In the early days of the Roman Republic, many of the roads were simply beaten earth tracks, but by the time of the Empire, a large network of stone paved highways was being expanded throughout the Roman world. Cities were usually located on the main roads, allowing easy military and trade access. By the time of Jesus in the 1st century AD, the Roman road system had as many as 29 major highways converging in Rome, running through about 30 provinces besides additional client kingdoms and territories which were all interconnected by hundreds of roads. A description of Roman roads from the time of the Empire translates as “There is hardly a district to which we might expect a Roman official to be sent, on service either civil or military, where we do not find roads. They reach the Wall in Britain, run along the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates, and cover, as with a network, the interior provinces of the Empire” (Itinerarium Antonini Augusti). This itinerary was the result of a survey of the Roman roads carried out during the reign of Augustus. The itinerary listed the locations that Roman roads led to and from, and how many paces were between the stations, towns, and cities. The phrase “all roads lead to Rome” was true during the time of the Empire, which both ancient documents and archaeology have demonstrated. Although it is difficult to estimate exactly what the total road system encompassed at the time of Jesus, there may have been around 200,000 total miles of roads, with approximately 20,000 miles of stone paved highway.
Most roads in ancient times were simply dirt paths used by the military, merchants, and travelers. These dirt roads had many problems, such as large holes forming, mud, and wash outs obscuring or destroying sections of the road. However, Roman engineers, utilizing previous construction techniques and improving upon them, began to build roads that remained in good condition for decades and lasted in useable form for centuries. According to a 6th century scholar, the Romans adopted and improved upon road construction techniques from the Etruscans and the Carthaginians (Isidore of Sevilla, Etymologiae Book XV). Augustus had many roads built throughout the Empire, and after him, Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, Trajan, and Hadrian seem to have been major road builders and repairers. In the 1st and 2nd centuries, 70 years seems to have been an average life for major Roman roads before they were repaired (Van Sickle, “The Repair of Roads in Spain under the Roman Empire”). The military built the majority of roads, and these were financed by the Imperial government, but municipalities were also expected to build and maintain certain roads at their own expense, and private individuals sometimes paid for roads (Meyers and Chancey, Alexander to Constantine). Although the government funded most of the roads, even Roman citizens could not always use the roads for free. Tolls were often levied for use, and collection commonly took place at bridges and city gates.
In the Empire, there were generally three types of roads varying by construction, and three main divisions of road classifications. The types of roads based on construction technique were via terrena (road of leveled earth), via glareata (road with gravel surface), via munita (a stone paved road). Road classification was also based upon its use. Viae publicae were public highways and main roads, viae privatae were private roads, and viae vicinales were municipal roads. Roman road engineers probably used maps and various surveying instruments, such as the groma or chorobates or dioptra (ancient surveying and measuring instruments), to design their major highways, which linked great distances with direct routes and exceptionally straight roads (Davies, “Designing Roman Roads”). That maps of the provinces and Empire existed, even in the 1st century AD, is suggested by the discovery of the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map probably made in the 4th century, and ancient sources that record how the geographers Zenodoxus, Theodotus, and Polyclitus were commissioned in 44 BC by Julius Caesar to survey the Roman highway system and create a master itinerary. Pliny the Elder also described a map of the Roman Empire initially began by Agrippa at the request of Augustus, then completed by the Emperor after the death of Agrippa. This map was apparently displayed in Rome, but no part of it has yet been discovered. The Dura Shield, which has a parchment map attached do it, is an example of a regional road map from the Roman period. It is obvious that the Romans were focused both on their road building and their mapping, as this allowed the rapid and efficient movement of military, goods, and people throughout the Empire. These roads, other than leveled earth pathways, were usually built by digging into the ground, leveling the ground, then placing gravel above. For the paved highways, additional layers of stone and gravel were added on top, which allowed water to drain and gave the surface a more solid foundation. On top of the layers of gravel, paving stones were placed usually in an elliptical or sloped fashion to keep water off of the roadway. Finally, a concrete made from a lime mixture was placed on top of the paving stones to create an ever smoother surface. Major roadways in certain cities even had sidewalks and gutters. Aspects of road construction are actually depicted on Trajan’s Column from about 113 AD. Therefore, the main highways and city streets would have been very smooth, durable, and constructed with excellent drainage. The width of the average paved street in Jerusalem during the Roman period was about 18 feet, and the main street, called the Cardo Maximus, was about 72 feet wide and covered with smooth paving stones. However, outside of cities in Judea and Galilee during the time of Jesus, the main connecting thoroughfares were probably only dirt or gravel roads.
