Moovel found out that their map included many routes that converged (see Northern Italy) the closer one got to Rome. Hence, the team would thicken that particular (heavily-trafficked) street segment in order to highlight just how important it was. This results in a beautiful map made out of feeder roads that all eventually join up as wider transport arteries (read: highways) all leading to Rome. 

The aphorism that we're all acquainted with (it's in our title) could also have actually come from a monument called the 'Milliarium Aureum', which is Latin for the Golden Milestone. Much like the role the Greenwich Observatory plays in standardising time throughout the contemporary world, the Militarum Aureum was used as a reference point for journeys to and from Rome. This was essential especially since there were so many highways crisscrossing the empire and little information about what was the fastest way to get from A to B. While the exact circumstances surrounding the monument is unclear, it is believed that it was close to the Navel of Rome in the heart of the city. 

 
 The Royal Observatory at Greenwich is the site around which the world's timezones are organised,  photo from picturethisuk.org

The Royal Observatory at Greenwich is the site around which the world's timezones are organised, photo from picturethisuk.org

The Kilometer Zero, however, isn't strictly a Roman tradition as many countries across the world have such monuments acting as markers to measure distances from. In the olden days, these were also used by drivers as starting points for their journeys as guidebooks often published the odometer distances of famous landmarks and destinations from these kilometre zero monuments. Examples of these include the Notre Dame in Paris and the Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo. Indonesia's marker is on Weh Island, which is the country's northern and westernmost point.

While Rome has certainly fallen from its position of preeminence in relation to its heyday during the height of the Roman Empire, Rome still remains as an important world capital. This is true not only for tourists but also for Catholics (half of the world's Christian population) as the Italian capital surrounds the enclave known as the Vatican City.

Though few people nowadays think about the old Roman road networks, and with modern development resulting in new routes being created between European capitals that are independent of the old Roman network, the legacies of the latter still remain. For example, London's glitzy Oxford Street was once part of the Roman Via Trinobantina. From a linguist's perspective, the word 'via' we now use to mean 'by way of' has its etymological origins from the names of Roman roads like the Via Aurelia, which connected Rome to modern day France. 

And while it's not accurate to say ALL roads lead to the original Rome (oceans are a thing), they can certainly be linked to copycats of Rome. In any case, the legacy of the Roman Empire still lives on, albeit in a weird nerdy infrastructure way. 

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