Classics Roman Roads and Transport
Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0358


The total length of the Roman Empire’s highway network is not known, but can be estimated at well above 100,000 kilometers. Some roads were surveyed and built from scratch, others created by upgrading pre-existing routes. The bibliography on the subject is correspondingly vast, running into thousands of titles. Most published studies are focused on the remains of the roads as preserved in the landscape, taking a morphological approach and identifying or dating roads on the basis of their alignment and construction. Some more recent studies, however, take a contextual approach (“dots on the map”), identifying and dating ancient roads from their relation to known and datable features such as settlement sites, necropoleis, or forts. Within ancient history generally, focus has shifted from the construction and administration of roads or their use for military campaigns to a wider consideration of their place in the economic life of the Roman world. Unlike sea transport, which exploited the winds, ancient land transport was at all times dependent on muscle power, human or animal, and hence more costly than sea transport. On the other hand, transit times by land were more predictable and communications could be maintained throughout the year, whereas ships mostly remained in port during the winter months. The highway network was also fundamental to the maintenance of official communication through the so-called cursus publicus or vehiculatio, with stations along the major overland routes. In some areas, road transport was complemented by shipping on navigable rivers or—rarely—canals.

General Overviews

The most comprehensive general study of Roman roads remains Chevallier 1997, a mine of information on all aspects of Roman road design and construction. Good general introductions are Schneider 1982, Klee 2010, Staccioli 2003, and Heinz 2003, while Kolb 2000 is more specifically focused on transport and communication. For the present state of research in the field, see Kolb 2019.

  • Chevallier, Raymond. 1997. Les voies romaines. 2d ed. Paris: Picard.

    A mine of information on all aspects of roads and their history. Divided into three parts: (1) textual sources; (2) the roads and how to identify them in the landscape; (3) province-by-province survey of the empire’s roads. The English translation of the first edition (London: Batsford 1977) contains much of the material from sections 1 and 2 but only a fraction of the information in section 3.

  • Heinz, Werner. 2003. Reisewege der Antike: Unterwegs im römischen Reich. Stuttgart: Theiss.

    Good general survey of ancient land travel, with special attention to the legal and technical aspects of roadbuilding. Examples are mainly from central and western Europe.

  • Klee, Margot. 2010. Lebensadern des Imperiums: Straßen im Römischen Weltreich. Stuttgart: Theiss.

    Readable introduction to all aspects of Roman roads, illustrated by examples drawn mainly from central and western Europe. Good illustrations, maps and geographical index; no source references in text.

  • Kolb, Anne. 2000. Transport und Nachrichtentransfer im römischen Reich. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

    A history of overland communication from the late Republic to late antiquity, with its main focus on travel and transport to serve the needs of the state, especially the cursus publicus. Chapter 5 (pp. 308–332) collates the evidence for travel speeds in tabular form.

  • Kolb, Anne. 2019. Via ducta—roman road building: An introduction to its significance, the sources and the state of the research. In Roman roads: New evidence—New perspectives. Edited by Anne Kolb, 3–21. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110638332-002

    Survey and discussion of recent trends in Roman road studies, with a special focus on milestones, and a bibliography of recent literature.

  • Schneider, Hans-Christian. 1982. Altstrassenforschung. Erträge der Forschung 170. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    Old, but still useful introduction to the subject, with its main emphasis on the textual sources as evidence for road administration and the postal system.

  • Staccioli, Romolo Augusto. 2003. The roads of the Romans. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum.

    Introduction to the archaeology and history of Roman roads, intended for the general reader. Rich chapters on the city streets of Rome and the roads of Italy, with brief survey of the provinces. No source references and perfunctory bibliography, but detailed geographical index.

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