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Roman Roads and Bridges

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The Roman Empire lasted from 31 BC to approximately 476 AD and extended east to west from the area now known as Iran to France, and north to south from the area now known as Great Britain to Egypt. It was one of the most powerful civilisations ever, and there were many skilled thinkers and doers in it which helped the Roman Empire advance much further than any previous civilisation had. Among their many achievements was the development of well-designed roads and bridges, which allowed the Romans to conquer new territories and establish successful trade routes, as well as providing a way for people to travel easily throughout the Empire.


The Romans built their roads and bridges so that their military could travel faster than when they did when they went over rough terrain. Also, with a such a large empire, they needed a very orderly system of travel with connected paths to ensure that soldiers wouldn't get stuck between two villages where a road or bridge had been washed out. Roman messengers also had to be able to travel swiftly from anywhere to Rome to get orders for the military - this explains the origins of the saying 'All roads lead to Rome.' The reason that the soldiers needed to get from place to place so quickly was so that they could get more troops to a war zone, and to enable them to keep the peace (Pax Romana).

Purpose for Such a Particular Style

The Romans had a very advanced military, with cavalry, chariots, and foot soldiers - so they needed roads without too many bumps, narrow places, mud patches, or steep inclines, to enable the whole military to get to their intended destinations. They also had to have bridges that could support a lot of weight and last for a very long time, because the roads and bridges took a very long time to build. It is because of this that there are still many Roman roads and bridges in use in Europe today.

To get their military to a place as quickly as possible, the roads were almost completely straight - unlike the roads that came before, which were basically cow or walking paths, curving all over the place. To make the roads straight they had to invent strong bridges to go through rivers, lakes and streams, instead of going around them like earlier civilisations had. They also had to go through swamps and bogs, which is why they built the viaduct, which is basically an extremely long bridge.

Second Uses

Although roads and bridges were initially used for military purposes, they also were used for transporting trading goods and raw resources such as tin, copper and salt. All of the people in Rome had specialised jobs and so their system of trade was very important to them. The bridges enabled merchants get to places that they either couldn't reach before, or places it would have taken so long to get to that they just didn't bother. This let the whole civilisation advance more quickly.

The roads and bridges also helped political and intellectual trade, because merchants would bring word of the most recent happenings in their area to a different city, and eventually the word would spread throughout the empire. The roads would enable scholars to travel from city to city more easily too, so it was easier for them to meet with each other and exchange ideas until they evolved into something big. In addition, the roads helped messengers travel more quickly, so word could get to the places that the merchants had missed too.

Since all of the merchants, messengers and scholars were all constantly travelling the road, inns and other small businesses would start up along it, offering the travellers could get everything that they needed. This caused even more people to travel the roads so they could bring supplies to the shops and other businesses. This, in turn, helped the inn's business, so there grew to be more and more things along the roads. Eventually this pattern led to the development of small towns which would also supply the major cities with food and other goods until the roads were supporting Rome's economy.

The Arch

The Romans made many important developments in architecture, such as the arch, and longer-lasting roads. The arch enabled them to build temples, and stronger, bigger and more durable buildings and bridges. It was also much more durable than the post and lintel technique, so the buildings made of arches would last for a much longer time. The roads stretched across the empire and could withstand wet weather and heavier pressure - elephants were even able to walk over them many times without wearing them out - much better than anything that had gone before.

The Builders

The workforce responsible for building the roads in the Roman Empire consisted mainly of soldiers, who worked alongside slaves. The soldiers required training and were the main people who used the roads, hence their employment. Of course, they didn't do all the work by themselves - engineers and surveyors did the planning and cut the stones - but they did most of the labouring work.

How the Roads Were Built

The Romans had a special road-building technique that tried to ensure that they were as sturdy as possible - it was obviously effective as many of them are still in use today. They started out by digging a deep hole and filling it with a layer of sand, followed by a layer of dirt, then a layer of gravel and concrete, with, finally, cobblestones laid over the top. All of the roads rose slightly in the centre so that when it rained on them, water would just run off into ditches on either side. The roads would have varied in width - the least frequently-used roads were the narrowest and the most heavily-used roads were fairly wide.

Types of Bridges

There were many different types of bridges in the Roman Empire and different styles were used for temporary bridges and permanent ones. One of the most common types of temporary bridge involved the simple connection of a long line of boats with wooden planks. The permanent ones, however, were far more complicated in structure.

How Bridges Were Built and What They Were Built With

Before the engineers started planning the bridges and roads, whoever was in charge would have to get surveyors out to survey the land and decide where they were going to go. They had special tools that they would use to make sure that the roads were straight and that intersections were at exactly a 90 degree angle. Then they would show their plans to the engineers so they could start planning what the actual road or bridge was going to be like.

The person who was in charge of building the road or bridge would get an engineer or an architect to do most of the thinking. They would plan how tall, wide and long the bridge would be, and watch all the soldiers to make sure that they were doing the job correctly. They also had to make sure that the stones were cut correctly and that each one was going in its correct place.

When the Romans built a permanent bridge, they started out by connecting about 30 tree trunks together into a hexagon and sealing the cracks between them with mortar. Then they would lower the hexagon into the water and get all the water out of it to ensure they had a dry place to work. Next, they would start building pilings to go between the arches and support the whole bridge. To build the arches and the pilings they would build a lattice-work of wood around the bridge and have cranes hoist the stones up to the workers. To build the actual arch, wooden arches of exactly the right size would be constructed and the stone arches would be placed on top of them and held together with mortar.

Most of the materials used to build the bridge came from nearby, such as the wood and probably most of the stone; but the mortar had to be transported in from somewhere else entirely. The Roman civilisation was the first to discover that mortar that didn't melt in the rain, or when it came in contact with water. Their mortar was made of a ground-up volcanic stone mixed with water that, when dry, worked like cement.

When the Building Took Place

Most of the bridges and roads in the Roman Empire were built near its beginning because it did not expand very much as it got closer to its end. Most of the roads were built as the empire expanded because the military needed to continue pushing further and further out to places that they had never been to before. Since a road was built to every new large city or area that was captured, there were roads and bridges throughout the Roman Empire, going as far as the military had conquered.


There are still many Roman roads and bridges left in the world today, which shows just how sturdy and well-built they were. A lot of the surviving roads and bridges are still being used in their original form or have been paved over because they are cobblestone. They are famous worldwide for their straightness and how carefully-built they were. All of this makes it obvious just how talented the Romans were at road and bridge-building.


  1. Ganeri, Anita. Focus on Romans. New York: Gloucester Press, 1992.
  2. De Souza, Langley, Andrew, Phillip, ed. The Roman News. Cambridge: Candlewick Press.
  3. Keegan, Thomas, ed. How Things Were Built. New York: Random House, 1992.
  4. Koner, Guhl, E. W. The Romans. London: Senate, 1994.
  5. Roman Roads
  6. Roman Transportation

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