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 p1191  Viae

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp1191‑1195 of

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

VIAE. Three words are employed by the Roman jurists to denote a road, or a right of road, Iter, Actus, Via. The different meanings of these three words are given under Servitutes, p1032.

We next find Viae divided into privatae or agrariae and publicae, the former being those the use of which was free while the soil itself remained private property, the latter those of which the use, the management, and the soil were alike vested in the state. Viae Vicinales (quae in vicis sunt vel quae in vicos ducunt), being country cross-roads merging into the great lines, or at all events not leading to any important terminus, might be either publicae or privatae according as they were formed and maintained at the cost of the state or by the contributions of private individuals (Dig. 43 tit. 8 s.2 §21, 22; tit. 7 s.3; Sicul. Flacc. de Cond. Agr. p9, ed. Goes.). The Viae publicae of the highest class were distinguished by the epithets militares, consulares, praetoriae, answering to the terms ὅδοι βασιλικαὶ among the Greeks and king's highway among ourselves.

That public roads of some kind must have existed from the very foundation of the city is manifest, but as very little friendly intercourse existed with the neighbouring states for any length of time without interruption, they would in all probability not extend beyond the narrow limits of the Roman territory, and would be mere muddy tracks used by the peasants in their journeys to and from market. It was not until the period of the long protracted Samnite wars that the necessity was strongly felt of securing an easy, regular, and safe communication between the city and the legions, and then for the first time we hear of those famous paved roads, which, in after ages, keeping pace with the progress of the Roman arms, connected Rome with her most distant provinces, constituting not only the most useful, but the most lasting of all her works (Strabo, V. p235). The excellence of the principles upon which they were constructed is sufficiently attested by their own extraordinary durability, many specimens being found in the country around Rome which have been used without being repaired for more than a thousand years, and are still in a high state of preservation.

The Romans are said to have adopted their first ideas upon this subject from the Carthaginians (Isidor. XV.16, § 6), and it is extremely probable that the latter people may, from their commercial activity, and the sandy nature of their soil, have  p1192 been compelled to turn their attention to the best means of facilitating the conveyance of merchandize to different parts of their territory. It must not be imagined, however, that the Romans employed from the first the elaborate process which we are about to describe. The first step would be from the Via Terrena (Dig. 43 tit. 11 s.2), the mere track worn by the feet of men and beasts and the wheels of waggons across the fields, to the Via Glareata, where the surface was hardened by gravel; and even after pavement was introduced the blocks seem originally to have rested merely on a bed of small stones (Liv. XLI.27; compare Liv. X.23, 47)

Livy has recorded (IX.29) that the censor­ship of Appius Caecus (B.C. 312) was rendered celebrated in after ages from his having brought water into the cityº and paved a road (quod viam munivit et aquam in urbem perduxit), the renowned Via Appia, which extended in the first instance from Rome to Capua, although we can scarcely suppose that it was carried so great a distance in a single lustrum (Niebuhr, Röm. Gesch. III. p356). We undoubtedly hear long before this period of the Via Latina (Liv. II.39), the Via Gabina (Liv. II.11, III.6, V.49), and the Via Salaria (Liv. VII.9), &c.; but even if we allow that Livy does not employ these names by a sort of prolepsis, in order to indicate conveniently a particular direction (and that he does speak by anticipation when he refers to milestones in some of the above passages is certain), yet we have no proof whatever that they were laid down according to the method afterwards adopted with so much success (cf. Liv. VII.39).

Vitruvius enters into no details with regard to road-making, but he gives most minute directions for pavements, and the fragments of ancient pavements still existing and answering to his description correspond so entirely with the remains of the military roads, that we cannot doubt that the processes followed in each case were identical, and thus Vitruvius (VII.1), on the Via Domitiana, will supply all the technical terms.

