Lecture Details and Reviews

The Planning of Roman Roads

6th March, 2012 John Poulter


Reviewed by Valerie on 7th March, 2012

A crowded audience at the March meeting heard John Poulter, a retired engineer, talk about the planning of Roman roads. John has developed a logical method for diagnosing the directions in which Roman roads appear to have been planned. He also posed the question: whether the Romans did or did not know about the magnetic compass? The Romans certainly used a particular instrument called a groma, by which they seemed able to take a straight course across very extensive landscapes, and in Northern Britain they applied their skills to create two main north-south roads on either side of the Pennines, having apparently decided to keep the roads inland rather than close to the coasts.

Both these roads still exist going north from York to Newstead fort via Scotch Corner, and from Manchester to Carlisle. (John found that a now-redundant lay-by at Scotch Corner is in fact part of the original Roman road layout.) Photographic illustrations showed the course and appearancedisappearance of the original routes devised by the Roman surveyors, who appear to have undertaken centralized planning as though crossing virgin countryside.

However, their basic long distance plans necessitated deviations around local riverhill obstacles, after which the road would often return to the original alignment, which presumably would have been set out by use of markers. Examples were also given of grids made by the Romans in the emptiness of East Anglia, which enabled them to parcel out land and set out straight routes along the grids. An alternative way of achieving landscape surveys was noted at Lancaster, where three main routes radiated out, going up to forts along the way.

It is interesting to note that in this country the roman roads were built using boulders covered with gravel rather than the pavement slabs used in Italy.

As regards the three major northsouth routes in Northern Britain, John demonstrated that segments of each of these routes all happen to lie 2 degrees west of north, barring necessary deviations. In his view, this striking coincidence raises the possibility that some Romans, at least, may have been aware of magnetic north.

A vote of thanks was given by Ruth Gibson for what could be described as a Highways Engineer report on the Roman road system in this country.

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