How were Roman roads maintained?

The course of streets from Roman times to the Middle Ages

Roads are a matter of course for us, they bring us quickly from A to B. If a mountain is in the way, we drive through a tunnel. Bridges span wide valleys. And so roads lead to your destination as quickly as possible. It was not always like that. Other times had different goals and different possibilities and therefore different demands on the course of roads. Many streets over the centuries intentionally on mountains instead of in the valley can hardly be imagined.

The subject of streets has fascinated me since I started studying history. In the end I wrote my master's thesis about it (title: The change in the alignment and the use of land transport routes using the example of the Heidelberg area). As you can see on my page, even after my history studies I still deal a lot with streets, maps and ravines: D

This is especially important if you are interested in the remains of old roads, namely ravines. In order to be able to find them in the area, of course, you have to know how roads ran in the Middle Ages. On this page I would like to show you how roads are and their course historically changed and where we can still find at least parts of medieval streets - ravines - today.

Overview of this page

You can find some specialist literature below. There you can read a lot of what I am writing here.

In addition, a note at the very beginning: As much as I write here about streets and paths and their creation - Land transport routes were always only a second choice. Much more important was the waterway: With it you can transport more and more cheaply (less effort) than by land. Especially in the Middle Ages, when roads were often in a very deplorable condition.

What are roads and how are they made?

Streets are mundane parts that you seldom think about. Nevertheless, we mostly use them on a daily basis and are unconsciously grateful that they are there. We seldom move outside the house in areas where there are neither streets nor paths or at least paths. Then at the latest we notice how difficult it is to move forward without having set foot: D

I mostly speak of streets here, although the understanding and the reality of streets in the Middle Ages did not correspond to today's conception of a street. The word “street” is derived from Latin: one via strata was a cobbled Roman road. It was called strada also used later in the Middle Ages. That is why I use the word “road” synonymously for paths and vice versa.

Why are paths and streets created? There is this saying: Paths are made by walking them. It is actually meant metaphorically, but also fits here without a figurative sense and explains both why paths arise, as well as how they arise. If nobody walks - i.e. if there is no need to get from A to B - then there is no path and no road as a further developed path. Paths arise for one reason: Many people want to move from one place to another, for whatever reason. And mostly back again. In doing so, a route emerges that the best compromise is:

  • as short as possible (length of the route)
  • as fast as possible (the shortest distance is not always the fastest!)
  • as safe as possible (little contact with water, i.e. few fords, few other dangers)
  • As simple as possible (if possible, no muddy ground, no unnecessary waiting times or other stays)

On this route there will initially be a beaten path, later perhaps a bridle path for messengers or a wider path for carts and wagons. And even later, maybe a federal highway or a motorway. The road layout, i.e. the routes along which road routes run, has changed again and again over the course of time. She always depends on what road users actually want.

  • Where do you want to go? Why do you want that? What is your need?
  • Do you have any goods with you?
  • How fast do you want / have to be there?

How and where a road runs depends on this demand. The The greatest enemy of fast travel is water: No means of transport can move effectively on muddy ground. Each era had its own strategies for dealing with damp subsoil.

Road layout with the Romans

The Roman roads are a fascinating subject and deserve a lot of attention. However, I am dealing more with the medieval streets here and will therefore only go into that briefly. In my little film, Paths to Heidelberg's Past, I also cut through Roman roads.

Roman roads and modern roads have a lot in common

In many ways are Roman roads comparable to today's roads:

  • They were paved, maintained, and had ditches for water drainage
  • There were elaborate bridges and tunnels
  • There were well-developed highways that, similar to today's highways, connected important places relatively directly with one another, while smaller settlements were not affected by them (there were spur roads / "motorway feeder")
  • The larger streets had milestones that indicated how far you were from the nearest town

As today, the Romans simply set the damp subsoil massive substructures opposite. Roads were graveled thick with stones and gravel and ran so above the mud, into which every soil is transformed after short rains.

Roads make traveling easier - this is why the Romans administered their road construction by the state, provided them with solid ground and regular maintenance, and often allowed them to run straight to a distant destination. The firmer the ground and the straighter the route, the easier the movement and the more you reach your goal faster.

Roads as the lifelines of the empire

This is important for an empire as large as the Roman Empire: messages had to get quickly to Rome from the borders thousands of kilometers away so that decisions could be made here. Legions had to be able to reach trouble spots quickly. Without news the emperor “sees” nothing and without swift armies he is powerless. The roads were the "highways of antiquity" and for the empire of essential importance.

Because the roads were so important, even the emperors often donated money to improve an existing road or to build a new one. Only by the superordinate administration of the empire and the high priority of the roads could these be so powerful. It was not until the 18th century - around 1,500 years after the Romans - that the road speeds were similar to those of the Roman era.

The Romans thought very spaciously here and you had that The goal in mind, not the obstacle. Obstacles (rivers, gorges, valleys, mountains, swamps) were mostly not avoided, but crossed or crossed. Even if that meant building high or long bridges and maintaining the roads, which was time-consuming and costly.

About the picture: The Pont du Gard in southern France: an almost 2000 year old Roman bridge (primarily as an aqueduct)

Road layout in the Middle Ages

While in Roman times streets were planned on a large scale and laid out and maintained with a lot of effort, streets fell into disrepair (just like the successors of the Roman Empire) from the middle of the 3rd century into "small parts". Instead of one great ruler, there were many small kingdoms, and within the kingdoms, princes were in charge. Boundaries kept shifting, areas were swapped and owners changed. Nobody ordered that a road should lead over 100 kilometers from A to B - the times were too uncertain for that, the costs too high and the internal disagreements between those in power too great.

From “ancient highways” to the medieval road network

This can also be seen in the streets. The destination of a road was not the large provincial administrative center, but that Neighboring place, a major river crossing or the nearest market. The existing Roman infrastructure was of course used as long as possible. Without maintenance, the roads and bridges gradually fell into disrepair. Self Bridges lost their importance. For more than 1000 years there was no bridge over the Rhine between the Upper Rhine and the North Sea. Rivers often served as territorial boundaries and effective border security at the same time - a bridge would only enable the neighbor to enter their own area more quickly.

Depending on the region and frequency of use, some Roman roads actually lasted into modern times. Although Roman roads could be quite convenient, they were often not used in the Middle Ages because they were simple did not go where people wanted to go. So, not far from Roman roads, new paths developed, which, however, now stopped directly at places that were not previously touched. In addition, new places were created at road crossings and bridges - i.e. where many travelers pass by. So imagined Road network from many small stretches that connected the places with each other.

You can very often recognize the old connecting roads by the fact that they take the Bear the name of the place to which they lead. Many of these old connections no longer exist today: Removed for industrial areas, agriculture or motorway construction. But in the places they are still preserved - pointing in the direction of the neighboring village and bearing its name. More on this: Recognize historic streets on maps

The roads of the Middle Ages had neither a paved road surface nor a substructure until the 18th century, i.e. well beyond the Middle Ages, and ran directly on the ground. The major trade and military routes were no exception.

Obstacles in the road layout

Of course, even in the Middle Ages, people wanted you To achieve the goal quickly - even if the goals looked different. If possible, the direct line between two points was chosen. So the local connections - if not made impossible by the terrain - usually led in the shape of a spoke from the town center to the outside. Obstacles that prevented the traveler or the road from using the direct line were, for example:

  • Rivers
  • Swamps
  • generally valleys in the mountains, as backwater accumulates here or streams can overflow their banks
  • deep ravines
  • partly also foreign territory

The main obstacle was not height, but usually Water and moisture. The unpaved paths, which ran directly on the ground without a substructure, turned into mud at the slightest contact with water and became extremely difficult to pass - regardless of whether for humans, horses or wagons. For this reason, they avoided these areas and looked for one natural way, which represented a compromise between safe crossing, loss of time and exertion. Rivers were crossed in shallow places, so fords, swamps were avoided as completely as possible and the lowlands were generally avoided.

Elevated roads or elevated roads

Because of the damp valleys, travelers went to the heights in the Middle Ages. High roads were formed, many of which are still used today as hiking trails with the name Höhenweg, Hochstraße or something like that. On long ridges and watersheds there are no damp surfaces and driving and riding on unpaved roads is easier than in the waterlogged valleys. The cheap, natural routes were used here:

  • as few inclines as possible
  • As few detours as possible, due to cross valleys or gorges
  • as expedient as possible

The use of high roads naturally also means that you first had to reach them. While inclines are avoided on trunk roads as much as possible because of the loss of strength (tunnels and bridges are the right keywords!), In the Middle Ages you had to bite into this bullet. Little consideration was given here to how strenuous a steep stretch is. So come the unimaginable today Gradient of up to 30% (30 meters in altitude per 100 meters!) And in individual cases on short sections of up to 38% (Plättelsweg Heidelberg).

We always have to remember: It was not important to the people to be at their destination at exactly 5:15 pm or to lose an hour here or there. As long as the car was moving, everything was fine. In the valley it could happen that the car got stuck or you had to turn back due to flooding. So rather dare the strenuous ascent and then drive over the ridges without disturbance than risk muddy paths and unpredictability in the valley.

It wasn't until the late Middle Ages that came slowly Underground fortifications on and the paths shifted back into the valleys. This development happened very slowly, in some cases the old mountain roads were used again if the circumstances required it, such as flooding in the valley. In 1849 Prussian troops marched from the north on the elevated road shown above against revolutionary troops to Heidelberg.

No zigzags and no fastenings

Another problem in the Middle Ages was the two-axle carts. The axes were rigid and couldn't be turned left and right, what tight turns impossible made. So the curves were wide and drawn out. There were no tight curves on mountain climbs, such as the zigzag roads in the Alps that are popular today.

Because roads were not made planned, but that natural terrain followed, there were also no roads that rose moderately uphill along the mountain slopes. There were no paths cut into the mountain slopes on terraces, as is often the case today. These roads would require fortifications to keep them from slipping. Conversely, we can say that zigzag roads and paved hillside roads date from the late Middle Ages at the earliest.

That means: The streets of the Middle Ages led straight up the mountain up. There was no compromise. And it was precisely on these downward slopes that ravines were created.