In the first place, two shallow trenches (sulci) were dug parallel to each other, marking the breadth of the proposed road; this in the great lines, such as the Via Appia, the Via Flaminia, the Via Valeria, &c., is found to have been from 13 to 15 feet, the Via Tusculana is 11, while those of less importance, from not being great thoroughfares, such as the Via which leads up to the temple of Jupiter Latialis, on the summit of the Alban Mount, and which is to this day singularly perfect, seem to have been exactly 8 feet wide. The loose earth between the Sulci was then removed, and the excavation continued until a solid foundation (gremium) was reached, upon which the materials of the road might firmly rest; if this could not be attained, in consequence of the swampy nature of the ground or from any peculiarity in the soil, a basis was formed artificially by driving piles (fistucationibus). Above the gremium were four distinct strata. The lowest course was the statumen, consisting of stones not smaller than the hand could just grasp; above the statumen was the rudus, a mass of broken stones cemented with lime (what masons call rubble-work) rammed down hard and nine inches thick; above the rudus came the nucleus, composed of fragments of bricks and pottery, the pieces being smaller than in the rudus, cemented with lime and six inches thick. Uppermost was the pavimentum, large polygonal blocks of the hardest stone (silex), usually, at least in the vicinity of Rome, basaltic lava, irregular in form but fitted and jointed with the greatest nicety (apta jungitur arte silex, Tibull. I.7.60) so as to present a perfectly even surface, as free from gaps or irregularities as if the whole had been one solid mass, and presenting much the same external appearances as the most carefully built polygonal walls of the old Pelasgian towns.​a The general aspect will be understood from the cut given below of a portion of the street at the entrance of Pompeii (Mazois, Les Ruines de Pompei, vol. I pl. XXXVII).

[image ALT: An engraving of a sere stone landscape comprising a road paved with large irregular slabs of stone, heading toward a gate that under which it passes at the horizon; the road is hemmed in on either side by high walls in various states of ruin. It is a view of an ancient Roman street in Pompeii.]

The centre of the way was a little elevated so as to permit the water to run off easily, and hence the terms agger viae (Isidor. XV.16 §7; Ammian. Marcellin. XIX.16; cf. Virg. Aen. V.273); and summum dorsum (Stat. l.c.), although both may be applied to the whole surface of the pavimentum. Occasionally, at least in cities, rectangular slabs of softer stone were employed instead of the irregular polygons of silex, as we perceive to have been the case in the forum of Trajan, which was paved with travertino, and in part of the great forum under the column of Phocas, and hence the distinction between the phrases silice sternere and saxo quadrato sternere (Liv. X.23, XLI.27). It must be observed, that while on the one hand recourse was had to piling, when a solid foundation could not otherwise be obtained, so, on the other hand, when the road was carried over rock, the statumen and the rudus were dispensed with altogether, and the nucleus was spread immediately on the stony surface previously smoothed to receive it. This is seen to have been the case, we are informed by local antiquaries, on the Via Appia, below Albano, where it was cut through a mass of volcanic peperino.

Nor was this all. Regular foot-paths (margines, Liv. XLI.27, crepidines, Petron. 9; Orelli, Inscrip. n. 3844; umbones, Stat. Silv. IV.3.47) were raised upon each side and strewed with gravel, the different parts were strengthened and bound together with gomphi or stone wedges (Stat. l.c.), and stone blocks were set up at moderate intervals  p1193 on the side of the foot-paths, in order that travellers on horseback might be able to mount without the aid of an ἀναβόλευς to hoist them up (Plut. C. Gracch. 7). [Stratores]

Finally, C. Gracchus (Plut. l.c.) erected milestones along the whole extent of the great highways, marking the distance from Rome, which appear to have been counted from the gate at which each road issued forth. The passage of Plutarch, however, may only mean that Gracchus erected milestones on the roads which he made or repaired; for it is probable that milestones existed much earlier. [Milliare.] Augustus, when appointed inspector of the viae around the city, erected in the forum a gilded column (χρυσοῦσα μίλιονχρυσοῦς κίων, milliarium aureum, Dion Cass. LIV.8; Plin. H. N. III.5; Suet. Oth. 6; Tacit. Hist. I.27), on which were inscribed the distance of the principal points to which the viae conducted. Some have imagined, from a passage in Plutarch (Galb. 24), that the distances were calculated from the milliarium aureum, but this seems to be disproved both by the fact that the roads were all divided into miles by C. Gracchus nearly two centuries before, and also by the position of various ancient milestones discovered in modern times (see Holsten. de Milliario Aureo in Graev. Thes. Antiq. Rom. vol. IV and Fabretti de Aquis et Aquaeductis, Diss. III. n. 25).

