In case you are here for the WEP post, btw that’s about retelling, repurposing and Rex, click this link. Otherwise, carry on…
All roads lead to Rome...everyone's heard that. But do they really? Did the Ancient Romans actually build the first roads? You might be surprised by the truth.
There is no clear consensus about how the first roads came to be – some think humans followed animal trails, others argue against it, because animals rarely follow fixed trails. Anyways, what's by and large accepted is that by 10,000 BCE humans were using pathways/trails, essentially dirt tracks. A tad bit before the Romans built the Appian Way...
Remember that the domestication of animals like donkeys, horses and cattle to support agriculture but also for road transportation, happened before the first paved roads were constructed. At first, the 'construction' efforts would be to fell trees and clear boulders from the pathways. The first efforts at transportation would be on animal backs or human heads. But then the wheel was invented around 5000 BCE, initially for pottery and transitioned to road transport soon after. This changed road construction forever, as wheeled vehicles wear out the road surface and therefore spurred the need for paved roads. By 3000 BCE, the simple two-wheel cart makes an appearance in Mesopotamia.
The earliest real roads were stone paved and built in Mesopotamia around 4000 BCE in the city of Ur. Log built roads are also found in England dated to around the same time. A timber trackway crossing was discovered near London in 2009 and found to be nearly 6000 years old. Brick built roads appeared in the Indus Valley Civilisation around 4000 BCE. And one of the oldest constructed roads is in Egypt, built sometime between 2600 BCE and 2200 BCE. In 1995 BCE, a road edged with pavements was constructed in Anatolia in Turkey. Most of these were constructed to facilitate trade between settlements.
|Colonnaded street from Roman times. Jerash, Jordan.|
So...what about the Ancient Greeks? Didn't they build roads? They certainly did, they did not lack the engineering skills, but their roads were more rudimentary and the networks shorter and less sophisticated than say, the Romans. The roads did not support the transport of heavy cargo or traffic. Why? Because for them sea transport was a far more sensible and easier option - they had many natural harbours, placid waters, great ship building skills. By contrast the inland geography was broken up by formidable mountains, making road engineering a challenge. Then their politics were not very conducive either - the city-states were more often at loggerheads with each other than at trade and cooperation to muster enough resources to build any long roads.
This is found in many other instances also. In ancient times, rivers and seas formed the preferred transport route as the cost of road construction coupled with the poorer load bearing capacity of animals made land transport less convenient and more expensive.
Transnational/transregional road construction rose on the back of powerful dynasties and empires with the need for communications underpinning them. The Achaemenid empire of Persia produced a major road network that linked a huge tract of land from modern day Turkey to India and Afghanistan. This included the rebuilding of an ancient highway as the Royal Road built by Darius I in 500 BCE that connected Sardis to his capital Susa which remained in use for centuries after.
The Romans were indefatigable road builders. From the 3rd century onwards they built straight stone paved roads all over Europe, Middle East and North Africa. At its peak the Empire had a road network of nearly 80,000 km. Twenty nine arterial roads connected Rome to the corners of the Empire, including the Appian Way.
Chandragupta Maurya built a major highway called the Uttarpath in the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century, which then was improved upon by Ashoka, his descendant, and by subsequent rulers, the last being the British. It originally stretched from the mouth of the Ganges to the North West border of the empire. It is known today as the Grand Trunk Road and is one of the longest roads in use in Asia.
In the 8th century, a large network of roads was built by the Arabs. The most sophisticated roads were constructed in Baghdad and surfaced with tar obtained from the local oil fields. The technology existed to derive tar from petroleum.
There are several other example such as the Qin dynasty in China and the Incas in S America, where roads were built to hold the empire together and came to facilitate trade, cultural exchange and on the flip side, disease. Some of these roads survived for centuries, such as the trade routes for silk and amber. Others are still in use today.
|Dirt road to Namanga, Kenya.|
From ancient times till the 19th century, road transport meant animal drawn carts/chariots. With the invention of cars end 19th, road engineering transformed once again in the following century. Today we have a far more complex road system - 6-8 lane highways, multilevel flyovers, hybrid road and rail bridges, causeways and the likes, with even more complex vehicular traffic. But it all started with that dirt track, still in use in places.