The Forgotten Roman Roads

Roman roads are famous by virtue of their straightness. Designed to facilitate the fast movement of soldiers across great distances, and to enable travelling troops to perceive far off threats early on, the roads built by the ancient Romans traversed the length of the island and connected many new and established towns in the province of Britannia.

The main roads criss-crossing the country, or A roads as we may view them today, were the arteries of the Roman road system.

Across their length many smaller roads, much like veins (or the B roads of today), helped to keep people moving as efficiently as possible.

Remains of a Roman Road near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Remains of a Roman road near Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Such roads are much harder to find in the archaeological record of Roman Britain, but not impossible. Here we take a look at some of the lesser highways constructed and used by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, and investigate whether any are still in use today.


The road network in Britannia

10,000 miles, or 16,000 km, of roads were built by the Romans between AD 43 and AD 150. Though a number of long-distance highways were already established at the time of the Roman invasion in AD 43, the Romans required more roads on which to move soldiers, workmen, animals, materials, and traded goods quickly and efficiently. So, too, did they hope to impose their power over the native population who were now under their dominion.

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In AD 43, the Emperor Claudius endeavoured to complete the invasion of Britain begun by Julius Caesar in two unsuccessful attempts in 55 and 54 BC. Unwilling to accept a third defeat for Rome, Claudius sent a 40,000-strong military force to the coast of Kent.

Landing at modern-day Richborough, the troops were this time met with little resistance and began to move north and West across England and Wales. Over the next 45 years, the Roman army would gradually extend its control across the island and into Scotland, though almost full control of the north would take the General Agricola seven years by land and sea.

Protection Against Ambush

The movement of Rome’s troops across the new Roman province of Britannia was facilitated by the pre-existing trackways set out by Iron Age settlers. Where highways were absent, the invaders were content with striking out across open land cross-country.

Upon securing a location for a new colonia (colony), an outpost established in conquered territory, Roman surveyors and road builders would quickly get to work in connecting it with other key military and civilian locations.

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For the most part, Roman roads were built straight. However, the movement of natural terrain, such as steep cliffs and hillsides, provided its own challenges.In such cases, the Romans would not plough through the land, as is often thought, but would build a new section of road slightly off-angle to the previous section.

Each section would be a few miles long and built for maximum efficiency, avoiding any sudden summits which may increase travel times. For protection against easy ambush from enemies, surveyors preferred high terrain for the construction of roads. This would also limit the human and animal exposure to wet land in valley bottoms.

Roman campaigns across Britain and the road network of the time.
Roman campaigns across Britain and the road network of the time.

The main roads of Britannia

To find the minor highways, or B roads, of Roman Britain, we must first identify the larger routes connected with them.

The longest road in Britannia was Watling Street, which ran 276 miles, or 444 km, from Dover on the south-east coast to Wroxeter on the edge of Wales, across the Thames and through Londinium (present-day London).

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This paved road is thought to have been built around 47 or 48 AD. Another example is the straightest of them all, Fosse Way, which crossed England from Exeter in the south-west to Lincoln in the north-east, and on which modern travellers can travel today.

How to lay a Roman road

A big thank you to the rabbits for making a Roman road their home and allowing us to see the layers of agger

Each of these roads would have been paved to aid the movement of heavy freight vehicles, troops, and animals and carts transporting goods. There were five layers in a main Roman road:

  1. Levelled native earth
  2. Statumen, or stones small enough to lay in the palm of the hand
  3. Audits, or broken stones made of rubble and lime
  4. Nucleus, or bedding of a fine cement made from old potshards and lime
  5. Dorsum or agger viae, or polygonal blocks of basaltic lava or rectangular blocks made from travertine, peperino, or other stone of the country.

Above these layers, a crepido or raised pavement would be constructed on either side of the road (via) before the laying of edge stones, known as umbones.

The byways, or B roads, of Roman Britain

The B roads of Roman Britain were designed to connect different areas and allow traffic to travel between major A roads (such as Watling Street) and smaller roads on the network.

B roads would have been used by moderately large volumes of traffic and so were also paved. In 1948, the historian Ivan Margary devised a numbering system for cataloging all known Roman roads in Britain.

For this scheme, Margary divided the roads into three different categories: Main Routes, identified by single digit numbers, Principle Routes, identified by double digit numbers, and Minor Branches, identified by three digit numbers.

Ivan Margary's iconic book numbering Roman Roads. Many will associate his name with Fishbourne Roman Palace
Ivan Margary’s iconic book numbering Roman roads. Many will associate his name with Fishbourne Roman Palace

Examples of Main Routes can be seen above, such as Watling Street, while an example of a Principal Route would be Akeman Street, which once ran across the modern day counties of Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire for 73 miles, or 117 km. Smaller routes would have run through villages and had no direct connection to a major road.

Fosse Way

Interestingly, the Roman writer Ulpian, writing in the second and third centuries AD, notes three types of road. Viae publicae (public high or main roads constructed and maintained at public expense), Viae privatae (private or country roads constructed and maintained by private individuals who can grant public use), and Viae vicinales (neighbourhood roads leading through or towards a vicus, or village).

An example of a private road, or B road, in Roman Britain is the aforementioned Fosse Way, running from Exeter to Lincoln. A good way to illustrate the importance of B roads to the Roman road network would be to trace the mock journey of a salesman travelling in horse and cart from London to Exeter in the year 150 AD, going via major cities for some important trading deals.

Fosse way Roman Road
Section of the Fosse Way as a byway just north of the M4. Always fascinating that society still uses ancient highways. Image Credit: Deipnosophista CC BY-SA 3.0

Roman Roads

Starting in the heart of Londinium, the trader would begin by taking either Watling Street or Akeman Street north-west, arriving first at Verulamium, or modern-day St Albans. He might then continue west on Akeman Street until he reaches Corinium, or Cirencester. While here, he may choose to take private roads, or B roads, other than the Fosse Way to reach other local towns.

One such road would be Ermin Street, connecting locations such as Silchester to Winchester and Bitterne, in addition to Bath, Frome, Dorchester, and Weymouth. The trader would then be able to take the Fosse Way all the way to Lindinis, or Ilchester today, before finally arriving at Isca Dumnoniorum, today known as Exeter.

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The Roman B roads were useful in that they enabled journeys to important trading towns to be made without the need to double back to key points along any of the major roads. For example, a B road connects Sirencester (on a major route) to Winchester (on a B road route).

To prevent the traveller needing to return to Sirencester to continue further west, a further B road from Winchester to Sarum (on the same major route as Sirencester) was constructed by the Romans.

Today, you might like to take a trip across the British Isles on an ancient stretch of road which runs parallel to a most famous landmark in the ancient Roman landscape of Britain: Military Way.

Military Way roman road
The course of the Military Way, seen here near Milecastle 42, ran between the southside of Hadrian’s Wall and the Vallum. Image Credit: Mike Quinn CC BY-SA 2.0

Military Way was constructed in the Roman period just south of Hadrian’s Wall, the structure built by the Romans in 122 AD to stretch from sea to sea for 73 miles. Much of Military Way, constructed to run over 80 miles, or 128 km, is still very much evident in the modern landscape, and is walkable between Sewing Shields and Walltown Quarry. A public right of way follows the way from Milking Gap to Walltown Quarry.

This route also provides the perfect opportunity to take in a number of Roman remains, including the Roman auxiliary fort Vindolanda, noted for the significant discovery of the oldest surviving handwritten documents to be found in Britain to date. Just make sure to make use of a B road to visit it!