It is certain that during the earlier ages of the republic the construction and general superintendence of the roads without, and the streets within, the city, were committed like all other important works to the censors. This is proved by the law quoted in Cicero (de Leg. III.3), and by various passages in which these magistrates are represented as having executed important improvements and repairs (Liv. IX.29, 43, Epit. 20, XXII.11, XLI.27; Aurel. Vict. de Viris illust. c. 72; Lips. Excurs. ad Tac. Ann. III.31). These duties, when no censors were in office, devolved upon the consuls, and in their absence on the Praetor Urbanus, the Aediles, or such persons as the senate thought fit to appoint (Liv. XXXIX.2; Cic. c. Verr. I.48, 50, 59). But during the last century of the commonwealth the administration of the roads, as well as of every other department of public business, afforded the tribunes a pretext for popular agitation. C. Gracchus, in what capacity we know not, is said to have exerted himself in making great improvements, both from a conviction of their utility and with a view to the acquirement of popularity (Plut. C. Gracch. 7), and Curio, when tribune, introduced a Lex Viaria for the construction and restoration of many roads and the appointment of himself to the office of inspector (ἐπιστάτης) for five years (Appian, B. C. II.26; Cic. ad Fam. VIII.6). We learn from Cicero (ad Att. I.1), that Thermus, in the year B.C. 65, was Curator of the Flaminian Way, and from Plutarch (Caes. 5), that Julius Caesar held the same office (ἐπιμελητής) with regard to the Appian Way, and laid out great sums of his own money upon it, but by whom these appointments were conferred we cannot tell. During the first years of Augustus, Agrippa, being aedile, repaired all roads at his own proper expense; subsequently the emperor, finding that the roads had fallen into disrepair through neglect, took upon himself the restoration of the Via Flaminia as far as Ariminum, and distributed the rest among the most distinguished men in the state (triumphalibus viris), to be paved out of the money obtained from spoils (ex manubiali pecunia sternendas, Suet. Octav. 30; Dion Cass. LIII.22). In the reign of Claudius we find that this charge had fallen upon the quaestors, and that they were relieved of it by him, although some give a different interpretation to the words (Suet. Claud. 24). Generally speaking, however, under the empire, the post of inspector-in‑chief (curator), — and each great line appears to have had a separate officer with this appellation, — was considered a high dignity (Plin. Ep. V.15), insomuch that the title was frequently assumed by the emperors themselves, and a great number of inscriptions are extant, bearing the names of upwards of twenty princes from Augustus to Constantine, commemorating their exertions in making and maintaining public ways (Gruter, Corp. Inscrip. cxlix . . . . . clix).

These curatores were at first, it would appear, appointed upon special occasions, and at all times must have been regarded as honorary functionaries rather than practical men of business. But from the beginning of the sixth century of the city there existed regular commissioners, whose sole duty appears to have been the care of the ways, four (quattuorviri viarum) superintending the streets within the walls, and two the roads without (Dig. 1. tit. 2 s.2 §30 compared with Dion Cass. LIV.26). When Augustus remodelled the inferior magistracies he included the former in the vigintivirate, and abolished the latter; but when he undertook the care of the viae around the city, he appointed under himself two road-makers (ὁδοποιοῦς, Dion Cass. LIV.8), persons of praetorian rank, to whom he assigned two lictors. These were probably included in the number of the new superintendents of public works instituted by him (Suet. Octav. 37), and would continue from that time forward to discharge their duties, subject to the supervision and control of the curatores or inspectors-general.

