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Bill Thayer

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Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp 762‑763 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

Woodcuts are from Smith's Dictionary; any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer

Millia′re, Millia′rium, or Mille passuum (μίλιον), the Roman mile, consisted of 1000 paces (passus) of 5 feet each, and was therefore = 5000 feet. Taking the Roman foot at 11.6496 English inches, the Roman mile would be 1618 English yards, or 142 yards less than the English statute mile. By another calculation, in which the foot is taken at 11.62 inches, the mile would be a little more than 1614 yards [Mensura]. The number of Roman miles in a degree of a large circle of the earth is a very little more than 75. The Roman mile contained 8 Greek stadia.​a The most common term for the mile is mille passuum, or only the initials M.P.; sometimes the word passuum is omitted (Cic. ad Att. III.4; Sallust, Jug. c. 114).º

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A typical milestone — of Trajan's, from the year A.D. 107‑108 — now in the Museo Emilio Greco in Orvieto (the bright horizontal stripes behind me are the exterior walls of the famous cathedral): at 5′9½″ (1m77) I provide scale.

For the inscription itself, see this page.

The mile-stones along the Roman roads were called milliaria. They were also called lapides; thus we have ad tertium lapidem (or without the word lapidem) for 3 miles from Rome, for Rome is to be understood as the starting-point when no other place is mentioned.º Sometimes we have in full ab Urbe, or a Roma (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.12 s56; Varro, R. R. III.2). The laying down of the mile-stones along the Roman roads is commonly ascribed to C. Gracchus, on the authority of a passage in Plutarch (Gracch. 6, 7) which only proves that Gracchus erected mile-stones on the roads which he made or repaired, without at all implying that the system had never been used before. There are passages in the historians, where mile-stones are spoken of as if they had existed much earlier; but such passages are not decisive; they may be anticipatory anachronisms (Liv. V.4; Flor. II.6; cf. Justin. XXII.6 §9). A more important testimony is that of Polybius (III.39), who expressly states that, in his time, that part of the high road from Spain to Italy, which lay in Gaul, was provided with mile-stones.

The system was brought to perfection by Augustus, probably in connection with that measurement of the roads of the empire, which was set on foot by Julius Caesar, and the results of which are recorded in the so‑called Antonine Itinerary. Augustus set up a gilt marble pillar in the forum at Rome, to mark the central point from which the great roads diverged to the several gates of Rome (Dion Cass. LIV.8; Plut. Galb. 24). It was called the Milliarium Aureum; and its position is defined as being in capite Romani Fori (Plin. H. N. III.5, s9), sub aedem Saturni (Tac. Hist. I.27). Some remains of it still exist, close to the Arch of Septimius Severus, consisting of a round base and a piece of fine marble 4½ feet in diameter, the whole being about 10 feet high (Platner u. Bunsen, Beschreib. d. Stadt Rom. vol. III, pt. 1, p73; pt. 2, p102; Platner u. Urlichs, Beschreib. Roms, p20). It seems that the marble pillar was covered, on each of its faces, with tablets of gilt bronze; but whether the information engraved upon them consisted simply of a list of the chief places on each road, with their distances, or whether there was a sort of map of each set of roads with the distances marked upon them, is now unknown. It is also uncertain whether the miles began to be reckoned from the pillar itself, or from the city gates (see De la Nauze, in the Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscr. vol. XXVIII p388, &c.; Ideler, in the Abhandl. d. Berl. Acad. 1812, pp134, 164).

The Milliarium Aureum at Byzantium, erected by Constantine in imitation of that of Augustus, was a large building in the forum Augusteum, near the church of St. Sophia (see Buchholz, in the Zeitschrift für Alterthumswissenschaft, 1845, No. 100, &c.).

London also had its Milliarium Aureum, a fragment of which still remains, namely, the celebrated London Stone, which may be seen affixed to the wall of St. Swithin's Church in Cannon Street.​b

From this example it may be inferred that the chief city of each province of the empire had its Milliarium Aureum.

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This is a particularly fine example, and was meant as such in Antiquity: the 7th milestone of the Via Appia, now in a discrete corner of the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

The ordinary milliaria along the roads were blocks or pillars of stone, inscribed with some or all of the following points of information:
  1. the distance, which was expressed by a number, with or without M.P. prefixed;

  2. the places between which the road extended;

  3. the name of the constructor of the road, and of the emperor to whose honour the work was dedicated.

Several of these inscriptions remain, and are collected in the following works: Gruter, C.I. pp. cli, &c.; Muratori, Thes. vol. I pp447, &c.; Orelli, Inscr. Lat. Sel. Nos. 1067, 3330, 4877; and especially Bergier, Hist. des grands Chemins des Rom. vol. II pp757, &c., Bruxelles, 1728, 4to.

On some of these mile-stones, which have been found in Gaul, the distances are marked, not only in Roman miles, but also in Gallic Leugae, a measure somewhat greater than the Roman mile.​c (For some further details respecting these extant mile-stones, see the article Milliarium in the Real-Encyclop. d. Class. Alterth., to which the foregoing article is considerably indebted.)​d

Thayer's Notes:

a Although it is very often seen on the Web, but even in print, that there were exactly 8 stadia in a Roman mile, this is the merest of approximations. See my note to (the admittedly late) Procopius, Wars V.11.2 (B. G. I.11.2).

b British archaeologist Preston Boyles writes me the following most informative note. Short answer: the London Stone is not a milestone, let alone the milliarium aureum of London, if ever there was one.

