What Happened to Britain’s Roman Roads?

Along Britain’s Roman roads, stone milestones were placed at regular intervals. These milestones provided distance markers and often featured inscriptions that provided information about the road’s construction and funding.

The Roman Conquest of Britain brought massive changes to the life of people in the British Isles. Rome brought with them a new language, culture, governmental system, and knowledge of building and infrastructure.

One particularly noteworthy addition to the countryside under Roman occupation was the construction of vast and well built road networks. The Romans transformed trackways into well engineered roads that were used by traders, armies and everyday travellers. 

Over the four centuries that Rome maintained its presence in Britain, these roads were kept in good condition and upkeep of road networks was a high priority for Roman officials.


However, after Rome left the British Isles, many of these roads began to fall into disrepair as Britain entered a tumultuous time in its history. The systemic road maintenance that was undertaken during the Roman occupation ceased.

It would not be until centuries later that paved roads would be built across Britain on a widespread scale, or that a nationally managed road network system would be created in Britain.

How Were Roman Roads Made?

The roads that the Romans built were more than just mere trackways, but were a well thought-out work of engineering. Roads were designed to create easy transportation and movement of people, with everything from traders and merchants, to soldiers and everyday Roman citizens using the Roman road network. 

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Constructed with practicality in mind, Roman roads in Britain mirrored the Roman road networks that had been built by the Roman Empire across the European continent. The central carriageway of Roman roads was constructed on a raised embankment known as an agger.

Roman road fosse way iron age
Incredible picture, taken in 1903 and is a cross-section through the Fosse Way, Radstock, Somerset, and there also looks like there are cart tracks running along it.

Soft topsoil was removed and the road was laid with either sand that could compact to create a harder surface or gravel, if available in the local area.

Either side of the agger would often have ditches dug, this was so that rainwater would run off the raised embankment and into the ditches, preventing water from pooling on the road in periods of wet weather. 

Solid and Stable Surface

Roads, particularly along important routes, were metalled. This process involved creating a layer of stones that was then compacted with flint and gravel.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

In some rarer instances, roads were even built using limestone mortar, or an early form of concrete. In Roman Britain’s iron producing areas, some roads were built using iron slag. 

Different segments of roads were designed to be used for different purposes. The centre carriageway, which was generally built with a hard, compacted surface, was designed to create a stable roadway for carts and other horse-drawn vehicles.

Meanwhile, the land on either side of the agger, between the ditch and the central carriageway was designed to be used by pedestrians and animals. 

Roman Road in Dorset
Thanks to the rabbits we can see the layers of this Roman Road.

Rome even created maps, itineraries and milestones to help aid travellers along the Roman road networks of Britain. 

Maintaining The Network 

The Romans went to extensive lengths to ensure their roads were well maintained. Many of the major Roman roads in Britain were first made by the Roman army, and building these roads allowed troops and weaponry to be moved around the country efficiently.

Read More: How Were Roman Roads Built?

It was often the  responsibility of the imperial officials to ensure the roads remained in good condition. Funding for this maintenance was also likely sourced from governing bodies through which the roadway crossed. 

Roman roads, particularly on major routes, were frequently resurfaced to ensure they remained fit for use. In some cases roads were even entirely rebuilt to ensure high quality road networks were maintained across the ancient countryside.

The Roman Roads of Britain 

The network of roads that Rome installed in Britain was a huge undertaking.  Paved trunk roads constructed across Britain by the Romans covered an estimated 2,000 miles. These ancient roads formed some of the main trade, military and migration arteries across ancient Britain.

Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery
Where two worlds collide, a rare neolithic disc barrow that has had the bottom sliced off by a Roman Road. This is the Old Sarum to Badbury Rings Roman road cutting through the Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery on the Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

In some instances, the Romans built roads along existing trackways, utilising already established movement channels and improving them with more sophisticated road building techniques. In other cases, new roads were built entirely from scratch, carving new passageways across the countryside. 

Read More: A Trip Along Watling Street, The Longest Roman Road in Britain 

The first Roman roads in Britain were built to link military bases, allowing troops, equipment, and information to easily spread between military camps. However, as the Roman occupation of Britain continued, roads soon spread to link most of the major Roman centres.

During the age of Roman Britain, London, then known as Londinium, and York, then known as Eburacum, were linked by road networks, and it was possible to travel on Roman roads from southern ports all the way to modern day Scotland.

The longest Roman road in Britain, Watling Street, stretches over 270 miles, while other major passageways also reached hundreds of miles across the ancient countryside.

What Happened to the Roads 

For close to four hundred years Rome built and maintained its vast and impressive road networks across its British territories. However, in 410 AD, the Roman occupation of Britain ended.

Of course, when Rome withdrew from the British Isles much of the infrastructure they had built during their four centuries of occupation, remained. This included towns and cities, defensive structures, and roads.

A Roman road that is passing through a woodland
Permissive path on Roman road at Wintershill. Although shown as a straight line on the OS map, the public footpath actually dog legs to the left through the stile. The Roman road continues straight ahead which is also a permissive path. Image Credit: Peter Facey

Many of these passages remained in use, and the routes of some Roman roads have even loosely become the road links of today. 

Roman roads were so well used, even after Rome left, that they inspired some of the place names still in use today. The prefix strat, stret or streat as seen in place names such as Stretham, was given to settlements formed near the leftover remains of Roman roads. Stretham actually translates to mean homestead or village on a Roman road. 

