What did the Romans ever do for us? Famously they gave us roads, which began the job of turning us from parochial bumpkins in huts into an international trading community. Or did they?
It is undoubtedly the case that the Romans built lots of roads in Britain but it’s certainly not the case that these were in any way ‘novel’. There was a dense network of roads in the late pre-Roman Iron Age and probably long before.
The main difference seems to have been that Iron Age roads serviced local communities and thus had a filigree appearance across the country, whereas Roman roads were trunk roads between large centres. The reason for this is that the Roman road system, contrary to popular belief, was not an amazing free gift the Romans gave to their conquered people to help them ‘get’ civilisation but infrastructure for the army and the taxman.
Roman roads might have had a side-effect of stimulating trade, but their initial purpose was the imposition of Roman rule. As these roads were built by local levies it’s fair to assume that the existing network was used as their basis wherever possible.
Nor were these Iron Age roads necessarily just dirt tracks. In 2009 a team of archaeologists working at the greywacke sandstone quarry at Sharpstone Hill, near Bayston Hill in Shropshire uncovered a seven-metre-wide, cambered and metalled road.
Analysis of the silts and brushwood foundations of the road suggest that it was created in at least four separate phases beginning around 200 BC with the last metalled and cambered phase possibly dating from the first century BC, long before the Roman invasion. Although some academics have argued that this ‘must’ be Roman, the science suggests we may have to start giving our Iron Age forebears more credit for building their own world.