Roman roads

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Map of the main Roman roads

The Roman roads of Great Britain were highways of the Roman Empire during the four centuries that Britannia was a Roman province. During the four centuries of Roman occupation, between AD 43 and approximately 410, the Roman Army constructed and maintained 2,000 miles of paved trunk roads throughout those parts of Britain thery controlled. Most of the known network was complete by AD 180.

The primary function of the road network, at least initially, was to allow the rapid movement of troops and military supplies. It also provided vital infrastructure for commerce and trade. Although many of the roads remained in use as core trunk routes for centuries after the Romans withdrew from Britain, the systematic construction of paved highways did not resume in England until the early 18th century. The Roman-road network was the only nationally-managed highway system which Britain had ever known until the establishment of the Ministry of Transport in the early 20th century.

Prehistory and history

There were long-distance routes before the Roman conquest, but not paved roads; before the invasion of Claudius, the roads of Britain were unpaved trackway. Some of these long-distance routes may have existed for centuries, following elevated ridge lines across hills, most famously the Icknield Way, and some indeed were reused by the Romans. Nevertheless, some recent research has shown evidence of road engineering by Britons during the first century BC.[1]

Beginning in 43 AD, the Romans quickly created a national road network. Key locations, strategic and administrative, were connected by the most direct routes possible. Main roads were gravel or paved]], bridges built in stone or wood, and inns built where travellers or military units could stop and rest. The roads' impermeable design permitted travel in all seasons and weather.

Following the withdrawal of the Romans, conventionally set at 410, the road system was not systematically maintained and slowly fell into disrepair. Parts of the network were retained and continued to form major routes in the Anglo-Saxon period, whilst other large sections were abandoned and lost. Such English names as Watling Street and Fosse Way were given to the routes in the Anglo-Saxon period. The word "street" in modern English is the Old English stræt, used to describe the Roman roads; the word is from the Latin stratum.

Main routes

The central traffic hub, as today, was London, Roman Londinium and most important trunk roads were those that linked Londinium with:

  1. the key ports of Dover (Dubris), Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum) and Portchester (Portus Adurni); and
  2. the main army bases: the three permanent legionary fortresses were at:
    1. York (Eboracum), of the Legio IX Hispana, and later the Legio VI Victrix;
    2. Chester (Deva Victrix), base of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix; and
    3. Caerleon (Isca Augusta), base of the Second: Legio II Augusta.

From Chester and York, two key roads led to Hadrian's Wall, for most of the period the northern frontier of Britannia, where most of the three legions' auxiliary units were deployed.

From London, six core routes radiated:

Three important cross-routes were established early (by 80 AD) as the frontier of the Roman-occupied zone advanced:

  • Exeter - Lincoln
  • Gloucester - York
  • Caerleon - York via Wroxeter and Chester.

Later a large number of other cross-routes and branches were grafted onto this basic network.

The major routes form the skeleton on which the road networks of later ages, even down to today, were built, and thus form an essential element of British geography.

The roads

Roman road Approximate distance Route Via Superimposed modern roadsA
Ackling Dyke 22 miles Old Sarum (Sorviodunum) to Badbury Rings
Akeman Street 78 miles St Albans (Verulamium) to Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) Alchester (Bicester)
Cade's Road 100 miles Brough-on-Humber (Petuaria) to Newcastle upon Tyne (Pons Aelius) York (Eboracum); Thirsk;
Stockton; Sadberge; Sedgefield; Chester-le-Street (Concangis); Gateshead
A1034/A1079 Brough-York
Dere Street 180 miles York (Eboracum) to Antonine Wall at Carriden (Veluniate) Catterick (Cataractonium); Binchester (Bishop Auckland; Vinovia); Corbridge (Coria) on Hadrian's Wall A59 York to A1(M)
Devil's Causeway 55 miles Hadrian's Wall/Dere Street to Berwick-upon-Tweed
Ermin Street 68 miles Gloucester (Glevum) to Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) to Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) Swindon (Durocornovium?) B4000
Ermine Street 200 miles London (Londinium) to York (Eboracum) Godmanchester (Durovigutum); Water Newton (Durobrivae); Lincoln (Lindum) A10 London-Royston; A1198 Royston-Huntingdon; A15 Lincoln-Broughton; A1034/A1079 Brough-York
Fen Causeway 90 miles Water Newton (Durobrivae) to Brampton, Norfolk A1122 Downham Market-Swaffham
Fosse Way 220 miles Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) Ilchester (Lindinis);
Bath (Aquae Sulis);
Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum);
Leicester (Ratae Corieltauvorum)
A37 Ilchester-Shepton Mallet;
A429 Cirencester-Halford;
B4455 Halford-High Cross;
A46 Leicester-Lincoln
Icknield Street (or Ryknild Street)B 125 miles Bourton-on-the-Water (near Stow-on-the-Wold) to Templeborough Alcester; Metchley (Birmingham); Lichfield (Letocetum); Derby (Derventio) A38 Lichfield-Derby
King Street 40 miles Water Newton (Durobrivae) to Kesteven
Military Way (Hadrian's Wall) 73 miles Wallsend (Segedunum) to Bowness-on-Solway (Maia)
Peddars Way 47 miles Holme-next-the-Sea to Knettishall Heath Castle Acre
Portway 133 miles London (Londinium) to Weymouth Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum); Old Sarum (Sorviodunum); Dorchester (Durnovaria)
Pye Road Colchester Norwich A140 road
Sarn Helen 100 miles Conwy (Canovium) to Carmarthen (Moridunum) Betws-y-Coed
Llandovery (Alabum)
Stane Street (1) 57 miles London to Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum) Morden, Ewell, Dorking, Billingshurst, Pulborough, Bignor A3 Newington-Clapham;
A24 Clapham-Ewell;
A29 Rowhook-Pulborough;
A285 Halnaker-Chichester
Stane Street (2) 39 miles Braughing to Colchester (Camulodunum) B1256 Bishop's Stortford-Braintree; A120 Braintree-Colchester
Stanegate 44 miles Carlisle (Luguualium) to Corbridge (Coria) Along Hadrian's Wall
Stone Street 15 miles Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum) to Lympne B2068 from the M20 motorway to Canterbury
Via DevanaC Colchester (Camulodunum) to Chester (Deva Victrix)
Wade's Causeway Dunsley Bay to Malton, Yorkshire
Watling Street 200 miles Dover (Dubris) to Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum); London; St Albans (Verulamium); Lichfield (Letocetum) A2 road Faversham-Gillingham; A207 Crayford-Blackheath;
A5 London-Wroxeter (except bypasses)
  • A.^ Sections of modern road that lie directly above the Roman road. Such stretches are marked "ROMAN ROAD" on Ordnance Survey Maps.
  • B.^ Not to be confused with Icknield Way, a pre-Roman trackway from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk. Although the known road ends at Templeborough, it almost certainly continued to Doncaster (Danum) to join a branch of Ermine Street to York.
  • C.^ This is not an English name nor a classical one, but a Latin label invented by 18th century antiquarians to define a putative route. It amounts to just a series of cross routes to reach Watling Street from Colchester.