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The town of Streford is another good example of a place name that references old Roman routes, with the name of the town translating to mean ford on a Roman road.

Some Disappeared Entirely

However, while they may have remained in use, the meticulous construction and maintenance of these roads ceased. Without maintenance, many roads began to fall into disrepair and some disappeared entirely.

Once again Britain became a place with more muddy trackways than well maintained roads constructed with an engineering mindset.

Britain's Roman Roads. Section of Ryknild Street Roman Road,
Britain’s Roman Roads: Ryknild Street Roman Road, Sutton Park. Looking north east. The 1.5 mile section of the Roman road that runs through Sutton Park is one of the best preserved in the country, clearly showing the constructional features typical of roads in this part of the empire.

Part of the reason for these roads falling into disrepair comes down to the fact that the Romans operated with a highly organised central government system that Britain didn’t independently have in place.

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There were organised hierarchies and expectations for the activities different members of the community would undertake. To put it simply, it was expected that someone would oversee maintaining the roads and who that someone was for each area knew this was their job.

There were systems to fund the construction and maintenance of roads and people that were knowledgeable in how to build and maintain these roads. 

Power Struggle

While Rome may have left behind its road networks when it left Britain, it didn’t leave behind these pre-formed central power hierarchies and role responsibilities. There was no longer a centralised system for maintaining, planning and constructing road networks. 

Britain's Roman Roads. Roman Road on marshy Otmoor, Oxfordshire, England.
Roman Road on marshy Otmoor, Oxfordshire, England. Otmoor is very wet, a flat area on clay. The Roman Road, originally from Dorchester-on-Thames to Bicester, is now a bridleway.

This lack of centralised organisation meant that, quite simply, no one maintained the roads and no one was building new roads in the same way as the Romans. As such, Roman roads began to fall into disrepair.

In some instances, stones from Roman roads were even ripped up to be used in the construction of buildings and other local infrastructure such as walls and buildings. 

After the Roman Period 

After the Romans left Britain in the fifth century, Britain entered a tumultuous time in its history. The power vacuum created by the departure of Rome created internal power struggles and encouraged foreign invaders to arrive on Britain’s shores.

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Various kingdoms rose across the countryside in the Anglo-Saxon era with independent rulers and systems of government. Eventually, when these kingdoms were united and England was formed, the maintenance of road networks was not a high priority. 

Britain's Roman Roads. Roman Road Eggardon Hill Fort dorset
Britain’s Roman Roads: The Roman Road runs along one of Eggardon Hill’s ramparts, Dorset

While there were efforts throughout history to maintain roads to a certain level, this usually fell short of the road building efforts of the Romans. A nationally managed highway system was also lacking.

The Roman road network was the first recorded nationally managed road system in the British Isles, and the next nationally managed road network system would not be formed until as late as the twentieth century with the formation of the Ministry of Transport.

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Meanwhile, while Roman roads were constructed with the use of stone and many were metalled, the widespread construction of paved roads in Britain wouldn’t be seen again until the 1700s. 

Travelling in the Footsteps

The road Networks created by the Romans was a core part of the infrastructure of Roman Britain. These roads assisted in the efficient transportation of goods, allowed greater levels of migration and helped Roman troops to more efficiently move to where they were needed.

Britain's Roman Roads. Driving along a Roman Road in WW2 Jeeps in Dorset
Britain’s Roman Roads: On the former Roman Road, Durnovaria – Vindelis (Dorchester – Portland)

Roads were well built and well maintained under the Roman government and a system resembling the nationally managed road networks created by Rome would not be seen again until centuries later. 

At the departure of Rome, despite Roman roads still seeing extensive use, they began to fall into disrepair. Without a clear centralised system for maintenance, the upkeep of road networks ceased and many Roman roads were lost to history.

The legacy of these roads lives on in the transport networks across Britain, with the routes of some Roman roads still loosely translating to some of the major roads still in use today. 

So, while the roads built by the Romans may have fallen into disrepair, when roaming the roads of Britain it is still possible that you just may be travelling in the footsteps of the Romans. 

Ten key points about Roman roads:

  1. Engineering Expertise: Roman roads were known for their exceptional engineering and durability. They were designed to last for centuries.
  2. Straight and Well-Planned: Romans preferred straight roads whenever possible. They used tools like the groma and dioptra for accurate surveying and leveling.
  3. Foundation Layers: Roman roads typically had multiple layers, including a foundation of large stones or gravel, a layer of smaller stones, and a top layer of carefully fitted, interlocking stones called “pavement stones.”
  4. Drainage Systems: Roman roads had sophisticated drainage systems, including ditches and culverts, to manage rainwater and prevent erosion.
  5. Milestones: The Romans placed milestones (mile markers) along their roads, which helped travelers measure distances and navigate. Some milestones still exist today.
  6. Standard Width: Roman roads generally had a standard width of about 4.8 meters (15.75 feet), wide enough to allow two carts to pass each other comfortably.
  7. Roman Bridges: Roman roads often included bridges made of stone or concrete. These were crucial for crossing rivers and valleys.
  8. Network: The Romans built an extensive road network, connecting their vast empire. Major roads radiated from Rome, which was at the center.
  9. Speed and Efficiency: Roman roads facilitated the rapid movement of troops, goods, and information across the empire, contributing to its cohesion and success.
  10. Legacy: Many ancient Roman roads still exist today, and some modern roads follow the routes of their ancient counterparts. Roman road-building techniques influenced road construction for centuries to come.