Sunday, 27 September 2020

#AncientRoman roadbuilding 1

Tramping the Roman roads

Over the course of writing the five books in the Celtic Fervour Series, I’ve had my characters travel on many different roads. Most of those are in Roman Britain, but in Book 5 a few are further afield in the wider Roman Empire. The reasons for travel vary, depending on who the character is and the events in the books.

In Book 1, The Beltane Choice, most of the travelling done by the main characters - Lorcan and Nara - in AD 71, is on what I’d term tracks rather than roads. Though, the Garrigill warriors who go to battle at the site named Whorl might well have travelled on some sections of paved or gravelled road laid down by the Ancient Roman invaders. If the Ancient Roman occupation of mid-Brigantia took place during the late AD 60s, under the governorship of Vettius Bolanus, then by 71 it's very possible some road construction was already in place, though not the lovely smooth cobbling that you see on the image below of the Via Appia leading to Rome. 

A strategy employed by the occupying Roman forces was to quickly create routes that would facilitate the fastest transportation of both soldiers and goods. In the first instances, these are likely to have been trackways cleared of vegetation to accommodate a marching legion. The width would probably have been as wide as needed for baggage wagons to trundle along with the necessary items for a temporary camp, perhaps something like four and a half feet for the wagon width, plus more at each side for safe passage. Over some stretches the width might have allowed the soldiers to march four-abreast, a half-contubernium grouping. I'm still investigating to find out how quickly those occupying soldiers had them stone-paved.

Via Appia Rome  -

Known Roman roads vary in width but an average seems to have been around 15-24 feet wide. A width within those parameters would possibly have accommodated two vehicles travelling in different directions when passing each other, plus military personnel on either side, either cavalry or infantry. Though, the remains of some Roman paved roads indicate deep ruts in the middle of the road indicating the vehicles might only have moved towards the cambered edges when passing each other.

Permanent roadbuilding in stone, which would have suffered less from the vagaries of weather conditions but would have taken some time and immense amounts of manpower to create, was probably mainly undertaken after the Ancient Roman legions considered an area to be under control.

After Whorl: Bran RebornBook 2 of the Celtic Fervour Series, was long published when I read that remains of a Roman road were discovered in northern Yorkshire (England) during the upgrade of the A1 trunk road. The Roman road is in one of the geographical areas I chose for Book 2. Reading the details of the excavation, when it eventually hit the media headlines, was such a buzz and it made me feel that my location decisions were well-determined. The dig also clarified that stone roads seemed to have been a big priority once the decision was made to settle in an occupied territory. 

Scotch Corner  - Yorkshire Post

Delving further into excavations regarding Roman roads in Yorkshire, I read that it’s estimated that Yorkshire had an estimated 1000 plus miles of interconnecting Roman roads during the Roman period spanning more than 300 years. And probably some more not yet detected!

I’ve recently read theories that a Roman road was maybe not built to directly connect the forts along its line. The topical thinking is that after the road was constructed, to link two far-flung major forts or fortresses, the smaller forts were then built at roughly a day's march apart, their intention being to ensure that the flow of traffic (goods and military personnel) traversed safely and unhindered. An example might be the road usually referred to as Ermine Street which runs from Londinium all the way north to the Hadrian's Wall area (though the wall was not built for another forty plus years c. AD 122). Ermine Street linked the fortresses of Londinium and Lindum (Lincoln) in the AD 60s and then by c. AD 71 it had wended its way northwards to the new fortress at Eboracum (York). From Eboracum it went further north to link up with the major supply base at Corstopitum. (Coria). Both of these sites feature in the Celtic Fervour Series. 

Map created for After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks

By Book 3 After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks which covers the decade spanning AD 74 to 84, my Garrigill Clan of 'Celtic' characters are refugees and are mainly on the move northwards. They are using the ancient trackways that the local Late-Iron-Age populations (Celtic tribes) use to get from place to place across Caledonia (Scotland).

The Roman characters who feature in the novel are traversing newly formed Roman roads, though I only imagine some of those roads being fully-paved.  Creating a nice flattened and smooth surface was easy when the Roman army was on the move during the Caledonian invasion campaign because the tramping of Agricola's approximately twenty thousand soldiers would have very quickly compressed the soil and totally squashed any vegetation!

Tribune Gaius Livanus Valerius is in charge of overseeing the safe journeying of metal supplies and other essential supplies that are needed at the permanent Roman installations which have recently been built in southern and central Caledonia. When the tribune and Ineda of Marske, his personal slave, journey into southern Caledonia they are using the Roman roads from Corstopitum to Trimontium Fort  that have been in place for a few seasons. These might well have been fully-paved by then since they were part of the main route north and a continuation of Ermine Street. Likewise, when Ineda and the tribune travel further north towards the huge Pinnata Castra supply fortress the roads are a few seasons old and might have had some form of surfacing to ensure wagons and the draft animals could move more easily. 

In Book 4, Agricola's Bane, almost all of the action for General Agricola is in temporary marching camps in Taexali territory, north of modern-day Aberdeen. He and fellow officers are often found lamenting the deplorable state of the roads around, because they are definitely only at the flattened earth, dirt-track stages.  The winter season isn't conducive to easy transportation of goods, personnel and most of all food. Supplies of grain are dire and Agricola's soldiers don't take kindly to half-rations! He is in the process of subduing the truculent natives and permanent road build isn't yet his priority. 

In Book 5, Beathan The BriganteBeathan has very different experiences from his family after he is captured by the Roman army at the battlegrounds of Beinn na Ciche. He has been used to travelling on roads in Brigantia and in Caledonia but he is to experience a whole lot more during his years of captivity. 

Look out for a second post coming soon on Roman roads travelled in Book 5! 


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