■ 9 September 2011 by James Martin
Roman Roads are rather amazing bits of ancient construction. They surface in various places in Italy; tourists may encounter them anywhere from Rome, where a trek to the ancient Appian Way makes a fine walk out into the Italian countryside (especially on Sundays when traffic is forbidden) to roads in the south and east that linked distant port cities to Rome.
The Via Flaminia links Rome with Adriatic ports, and was known in the Medieval as the Rimini Road. In the Marche region, a part of the Flaminia system passes through the ancient Roman site of Sentinum near Sassoferrato, where these pictures were taken. The modern road which parallels it—the SS3 is nicknamed the Flaminia.
Reading the Roman Road
In the first picture (click to see it larger) we look down a stretch of Roman road that links the Flaminia to Roman Sentinum and runs past the thermal baths in the center of town. The road looks bumpy, but in antiquity it most certainly would be smoother; the cement between the visible blocks here has worn away with time—2000 or so years of it. So imagine yourself to be an observer in Roman times, looking down a relatively smooth road.
At the end of that road there is an intersection, a tee. Thru traffic passes to the left in this view. How do we know that? Let’s look at the next picture.
See the tracks? We’ve turned around, facing the opposite way that we faced when taking the first picture, so the tracks would tend to send a carriage off to the right in this view. The straight part of the road lacked tracks, but the curves have them. Why was that?
Early Roman carts and carriages didn’t have articulating front wheels. Send them through a sharp turn and the carriage and its wheels would be all over the place (and since just about all Roman roads followed compass directions, most of them had 90 degree turns) so tracks were carved to take the wagon on a gentle curve that hit the apex perfectly, just like the line a skilled Formula One driver might take in the same situation.
Did all wheels have the same axle length so that they fit these twin tracks? Not necessarily; since speeds were slow it was enough to find a single track to sink a wheel into to make the curve.
And why does the road to the right in this picture lack tracks? Archaeologists surmise that this was a driveway to a private residence, so there wasn’t enough traffic to warrant the work of making tracks.
In a twitter exchange with archaeologist Bill Thayer, it appears there is some disagreement over the tracks and their function: “The ruts are another matter. I’ve never got to the bottom of them, and there is much disagreement. I’ve seen and photographed ruts that can’t be what you suggest (1 or 3 on the same stretch; some interrupted, or curved on straight road).” So there is some mystery in the working of these roads!
In any case, Sassoferrato has an interesting museum where you can learn more about the ancient Roman city of Sentinum. Not much of the city is left, but there are some excavations of the city center and baths, and another on the other side of the modern via Flaminia that uncovers the larger baths which were built when the smaller city center baths became inadequate for the growing population. There is a stretch of the wider ancient Flaminia on the site, but it is covered to protect it, since there isn’t money to preserve it.
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