Celebrating the achievements of Roman-era civil engineering in “Were Roman Roads more Durable than Modern Highways?”

Garrett Ryan, “Were Roman Roads more Durable than Modern Highways?” (Toldinstone, 5 February 2022)

Here’s another entertaining and informative episode in the ongoing history documentary series Toldinstone, this one compares Roman-era road networks and infrastructure with their modern equivalent in the West. Vividly illustrated with photographs, maps and sketches, narrator Dr Garrett Ryan describes the extent of the Roman imperial road network through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, showing how the roads traversed a variety of often difficult and even extreme physical environments and climates: semi-desert conditions in North Africa, humid and damp environments in northern Europe (especially Britain) and Alpine regions. He quickly goes over how the roads were built and what materials were used in different parts of the Empire – there were many regional variations – and how they were often built by Roman troops. Milestones often indicating the name of the reigning Emperor at the time as well as distances to or from the nearest towns would mark the boundaries of the roads. The most frequent users of the road networks were the Roman Army itself – indeed, roads were constructed in such a way (mostly straight and wide) as to allow foot soldiers to move swiftly – and messengers carrying post with farmers, traders and shepherds with flocks also using the roads.

Like their modern counterparts, Roman roads had traffic police and toll booths, and Roman engineers performed great feats of civil engineering in building bridges and mountain tunnels, many of which survived well into the 20th century. The Puente Romano in Mérida, Spain, was still being used for road traffic as late as 1991; even now, it is in use for foot traffic. The most significant part of the video though comes in the comparison of Roman and modern roads: just as with modern roads, Roman roads needed frequent repairs due to wear and tear from traffic and weather and other physical extremes. In some ways, the comparison is not fair as modern road networks are built to withstand far heavier loads and more frequent and faster traffic than Roman roads had to endure, and often in much more extreme physical and climatic conditions. The video mentions that the amount of traffic crossing North American highways in a day might be equivalent to the amount Roman roads experienced in a calendar year! At the same time, modern roads have to be cost-effective in terms of the materials, technologies and processes used, and (even with regular maintenance) most are built to last only a few decades before they have to be replaced completely. In that sense, Roman-era roads are indeed more durable than modern roads but one has to remember they were built by a society with very different values and these values are reflected in the roads themselves: their construction, their materials, even the fact that they join in a network, reflect Roman imperial power and the importance of the Roman Army in maintaining that power and ensuring peace and stability wherever the Roman Empire dominated. As Dr Ryan notes, this of course does not detract from the achievements of Roman-era civil engineering, many if not most of which were the innovations and breakthroughs of their time.

The mini-documentary is well structured and narrated to answer a particular query put to Toldinstone about one aspect of Roman civil engineering and technology that is one of the Roman Empire’s most enduring legacies to Western civilisation.