Roman roads in Britain

The Roman roads in Britain were constructed between approximately AD 50 - AD 400, in order to facilitate trade and military traffic between the different regions of Roman Britain. There were no proper roads in Britain prior to the arrival of the Romans. Instead, the native Britons used trackways which were often located along hilltop ridges, such as the Ridgeway in southern England. Some of these trackways were later adapted by the Romans, but most of the road network was wholly new.

Britain's Roman roads fell into disrepair during the Dark Ages, during which time they gained their present names. In some places, the origins of the roads was forgotten and they were ascribed to mythical Anglo-Saxon giants and divinities: for instance, Wade's Causeway in North Yorkshire owes its name to Wotan, the supreme god of Germanic and Norse mythology.

The roads continued to be used for centuries thereafter. Chaucer's pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales almost certainly used Watling Street to travel from Southwark to Canterbury. However, the roads were mostly destroyed in the 18th and 19th century when toll roads were constructed on top of the Roman originals. Very few Roman roads have survived in anything like their original condition, and even then only for very short stretches - Wade's Causeway is widely regarded as the best preserved in Britain. Many modern roads continue to use the old Roman alignments. Much of Watling Street, for example, is now under the A2, A5 and M1 motorway.

The Roman engineers who constructed Britain's first roads built them to a standard pattern replicated across the empire. Military roads tended to follow long, straight alignments between major towns and garrisons, while civil routes tended to follow the contours of the land in order to link farms and estates to their markets. The road was carried on an embankment (the agger), sometimes as much as 5 feet high and 50 feet wide, built up from soil excavated from drainage ditches on either side of the road. The road was surfaced with gravel wherever possible, but small broken stones or larger blocks or slabs were used if gravel was in short supply.

Many English placenames derive from a position on or near a Roman road, usually denoted by the element -street (also strat-, strait-, streat- and other variants). Thus, for example, Stretham means "homestead or village on a Roman road" and likewise Stretford means "ford on a Roman road".

Since the late Middle Ages the British have evinced a strong continuing interest in the Roman roads of the island, and the Roman road network of Britain is better known than that of many other parts of the world. The most recent authority is Ivan Margary (Roman Roads in Britain, 195557; rev. ed. 1967), superseding Thomas Codrington's work of 1903.

List of Roman roads in Britain

See also the Antonine Itinerary

External links


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