Travel: UK: Ancient roads all lead to Rome

The Romans not only built Britain's first road network, they also had maps and milestones to guide themselves around it. By Guy de la Bedoyere
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The Independent Culture
The best thing about being a Roman emperor must have been not having to worry about running public enquiries, especially before building roads. In AD43, Britain faced the first great roads lobby. Roman roads are something of an old chestnut. They built them straight and they pretty well built them everywhere. Mostly true, except for the straight part, since the straight bits often joined into one long zig-zag.

What this meant for Britain is that ancient tracks and brand-new roads were adapted into a colossal network whichwas a bit like the Pan-American Highway today (for the Channel crossing, substitute the Darien Gap). Travelling became truly international. By belonging to an empire that stretched to Syria, a Briton with the travel bug could make his way across the whole of Europe and the Near East armed with nothing more than a smattering of Latin and Greek. What's more, his money was good all the way, and there was no need for jabs, a passport or visas.

To make this kind of activity possible, the Romans produced road maps. Not neat fold-out sheets with contours and rocky shorelines, but something more like the schematic motorway maps which show straight lines and equally- spaced roundabouts. One of the best known is the Antonine Itinerary, a set of 225 routes across the empire which detailed stopping places, the mileage in between and the total distance for the trip. The road-builders erected milestones, and once they had worked out how many miles it was from A to B, that information became available to the compilers of the itineraries.

So, a Roman setting out from Vinovia (Binchester in County Durham) for Cataractoni (appropriately enough, Catterick in North Yorkshire) knew that he had a 22-mile hike ahead of him and could count off the miles as he went.

The routes are useful ways of finding out the ancient names for the towns of Roman Britain. A Briton planning a winter by the Mediterranean made his way through Durobrivis (Rochester) and other places to Rutupiae (Richborough, near Sandwich, in Kent) to catch his boat across to Gaul.

By the early Middle Ages, hard-working monks had masses of mouldering Roman maps to hand. One of them produced the extravagantly named Ravenna Cosmography about the year 700. Unlike modern travel writers, the Ravenna monk admitted that he hadn't travelled himself (a good disclaimer). That explains a diversion on the exact co-ordinates of Paradise, and why he didn't appreciate the problems of using sewn-together sheets which split some names in half. Sometimes he went round in circles and the same place turns up more than once, and he also thought rivers were places. But the Ravenna routemaster gives us a colossal amount of information, because he had access to archives which are long since lost. From his list come all sorts of exotic names.

Chester shines forth as Deva Victrix, thanks to its having once been home to the XX legion, Valeria Victrix. Abergavenny was once Gobannio (pronounce the "b" as a "v"), and Middlewich was Salinae (thanks to the salt-flats).

One feature of the Roman world now usually lost were the cemeteries that lined the roads outside town walls (burying within was forbidden for hygienic reasons). Recent excavations at one such cemetery in what is now Spitalfields have turned up a fourth-century lead coffin currently being opened and conserved in public view at the Museum of London. It is thought to contain the skeleton of a wealthy young woman - but who she was and whence she came are likely to remain mysteries.

The surviving milestones themselves speak as a silent testimony to Britain's earliest road-building boom. Many can be found in remote places or reused in later town walls or other buildings.

A whole series has been found near Neath in south Wales, and another collection in Cornwall. The church at St Hilary, Cornwall, has a milestone, belonging to the years 307-337 and naming Constantine I, planted in its floor. Found nearby, it seems oddly out of place considering that evidence for Roman occupation in Cornwall is pretty thin. Yet, nearly 1,700 years ago, a road system existed, maintained by the state.

The milestones seem to have renewed episodically as new regimes sprang up, especially in the vicious chaos of the third century when one bloodthirsty maniac after another took power. Incredibly, three alone name Florianus, whose two-month reign in 276 ended on a battlefield at Tarsus in Asia Minor. At Vindolanda, close to Hadrian's Wall, one milestone after another was put up and the old ones buried nearby. Near Carlisle, one naming Carausius (a British usurper) was simply turned upside down and the new emperor's name carved at the other end. Such public monuments invited vandalism. At the villa at Rockbourne in Hampshire, two milestones have turned up by the villa buildings, evidently removed from an unknown road by the owner as handy blocks.

Strangely, few milestones actually give the traveller much useful information. One found near Leicester tells the weary wanderer in three and a half lines all about Hadrian and his titles for the year 120, but at least adds at the end that it is two miles to Ratis (Leicester). For the most part, the milestones do little more than brandish the incumbent emperor's name. One can only hope that enterprising passers-by painted on vital intelligence, like distance, bandits ahead or other obstacles awaiting the unwary wanderer.

Despite their shortcomings, the milestones of Roman Britain are one of the latest pieces of evidence for the maintenance of state organisation. They peter out after 337, leaving Roman Britain another 73 years to go, but other official inscriptions or monuments had already largely ceased to exist.

Perhaps the sub-text in the Late Roman totalitarian state was that this was how the rapacious tax-collectors could find their way to the parts of the province that other regimes could not have reached. Imagine if the Department of Transport was run by Customs and Excise. That six-lane motorway to that obscure part of Wales would have been built by now and to hell with all those sheep.

Running the empire from Rome and local capitals made road resources essential. River transport was important, but the deep-worn cart-ruts in the roads leading out of Roman Cirencester show that the roads were heavily used. It wasn't all commercial traffic. The gravestones at Bath show that this was a place which attracted people with ailments from other parts of the Roman world to bask in the warm waters of the sacred spring.

Perhaps the pilgrims used a guidebook to Roman Britain. None survives, but in the second century Pausanias wrote a traveller's guide to Greece, with useful information such as recommending the road between Argos and Tegea as "very good for traffic". If only he knew what he'd started.

Guy de la Bedoyere is presenter of `The Romans in Britain', which is to be repeated on Saturday mornings on BBC2 from 1 May. He is also author of a number of books on Roman Britain including `Hadrian's Wall, A History and Guide' (Tempus 1998), and `The Golden Age' (Tempus 1999). To see a Roman milestone, visit the Romano-British Gallery at the British Museum (0171-636 1555) or the Roman fort and settlement at Vindolanda (Northumbria) (01434 344277) where a solitary Roman milestone still sits beside the road (above)