It is generally said that the Romans came to Britain and laid out an elaborate road system. This is probably only partly true, in that they most likely improved many roads and added a number of others. Before the Romans arrived Britain had many tribal kingdoms that traded with each other and with other countries and had done for many centuries. Trackways existed such as the Ridgeway, and from sections of some of these ancient paths we often see two parallel trackways. They tend to follow contours of hills but otherwise be fairly straight. From the alignments of entrances to stone circles that predate the Romans visiting Britain we see its likely that trackways in the position and direction of many of the Roman roads existed. We also know that the Romans developed their administrative areas upon existing tribal areas, towns etc, and therefore the towns and geography of the layout of places and routes were in existence well before they arrived. Some Roman roads also follow the boundary of tribal areas, and were therefore most likely roads that formed these boundaries when they arrived.
It is likely that rather than developing the road systems as such it was more a case of selective improvements, and some new sections over time. Trackways that were of less interest to them would not justify upgrading while routes that were either major supply routes or used for moving volumes of people would be.
We do not think before the Romans arrived that Britain had any substantial bridges, so all rivers and streams would have been generally crossed by fords. Even well after the Romans had come and gone, many towns were at the location of fording points, and the point nearest to the sea that a river could be crossed by a ford was a major consideration of most journeys and military placements. The location of many ancient trackways tend to follow higher areas, or areas where there would be less need to cross rivers and large streams.
The Romans and those they left behind would have had over 400 years of building, and over this period of history, even perhaps with slower technological development and pace of life, a considerable amount of advances and development would have taken place. If you look back now a hundred years and consider the road developments that have occurred, you see a considerable change, all motorways, dual carriageways, by-passes, many larger bridges, and more being even more recent.
The developments that appear to have lined up with the period of the Romans being in Britain and then in some cases failed to be maintained later are to do with the structure of the roads and the development of bridges. Many of the roads they developed or improved continue in use today as do some of their bridges. Exactly why some sections of roadway seemed to be later unused and maintained is not clear, it may just have been lower use, or it may have been that problems developed along some of these stretches and then alternative sections of trackway were used. It may also, in some cases, be due to the gradients and taking routes requiring less pulling power to avoid steeper hills. Other reasons could be weather damage or difficulties particularly if drainage was not maintained and perhaps the risk of hijack or highwaymen. Some also suggest that with the Romans leaving the method of funding, repairs and rebuilding was lost.
The Romans besides moving supplies and trade, also needed to move large volumes of men and their support often as fast as possible from place to place. They had, we know, 4 legions in Britain, in total about 20,000 soldiers and a further 20,000 auxiliaries, so moving a full legion would on average mean moving around five thousand men, the carts and supplies and having a supply chain to support these, and you could imagine that this flow of people through some areas would cause trackways to become difficult to use, and fords and some areas would break up badly under this sudden load. This would slow down the progress, and cause a stringing out of your people if you did not slow the leading units, as well as cause delays at each slower point where a queue or delay would form. The ordinary Roman soldier had to carry all of his kit with him, but when the need arose was expected to be able to be moved about the empire, including spells outside of Britain, and therefore it was important to them that the roads were improved to the state where this was able to occur. However not all developments were driven by military considerations and many stretches of road were to service villas and other places with no military significance.
The Roman Army was multi skilled, they had people who could construct bridges, devise and organise the building of defensive forts, they could build boats when needed, and most of the rank and file soldiers were able to build stone structures, and were highly competent at quarrying, cutting and moving stone. It is thought that when they were stationed in a place they would have been used to carry out construction work, and that many villas and town structures were built by them. This would have had a range of advantages, including:-
It is also likely they would have trained locals, and by this means have empowered local towns, tribes ad other groups to take on some of their own building.
Roman roads within the Roman Empire and Britain
There were said to be 53,819 miles of maintained quality roads throughout the Roman Empire, of this around 2,000 miles of roads were in Britain. From an early point they had definitions or laws relating to their size and construction. However there was quite a lot of variation in size, local materials used and over time practices changed. The general idea was to have straight roads, 7 metres wide, and where curves were to double this. Even by recent standards this is quite a wide road.
This consisted mostly of a wide, paved trunk road system, linking up major ports and military and civil settlements, although those joining the civil settlements came first. We don't know what these roads were called, most elsewhere in the empire that have identifiable names were named after the emperors at the time they were constructed. We have common names now that some are known by, but this is later invention, and most of these were probably several shorter, separately named roads, developed and expanded over time. The Romans did not have maps as such but a series of tablets that listed places along a particular route with the number of paces between them.
Along the routes were small places for horses to be changed about every 5 miles, allowing a despatch rider to gallop from one to the next, change horses or in some cases hand on the message to another rider. In this way messages could go quite quickly from one part of the county to another and it is estimated that a message from York to London would be there in around 10 hours.
Around every 15 miles, a normal days journey, for those walking would be an inn and closer together, perhaps every 10 miles would be a stock enclosure and facilities to handle animals in transit. Use of the road system was not free, there were tolls on some bridges and on entering some towns and a tax of around 2% to 2.5% of the value levied at certain points.
Military units carried with them all they needed to set up encampments where required, but they may have had reserves at special places.
The structure of a Roman road
Romans stone architecture used arches, and the introductory of this principle to bridges allowed roads to cross rivers and streams. Some bridges were made of wood, and across boggy ground they either put in a wooden raft to build upon or more often sank stone into the ground to form a solid base.
Later as roads were being rebuilt or repaired milestones were added. These were generally large circular stones, giving details of the mileage to the next settlements or principle place, plus in some cases information about who was remaking or repairing the roads and their sponsors.
Ordnance Survey have a map available of Roman Britain and this shows all roads and routes of roads, as well as all other known Roman features and settlements. Below is a listing of the more major roads as we know them today.