Romans: Networks

The Roman road network was vital for transport and trade, and was one of the Romans’ most enduring legacies: it would remain the skeleton of communications in Britain until the 18th century.

Hadrian’s Wall, the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire

Hadrian’s Wall, the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire

ROADS

Following the conquest, the Romans connected their cities and military bases with a network of engineered roads that stretched across Britain. These roads, with their well-known post-Roman names – such as Fosse Way and Ermine Street – are often still in use as highways. The word ‘street’ (from strata, meaning road) is one of the few Latin words to have remained in continuous use since the Roman period.

The linear monument on Wheeldale Moor, North Yorkshire, may be the only extensive stretch of original Roman road construction still visible – although its Roman date is now disputed.

Bronze axle cap from Lullingston Roman Villa

This bronze axle cap found at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, decorated with the face of a lion, probably came from a cart. The use of bronze and the level of decoration point to the wealth of the owner.

THE CURSUS PUBLICUS

The roads were used by civilian traffic alongside the military: most villas and small towns developed in places well served by the road network.

The cities were responsible for the upkeep of the roads and the maintenance of the cursus publicus, the imperial communication service. This was a system of inns, stables and posting houses, together with horses, mules and wagons, all maintained at public expense for the use of imperial officials, so that they could travel as speedily and efficiently as possible across the empire. The courtyard building at Wall, Staffordshire, at the junction of Ryknild Street and Watling Street (which stretched from Verulamium – modern St Albans – to Wroxeter in Shropshire), is a surviving example of an official inn or mansio.

Despite its name, the cursus publicus was not for general use: private individuals could use it only by special permit.

Reconstruction of Chesters Bridge

A reconstruction drawing of the bridge built in the AD 160s to carry the Military Way – the road built alongside Hadrian’s Wall – and the Wall itself across the river Tyne at Chesters.
© English Heritage (drawing by Richard Lea)

WATER TRANSPORT

River transport, faster and cheaper than the roads, was used for the movement of goods – but leaves little archaeological trace. Traffic also ran along the coasts: seaborne traders carrying goods from all over the Roman world converged on London, and there was a vigorous movement of pottery, grain and other supplies from the south-east of England to Hadrian’s Wall, via London and then up the east coast.

Transport by sea was also the most rapid way for soldiers and imperial officials to travel between the capital and the Wall – they arrived at the port of South Shields. It was also, of course, the only means of getting from the Continent to Britain – hence the presence of a mansio at Richborough, Kent, one of the main ports of entry to Britain.

Roman pharos at Dover Castle

The ‘pharos’ at Dover Castle, Kent, is one of the best-preserved Roman lighthouses in Europe. Built in the 2nd century, it helped guide ships into harbour and was paired with another such light on the Western Heights, now lost.

COMMUNICATIONS

The information networks of the Roman Empire were of a sophistication that would not be matched until quite recent times. Most people in Roman Britain would have known what their ruler looked like, for example, because they would have seen accurate portrait busts on coins and on statues in cities and towns, which were based on official prototypes and erected by the civic authorities.

Official and civilian travellers could carry letters and other documents, either inked or inscribed into wax on small wooden tablets. Both coins and publicly visible stone inscriptions proclaimed the emperor’s titles and commemorated his achievements in written form.

LITERACY

Literacy was probably at its highest in urban and military circles. To what extent people in the small towns and countryside participated in the information network is uncertain.

The writing tablets from Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, though, and the curse tablets – metal plaques on which individuals wrote messages to the gods to intercede on their behalf – so common at shrines in southern Britain, suggest that literacy in Latin, the common language of the western Empire, extended far down the social scale both in military circles and in the civilian south, except perhaps in the remotest countryside.

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