Even the contractors employed (mancipes, Tacit. Ann. II.31) were proud to associate their names with these vast undertakings, and an inscription has been preserved (Orell. Inscrip. n. 3221) in which a wife, in paying the last tribute to her husband, inscribes upon his tomb Mancipi Viae Appiae. The funds required were of course derived, under ordinary circumstance, from the public treasury (Dion Cass. LIII.22; Sicul. Flacc. de cond. agr. p9, ed. Goes.), but individuals also were not unfrequently found willing to devote their own private means to these great national enterprises. This, as we have already seen, was the case with Caesar and Agrippa, and we learn from inscriptions that the example was imitated by many others of less note (e.g. Gruter, clxi. n. 1 and 2). The Viae Vicinales were in the hands of the rural authorities (magistri pagorum), and seem to have been maintained by voluntary contribution or assessment, like our parish roads (Sicul. Flacc. p9), while the streets within the city were kept in repair by the inhabitants, each person being answerable for the portion opposite to his own house (Dig. 43 tit. 10 s.3).

Our limits preclude us from entering upon so large a subject as the history of the numerous military roads which intersected the Roman dominions. We shall content ourselves with simply mentioning those which issued from Rome, together with their  p1194 most important branches within the bounds of Italy, naming at the same time the principal towns through which they passed, so as to convey a general idea of their course. For all the details and controversies connected with their origin, gradual extension, and changes, the various stations upon each, the distances, and similar topics, we must refer to the treatises enumerated at the close of this article, and to the researches of the local antiquaries, the most important of whom, in so far as the southern districts are concerned, is Romanelli.

Beginning our circuit of the walls at the Porta Capena, the first in order, as in dignity, is,

I. The Via Appia, the Great South Road. It was commenced, as we have already stated, by Appius Claudius Caecus, when censor, and has always been the most celebrated of the Roman Ways. It was the first ever laid down upon a grand scale and upon scientific principles, the natural obstacles which it was necessary to overcome were of the most formidable nature, and when completed it well deserved the title of Queen of Roads (regina viarum, Stat. Silv. II.2, 12). We know that it was in perfect repair when Procopius wrote (Bell. Goth. I.14), long after the devastating inroads of the northern barbarians; and even to this day the cuttings through hills and masses of solid rock, the filling up of hollows, the bridging of ravines, the substructions to lessen the rapidity of steep descents, and the embankments over swamps, demonstrate the vast sums and the prodigious labour that must have been lavished on its construction. It issued from the Porta Capena, and passing through Aricia, Tres Tabernae, Appii Forum, Tarracina, Fundi, Formiae, Minturnae, Sinuessa, and Casilinum, terminated at Capua, but was eventually extended through Calatia and Caudium to Beneventum, and finally from thence through Venusia, Tarentum, and Uria, to Brundisium.

The ramifications of the Via Appia most worthy of notice, are:

  1. The Via Setina, which connected it with Setia. Originally it would appear that the Via Appia passed through Velitrae and Setia, avoiding the marshes altogether, and travellers, to escape this circuit, embarked upon the canal, which in the days of Horace traversed a portion of the swamps.

  2. The Via Domitiana struck off at Sinuessa, and keeping close to the shore passed through Liternum, Cumae, Puteoli, Neapolis, Herculaneum, Oplontiº, Pompeii, and Stabiae to Surrentum, making the complete circuit of the bay of Naples.

  3. The Via Campana or Consularis from Capua to Cumae sending off a branch to Puteoli and another through Atella to Neapolis.

  4. The Via Aquillia began at Capua and ran south through Nola and Nuceria to Salernum, from thence, after sending off a branch to Paestum, it took a wide sweep inland through Eburi and the region of the Mons Alburnus up the valley of the Tanager; it then struck south through the very heart of Lucania and Bruttium, and passing Nerulum, Interamnia and Cosentia, returned to the sea at Vibo, and thence through Medma to Rhegium. This road sent off a branch near the sources of the Tanager, which ran down to the sea at Blanda on the Laus Sinus and then continued along the whole line of the Bruttian coast through Laus and Terina to Vibo, where it joined the main stem.

