Abstract: ‘All Roads Lead to Rome’: The Roman Highway System in Global Perspective
The empire’s vast highway system is a distinctive feature of Roman civilization that the peoples in the lands which Rome once ruled have typically always admired and exploited. We today in North America are admirers too – with our own Interstate system, on which we move ourselves and our goods so freely and conveniently. Moreover, we take it for granted that the Romans themselves had consciously regarded their highways as a system just as we with our scientific outlook view it, and that the freedom of movement they permitted within their empire was something quite normal in history. This lecture challenges these assumptions as likely to need re-thinking. It demonstrates on the one hand that the Romans in fact show no sign of having conceived their highways as a system or coherent network – a huge investment and resource that emperors might well have boasted about, but for a variety of possible reasons (to be discussed !) never did. On the other hand, what emerges starkly when we apply a global perspective to Rome’s attitude to movement by its subjects is how liberal it appears by comparison with the control exerted by such other pre-modern states noted for their highways as China, Japan, and the Inca. Altogether, this lecture offers its audience some striking and unexpected fresh perspectives on the Roman empire and on Romans’ thinking about highways, their subject peoples, and indeed the known world.
For a concise ‘standard’ treatment, see R. A. Staccioli, The Roads of the Romans (Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2003). For other cultures by comparison, see my own (co-edited) Highways, Byways, and Road Systems in the Pre-Modern World (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming).