BMCR 2020.07.20

Roman roads: new evidence – new perspectives

, Roman roads: new evidence - new perspectives. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. vi, 434 p.. ISBN 9783110618693 €79,95.

[The Table of contents is listed below.]

The present volume began as a conference entitled “Viae Romanae – Roman Roads: New evidence – new perspectives” and the resulting book does not stray from its origins. Its size—19 contributions in English (11), German (5), French (2), and Italian (1), each with English and German abstracts— is a result of its broad remit: to take a fresh look at Roman roads in the less well studied Roman provinces. Whatever their geographical focus, most essays fit into one (or more) of the following general themes: 1. (Routes) finding the course of roads, 2. (Responsibility) identifying road builders and their intentions, and 3. (Road users) illustrating aspects of life along the road. Supporting these themes are three consistent sources of evidence: 1. Literary sources, 2. Maps, itineraries, and periploi, and 3. Milestones. There is also a clear relationship between the variety of evidence and the range of interpretive frameworks in which it is deployed, such that three constant explanations for road building (or milestone installation, which are sometimes conflated) emerge: military expansion, commercial enterprise, or imperial propaganda.

These limited and interwoven themes, sources, and frameworks are primarily the result of an abundance of attention to milestones, which are the book’s true subject. This is hinted at in Kolb’s introduction, where she explains that the geographical coverage of Roman Roads consists of those regions which the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum does not (or not yet) fully survey. . Rathmann, however, privileges milestones unabashedly, stating “the basis of all research into Roman roads is a scientific edition of the milestone in the context of all other infrastructurally relevant sources” (304). Over-attention to milestones, however, will close at least as many interpretive doors as it opens.

Routes. Several essays are primarily interested in describing the path of Roman roads through distant parts of the empire. Comfort, for example, uses ground survey and satellite imagery to identify roads in southeastern Turkey, while Sahin does similar work in Cilicia based on newly discovered or reinterpreted evidence. In Moesia, Petrovic traces the route of the roads, providing a test of the accuracy of the itinerarium Hierolymitanum, and Mirkovic likewise follows the routes along the Danube. Buonopane and Gabrielli search for more precise routes through northern Etruria, documenting important examples of milestones, as do most authors in this category. The essay by Parker on Gandhara best fits into this theme, not only because it operates on the level of abstract routes rather than specific, physical roads, but also because it does so for want of more specific evidence on which to rely.

Within these contributions there are some bright spots and areas of concern. Of the former, Mirkovic’s argument (240-42) for a mixed fluvial and terrestrial transport network along the Danube is compelling. Likewise, Buonopane and Gabrielli’s recovery of milestones previously identified as fake (although published previously [1]), shows the value of careful archival detective work. Parker’s methodological discussion expertly explains the incommensurabilities of our sources. One minor complaint, however, is found in Comfort’s appeal (123) to Bulliet’s outdated notion of the camel supplanting vehicles, which undermines his attempts to contextualize two nearby roads, one paved and one not.[2] Comfort is not alone, as de Vos Raaijmakers (343) is tempted by this logic as well.

Responsibility. The purpose of most essays in this volume is to assign responsibility for the construction of a road or the installation of milestones. Most authors conclude that the military is responsible in one way or another. For example, Sayar traces the routes in southeastern Turkey, concluding that the dating of the milestones is sufficiently coincident with Antonine campaigns against the Parthians as to be the cause of the road’s construction (or repair). Ben David also sees the military as responsible for some of the less well traveled roads in southern Judea-Palaestina, on the basis of clusters of milestones connected to military infrastructure rather than to primary cities in the region. Fodorean is the most fervent adherent to the idea that the military was the primary agent for Roman road building, in this case during Trajan’s Dacian war. For Fodorean, the army was not only a sufficient cause, but also a necessary one, arguing from the absence of prior Roman geographical knowledge of such roads that those appearing on the Peutinger map could only have been built by the Trajanic forces. To maintain this premise, however, requires making a host of unsubstantiated claims, the most astonishing of which reconstructs the character of Trajan’s lost De bello Dacico from a single sentence in order to suggest that this work was the source of the first painted itineraries of the region.

Some contributions successfully entertain a multiplicity of causes for road building and milestone installation, introduce contradictory evidence or arguments, or point out the limits of our evidence. For example, Groh and Sedlmayer’s discussion of the Bernsteinstraße during the Marcomannic wars incorporates multiple responsible parties, allows for their fluctuation over time, and treats their own assumptions about civil and military responsibilities as hypotheses to be tested. Although there is some conflation of the control of a road and responsibility for its maintenance, Groh and Sedlmayer demonstrate the value of careful excavation and geophysical prospection in finding the Bernsteinstraße’s correct route. Perhaps the best essay in this category is Mottas’, which addresses the long history of the via Egnatia and the variety of reasons why milestones were erected. Refreshingly, Mottas makes fair reference to pre-Roman roads, takes the absence of milestones seriously, and most importantly, openly discusses evidence contrary to his general thesis.

Because of its particular history, Rathmann’s chapter on Lusitania could have served as a natural test for the predominant interpretive frameworks expressed in this book. That is, roads and milestones in Lusitania cannot be directly connected to military campaigns, to benefactions from imperial tours, or to “through-movement” for other activities. Additionally, urban areas are small, governors are not named on milestones, and even the Peutinger Table is missing for this region. With so many traditional explanations off the table, there was hope for a fresh way of thinking. Unfortunately, appeals to politics and propaganda dominate even as the actors vacillate: Neronian milestones signal local loyalties, Hadrian takes credit for his road building out from Hispania, and paradoxically —because they already had functioning milestones,— penny-pinching local communities by the 4th century CE got out of the “dedication race” (315).. All these are reasonable one-off interpretations, of course, but they are weakened by always originating from the same idea. When Rathmann states that “the motivation to expand the transport network was administrative and economic”, but the milestones were propagandistic, I am reminded of similar interpretations of coins. With coins, however, it is easier to remember that as good a vehicle for imperial messages as they are, they also serve quite well as money.[3] In fact, for most people, most of the time, that’s what coins are. Propaganda does not have to work to be propaganda, but perhaps we should find it more effective before defining an entire class of objects as primarily in its service.

Road users. The essays on North Africa and Egypt stand out as fine examples of a third type of study that seeks to understand the life cycle of roads and the traffic along them. Guedon’s paper, for example, challenges the traditional understanding of the road network in Tobna as forming a military frontier, thus elevating a long history of commercial importance, including pre- and post-Roman periods. Likewise, de Vos Raaijmakers carefully details the evidence for two routes of particular importance to Rome’s grain supply, discussing not only the placement of milestones, but also documenting the physical state of the roads, their needs for repair, and the material conditions for life on a Byzantine farm that the road made possible. Most interesting of all is Hélène Cuvigny’s fascinating research detailing the flow of objects and information across Egypt’s eastern desert. Recovered from copies on ostraca, Cuvigny shows how “post books” kept at desert forts recorded detailed information, such as timetables of riders and inventory lists of cargo. In stark contrast to many other essays, Cuvigny’s study highlights a complex interplay between military infrastructures and civilian purposes. It is no coincidence that milestones are never mentioned.

Finally, Richard Talbert’s contribution appears to be a verbatim copy of his keynote address. Being largely unchanged, however, is a virtue in this case as the reader can sense how the author understands his audience and how he modulates his tone accordingly. Talbert begins by apologetically urging his audience to think beyond the individual object and to consider broader, comparative approaches. After demonstrating the value of such comparisons, he turns to his second and “more delicate” (29) concern: publishing milestones. Drawing on his experiences in producing the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, and not at all undervaluing the required investment in labor and academic cultural capital, Talbert asks scholars to consider a complementary, digital initiative that could speed the publication of milestones ahead of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. One wonders what reception this idea received.

As interesting as the conference seems to have been, this book does not improve on it much. Because I am enormously appreciative of the editor’s own research, it is difficult to report how very poorly this book is constructed It is not an edited volume, but an “as-is” set of proceedings. There is neither an introduction to help contextualize the essays, nor a conclusion to bring together the themes and challenges they address. Such omissions are all the more noticeable for the lack of integrations between contributions, save one reference by Mottas (277) to Karadima’s paper, which does not appear in the volume.[4] There are minor language inconsistencies, but illustrations are genuinely a detriment to understanding. Some figures do not have captions, some figures sequences start at “Fig. 0”, and many essays have no figure references in the text, a fact that makes it easier to disguise the failure to place those figures anywhere near the relevant discussion. Worst of all, several illustrations have impossibly small print, lack context and are difficult to use, or are unnecessarily repetitive: Comfort offers seven images of cisterns, most nothing more than a hole in the ground. Such repetition reaches the ridiculous when Mirkovic (fig. 2) and Petrovic (fig. 3), only 20 pages apart, show an almost identical view of an already famous subject.

