Why did the Romans build straight roads?

The strength of Roman roads means that many still exist today, while others became the foundations of other roads…

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of History Revealed

Straight as a ruler: Long Roman roads ran for miles across Britain and Europe. (Credit: Alamy)

While some Roman roads might have bends or corners, the vast majority are distinctively straight as they march for mile after mile across Britain and Europe. Unlike modern roads, the via munita were not intended for the use of ordinary people. Only army units, government officials and those with a special pass were allowed to use them. When moving armies, or officials to deal with emergencies, speed was paramount. Everyone else had to make do with using local dirt tracks.

Of course, you would think certain natural features – steep hills and valleys – of the landscape could affect the straightness of the via munita. Not so, Roman roads went straight up the most precipitous of slopes without winding back and forth in hairpin bends like modern roads. This is because a marching man on foot can go straight up a steep hill and then rest to recover before moving on much quicker than if he wound around a gently rising slope.

Army supplies were carried on mules who could likewise go up a steep slope without much trouble. Draught animals pulling wagons needed the gentler slope, but the via munita were not built for merchants who used wagons.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Rupert Matthews. For more fascinating question by Rupert, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.


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