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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.º 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 foot 9½, 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.​a

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.​b (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.)​c

Thayer's Notes:

a The church was bombed out of existence in the Second World War. The milestone, however, survived! It is back at the same location, set in a special niche on a streetside wall of the Bank of China.

b 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: as often, 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 a bit of approximative shorthand.

c 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: 12 Dec 11