How Roman roads shaped today’s prosperity

Via Appia

View of a Roman road. © piola666/ iStock

Although the Roman Empire ended a good 1,500 years ago, its road network had a lasting effect: the location on a Roman road can still be seen in the prosperity of a place or region, as researchers have discovered. Despite the many political and economic upheavals since the end of antiquity, the Roman heritage has had a lasting impact on the economic development of most regions.

The Roman road network was unique in ancient times: it stretched for more than 80,000 kilometers and criss-crossed all of Europe and parts of North Africa and Central Asia. Unlike the beaten tracks and dirt roads of most other cultures of the time, Roman roads were paved with flagstones and often also had a roadbed filled with loose stones and sand and side curbs.

Then and now in comparison

Originally intended primarily for the transport of troops and military equipment, over time the Roman roads became important thoroughfares for trade and long-distance transport of goods. New trading posts and towns developed along this road network, while existing settlements and towns benefited from freight traffic and the connection to the road network. However, during the Middle Ages and thereafter, the political map of Europe changed significantly. "The roads have long since disappeared and the post-Roman Empire chaos in western Europe was an opportunity to completely transform economic structures," says co-author Ola Olsson of Stockholm University.

Olsson, first author Carl-Johan Dalgaard from the University of Copenhagen and their colleagues have now investigated whether, despite these changes, the Roman roads still have an effect on the economic development of regions and cities that can be proven today. To do this, they compared old maps of the Roman road network with nocturnal satellite images. Because the intensity of the artificial lighting can provide initial indications of the prosperity of a region. In addition, the scientists determined the density of Roman roads in antiquity for the individual grid honeycombs of their map and compared this with the infrastructure, population density and economic activity of today.

Visible effects to this day

"Given that a lot has happened since ancient times, one would expect significant adaptations to modern conditions," says Olsson. "It is all the more astonishing that the Roman roads have contributed to the density of the cities and the economic activity along their ancient routes to this day - even if these roads are long gone." The researchers found that in the areas with a high density of Roman roads, too the modern road network is denser. In addition, more settlements developed there from 500 AD. Most surprisingly, economic performance and prosperity from 2010 to 2020 still reflect Roman infrastructure.

Also interesting: This connection only applies where traffic after Roman times primarily took place with wagons and carts. In North Africa and the Near and Middle East, on the other hand, the organized transport system of the Romans was again replaced by camel caravans from the fourth to sixth centuries. Because no roads were needed for this, they no longer played a major role in the infrastructure that developed in these regions after the end of the Roman Empire. "The roads became irrelevant and we don't see the same continuity of prosperity there as in western parts of the Roman Empire," says Olsson. The results thus help to better understand the factors that contribute to differences in development and their persistence, according to the team.

Source: Swedish Research Council, Article: Journal of Comparative Economics, doi: 10.1016/j.jce.2022.05.003

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