Roads in Roman Britain
How, where and why a vast network of roads was built over the length and breadth of Roman Britain.
Following the Roman invasion of Britain under the Emperor Claudius in AD 43, the Roman army oversaw the rapid construction of a network of new roads. These served to link the most important military places in the new province of Britannia.
Roads allowed troops to move efficiently from ports such as Richborough and Dover in Kent, and enabled officials and messengers to travel swiftly, using the imperial communications system (later known as the cursus publicus).
Many of the early roads served to link key pre-existing settlements such as Colchester in Essex and Silchester in Hampshire. These became Roman towns, and important centres for the developing Roman administration.
The structure of Roman roads varied greatly, but a typical form was an agger, or bank, forming the road’s core, built of layers of stone or gravel (depending on what was available locally). In areas of soft ground the road might be built over timber piles and layers of brushwood. The core of the agger would be covered with a layer of larger stones, if available, with the upper surface being formed from layers of smaller stones or gravel.
The full ‘road zone’ could be defined by ditches set some distance from the road, providing drainage and possibly space for pedestrians and animals.
The width of roads varied from about 5 metres to more than 10 metres. Some were far less well constructed than roads of the type described above. Less than half a mile south of the Roman town of Cataractonium (Catterick, North Yorkshire), the main Roman road north to Hadrian’s Wall, Dere Street, consisted of nothing more than successively wider spreads of gravel over a shallow agger.
FROM SOUTH TO NORTH
As Roman power extended across England, so did the road network. Eventually a system was created that linked the south coast ports to Hadrian’s Wall and even reached into what is now Scotland.
The Roman road known as the Fosse Way linked the south-west with Lincoln, having demarcated a temporary frontier in the late AD 40s when the Roman army paused before pushing further north and west. The Stanegate, which stretched from east to west between Corbridge and Carlisle, similarly marked a frontier before Hadrian’s Wall was built to the north of it in the AD 120s.
ROADS TO THE SEA
The roads built by or for the army not only served to link forts and towns as they developed, but were also essential for trade. Moving goods by water was cheaper than overland transport, however, so the road network linked with the sea and inland ports. Many of the supplies required by forts, such as Housesteads and Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, would have arrived via the seaports of Carlisle and South Shields. Their journey may have continued via rivers before being completed by road.
Nonetheless, the Romans did move goods long distances by road – at least when there were no obstacles to doing so. A writing tablet from Vindolanda fort near Hadrian’s Wall records delays in receiving supplies of hide from Catterick because of the poor state of the roads.
But away from the engineered roads built by the army, much of the population would have relied on tracks that wound between fields, often following routes established centuries before. Many army supplies, as well as goods that were traded in towns, would have started their journey on these ancient tracks before reaching the major roads.
By Pete Wilson