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The Roman Road of Pietralunga

On a late winter's day in 2004 I showed up at the Tourist Office in the little town of Pietralunga in one of the remoter parts of northeastern Umbria, bubbling with the enthusiasm of tourists, what do you have to see in these parts, I'm interested in Roman roads? Glad to oblige, the man on duty sent me to a Roman road, of course; and then again, maybe not.

I'm of very mixed mind as to what I saw. The simplest thing is to take you along on the same walk and look at it all in the same order as I first did. All the photos on this page are taken in the "forward" direction, towards Castelfranco.


[image ALT: A woodland scene at the end of winter, with a path, carpeted with dry leaves, winding away from us up a slight slope. The path is said to be the beginning of an old road, possibly Roman, at Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy).]

To find the beginning of your road, you will need instructions, or a kind soul to drive you there. I had both: this forest path, looking like many others, branches out among three from a little clearing behind a house or two — even "hamlet" is too much — at a place called S. Felice, about 5 km W of Pietralunga.

Now before I left town, Maurizio had shown me photographs of what I would be looking for, and warned me that the photos were sadly out of date: taken in 1995 — only nine years before — they showed something that to me looked very much like a Roman road; but, he said, motorbikers had discovered the place, and had significantly damaged it. I therefore had no idea what to expect:

[image ALT: A section, about 20 meters long, of a very damaged old stone road about 1.5 m wide, ascending a gentle slope in a landscape of scrub at the end of winter. It is a view of a road near Pietralunga and Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy), that is said to be Roman.]

[image ALT: A section, about 20 meters long, of a rocky path about 1.5 m wide, ascending a gentle slope in a landscape of scrub at the end of winter; several large blocks of stone are scattered in the foreground. It is a view of a road near Pietralunga and Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy), that is said to be Roman.]

So far, I was disappointed. But then this:

[image ALT: A section, about 15 meters long, of an old stone road about 1.5 m wide, ascending a gentle slope in a landscape of scrub at the end of winter. The pavement is composed of broken stones of very irregular size and shape. It is a view of a road near Pietralunga and Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy), that is said to be Roman.]


[image ALT: A section, about 15 meters long, of an old stone road about 1.5 m wide, ascending a gentle slope in a landscape of scrub at the end of winter. The pavement is composed of broken stones of very irregular size and shape. It is a view of a road near Pietralunga and Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy), that is said to be Roman.]
My rocky path was now clearly a stone road, and my question now shifted to: how old?

When I think of Roman roads, what I see in my mind's eye is a much more regular surface, made of smoother stones of even size; in my past experience, Ocriculum, Rignano Flaminio, the Via Appia for example. With its angular-cut blocks, their upper surfaces much rougher than we'd expect from 2000 years of traffic, the road you see on this page doesn't match.

On the other hand, we first have to abstract the recent damage — look closely and you'll see that many of those sharp edges are recent, shattered unweathered rock, consistent with 1990's drag-racing. Then look at where we are: in one of the less inhabited pockets of countryside in central Italy, the township of Pietralunga has just 17 inhabitants per square kilometer. In Antiquity, surely even fewer people lived in the area, and any road here was hardly the Flaminia or the Aemilia: it would not have been built with the same care, and there would be no thousands of carriages to wear it smooth.

But then would there have been a road here at all? In 2004 the road connected two tiny places, each of apparently medieval origin: S. Felice and Castelfranco, whose main building is the large church of S. Maria delle Grazie. In the absence of any definite Roman remains anywhere in the vicinity, it begins to look like a road built by farmer monks a thousand years after the Romans.

Mind you, if you're new to Roman roads, you may have taken one look at all these pictures and mumbled to yourself, gosh no, this isn't Roman; why, I read that Roman roads were all straight and even and had neat coping at the edges, and were built on precise layers of sand, then gravel, then carefully laid stones, plus where are the milestones? Unfortunately, almost none of this popular generalization is true, especially in remoter mountainous terrain: the Romans, just like everybody else, adapted their roads to the ground and the traffic they were likely to bear.

I'll give you part of your argument back, though: one thing the Romans did, more often than not, was to set their roads on the flat whenever possible, unless they were in hostile territory when they traveled on the tops of the hills, the better to survey the land around them. Here though, we're in central Italy not 150 miles N of Rome, thus safely in our own country: yet our road climbs steadily up a hill, then back down again; and it seemed to me, in an offhand way as I walked the area, that a level road could have been built to the right of everything you see here, girdling the hill rather than climbing it.

This next photograph, complete with my 14‑cm pen providing scale, is the best case I can make for a Roman road to Castelfranco.

[image ALT: A section, about 5 meters long, of an old stone road about 1.5 m wide, ascending a gentle slope in an equally rocky landscape. The pavement is composed of broken stones of very irregular size and shape. It is a view of a road near Pietralunga and Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy), that is said to be Roman.]

A few hundred feet later, we've reached the "pass": we've been walking gently uphill so far, but now we start down to S. Maria delle Grazie. The pass is interesting first because it gives us a good feel for the local geology; whoever built our road didn't have to go very far for conveniently sized chunks of stone, not much bigger than my camera bag:

[image ALT: A rocky path passing in front of us from the left foreground then curving at a gentle slope downward into the distance on our right. The curve is caused by an outcrop of stratified rock, about 3 meters tall, at an angle of about 70 degrees to the vertical. It is a view of the summit of an old road or path near Pietralunga and Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy), that is said to be a Roman road.]


[image ALT: A section of rock, about one meter tall, that appears to bear some kind of inscription; which, however, is not easily to be read. It is a detail of a rocky outcrop at the highest point of a road near Pietralunga and Castelfranco, Umbria (central Italy), that is said to be Roman.]
If I were to sign my road with an inscription, this is where I would have done it; and sure enough, just above the camera bag above, we just might have some man‑made scratches (detail to the right). When I was there, I stared at it a while; I've stared at it since, and still can't make any sense of it: maybe it's nothing at all, or maybe someone carved their name here. If that crick in your neck is starting to ache, here's a closer and rotated view of the "inscription".

If I understand my sources correctly, the road we've seen on this page is one of three stretches of old stone pavement within the comune of Pietralunga that are said to be Roman; I haven't seen the other two. Three large sections of visible Roman road in one comune when none is to be seen in the other ninety-one comuni of Umbria need not set off alarm bells, by the way: the Via Flaminia for example, passing thru heavily populated areas, is now covered over, or pilfered from and incorporated into hundreds of churches and buildings — but maybe in this remote area, in no particular need of stone, a Roman road can survive.

On balance though, tentatively and temporarily, I don't think we can identify this road as Roman. When I go back to Pietralunga, I hope I'll be both younger and in less of a hurry; I'll walk the two other roads, spend a little more time examining the stone, look at the IGM maps of the area, and walk the alternate routes; and it would help to read the indispensable reference: Antonio Alpini's Pietralunga dalle origini alle soglie del terzo millennio, 1262pp, Delta Grafica srl (n. d. but probably 2000, the date of the preface).



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Page updated: 7 Nov 04