Tag Archives: Roman Empire

How the ancient Romans built roads to last thousands of years

An ancient Roman road leading into the Arc of Trajanus in Timgad, Batna, Algeria. Credit: Travel.com

During its zenith under the reign of Septimius Severus in 211 C.E., the mighty Roman Empire stretched over much of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains and from modern-day Scotland to the Sahara or the Arabian Gulf. Crucial to maintaining dominion over such a large empire was Rome’s huge and intricate network of roads that remained unparalleled even a thousand years after its collapse.

It is estimated that the Roman road network was more than 400,000 kilometers long, out of which over 80,000 km were stone-paved. Like arteries, these marvelous feats of engineering ferried goods and services rapidly and safely, connecting Rome, “the capital of the world”, to the farthest stretches of the empire, and facilitated troop movements to hastily assemble legions for both border defense and expansion. Encompassing both military and economic outcomes, roads were truly central to Rome’s political strategy.

While the Romans didn’t invent road building, they took this Bronze Age infrastructure to a whole new level of craftsmanship. Many of these roads were so well designed and built that they are still the basis of highways that we see today. These include Via Flaminia and Britain’s Fosse Way, which still carry car, bike, and foot traffic. The answer to their longevity lies in the precision and thoroughness of Roman engineering.

Roman road types and layout

Just like today, the Roman transportation network consisted of various types of roads, each with its pros and cons. These ranged from small local dirt roads to broad, stone-paved highways that connected cities, major towns, and military outposts.

According to Ulpian, a 2nd-century C.E. Roman jurist and one of the greatest legal authorities of his time, there were three major types of roads:

  • Viae publicae. These were public or main roads, built and maintained at the expense of the state. These were the most important highways that connected the most important towns in the empire. As such, they were also the most traveled, dotted by carts full of goods and people traveling through the vast empire. But although they were funded by the state, not all public roads were free to use. Tolls were common at key points of crossing, such as bridges and city gates, enabling the state to collect import and export taxes on goods.
  • Viae militares. Although Roman troops marched across all types of roads and terrain for that matter, they also had their dedicated corridors in the road network. The military roads were very similar to public roads in design and building methods, but they were specifically built and maintained by the military. They were built by legionaries and were generally closed to civilian travel.
  • Viae privatae. These were private roads that were built and maintained by citizens. These were usually dirt or gravel roads since local estate owners or communities did not possess the funds nor the engineering skills to match the quality of private roads.
  • Viae vicinales. Finally, there were secondary roads that lead through or towards a vicus or village. These roads ran into high roads or into other viae vicinales and could be either public or private.

The first and most famous roman road was Via Appia (Appian Way) which linked Rome to Capua, covering 132 Roman miles or 196 kilometers. Via Appia was highly typical of how the Romans thought about building roads. It was very much a straight line that all but ignored geographical obstacles. The stretch from Rome to Terracina was essentially one 90-km long straight line.

Map of major Roman highways in the Italic peninsula.

Other important Roman roads of note include Via Flaminia which went from Rome to Fanum (Fano), Via Aemilia from Placentia to Augusta Praetoria (Aosta), Via Postumia from Aquileia to Genua (Genoa), and Via Popillia from Ariminum (Rimini) to Padova in the north and from Capua to Rheghium (Reggio Calabria) in the south.

Map of Roman Empire at its height in 125 C.E., showing the most important roads. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

These roads were typically named after the Roman censor that paved them. For instance, Via Appia was named after censor Appius Claudius Caecus, who began and completed the first section as a military road to the south in 312 B.C.E during the Samnite Wars when Rome was still a fledgling city-state on a path to dominate the Italic peninsula.

While they had curved roads when it made sense for them, the Romans preferred taking the straightest path possible between two geographical points, which led to intriguing zig-zag road patterns if you zoom out far enough.

Building a straight road, especially over large distances, is a lot more technically challenging than meets the eye. Mensors were essentially the equivalent of today’s land surveyors who were tasked with determining the most appropriate placement and path a new road should take, depending on the terrain and locally available construction materials. These surveyors were well trained and employed standardized practices.