Although the London Stone is likely to be the remains of some sort of Roman monument or structure, there is no evidence that it was a Milliarium Aureum, or even a milliarium. The earliest proposal that it was comes from William Camden, in his 1586-1607 survey of Great Britain, called Britain, or a Chorographicall Description of the most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Ilands adjoyning, out of the depth of Antiquitie. In the preface to this survey, Camden tells us that his instructions for undertaking the work were: "that I would restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to his antiquity; which was as I understood, that I would renew ancientrie, enlighten obscuritie, cleare doubts, and recall home veritie by way of recovery, which the negligence of writers and credulitie of the common sort had in a manner proscribed and utterly banished from amongst us."

Personally, I think that this aim, to highlight (and perhaps speculate or fabricate, where firm evidence was lacking) the antiquity of things, combined with his occupation as a topographer and chorographer tasked with mapping Britain, led him to propose the milliarium theory. The idea that the London Stone was a Milliarium Aureum, from which the roads and distances of the entire Roman province were calculated, would surely have appealed to him personally as a topographer undertaking just such a role. Camden says: "London-stone, which I take to have been a Militarie or Milemarke such as was in the mercat place of Rome, from which was taken the dimension of all journeys every way, considering it is in the very mids of the Citie, as it lieth in length." Given that Camden was writing in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods (his 1607 edition was published during the reign of King James I of England, who united the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland — although not the kingdoms themselves), I wonder if politics also played a role: it behoved Camden to present London as always having been the centre of the British Isles, even back in the Roman period.

Camden's theory is educated guesswork at best, with no real basis in fact; after all, the London Stone is just a large block of oolitic limestone, and could be part of anything. Despite this, his theory has been taken and repeated as fact by popular and even serious archaeological and historical publications. Smith is a perfect example, boldly stating that not only is the London Stone the remains of a Milliarium Aureum, but that it is also proof that every province had such a stone. The actual Milliarium Aureum in Rome was surely a unique propaganda monument, erected by Augustus when he assumed the responsibility of the cura viarum in 20 B.C. It presented Rome under Augustus' guidance as being at the centre of the world, to which all roads led. And the Million monument erected in Constantinople by Constantine must surely have been in imitation of Rome's Milliarium Aureum, to present the city as the new focus of the world? Would having such monuments in other provincial cities not dilute this message? Even an argument for the London Stone being a milliarium in the truest sense, a point from which distances were marked from the city, does not hold much water. Speaking as an archaeologist and historian, I know that the distances mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary between Londinium and Camulodunum/Colonia Victricensis (my hometown of Colchester) only fit if the starting point is London's Aldgate, not the centre of the city where the London Stone sat, and the end point Colchester's Balkerne Gate. The same can be said of other distances mentioned in the Itinerary, which require the starting points to be the gates out of which the roads issued.

There is a sober and comprehensive modern discussion of the London Stone, its origins and its history, in a 2007 article by archaeologist John Clark in the Transactions of London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 58:169‑189. In it, Clark says: "That the stone was the Roman milliarium, in the form of a monolithic milestone, and that it marked the point from which distances throughout the province of Roman Britain were measured, was to become, as it were, the default opinion among 17th‑ and 18th‑century antiquarians, like William Stukeley (1724, 112), and has not lost its popularity today." He points out that not only is there no evidence for it being a milliarium, but that when all is said and done "One may only comment that the fact that the stone is of a type of limestone used in London in the Roman period, and stood on the southern edge of a Roman street." Even the more recent archaeological interpretations, which propose that it actually formed part of some sort of monumental public building, are speculation, although perhaps more realistic. As Clark says of the various theories regarding the origins of the London Stone (including that it was a milliarium): "None of these conjectures has been proven, some can be disproved, and others are at best improbable!"

Perhaps the Elizabethan historian, John Stow, said it best in 1598: "The cause why this stone was set there, the time when, or other memory hereof, is none".

The church was so severely damaged in the Second World War that it was deemed unprofitable to restore and was demolished in 1961‑1962. The London Stone, however, survived! It has been returned to the same location, set in a special niche on a modern successor building.

c Mr. Smith's article here seems very vague about what is a matter of common knowledge, viz., that the Gallic league was equal to exactly one and a half Roman miles.

As it turns out, however, this is good scholar­ship, making up for his carelessness about the stadia above. As often, here again common knowledge — despite a well-known passage of Ammianus Marcellinus, XVI.12.8 — is wrong. For the details (plus some fascinating cartographic detective work and manuscript emendation by a pilot who's spent much of his life investigating archaeology from the air), see Jacques Dassié's page. The league in fact seems to have been variable in Antiquity, much as it was thru the early modern times in France, and the 1.5‑mile equivalence seen in Ammian should be taken as yet another bit of approximative shorthand.

d Daremberg & Saglio's Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines is the French equivalent of Pauly-Wissowa's RE; the article Milliarium is onsite, translated into English: see the footer bar below.

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Page updated: 16 Mar 23