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info: If you click on a link and buy something there, I get a small portion of the purchase price as commission. The does not cost you anything extra, Amazon pays the difference itself - but I'm happy about it: D

»Why does Lucyda set commission links?

Esch, Arnold: Between antiquity and the Middle Ages. The decline of the Roman road system in central Italy and the Via Amerina, Munich 2011. (»Click here for the book review)

Lay, Maxwell G., The history of the street. From the beaten path to the motorway. Translated from the English by Thomas Pampuch and Timothy Slater² (Frankfurt / Main, New York 1994).

Grasediek, Werner: An Eifel "wine route". The Koblenz-Lütticher Fernhandelsweg, in: F. Burgard - A. Haverkamp (ed.), On the Roman roads into the Middle Ages. Contributions to the history of traffic between the Meuse and the Rhine from late antiquity to the 19th century, Trier historical research 30 (Mainz 1997) 427–446.

Mumm, Hans-Martin: On the abrupt climb.Old roads and ravines in the city forest. Considerations on the traffic relations of Heidelberg in the Middle Ages and early modern times, Heidelberg. Yearbook for the history of the city 9, 2004, 79–101.

Of course there are dozens of other books, but I think it makes no sense to post five A4 pages of literature here.

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  1. Hello!
    Very interesting site!

    Accidentally found exactly what I was looking for for me.

    In addition to the performing hobby, I started Cologne around 1350 (W.v.Gennep) to go with the metal detector as soon as I have my permit.

    Research is necessary :-)


    Christoph (near Bonn)

  2. Hello Debbie,

    you seem to have had a hard time with the subject of paths. You took that very literally to explore the ways of life. I am amazed at how many articles you have already written about it on your website.

    Maybe this is of interest to you? Here is an older but good online documentary about old trails in the Alpine region:

    The director is one of my favorite documentary filmmakers: Dieter Wieland. He was one of the first filmmakers to film about the protection of old buildings and our nature. He also wrote very interesting texts for his films. A piece of film text is already shown below the video. He is as thorough as you are, historically knowledgeable and melancholy about the loss of our ancient culture. Wieland is an atypical Bavarian, a one-of-a-kind, who is not a conservative despite being sponsored by Bayerischer Rundfunk. So, sogma, value conservative isser scho.

    Greetings from Hendesse,


    1. Hey Uli,

      thank you for your comment and the documentation. I take a look at it when I get the chance, it hits exactly my interest :-)
      Greetings to the neighborhood - Hendesse is not far from Wilhelmsfeld - and have a nice weekend!

      1. Wilhelmsfeld? Well, because of the field ... From my living area there is also a high path leading there (driveway to Heiligenberg). Years ago I discovered wooden boards from the Heimatverein up there, on which it was described that the country roads of the poor people used to run here. I was shocked, the poor people ... rumbling steeply up over hill and dale in wind and weather and then always in danger of meeting a robber Hotzenplotz.
        Spring greetings from the edge of the Odenwald, Uli

  3. Hi Ravana!
    Thanks for your answer! :)
    No, I've already browsed a lot. Apparently there is not much public interest in investigating old routes. We history nerds are obviously a little alone. But it doesn't matter.
    I'll write you an email. I still have a few questions for you.
    Best wishes,

    1. Yes, that's right, maybe too mundane. "Huh? Ways? Isn't that boring? "I keep hearing ...: - /

      1. But not understandable for me. ... the disinterest. When I stand on such an old path in the forest, a feeling of awe overcomes me ... The idea that people were wrong here a long time ago - and especially FOR a long time, is incredibly fascinating. As inconspicuous as such a path is, it was an important part of an old infrastructure.
        Traders, farmers, soldiers, robbers, crooks, messengers, knights ... If the path could tell who has already traveled on it and what has probably already happened there ...
        Then there is the fact that people have been passing these forgotten lifelines for many decades and simply have no idea that the supposed trenches were gradually formed by tens of thousands of people, horses and wagons. * rave *

      2. I always have exactly these thoughts! It's nice that I'm not alone with this :-)

  4. Very, very interesting elaborations and videos. I also discovered ravine systems in the forest with us. I was able to compare many of the connections that I assumed with your facts. Really great, thanks for that!
    Do you know how to get a documented excavation / investigation of a ravine?
    Many greetings from the other end of the Odenwald,
    Marco :)

    1. Hi Marco, thanks for your comment, I was happy :) There are already beautiful things to discover in the forest!
      Mmmh, ravines are seldom really well - or at all - examined, for example here (Heidelberg). no one. See if there is a history association in the next town or town after that, they sometimes publish a series of publications. Maybe there could be something there - I found it there. Or maybe in local history volumes about the region, “On the way in the forests of the eastern Odenwald” or “The eastern Odenwald and its ground monuments” (or wherever). There are only a few well-known ravines that are honored with their own book, so you have to search creatively: D You could look for the name of the next place + history in the online catalog of the next university and see what is being spat out, so you could approach you slowly. Always have a look at the tables of contents of the anthologies, otherwise you might miss something!
      Good luck and happy searching!