  5. The Via Egnatia began at Beneventum, struck north through the country of the Hirpini to Equotuticum, entered Apulia at Aecae, and passing through Herdonia, Canusium, and Rubi, reached the Adriatic at Barium and followed the coast through Egnatia to Brundusium. This was the route followed by Horace.º It was doubtful whether it bore the name given above in the early part of its course.

  6. The Via Trajana began at Venusia and ran in nearly a straight line across Lucania to Heraclea on the Sinus Tarentinus, thence following southwards the line of the east coast it passed through Thurii, Croto, and Scyllacium, and completed the circuit of Bruttium by meeting the Via Aquillia at Rhegium.

  7. Via Minucia is mentioned by Cicero (ad Att. IX.6), and a Via Numicia by Horace (Epist. I.18.20),º both of which seem to have passed through Samnium from north to south, connecting the Valerian and the Aquillian and cutting the Appian and the Latin ways. Their course is unknown. Some believe them to be one and the same.

Returning to Rome, we find issuing from the porta Capena, or a gate in its immediate vicinity:

II. The Via Latina, another great line leading to Beneventum, but keeping a course farther inland than the Via Appia. Soon after leaving the city it sent off a short branch (Via Tusculana) to Tusculum, and passing through Compitum Anagninum, Ferentinum, Frusino, Fregellae, Fabrateria, Aquinum, Casinum, Venafrum, Teanum, Allifae, and Telesia, joined the Via Appia at Beneventum.

A cross-road called the Via Hadriana, running from Minturnae through Suessa Aurunca to Teanum, connected the Via Appia with the Via Latina.

III. From the Porta Esquilina issued the Via Labicana, which passing Labicum fell into the Via Latina at the station ad Bivium 30 miles from Rome.

IV. The Via Praenestina, originally the Via Gabina, issued from the same gate with the former. Passing through Gabii and Praeneste, it joined the Via Latina just below Anagnia.

V. Passing over the Via Collatina as of little importance, we find the Via Tiburtina, which issued from the Porta Tiburtina, and proceeding N.E. to Tibur, a distance of about 20 miles, was continued from thence, in the same direction, under the name of the Via Valeria, and traversing the country of the Sabines passed through Carseoli and Corfinium to Aternum on the Adriatic, thence to Adria, and so along the coast to Castrum Truentinum, where it fell into the Via Salaria.

A branch of the Via Valeria led to Sublaqueum, and was called Via Sublacensis. Another branch extended from Adria along the coast southwards through the country of Frentani to Larinum, being called, as some purpose, Via Frentana Appula.

VI. The Via Nomentana, anciently Ficulnensis, ran from the porta Collina, crossed the Anio to Nomentum, and a little beyond fell into the Via Salaria at Eretum.

VII. The Via Salaria, also from the porta Collina (passing Fidenae and Crustumerium) ran north and east through Sabinum and Picenum to Reate and Asculum Picenum. At Castrum Truentinum it reached the coast, which it followed until it joined the Via Flaminia at Ancona.

VIII. Next comes the Via Flaminia, the Great North Road commenced in the censor­ship of C. Flaminius and carried ultimately to Ariminum.  p1195 It issued from the Porta Flaminia and proceeded nearly north to Ocriculum and Narnia in Umbria. Here a branch struck off, making a sweep to the east through Interamna and Spoletium, and fell again into the main trunk (which passed through Mevania) at Fulginia. It continued through Forum Flaminiiº — and Nuceria, where it again divided, one line running nearly straight to Fanum Fortunae on the Adriatic, while the other diverging to Ancona continued from thence along the coast to Fanum Fortunae, where the two branches uniting passed on to Ariminum through Pisaurum. From thence the Via Flaminia was extended under the name of the Via Aemilia and traversed the heart of Cisalpine Gaul through Bononia, Mutina, Parma, Placentia (where it crossed the Po) to Mediolanum. From this point branches were sent off through Bergomum, Brixia, Verona, Vicentia, Patavium and Aquileia to Tergeste on the east, and through Novaria, Vercelli, Eporedia and Augusta Praetoria to the Alpis Graia on the west, besides another branch in the same direction through Ticinum and Industria to Augusta Taurinorum. Nor must we omit the Via Postumia, which struck from Verona right down across the Apennines to Genoa, passing through Mantua and Cremona, crossing the Po at Placentia and so through Iria, Dertona and Libarna, sending off a branch from Dertona to Asta.