For instance, the incline of a road could not exceed 8 degrees in order to facilitate the movement of heavy carts packed with goods. To measure slopes, mensors employed a device called a khorobat, a 6-meter ruler with a groove on top into which water was poured. Road construction often started from two simultaneous opposing points that eventually joined in the middle. To draw perpendicular lines on the landscape and make sure the roads were straight and actually met, the surveyors employed the thunder or groma, the ancestor to the modern protractor, which consisted of a cross, at the four ends of which threads with lead weights were tied. When one weight on the same piece of wood correctly lined up with the one in front of it, the surveyor knew that the path of the road was straight.

Mistakes were bound to occur, which explains the small changes in direction that archeologists have found when excavating these ancient roads. When roads had to inevitably bend due to the terrain, at the bends the roads became much wider so that carriages traveling towards each other could safely pass each other without interlocking the wheels.

Roman roads purposely avoided difficult terrain such as marshes or the immediate vicinity of rivers. When they had to cross a river, Roman engineers built wooden or stone bridges, some of which survive and are still in use to this day, like the 60-meter-long Pons Fabricius, which was built in 62 B.C.E. and connects an island in the Tiber River with the opposite bank. Other times, tunnels were dug through mountains, in the spirit of straight Roman roads.

How Roman roads were made

After completing all the geodetic measurements and projections, the Roman surveyors marked the path of the future road using milestones. All trees, shrubs, and other vegetation that might interfere with the construction of the road were razed. Marshes were drained and mountains would be cut through, if needed.

The average width of an ancient Roman road was around 6 meters (20 ft.), although some large public roads could be much wider.

According to the writings of Mark Vitruvius Pollio, an outstanding Roman architect and engineer who lived in the 1st century C.E., Roman public roads consisted of several layers:

  • Foundation soil – depending on the terrain, builders either dug depressions on level ground or installed special supports in places where the soil subsided. The soil is then compacted and sometimes covered with sand or mortar to provide a stable footing for the multiple layers above.
  • Statumen – a layer that was laid on compacted foundation soil, consisting of large rough stone blocks. Cracks between the slabs would allow drainage to be carried through. The thickness of this layer ranged from 25 to 60 cm.
  • Rudus – a 20-cm-thick layer consisting of crushed rock about 5 cm in diameter in cement mortar.
  • Nucleus – a concrete base layer made of cement, sand and gravel, that was about 30 cm thick.
  • Summum dorsum – the final layer consisting of large 15-cm-thick rock blocks. But more often fine sand, gravel, or earth was used in the top layer, depending on the available resources at the workers’ disposal. This layer had to be soft and durable at the same time. Paved roads were very expensive and were typically reserved for sections located near and inside important cities. When pavement (pavimentum) was used, large cobblestones of basalt laval were typically used in the vicinity of Rome.
The main layers of a Roman road.

This puff pie structure ensured that the roads would be very sturdy. Roman roads also had a slightly curved surface, a clever design that allowed rainwater to drain over to the side of the road or into drainage ditches, thereby keeping the road free of puddles.

Upkeep was also very important. In fact, the Romans were so meticulous about maintaining their roads — which they considered the backbone of their empire — that they had regularly placed markers along the side of the road, indicating who was in charge of repairing that particular section of the road and when the last repair was made. That’s remarkably modern accountability-based upkeep.

Swift travel and easy navigation

Rome’s unparalleled extensive network of roads was crucial for both expanding and maintaining its borders, and allowing the economy to flourish. Rome’s legions could travel 25 to 50 kilometers (around 15 to 31 miles) a day, allowing them to respond relatively quickly to outside threats or internal uprisings. This means that costly garrison units at frontier outposts could be kept to a minimum as reinforcements could be mustered within weeks or even days.

Imperial Rome even had a postal service, which exploited the road network to its fullest. By switching fatigued horses with fresh ones, a postman could relay a message up to 80 kilometers from its destination within a single day. If the message was urgent, maybe even farther. For the slow-paced world of antiquity, this was incredibly fast and efficient communication, making the state far more agile than its ‘barbarian’ neighbors.

