In a new TV series, Walking Britain’s Roman Roads, historian Dan Jones offers a guide to some of the most famous routes constructed by the Romans as they brought Britannia into the empire. We found out more about how the Romans used their transport network to conquer Britain and then import their religions, crafts, trade goods and building techniques…
What were Roman roads used for and why were they built?
They were built as military infrastructure in the first instance. Britain was at the end of the earth for the Romans. It was a colony to be conquered – so the basic function of these roads was to transport troops, material and supplies around what was initially rather hostile territory. Thereafter, the roads become this sort of ‘connective tissue’ of this Roman imperial colony.
Is it fair to say that the Romans couldn’t have conquered Britain without these roads? Were they an integral part of conquering Britain?
That’s probably fair. If you think about what Britain represented at this time – and what Britain was in the Roman empire – it was the Wild West. In order to project the awesome power of the Roman military over this incredibly far-flung territory that was miles away from Rome, and even further away than Constantinople, you needed lasting, embedded military infrastructure. It’s impossible to imagine the Romans invading and holding Britain without bringing the road system with them.
Roman roads are famously straight. Why was this?
They are famously straight, although I wouldn’t say that is totally true 100 per cent of the time; they weren’t straight to the point of being pig-headed about it! But they are reasonably straight. It’s basic geometry, isn’t it? The quickest route from point A to point B is a straight line once you’ve considered topography and mountains, etc. For the Romans, it’s all a matter of efficiency.
How were Roman roads built? What techniques did the Romans use?
It was a lot of backbreaking work that depended on a reliable and well-organised military (by which I don’t necessarily mean people who fight, but actual engineers).
Technologically, the way they built their roads is not particularly revolutionary to us today; they are ballast at the bottom and paved stones on top.
If people wanted to explore the UK in terms of visiting Roman roads – or visiting places that have interesting stories associated with the Roman conquest – where should they start?
My favourite Roman spot is down near the south coast, in West Sussex. It’s called Bignor Top and you can see the spire of Chichester Cathedral from it. There’s a Roman villa at Bignor, as well as a National Trust walk. It’s an absolutely stunning bit of the landscape with lots of lovely nature. There is a long, stretch of Roman road that you can walk along that was probably built over an existing Iron Age track way (as the Romans were wont to do, they saw something useful and utilised it). In terms of Roman roads, this is one of my favourite places.
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A lot of other Roman roads today are perhaps less beautiful. The A1, for example! As beautiful as our country is, this is not exactly one of my favourite places. So with a lot of Roman roads, it’s more about the stopping points. I think key places to explore would be Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, and the Roman roads that run laterally from east to west on what was on effectively the most northern frontier of the empire. There are still huge sections of Hadrian’s Wall standing – and there are lots of exciting places dotted along the way. Vindolanda, for example, which is a great Roman auxiliary fort.
I’m also very fond of the towns of the English midlands and north east coast. The stretch between Lincoln and York is one of my favourite parts of the country. It’s visually interesting, and it has these two most incredible Roman settlements at either end. If you told me I could spend a week meandering Lincoln to York, stopping in pubs along the way, I’d be very happy indeed!
What did you learn during the making of your new TV series, Walking Britain’s Roman Roads, that surprised you?
I learned a lot about my own self – and not necessarily in a good way. For example, I made a Roman pot – or at least tried to. It was far worse than anything a child could have produced!
So you can watch me fail at making pottery – and much more. You can watch me fail at enjoying Roman food; you can watch me wear a toga; and you can watch me strip semi-naked for a Roman massage.
I also do a lot of walking into blinding sleet and rain. We filmed at the beginning of 2020 during a really bad spell weather. It was just awful – so wet and cold – but also felt quite appropriate for the subject. We’re exploring the final frontier of a southern Mediterranean empire in the bleakest weather conditions. It felt right somehow, because that is probably what Roman Britain would have felt like to those legionaries transported hundreds of miles from their nice warm homes.
In all seriousness though, I learnt a lot about the fabric of Roman Britain and how it really is all around us. If you go to the Roman villa at Bignor in Sussex, which I mentioned earlier, you see these incredible mosaics on the floor. Around Britain, there are so many amazing things that are still standing from more than 1,000 years ago. A lot of this is mundane – bits of walls in a city. But it’s all around us; you can really feel that Roman presence if you know where to look.
In the series, there’s a moment when we’re in a shopping centre in Gloucester and a nice man from the council lifts a trap door up in the middle of this slightly dated building to unveil the Roman walls of Gloucester, hidden beneath our feet. People are shopping in Superdrug and Claire’s Accessories above – but right below are several metres of vastly thick and incredible imposing Roman walls. So Roman history really is all around us; the very fabric of the conquest is there if we just look for it.
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You’re typically a medieval historian. What was it like filming a show about the Romans?
It was actually one of the most fun TV shows I’ve made. I think historians often feel like they should stay in ‘our lane’ and not venture outside it. But the older I get, the more enthusiastic I am to time travel. I’ve got mad love for the Middle Ages, but it was great fun to be able travel backwards and contextualise this history with another period. I think it’s really important for historians to venture outside of their boxes.
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Dan Jones is a British historian, TV presenter and journalist. He is the presenter of Walking Britain’s Roman Roads, which begins on Wednesday 1 July at 9pm on 5Select.
Jones was speaking to Rachel Dinning, Digital Editorial Assistant at HistoryExtra