At the end, and upon reflection, I must admit to a frustration with this book, one that stems from what I perceive as a misalignment between its title and content. Readers should understand that this book is a product of a large and important academic initiative, the aims of which seem less about roads and more about generating preliminary research for future volumes of the CIL. For this reason, many of the authors treat studying roads as essentially synonymous with studying milestones. Indeed, Kolb (13) defines Roman road studies so narrowly as to draw a distinction with “closely related and occasionally overlapping fields,” such as “travel”, “transportation” and the “cursus publicus”. Thus, while Rathmann’s magisterial study of the western Reichsstraßen is cited, Laurence’s “Roman Roads” and Kolb’s own landmark studies are excluded from the Roman road studies canon.[5] The effect of this narrow definition is to select for contributions that privilege cataloging and epigraphical presentation over analysis, comparison, or novel interpretation. It is no coincidence that those essays that made the most use of satellite and aerial imagery, ground survey, geoprospection, and/or excavation were best able to escape the milestone’s interpretive triad: military, propaganda, commerce. None of this is to demean the effort of the authors or their larger initiatives: theirs are vital first steps, and the work must continue and be valued. Nonetheless, in conclusion, I find it best to adopt Talbert’s apologetic posture and suggest for those with an expansive view of Roman roads, that this book might not be for you.

Table of Contents

I A Broader View
Via ducta – Roman Road Building: An Introduction to Its Significance,
the Sources and the State of Research, Anne Kolb. 3
Roads in the Roman World: Strategy for the Way Forward, Richard Talbert. 22
Roots to Routes: Gandhara’s Landscapes of Mobility, Grant Parker. 35
Rom und die Fernhandelswege durch Arabien, Michael A. Speidel. 53
Le livre de poste de Turbo, curateur du praesidium de Xèron Pelagos
(Aegyptus), Hélène Cuvigny. 67

II The Roads of the Empire
Travelling between the Euphrates and the Tigris in Late Antiquity, Anthony Comfort. 109
Milestones near Roman Army Installations in Desert Areas of the Provinces of
Palaestina and Arabia, Chaim Ben David. 132
Römische Straßen und Meilensteine im Ebenen Kilikien, Mustafa H. Sayar. 147
CIL XVII, 5, 3: Neue Meilensteine und Straßen aus der Cilicia Aspera, Hamdi Şahin. 166
Via publica vel militaris: Die Bernsteinstraße in spätantoninischer und severischer
Zeit, Stefan Groh – Helga Sedlmayer. 191
The Peutinger Map, the Roman Army and the First Military Roads in Dacia, Florin-Gheorghe Fodorean. 215
Roman Roads in Moesia Superior at Six Points, Miroslava Mirković. 236
Some Considerations about the Roman Road Network in Central Balkan
Provinces, Vladimir P. Petrović. 252
Du premier milliaire au dernier palimpseste: cinq siècles et demi de présence
romaine en Grèce, François Mottas. 272
Miliaria in der Provinz Lusitiania, Michael Rathmann. 303
Road Network and Roman Frontier in Numidia: the Region of Tobna, Stéphanie Guédon. 323
Twin Roads: the Road Carthage-Theveste and the via nova Rusicadensis; some
Observations and Questions, Mariette de Vos Raaijmakers. 338
Miliari e viabilità dell’Etruria romana: un aggiornamento e alcune considerazioni, Alfredo Buonopane – Chantal Gabrielli. 375
Excavations in the North of Italy along the via Claudia Augusta, Patrizia Basso. 404
Autorenliste 423
Index 425


[1] Buonopane, Alfredo, and Chantal Gabrielli. 2018. “I due miliari repubblicani della via Faesulae-Pisae e la viabilità nell’Etruria settentrionale.” SEBarc, 213–24.

[2] See responses to Bulliet (1975) by Bagnall (1985) and Adams (2007, 65). Bulliet, Richard W. 1975. The Camel and the Wheel. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press; Bagnall, Roger. 1985. “The Camel, the Wagon, and the Donkey in Later Roman Egypt.” The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 22 (1/4): 1–6; Adams, Colin. 2007. Land Transport in Roman Egypt: A Study of Economics and Administration in a Roman Province. Oxford; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

[3] A recent dissertation on coins by Ellithorpe (2017, 193) concludes that there is “too much reasonable doubt to claim that Imperial propaganda was generally successful in achieving its aims. Even so, the Roman state persisted in its efforts to communicate a wide variety of messages.” Ellithorpe, Corey. 2017. “Circulating Imperial Ideology: Coins as Propaganda in the Roman World.” Dissertation, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[4] The conference program can be found at: Universität Zürich, Historisches Seminar.

[5] Laurence, Ray. 1999. The Roads of Roman Italy. Mobility and Cultural Change. London: Routledge; Kolb, Anne. 2000. Transport Und Nachrichtentransfer in Römischen Reich. Berlin: De Gruyter; Rathmann, Michael. 2003. Untersuchungen zu den ReichsstraBen in den westlichen Provinzen des Imperium Romanum. Mainz: Philipp Von Zabern.