Historical development

Growth of the military roads network

Roman lighthouse at Dover Castle

The earliest roads, built in the first phase of Roman occupation (under Claudius and Nero, 43–68 AD), connected London with the ports used in the invasion (Chichester and Richborough), and with the earlier legionary bases at Colchester, Lincoln (Lindum), Wroxeter (Viroconium), Gloucester and Exeter. The Fosse Way, from Exeter to Lincoln, was also built at this time to connect these bases with each other, marking the effective boundary of the early Roman province.

During the Flavian period (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian 69–96 AD), the roads to Lincoln, Wroxeter and Gloucester were extended to the new (and definitive) legionary bases at York, Chester and Caerleon respectively. By 96, further extensions from York to Corbridge, and from Chester to Carlisle and Caernarfon (Segontium), were completed as Roman rule was extended into the western mountains and into the Pennines. Stanegate, the military road from Carlisle to Corbridge, was built under the Emperor Trajan (98–117 AD) along the line of the future Hadrian's Wall, which was constructed by his successor Hadrian in 122–132 AD.

Caledonia, and all the lands north of Hadrian's Wall, remained mostly outside the boundaries of the province of Britannia; the Romans never succeeded in subjugating the entire island, despite a serious effort to do so by governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola in 82–84 AD. Nevertheless, the Romans maintained a system of forts in the lowland region between about 80 and 220 AD to control the indigenous population beyond Hadrian's Wall and the Empire annexed the Lowlands briefly with the construction of the Antonine Wall in 164. This barrier, across the 'neck' of the land, from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth, was held for some twenty years.

The Romans' main routes from Hadrian's Wall to the Antonine Wall, built by ca. 120 AD, were: (1) Corbridge to the Roman fort at Edinburgh (certain) and (likely) to Carriden (Veluniate) on the eastern end of the Antonine Wall, via High Rochester (Bremenium) and Melrose (Trimontium); (2) Carlisle to Bothwellhaugh (certain) and (likely) to the Antonine Wall.

There was also a certain road beyond the Antonine Wall to Perth (Bertha) from the Antonine fort at Falkirk. Indeed it has been thought that the Roman road to the north of the Forth, to Stirling and Perth, dates from the expedition of Septimius Severus to beyond the Dee, AD 209; it may, however, be doubted whether there was time in that campaign for such a work, and the road may well belong to a period before the construction of the Antonine Wall, AD 140.[2]

Commercial roads

The core network was complemented by a number of routes built primarily for commercial, rather than military, purposes.

Examples include: in Kent and Sussex, three certain roads leading from London to the important iron-mining area of the Weald; and in East Anglia, the road from Colchester to Norwich, Peddars Way and the Fen Causeway. However, these eastern and southern routes acquired military importance from the 3rd century onwards with the emergence of Saxon seaborne raiding as a major and persistent threat to the security of Britannia. These roads linked to the coastal defensive line of Saxon Shore forts, for example Brancaster (Branodunum), Burgh Castle (Gariannonum) near Great Yarmouth, Lympne (Portus Lemanis) and Pevensey (Anderitum).