Of the roads striking out of the Via Flaminia in the immediate vicinity of Rome the most important is the Via Cassia, which diverging near the Pons Mulvius and passing not far from Veii traversed Etruria through Baccane, Sutrium, Vulsinii, Clusium, Arretium, Florentia, Pistoria, and Luca, joining the Via Aurelia at Luna.

(α) The Via Amerina broke off from the Via Cassia near Baccanae, and held north through Falerii, Tuder, and Perusia, re-uniting itself with the Via Cassia at Clusium.

(β) Not far from the Pons Mulvius the Via Clodia separated from the Via Cassia, and proceeding to Sabate on the Lacus Sabatinus there divided into two, the principal branch passing through central Etruria to Rusellae and thence due north to Florentia, the other passing through Tarquinii and then falling into the Via Aurelia.

(γ) Beyond Baccanae the Via Cimina branched off, crossing the Mons Ciminus and rejoining the Via Cassia near Fanum Voltumnae.

IX. The Via Aurelia, the Great Coast Road, issued originally from the Porta Janiculensis and subsequently from the Porta Aurelia. It reached the coast at Alsium and followed the shore of the lower sea along Etruria and Liguria by Genoa as far as Forum Julii in Gaul. In the first instance it extended no farther than Pisa.

X. The Via Portuensis kept the right bank of the Tiber to Portus Augusti.

XI. The Via Ostiensis originally passed through the Porta Trigemina, afterwards through the Porta Ostiensis, and kept the left bank of the Tiber to Ostia. From thence it was continued under the name of Via Severiana along the coast southward through Laurentum, Antium, and Circaei, till it joined the Via Appia at Tarracina. The Via Laurentina, leading direct to Laurentum, seems to have branched off from the Via Ostiensis at a short distance from Rome.

XII. Lastly, the Via Ardeatina from Rome to Ardea. According to some this branched off from the Via Appia.

The most elaborate treatise upon Roman roads is Bergier, Histoire des Grands Chemins de l'Empire Romain, published in 1622. It is translated into Latin in the tenth volume of the Thesaurus of Graevius, and with the notes of Henninius occupies more than 800 folio pages. In the first part of the above article the essay of Nibby, Delle Vie degli Antichi dissertazione, appended to the fourth volume of the fourth Roman edition of Nardini, as been closely followed. Considerable caution, however, is necessary in using the works of this author, who although a profound local antiquary, is by no means an accurate scholar. To gain a knowledge of that portion of the subject so lightly touched upon at the close of the article, it is necessary to consult the various commentaries upon the Tabula Peutingeriana and the different ancient Itineraries, together with the geographical works of Collarius, Cluverius, and D'Anville.

Thayer's Note:

a much the same external appearances as the most carefully built polygonal walls:

[image ALT: missingALT]
Polygonal walls
Amelia (Umbria): 6c B.C.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Roadbed of the Via Flaminia
Ocriculum (Umbria): probably 1c A.D.

These two photos span just 17 km (about 3 hours' easy walk) but over half a millennium. If that sounds unfair, our author's "Pelasgian" shows this is indeed what he had in mind.

Because camera angles and lighting have to be taken into account, this match — the best I could find — is better than the photos suggest, but not quite enough to warrant Prof. Ramsay's enthusiasm.

These photos are typical enough to allow us to make two general remarks:

  1. The older the stonework, the larger the pieces and the better the fit. This paradoxical statement is so close to true that it's a good starting rule of thumb for dating any ancient structure. Many of us moderns live in houses made of sand (in the form of concrete), or if we're really modern, largely made of a liquid: glass. In a truly efficient age, buildings will surely be constructed of force-fields.

  2. In their present condition, the stones that pave Roman roads pretty much anywhere are almost always quite rounded, and very unpleasant to walk on over any length. If this is what they were like in Antiquity, no wonder travel was so slow.

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Page updated: 17 May 20