Roman law specified that roads should be 8 feet wide when straight, and 16 feet wide when curved, although in reality the roads often deviated from the standard. Roman law also allowed travelers to pass over private property when the road in the area was in need of repair. Due to these laws, the Roman government attempted to make roads as straight as possible and to build them in such a way as they would only need to be repaired after many decades of use, saving on materials, labor, and pleasing wealthy landowners. Roman road laws also banned the use of vehicles in cities, except at night or in exceptional circumstances, and only government officials or married women were allowed to ride within the cities. This reduced crowding in the cities and also limited the amount of injuries that could be caused by horses or large vehicles. Milestones, or miliarium, were circular stone columns set on a rectangular base which served as mile markers. Milestones were typically erected in densely populated places, and when a road was first constructed or when major repair work was done (Van Sickle, “The Repair of Roads in Spain under the Roman Empire”). Those along roads were often placed on major routes at every Roman mile (milia passuum meaning 1,000 paces and measuring 4,841 feet/1,480 meters). At the base was inscribed the number of the mile relative to the road it was on, and about eye level an inscription stated the distance to the Roman Forum of the connecting city, along with information about who constructed or repaired the road and when this occurred. To calculate the distances for milestones, a hodometer (a surveyor’s wheel used to measure distance) may have been used in certain situations, while simpler methods were probably more commonly used. Many Roman milestones are still standing today, and have been instrumental in pinpointing the exact location of many ancient towns.
Roads were used by government officials, merchants/traders, pilgrims, letter carriers, tourists/travelers, runaway slaves, fugitives from the law, prisoners, athletes, actors, artisans, teachers, philosphers, students. The roads allowed the government to quickly respond to rebellions or invasions, and to facilitate trade. The stone paving of the roads made them sturdy enough to endure hundreds of years of use by foot, horse, and wagon, and many of these roads are still largely intact today because of the great engineering and use of stone. The Empire had a brilliant network of roads connecting the entire Empire, supplemented by ships traveling to and fro across the Mediterranean. Most people had to walk, but those with more money would use a horse, camel, donkey, or even a carriage. Inns were constructed on road routes, and way stations for the Imperial messengers were spaced about 10 miles apart (Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament).
In Judea, there was a road which ran along the shore of the Mediterranean now often referred to as Via Maris or Way of the Sea. While the name Via Maris, which is a Latin translation of Way of the Sea, is not known from any documents of the Roman period, the road it refers to had existed long before the time of Jesus (Exodus 13:17; Matthew 4:15). The other primary road in the region ran just east of Judea, and was known as the King’s Highway. These two road systems helped connect the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa through the Middle East. A third major road connected the King’s Highway with the Way of the Sea, and this ran from Damascus through the Galilee region and to the Mediterranean coast. Since Jesus spent much of his public ministry in Galilee, he would have come in contact with a very wide variety of people traveling through Galilee on their way elsewhere. In the Gospels, several passages refer to roads in the regions of Judea and Galilee connecting cities and towns, and illustrations involving Roman highway construction and road laws. Jesus traveled on the road to and from Jericho, on a road between Galilee and Jerusalem, the road to Emmaus, the Triumphal Entry was on a road going from the east into Jerusalem, and a few parables mention roads (Matthew 20:30, Mark 10:32, Luke 9:57, Luke 24:32, Matthew 21:8). Jesus also taught that “If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,” which referred to travel on Roman controlled roads (Matthew 5:41). Roman law allowed a soldier to order civilians to carry their pack for one Roman mile, which on most major roads within the Empire would have been marked by milestones. Jesus used this law to emphasize going beyond what is required and love not only your neighbor but your enemy too, who for many Judeans of the day was any Roman soldier. Jesus also said that “the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it…and the road is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it,” which alluded to the familiar wide highways traveled by so many people versus the small alleys or streets traveled by only a few (Matthew 7:13-14). Roads in the Roman Empire, like other pieces of historical information from antiquity, help to us better understand various aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Although roads are often mentioned, it seems that there were no major paved Roman highways in Judea and Galilee during the time of Jesus. In fact, the first road of this type was probably not built until over 20 years later. A road from Acre to Tyre was built by Claudius in 56AD, as indicated by milestones erected at the time of construction. Josephus describes the construction of another road during the First Judean Revolt (Josephus, Wars). Roads from the revolt between 66-73 are also attested by a milestone erected in 69 AD on the Caesarea to Scythopolis highway, recording that the road was built by soldiers of Legio X Fretensis under the command of Marcus Ulpius Traianus, who was the father of the later Emperor Trajan. Eventually, the Via Nova was paved along the course of the ancient King’s Highway during the reign of Trajan in the early 2nd century AD (Harel, “Israelite and Roman Roads in the Judean Desert”). Then, during the reign of Hadrian, many additional roads were built or converted into paved highway. Therefore, major roads in Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus were probably dirt or perhaps gravel, but stone paved Roman highways were not constructed in the region until the time of the early Church. These Roman highways, constructed soon after the life of Jesus, were a major factor in the rapid and wide spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, as followers of Jesus made extensive use of the Roman roads to travel all around the Empire to spread the message of Jesus Christ.