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Via Aurelia
May 31, 2009 11:00 PM   Subscribe

The Roman Empire's Lost Highway: French amateur archaeologist Bruno Tassan fights to preserve a neglected 2,000-year-old ancient interstate in southern Provence.
posted by homunculus (23 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Anyone interested in this topic would enjoy Graham Robb's The Discovery of France, large parts of which are concerned with teasing out the historical routes (and their associated modes of travel) that formerly crisscrossed the hexagon and are now occluded by the modern infrastructure of the autoroute and the TGV. It's an illuminating and original read, part literary compendium, part historical investigation, part demographic enquiry.
posted by Wolof at 12:44 AM on June 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


The Roman Empire's Lost Highway:

I'm a Roman stone
all alone and lost
for a empire's sins
I have payed the cost
oh the day it fell
I went astray
I started Roman down
that lost highway...

(with apologies to Hank Williams)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:39 AM on June 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


If they look closely enough they will probably find some Gaulish truckers still protesting Rome's high grain feed prices.
posted by srboisvert at 5:04 AM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the link. I find ancient engineering endlessly, if inexplicably, fascinating.
posted by DU at 5:08 AM on June 1, 2009


A bit surprising it isn't still in use, really. In England, if you're on an A road and it's straight, it's probably Roman, just resurfaced a few times.
posted by Phanx at 5:15 AM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


A bit surprising it isn't still in use, really.

Yeah, I was going to suggest restoring it for use as a walking/bike trail. It's already pretty close to perfect in terms of gradient, clearance, etc. And if restored according to the ancient methods, it will demonstrably last for a long time without much maintenance (unlike asphalt).
posted by DU at 5:20 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


if restored according to the ancient methods, it will demonstrably last for a long time without much maintenance (unlike asphalt).

sigh
posted by nax at 6:05 AM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


A bit surprising it isn't still in use, really. In England, if you're on an A road and it's straight, it's probably Roman, just resurfaced a few times.

the same goes for Italy, but occasionally cities, or the economy, moved elsewhere for the most various reasons; as far as I know, most roman roads were more or less abandoned by the middle ages and reduced to little more than a path which - later on - was repaved, layer after layer. Under one of the main crossroads in the centre of Bologna there's an underpass that works as a pedestrian crossing, and from a window you can see a few meters of the original Via AEmilia which was unearthed in the 1960s during the excavations, about 3 meters under the actual street level.

A few miles from where I live, two amateur archeologists found the remains of one of the less known roman roads, possibly one of the first crossings of the Apennines, which had already been forgotten by the end of the Roman Empire. They dug some stretches out during their summer holidays and self-published a comprehensive book on that. (Zipped PDF, 96MB, English version). This picture (taken from the book) shows what a 1500+ year-old road looks like.
posted by _dario at 6:37 AM on June 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


if restored according to the ancient methods, it will demonstrably last for a long time without much maintenance (unlike asphalt).

With today's vehicles, at today's traffic rates? Somehow I doubt it.
posted by daniel_charms at 7:07 AM on June 1, 2009


Yeah, I was going to suggest restoring it for use as a walking/bike trail.
posted by DU at 7:22 AM on June 1, 2009


Sometimes, I miss my Smithsonian subscription. (And thanks, _dario. That's the picture I was looking for in their slideshow.)
posted by steef at 7:22 AM on June 1, 2009


A bit surprising it isn't still in use, really. In England, if you're on an A road and it's straight, it's probably Roman, just resurfaced a few times.
posted by Phanx at 8:15 AM on June 1 [+] [!]


I feel like I should make some kind of joke about the English still using the Roman Roads because they haven't figured out how to make straight roads themselves yet :) But that's just the part of me that gets lost every time I forget that you can't just rely on finding your way around on English streets the way you can on a simple North American-style grid street system.

There are unused ancient roads in England, but most of them have been preserved as walking paths as a result of ramblers campaigning to keep them open access, like the Icknield Way (pre-roman, and thus not straight). You can walk along the Roman Road from Cambridge to Landbeach, but it's kind of boring - what with being so straight - but after that, yes, the A road takes over.
posted by jb at 8:11 AM on June 1, 2009


derail: homunculous, keep making FPP's like this and the last one on the wired/homeless and I'll have to move you up from crush to sweetheart ;p
posted by infini at 8:22 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not an engineer, neither an archeologist but I'm fairly confident that - even by modern standards - the roman roadbuilding method would prove fairly resistent - if you discount the bumps: some roads were by all means heavily trafficked, and I think a full carriage wouldn't be that much lighter compared to -say- a compact car, with the added fact of having wooden wheels with an iron brace instead of tires. The water drainage would our modern roads to shame, I'm sure.

