Thursday 16 August 2012

Going for a spin

At its height, the Roman Empire maintained 266,700-miles of roads - 53,700-miles of which were paved highways. After its conquest, Gaul saw 14,000-miles of its locally built road network improved by the Roman Army, while in Britain another 2670-miles were built or upgraded. Rome itself had 29 paved highways funnelling into the wonder they said all roads led to Rome. 

So, what we can take from all those vitally important and very large statistics? Well, the average Roman traveller had a lot of roads to choose from. But just how did they use this ancient interstate system? Well, obviously the poor used a lot of shoe leather, just like the Roman legions when they transferred from one part of the Empire to another. Of course there were also horses, mules and donkeys to choose from for those who wanted saddle sores. However most importantly to the land trade of an empire...the spoked wheel had been invented some 1,700 years before the Roman highway network and the Romans were just a keen as us to ride on cushioned seats. These guys weren't building roads just to be walked on. 

So what kind of vehicles did they use?

At the most basic levels were farm carts - known as Plaustrum - with timber board or wicker sides. Sometimes with one axle, sometimes with two, these were the trucks of the age. They were very basic and could be just about be built at home by anyone who already owned a mule or an ox. Depending on their standard of construction, the cheapest had solid timber wheels, however spoked wheels were used by those travelling longer distances or making more money.

Roman Carrus - what a real Roman Chariot looked like
Around the city, many of the wealthy would have gone for the sports car of the age - the Carrus - what the Romans called a chariot, but bearing no resemblance to the Egyptian style machines we tend to imagine. It was a two seater, with a small wooden tray suspended by leather shock absorbers over a single axle and pulled by one, two, three or four horses depending on whether the driver was a rev-head or not. With racy spoked wheels and steel tyres these were the Ferrari of the day - and whether racing or commuting, these were the must have of the driving elite. And out on the highway these machines could really fly - the young Tiberius is known to have covered five hundred miles of highway in 24-hours on one occasion - albeit, with a quite a few horse changes along the way.  

The Cisium - the Roman SUV and Taxi

For those in less of a hurry and more practically minded, the Cisium was the Roman SUV. Larger than the Carrus, and usually fitted out with a roof the Cisium was the equivalent of the 19th Century gig. Again leather suspension kept the tray separate to the axle, allowing the traveller to float above the road. Steel tyres again were the standard, so these vehicles probably wouldn't sneak up on pedestrians. They were popular as taxis in their day, and cab drivers were actually known as Cisiani.

Roman Raeda  

For long distance travel, the stage coach of the Roman era was the Raeda - two axles, leather suspension, steel tyred and drawn by teams of mules or horses, these machines weren't out for a plod. Designed to carry several people and licensed (yes, the Romans had road rules) to carry 1000lbs of baggage, these vehicles could cover 200-miles a day if their horses were changed frequently enough. Journeys of 100-miles between nightly layovers were probably more common.   



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