how blunt roads changed the world

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“Okay, but apart from sewerage, sanitation, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads and public baths, what have the Romans done for us?” In this mythical scene of ‘Brian’s life‘, the Monty Pythons managed to summarize in just 90 seconds the weight of the Roman Empire in shaping the world we know. What they have discovered some researchers from the University of Gothenburg is that, quite possibly, they fell short.


2,000 years is nothing. That is the main conclusion of this team of Swedish researchers is that, although as is evident, the Roman Empire has long since passed into history, yes; but the decisions made at the time by Roman engineers, generals and bureaucrats have shaped the demographic and economic structure of much of the contemporary world (in some cases, far from its original borders).

The idea that I have summarized in the previous paragraph is not new. This was an intuition shared by many experts. The problem that They met in Gothenburg it was like checking it out. It goes without saying that, at a strictly scientific level, calculating the impact on complex social organizations of something that happened two millennia ago is quite complicated. Until they had an idea.

Roman Empire 125 General Map Red Roads 1

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The foundations of the empire. At its height, the Roman Empire had 80,000 kilometers of roads in use. This is one of the most amazing sustained infrastructure construction efforts in the world. It was not, of course, something free, nor humanitarian. Causeways were not built for economic reasons. Or not, mainly. The main function of the Roman roads was to move troops; ensure that the enormous war machine that controlled all the lands bordering the Mediterranean continued to function.

It is absurd to deny that behind these military needs there were not also economic logics. However, this logistical primacy was essential because it made Latino engineers pay little attention to traditional roads and trails when drawing the road map. In a certain way, something similar happened with these infrastructures to what has happened in Spain with the high-speed train lines: it was decided to forget the traditional lines and build them from scratch because the technical requirements were radically different.

The arteries of the ancient world. The wonderful thing about it, as the researchers realized, is that once built they became powerful structures for trade and transportation. That is to say: it was the perfect measure to evaluate the impact of the decisions (in this case, military) of the Empire.

Roman Roads 2b

How did you do it? In a tremendously simple way: researchers have overlapped a map of the Roman roads on a series of satellite images that show the intensity of night light. The relationship between that light, demography and the economy has been well established for decades. The thesis was also simple. “Since a lot has happened since then, a lot should have been adapted to modern circumstances,” explained Ola Olssonone of the authors of the study.

Later development would have made the roads obsolete and the map of the cities, economic activity and communications would not overlap with them: post-imperial societies could have recovered the original roads now that the “attractor” effect of Rome had fallen. Especially in Western Europe, where chaos and fragmentation gave the opportunity the different countries to “reorient the economic structures”.

While modern concrete cracks after a few decades, Agrippa's Pantheon has been standing for 2,000 years: myths and realities of Roman concrete

but none of that. “Call attention — continues Olsson — that our main The result is that Roman roads have contributed to the concentration of cities and economic activity along them.” This is true when the roads have been replaced by other modern roads or even when the roads no longer exist at all.

At heart, it’s somewhat similar to how America’s inner cities grew and how the decisions made by railroad builders shaped the country. Something similar, but 1850 years further back in time. With the passage of time, some routes were out of the question due to technological development (It has also happened in cities like Buffaloin the American case), but the demographic weight (and the economic and industrial inertia) that allowed the roads to be articulated meant that nothing would go back to the way it was before.

The great exception. The only place in the Empire where this does not happen It is in Africa and the Middle East. There, since they were disconnected from Mediterranean trade: “wheeled transport was abandoned in the IV-VI centuries to be replaced by camel caravans”, a technology that allowed markets to be easily connected with Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa. According to the authors, this was not free: the fact that the concentration of cities was not favored ended up undermining the foundations of modern development. And we see the consequences even today.

What is this for? Because, as you may have imagined, this is an in-depth reflection on the impact on long-term infrastructure. A reminder that the decisions we make, even if they take into account a certain electoral configuration, end up laying the foundations that allow us (or not) to take the next step. That is to say: that there is no better way to build the future than to think about the things that we are building in the present.

Image | Erik Torner

“Okay, but apart from sewerage, sanitation, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads and public baths, what have the Romans done…

“Okay, but apart from sewerage, sanitation, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads and public baths, what have the Romans done…

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