The Appian Way Via Appia, the oldest and perhaps most famous Roman road, was built by the
Censor Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 b.c. Enlarging a track between Rome and the Alban Hills and
forming the main route to Greece and the eastern colonies, this so-called queen of roads regina
viarumeters ran south from the Porta Capena in Romes Servian Wall to Capua. It passed through
the Appii Forum to the coastal town of Anxur now Terracina, 60 miles 100 kilometers from
Rome, to which point it was almost straight, despite crossing the steep Alban Hills and the swampy
Pontine Marshes. In 190 b.c. it was extended to Brundisium modern Brindisi on the Adriatic
coastmore than 350 miles 560 kilometers from the capital and eighteen days march for a legion.
Parts of itnow called the Via Appia Anticaremain in use after more than 2,000 years.
The medieval proverbA thousand roads lead man forever toward Rome was popularized in
William Blacks Strange Adventures of a Phaeton 1872 asAll roads lead to Rome. That was
probably once true: the Romans built about 50,000 miles 80,000 kilometers of paved roads
throughout their empire, mainly to expedite movements of the legions. Inevitably, the system was
put to wider use and eventually served all kinds of travelers: dignitaries, politicians, commercial
traffic of all kinds, and even an official postal service.
Roman engineers efficiently developed road-building techniques to create enduring structures.
Usually but not always, roads were laid upon a carefully constructed embankment agger to
provide a foundationrubble laid in such a way as to provide proper drainagefor the base. The
dimensions of the agger varied according to the importance of the road. Sometimes it may have been just a small ridge, but on major routes it could be up to 5 feet high and 50 wide 1.5 by 15 meters.
For very minor roads no embankment was built, but two rows of curbstones defined the carriageway
the excavation between them was layered with stones and graded material, the topmost sometimes
forming the pavement. Overall, the depth of a Roman road from the surface to the bottom of the base
was up to 5 feet. It seems that road width varied according to function, importance, and topography.
The widest decumanus maximus was 40 feet 12.2 meters wide, while a minor road might be only
8 feet 2.4 meters. Rural thoroughfares were generally 20 feet 6 meters, but all roads became
narrower over difficult terrain: some mountain passes, at less than 10 feet, were too narrow and
often too steep for carts.
Although stone was sometimes transported from a few miles away, local material was normally
used. Of course, that practice gave rise to differences in construction along the length of a road, as is
evident in the Via Appia. At one place a 3-foot-thick 1-meter bottom layer of earth and gravel from
the neighboring mountains was consolidated between the curbs and covered by a thinner layer of
gravel and crushed limestone, also contained by parallel rows of closely placed large stones.
Elsewhere, a base layer of sand was covered with another of crushed limestone into which slabs of
lava up to 15 inches 50 centimeters thick were fixed. Stone surfaces were mandatory for urban
streets after 174 b.c., but other roads were not always stone-paved, especially in difficult terrain. Like the substructure, surfaces
varied according to what materials were locally available: gravel, flint, small broken stones, iron
slag, rough concrete, or sometimes fitted flat stones were used. The pavement thickness varied from
a couple of inches on some roads to 2 feet 0.6 meter at the crown of others. Surfaces sloped
downas steeply as 1 in 15from the center, to allow rainwater runoff into flanking ditches.
Roman roads were strong enough to support half-ton metal-wheeled wagons, and many were wide
enough to accommodate two chariots abreast. Some roads were provided with intentional ruts,
intended to guide wagons on difficult stretches. Under normal traffic a paved Roman road lasted up
to 100 years. Beginning with the Appian Way, the ancient Roman engineers flung an all-weather
communication network across Italy and eventually their empire. The poet Publius Papinius Statius
wrote late in the first century a.d.:
? How is it that a journey that once took till sunset
? Now is completed in scarcely two hours?
? Not through the heavens, you fliers, more swiftly
? Wing you, nor cleave you the waters, you vessels.