Take a look at any of today’s roads, interstates, or highways, and you might be forgiven for forgetting that cars themselves are barely more than a century old. And certainly, there were no massive roadways designed for side-by-side travel of dozens of vehicles a hundred years ago. But we have the old Roman Empire — and eventually its continuation, the Byzantine Empire — to thank for the idea of a government spending a fortune to ensure its people have the ability to cover great distances on a single path.
Byzantine roads were hardly like California superhighways, but they were certainly some of the best in the world.
The Romans were also famous for naming their paths. The Via Egnatia, for example, was built sometime in the second century BC. And it was massive. The undertaking must has cost the Roman Empire a pretty penny, lots of manpower, and many years of work. It spanned Illyricum, Macedonia, and Thracia — or modern day Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey when its name became the Via Appia, one of Rome’s most famous roads.
One of the reasons that the Via Egnatia was such a tremendous undertaking was because its path wasn’t over flat terrain. This route was twisted and tangled, closely following the Genusus River before wending through the Candaviae Mountains, and up into the Lake Ohrid highlands. It continued even farther toward the Aegean Sea and then all the way to Byzantium (which would eventually become the capital city of the Byzantine Empire and have its name changed to Constantinople).
The length of this impressive road? Around 1,120 Km.
But these roads were probably more impressive than you think. They weren’t your typical hiking path through the woods and over the mountains. In fact, we may have overstepped by suggesting they were hardly comparable to California’s superhighways — because the Via Egnatia was a whopping six meters (or 19.6 feet) across, and paved in stone and hard sand. By comparison, a single U.S. Interstate Highway lane is a standardized 12 feet. Certainly bigger when you have at least four of them side by side, but still — the Romans gave us the right idea.
These roads were also notable for their straight continuity — i.e. one end is usually directly across from the other. They rarely “wind” like many of ours do. This made it easier to navigate in the ancient world, even if you were an ordinary citizen.
The Via Egnatia was also given historical significance when the Apostate Paul used it as a means to travel from Phillippi to Thessalonica during his second missionary pilgrimage. Paul wasn’t the only important figure to travel this stretch: Julius Caesar and Pompey both used it during the civil war of Caesar’s making. Mark Antony and Octavian used the road to follow Cassius and Brutus until they met at the Battle of Philippi.
When the Roman Empire fell, the Byzantine Empire provided some much-needed improvements to the failing infrastructure and used the road to trade with most of Europe. Armies also used the road to travel from place to place during the Crusades.