A Roman milestone in Portugal.

Besides the military, Rome’s roads were used by travelers from all parts of society , from slaves to emperors. Although traveling across the empire without maps might seem daunting, travelers could easily make their way to their destination thanks to large pillars that dotted the side of the road. These milestones, which could be as high as four meters and weigh two tons, indicated who built or was tasked with maintaining the road, as mentioned earlier, but also informed travelers how far the nearest settlement was. The pillars were modeled after a marble column in gilded bronze erected inside the Roman Forum in 20 B.C. under Caesar Augustus. It represented the starting point for all the roads in the empire, hence the phrase ‘All roads lead to Rome’.

All important Roman roads and notable stopping places along them were cataloged by the state. The catalog was updated regularly in the form of The Antonine Itinerary, which at its peak contained 225 lists. Each list, or iter, gives the start and end of each route, with the total mileage of that route, followed by a list of intermediate points with the distances in between. 

There were also maps — but not the landscape kind you’re imagining. Instead, these were schematic maps known as itinerarii that originally only listed cities along a route, but gradually these guidelines became pretty complex. The itinerarii grew to include roads, each with their own number and city of origin, and how they branched, alongside the length in Roman miles (equal to 1,000 paces or 0.92 English miles) and the most intermediate cities and stops along the way.

Roman roads even had service stations

A well-preserved section of the Appian Way. Credit:  Carole Raddato.

Every 15-20 kilometer (around 9-12 mi) or so along a public road, it was common to find rest stops where postmen could change horses for a fresh mount. These government stables were known as mutationes. Alongside these establishments, travelers could expect to find mansiones, a sort of early version of an inn where people could purchase basic lodgings for themselves and their animals, as well as eat, bathe, repair wagons, and even solicit prostitutes. In more busy intersections, these service stations morphed into small towns complete with shops and other amenities.

Roman roads were surprisingly safe

The flow of trade and the taxes that went with it were crucial to the Roman empire, so any disruption caused by bandits and other roadside outlaws was unacceptable. A special detachment of the army known as stationarii and beneficiarii regularly patrolled public roads and manned police posts and watchtowers to monitor traffic. They also doubled as toll collectors.

Roman roads tended to roll through sparsely populated areas, and special attention was given to clearing vegetation and digging ditches along the sides of the road. This reduced the cover that bandits could use to ambush carts and law-abiding citizens.

To this day, hundreds if not thousands of routes across Europe and the Middle East are built right on top of old Roman roads that have remained in use throughout the ages. Although suffering from major deterioration due to neglect, Roman roads continued to serve Europe throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, Roman road-building technology wasn’t surpassed until the late 19th century, when Belgian chemist Edmund J. DeSmedt laid the first true asphalt pavement in the front of the city hall building in Newark, New Jersey. Of course, Roman roads would be totally impractical today for busy car traffic, but one can only stand in awe in front of their durability, in stark contrast to modern roads that quickly form potholes after a mild winter. 

Roman concrete from noblewoman’s tomb still stands strong 2,000 years later. Here’s why

The tomb of Caecilia Metella is still remarkably intact after nearly 2,000 years since it was completed. Credit: Tyler Bell.

One of the world’s biggest engineering problems is concrete. Critical infrastructure built over the last century — bridges, highways, dams, and buildings — are now crumbling before our eyes. Repairing and rebuilding this decaying infrastructure is estimated to cost trillions of dollars in the United States alone.

When steel reinforcements were introduced to concrete in the 19th century, it was rightfully at the time hailed as a massive step up in innovation. Adding steel bars to concrete speeds up construction time, uses less concrete, and allows the engineering of long, cantilevered structures such as miles-long bridges and tall skyscrapers. These early engineers who introduced these projects thought reinforced concrete structures would last at least 1,000 years. In reality, we now know their lifespan is between 50 and 100 years.

