Ancient Rome was a bustling metropolis and its citizens were surrounded by a near-constant flow of people, animals, carriages and merchandise from far and wide. With so much traffic in and around the capital, it would have been impossible for the Romans to keep it all organised; fortunately, the clever architects of their day had come up with a genius solution. In fact, a network of well-defined public roads was constructed and connected the city of Rome to the Republic’s furthest corners. As the Republic expanded, so did the road network and soon the entire Mediterranean basin was accessible to the Romans.
Perhaps the most famous of these were the Appian Way, Via Flaminia, and Via Valeria links which merged in Rome to form the famous Via Sacra or “Sacred Way”. This road was the grandest of them all and was maintained by the State in its best condition. On a single day, its pavement could witness both triumphant generals heading in for their triumphal march and great mourning processions for supplicants who paid their respects at Rome’s main Temple.
The city’s stringent traffic regulations prohibited both merchants from the surrounding countryside and foreign traders from entering the city at certain times, while granting citizens priority over other travellers in various ways. This way of segregation would even result in certain privileges or exemptions granted to citizens by the rulers – the Romans were the first to develop this principle of providing preferential access to the city’s advantages based on citizenship. At the same time, Rome also welcomed traffic from its nearest and most distant neighbours – Gauls, Greeks, Syrians and many other foreigners – who would often enter it in great numbers and promptly set up shop.
The presence of so many people of different backgrounds greatly contributed to the sumptuous display of cultures in Rome. Additionally, despite the authorities implementing an oversight system to check the presence of foreigners and foreigners’ goods in the city, the Roman roads did not discriminate against any kind of commerce and facilitated travel and trade across vast distances. Not only the numerous figures flocking into the city with their merchandise or labour, but also the queues of horses and carriages could be found travelling in and out of the city, as the roads not only connected Rome to the rest of the world but were also the primary means of transport for any Roman citizen.
It was also common practice to send messages across the Roman Empire by use of a complex network of couriers riding post-horses between cities.These couriers were responsible for carrying official orders or any other type of correspondence and were usually expected to traverse long distances in relatively short spans of time – thus, their routes were held to be of certain priority and continuous use.
An overview of the types of traffic in Ancient Rome reveals Roman’s ingenuity in arranging their roads and transport system; from segregated roads to courier services, Roman civilization recognized the value of transport and travel and developed a highly efficient network of communication until the collapse of the Empire.
The Practice of Toll Roads
Although most roads were built and maintained by the State, a great deal of private investment was also put into them through tolls. Roman officials leased their roads to individuals in exchange for their commitment to pay a certain percentage of their profits to the public treasury. This ingenious system also made sure that, while providing investors with a steady source of income, the roads were kept in an adequate condition in order to remain safe and accessible to merchants and travellers.
These tolls had a visible impact on the financial resources allocated to road maintenance and allowed Rome to rapidly expand its network of public roads. Moreover, Roman law also allowed the imposition of tariffs on goods transported by land or sea to support the maintenance of roads in remote areas, provide subsidies to the post-roads and to provide funds for the maintenance of aqueducts, bridges and tunnels.
A further example of private investment and commercial exploitation of the Roman roads was the practice of setting up and running rest-stops, inns, and storage places for merchants travelling with goods and merchandise. This way, merchants could stop for the night and avoid being robbed or harassed by bandits, the cruelty of bad weather and other natural hazards.
Aqueducts and Processions
Water was an integral part of Ancient Rome and aqueducts were another form of traffic in Ancient Rome. Aqueducts were constructed to carry fresh water from source locations to the city of Rome, where it could be used for both public and private consumption. These enormous structures were incredibly complex and quite sophisticated for their time, as they were designed to traverse long distances and to overcome extreme hills and slopes.
The water not only satisfied the needs of the city’s population, its powerful symbolism of abundance represented the immense wealth of the Roman Empire and many of the city’s festivities were held on days of aqueduct-arrival. In many cases, these events drew magnificent processions of colourful floats and street performers with the water itself being lifted up on the shoulders of centurions.
Apart from being a symbol of wealth and prosperity, aqueducts also served a practical purpose as many of the roads intersected with branches of the aqueducts allowing travellers to access ancient hamlets and Roman camps located at the outskirts of the city.
River transport was also commonplace in Ancient Rome. The Tiber River and its numerous tributaries became the Roman Empire’s main arteries for shipping goods, goods and pilgrims between faraway provinces. Many goods were transported over these waters, with goods hailing from distant lands such as Arabia, Syria and other countries being brought in through the Mediterranean. Trade goods usually consisted of exotic spices, precious metals and stones, wines, and goods native to foreign lands.
Unsurprisingly, river time was subject to large amounts of regulations, and special tolls and taxes were imposed on traders plying their trade on the waters. The Roman court was always vigilant and acted as the gate-keepers of the well-designed system that maintained order and allowed for conduction of such vast commerce over vast distances.
Public or Private Transport
Apart from these public means of transport, the most popular form of traffic that the regal citizens of Rome enjoyed was private transport. Wealthy Roman travellers usually opted for wagons, litters and chariots as they offered comfort and were relatively fast, while non-elite citizens often chose animal-driven carts and beasts of burden, such as mules and horses, as a means of private transport.
Given the large number of roads and public transport facilities in Rome, its citizens had very little need for privately owned transport options. However, when the city’s traffic started reaching new levels of complexity, the demand for private transportation started increasing significantly and the practice of hiring private chariots spread throughout the city.
The presence of a vast range of diverse transport options in Ancient Rome has, for many centuries, served as an archetypical model for modern urban traffic systems and transport engineering. Rome’s unique mix of roads dedicated to general circulation, tolls, post-roads, aqueducts, river trade and private transport allowed the flow of goods and people throughout the entire Republic. It was a very orderly, organised and efficient traffic system, and one that will probably serve as a reference for many centuries to come.