On the other hand, slaves and soldiers provided a reliable and cheap source of workforce for any needed maintenance.

I think the major problem in such restoration projects would be to find stonecutters; I know for sure it's a problem here, often restoration of historical city center streets and squares are carried out using machined stones instead of hand-cut stones, and the difference is huge.
posted by _dario at 8:22 AM on June 1, 2009


I think the bumps in those pictures are mostly the result of erosion/wear. My impression is that the roads were pretty smooth back then. Smooth enough for a cart, at the very least.
posted by DU at 8:26 AM on June 1, 2009


Back at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries a wealthy couple from my small southern hometown went "on-tour" in Italy. They had a villa somewhere in Tuscany. While they were there a road crew came through the village they were staying in to improve/widen/pave? one of the local roads. One evening they got a furious knock on their door from some of the townspeople. The road crew had uncovered the ruins of an early Roman Christian (5th or 6th century, post-conversion) Abbey, including a magnificent tile mosac floor that had been abandoned during some sacking of the town by barbarians. The townspeople were up in arms because the road crew was simply going to plow right through. The road crew refused to stop construction and the only way the townspeople could save the mosaic would be to take it out piece by piece. the job was too expensive for the poor peasants so they came to beg the rich foreigners for money. The couple gave in and gave them the money to save the tiles which were meticulously pried out, numbered to be reassembled, and boxed up.

Time went by, the road went trough and the tour came to an end. When the couple started packing up to go home the townsfolk showed up with a bunch of crates. When they asked what the crates were for, the townsfolk said they were the tiles that they had bought. The Americans had misunderstood and thought the townspeople were going to install the tiles in their little town church, but instead the townspeople wanted them to buy the tiles so they wouldn't be destroyed. The tiles were shipped back to small town Alabama where the church there accepted them and had the sanctuary rebuilt to match the ancient abbey.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:54 AM on June 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


A great article—thanks for posting it.

But I became confused on going to the Wikipedia article, which discusses the Via Aurelia purely in terms of its course within Italy except for this sentence: "By the time of the high Empire, one could travel from Rome by way of the Via Aurelia across the Alps via the Julian-Augustan Way to either northern France or Gades (modern Cadiz, Spain)." Should there be a separate article on the Via Julia Augusta, as it was initially called (when did the name change?), or should a section on the French extension be added to the current article? Someone who actually knows this shit should do something about it.
posted by languagehat at 9:01 AM on June 1, 2009


(I added this article as an "External link" to the Wikipedia piece, just to do my bit.)
posted by languagehat at 10:01 AM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Very cool. When I was living in near Carthage, I occasionally worked with another amateur archaeologist on excavation of a section of a field that turned out to be the old Roman garrison building and aqueduct near what was then the main gate in the Wall of Theodosius.

I was fascinated by the plumbing! The garrison toilets - what was left of them - were amazingly well constructed, with stone-cut seats and water trenches to flow in and carry out the waste, etc. It occurred to me that those toilets were probably more sanitary and convenient to clean than what many families (and even businesses) had in their homes today.

Cool link. Count me as another one who is endlessly fascinated by revelations of ancient engineering.
posted by darkstar at 10:18 AM on June 1, 2009


But I became confused on going to the Wikipedia article, which discusses the Via Aurelia purely in terms of its course within Italy

Me too. I checked out the Wikipedia article before I posted, but didn't include it because I found it confusing after reading the Smithsonian article.
posted by homunculus at 10:25 AM on June 1, 2009


*in Tunisia near Carthage...
posted by darkstar at 10:26 AM on June 1, 2009


Dario, in regards to your statement about a compact car not being more than a carriage travelling on a Roman road, the Smithsonian article states "The Roman legal code in place at the time forbade chariots from carrying loads heavier than 1,082 pounds [491kg], the maximum that the vehicles' wooden axles could safely support."

For comparision sake, from 2002 to 2005 the Mini Cooper coupe weighed 2315 pounds [1050 kg] and the convertible weighed 2700 [1225 kg].

So, my guess is that even if you only had compact cars on Roman roads, the wear and tear would be very significant, though I agree with your statement about modern wheels vs. the older wooden/metal wheels
posted by SeanOfTheHillPeople at 1:35 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I saw this directed by Caius Davvius Lynchellus.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:39 PM on June 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


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