Wednesday, 21 April 2021

R is for ... Road ...


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. 

A-Z Challenge 2021    


  1. I so often learn from your posts. Many, many thanks. Any day where I learn is a Really good one.

  2. Hari Om
    i like roads... one set out on them with a sense of promise and adventure... YAM xx

  3. Roads these days are all under construction in Texas. You can't get anywhere. Back in PA growing up, all roads led to the Tacony Palmyra Bridge - seriously, there were always signs and arrows pointing to it. One day, we high school friends deliberately followed the arrows, crossed the bridge, and came back. A small adventure. Ha! It wasn't Rome!

  4. You know what I love about the Roman road culture? The thing that the width of so many modern things are based on Roman chariots. Like railroads. And then boosters for the space shuttles had to travel by rail to get to Florida, and part of the tracks went through a tunnel, so the rockets for a space ship couldn't be wider than train tracks which are based on the width of ancient Roman chariots.

    Tacony Palmyra Bridge -- Ha ha ha. So you spent $4 to go on a little adventure? And only in high school, so you couldn't even hit the discount liquor store in New Jersey? Ahh Joanna, I don't know you, but your comment brought back memories.

    I'm mentioning your blog on my blog on Monday "V" letter day.

    J Lenni Dorner~ Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge, Debut Author Interviewer, Reference& Speculative Fiction Author

    1. thanks. Indeed, we pooled our money for the tolls and nope - all underage and that was okay. We were a pretty nerdy crew

  5. Hi Nila - wonderful exposition on how land routes became the norm ... as most settlements were sea or river based there was little need for land transport early on in our history.

    So much could be transported by river - continents opened up by river ... while our Trackways here - they've found a few ... two are in Somerset as you mention (6,000 years ago) ... off the Bristol Channel, rather than London. Our local one has been excavated here in Eastbourne, Sussex ... and was reproduced for us in a local exhibition put on by the Council, I visited quite often ... so interesting to see and to learn about. Preserved as the sea levels rose ...

    Brilliant post - thank you ... so many continents expanded ... we see it in the remains (jewellery, relics, artifacts etc) found that had some had come from Persia, the Mediterranean - often brought up through Russia to the Baltic and then by Scandinavia and sea to here.

    Brilliant - you've really brought so much to life here - giving us a great education on how and where we might have come from. African roads too ... memories for me - thanks - excellent post. Cheers Hilary

  6. What a great post, lot of to learn about these paths that connect all of us.