One of the most enduring legacies of the Roman presence in Britain is the system of roads they left behind. Trace how and why they were built, and where to find the best examples today.
Roman roads in Britain
BY DAVID ROSS, EDITOR
The Roman administration, however, needed a better network of roads to connect its new towns and army posts and to speed the flow of both trade goods and troops. In building their network of roads the Romans mostly ignored the Celtic paths, partly because the Roman towns and forts were built on new sites away from the Celtic settlements.
The most vital priority was the movement of troops and supplies from the channel ports of Richborough, Dover, and Lympne to the military centres at London, Colchester, and the front-line legionary forts. The first frontier was set up along a road extending from Exeter to Lincoln, running through Bath, Gloucester, and Leicester. This was known as the Fosse Way, the first great Roman road in Britain. The Fosse Way has been largely adapted by modern highways.
The next military push established a new frontier between Lincoln and York, Wroxeter and Chester, and Gloucester and Caerleon. After these "front-line" roads had been established. The Romans turned their attention to expanding the network of minor roads within their new possessions, to better aid the flow of trade.
By 82AD the Romans had pushed north as far as a line between the Clyde and the Firth of Forth. During this campaign alone the army built over 60 forts and over 1200 miles of roads. The imperial posting service, used by Roman officials, maintained inns and relays of horses at intervals of 30 to 50 kilometres along the roads.
The minor roads (sometimes called "economic roads") were also built by the Roman army to link economic centres, such as the Mendip lead mines and the Nene potteries, with administrative capitals like Silchester, and the coastal ports. At a best guess there were between 8000-10,000 miles of roads constructed during the first hundred years of Roman occupation.
The choice of material depended upon what was locally available; in the chalk areas like the Wessex Downs a mix of chalk, flint, and gravel was used. The paved area was edged with upright stones to provide stability, and the major roads had ditches to each side, about 84 feet apart.
Tracing the course of Roman roads can be a fun activity. Large scale maps help, as does the excellent Ordnance Survey map of Roman Britain. Almost any straight stretch of road is a candidate, and often the roads follow parish boundaries or hedges.
The best unaltered examples of Roman roads in Britain today exist at Wheeldale Moor (North Yorkshire), Holtye (Sussex), and Blackstone Edge (near Littleborough, Greater Manchester). A clue to the existence of former Roman roads is the prefix "street", as in Streatley, or Streatham.
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