Mapping History: Retracing Roman Roads in Judaea

The Roman road system has fascinated many historians through the years.1 One reason for this popularity is its accessibility – both for historical travelers and historians alike. Abundant literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources attest to the extensive travel network that connected and enriched the various provinces of the powerful Roman Empire, enabling detailed mapping and analysis of the roads themselves. Over 100,000 km of well-maintained and high-caliber roads2 facilitated the spread of people, money, and ideas; in fact, portions of the Roman road system were so well built that they continued to provide transport for local communities well through the 18th century.3

Epigraphic evidence provides some of the most important data for our understanding of the Roman roads. Throughout the empire, road construction and repair was commemorated with dedicatory milestones. Many of these were large, freestanding pillars with inscriptions proclaiming the glory of the current Emperor, frequently alongside the name of the Roman legate who oversaw construction and the marker’s milage from the road’s origin or destination. Almost always in Latin, these markers were probably not useful to locals (who would not have spoken such an elite language), but reflect the main purpose of the road: military maneuvering.4

While today we tend to envision the Roman roads as a cohesive structure, some historians have argued that in fact this tendency is anachronistic.5 Instead, the Romans built, paved, and repaired roads with an eye toward their local and immediate use. These uses ranged from facilitating military movements to population management. For the Romans, roads were a means to many ends, although the bureaucratic resources needed to formalize construction were never formally allocated.6 For example, one strange phenomenon seen in Judean milestones is concentration in highly populated urban settings. This fact also correlates with geography: milestones are not found in desert regions although the road networks clearly persisted. One possible explanation of this is that milestones and roads helped the government calculate tax burdens and the associated resource allocations. Milestones therefore became concentrated in populated areas. This may have even helped their preservation, as more milestones meant more resources and protection allocated from the Roman government.7

However, it is important to note the chicken-and-egg nature of populated regions, economic growth, and Roman roads. As historians have pointed out, expansion of the road system enabled the growth of new settlements and economic spread, which in turn encouraged upkeep of roads and bridges.8


Isaac, Benjamin. The Near East Under Roman Rule: Selected Papers. Leiden; New York: BRILL, 1998.

Isaac, Benjamin H., and Israel Roll. Roman Roads in Judaea I: The Legio-Scythopolis Road. B.A.R., 1982.

Fischer, Moshe. Roman Roads in Judaea II : The Jaffa-Jerusalem Roads. Oxford: Tempus Reparatvm, 1996.

Hitchner, R. Bruce. “Roads, Integration, Connectivity, and Economic Performance in the Roman Empire.” In Highways, Byways, and Roads Systems in the Pre-Modern World, edited by Susan Alcock, John Bodel, and Richard Talbert. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories 5. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Talbert, Richard. “Roads Not Featured: A Roman Failure to Communicate?” In Highways, Byways, and Roads Systems in the Pre-Modern World, edited by Susan Alcock, John Bodel, and Richard Talbert. The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

  1. Evidence of this may been seen in the scholarship behind the Stanford ORBIS database: 
  2. Hitchner 224 
  3. Hitchner 222-3 
  4. Issac: 1982, 8 
  5. Talbert 250 
  6. ibid. 247 
  7. Isaac: 1982, 98 
  8. Hitchner 224-6 

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