The Romans really knew what they were doing when it came to building roads, and new research shows that the roads they drew thousands of years ago are still relevant to modern civilizations.
In other words, if you live near Roman roads that were built 2,000 years ago, then you may be living in a very wealthy area. The trade, profit, and development of these roads are still important today.
This was not the first use of roads; The ancient Romans built roads especially for the soldiers to travel easily. Over time, roads began to connect important towns and cities.
“Given that a lot has happened since then, a lot has to be adapted to the current situation,” says economist Ola Olsson, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
“But it’s surprising that our main result is that the Roman roads have contributed to the existence of many cities and economic activities, even though they are gone and covered by new roads.”
At the height of the expansion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the 200th century CE, a road of about 80,000 kilometers (49,710 miles) was established, and the first road – to supply the army – began construction in 312 BCE.
The researchers overlaid a map of the Roman Empire’s roads over modern satellite images, using nighttime light as an indicator of economic activity. The map was divided into smaller units for detailed viewing, measuring one degree of longitude and one degree of latitude.
The group noted a “remarkable pattern of persistence” between Roman roads and modern economic activity, despite the fact that much of the infrastructure has been destroyed.
Whether roads stimulated economic activity or were built along roads that were already successful – but there are signs that the old ideas are correct, that these roads led to an increase in trade and wealth. The appearance of market towns along the roads would have been important, the group says.
“This is the biggest challenge in all research,” says Olsson. “What makes this study very interesting is that only the roads are gone and the confusion of western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire would have been an opportunity to rebuild the economic infrastructure. Despite this, the urban culture remained.”
These discoveries were not the same everywhere, however: In North Africa and the Middle East, where camel teams replaced the wheel between the 4th and 6th centuries CE, Roman roads were not built or modified.
In these areas, there is no connection between the old ways and the economic success of today, and the areas are not doing well economically. Again, the researchers say market towns – or in this case, their absence – are important.
These findings also have implications for future infrastructure plans. Decisions about where to put roads and railways can significantly change the economic climate of a given region – and as recent research shows, these changes can be long-lasting.
“For example, in Sweden, we are talking about building new railways,” says Olsson. “The first, from the 1800s, became very important for the economy of Sweden. New railways are discussed, and if they are built you can expect some areas to develop economically.”
Research has been published in Journal of Comparative Economics.