Concrete was originally developed by the ancient Romans, whose building techniques were lost with the fall of the empire and wasn’t reinvented until 1824 when an Englishman named Joseph Aspdin discovered Portland cement by burning finely ground chalk and clay in a kiln until the carbon dioxide was removed.

However, the durability of the two types of concrete is worlds apart. Many magnificent Roman buildings, such as the Pantheon, still stand proud even to this day after nearly 2,000 years.

In a new study, scientists describe another example that serves as a testament to the craftsmanship of Roman concrete, illustrating the case of a large cylindrical tomb that serves as the final resting place for 1st-century noblewoman Caecilia Metella.

Investigations performed by geologists and geophysicists at the University of Utah show that the tomb’s concrete is of particularly high quality and durability, even by Roman standards, surpassing that of the tombs for her male contemporaries.

The secret is the particular type of volcanic aggregate the Roman craftsmen use and a bit of luck owed to the fortuitous chemical interaction of rainwater and groundwater with these aggregates.

The concrete that outlived an empire

Caecilia’s tomb lies on the edge of the Appian Way, the famous ancient Roman road that connected Rome to Brindisi, in the southeast. The structure is monumental for its time, measuring 70 feet (21 meters) in height and 100 feet (29 meters) in diameter. It consists of a drum-shaped tower on top of a square-shaped base.

It was erected around the year 30 BCE, which means Caecilia must have passed away while Rome was still a Republic. Just a few years later, in 27 BCE, Octavianus Augustus, Julius Caesar’s nephew, proclaimed himself Emperor, opening up a new age for Rome.

Her imposing tomb is worthy of her status. The daughter of a wealthy nobleman, she married into the family of Marcus Crassus, probably the wealthiest man in the world at the time (and one of the wealthiest in history, relatively speaking) and the third member of the famous triumvirate alliance with Caesar and Pompey.

Marie Jackson, research associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, first visited the tomb in 2006 with a permit from Italian archaeologists to collect a small sample of mortar for analysis. When she arrived at the site, she was stunned by the almost perfectly preserved brick masonry walls and the water-saturated volcanic rock outcrop in the substructure.

Now, in a new study, Jackson teamed up with colleagues from MIT and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to zoom into the microstructure of the tomb’s concrete using an array of modern tools at their disposal. These instruments include the microdiffraction beamline at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) that produces a “micron size, extremely bright and energetic pencil X-ray beam that can penetrate through the entire thickness of the samples, making it a perfect tool for such a study,” said co-author Nobumichi Tamura of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Modern concrete mixes Portland cement— limestone, sandstone, ash, chalk, iron, and clay, among other ingredients, heated to form a glassy material that is finely ground — with aggregates, such as ground sand or rocks. These aggregates, usually sand or crushed stone, are not intended to chemically react because if they do, they can cause unwanted expansions in the concrete.

In contrast, Roman concrete didn’t use cement. Instead, they would make the concrete by first mixing volcanic ash, known as “tephra”, with limestone and seawater to make mortar, which is later incorporated into chunks of volcanic rock, the ‘aggregate’. Previously, while studying drilled cores of Roman harbor concrete, Jackson found an exceptionally rare mineral, aluminous tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) in the marine mortar. The mineral’s presence surprised everyone because it is very difficult to make. For Al-tobermorite to form, you need a very high temperature. “No one has produced tobermorite at 20 degrees Celsius,” she says. “Oh — except the Romans!”

Later, Jackson studied mortar from the Markets of Trajan and found a mineral called strätlingite, whose crystals block the propagation of microcracks in the mortar, preventing them from linking together and fracturing the concrete structure.

Roman concrete can actually grow stronger with time

Scanning electron microscopy image of the tomb mortar. The C-A-S-H binding phase appears as gray while the volcanic scoriae (and leucite crystals) appear as light gray. Credit: Marie Jackson.

At Caecilia’s tomb, the researchers were in for yet another surprise. The particular variety of tephra used in the ancient Roman structure was richer in leucite, a rock-forming mineral of the feldspathoid group. Over the centuries, rainwater and groundwater percolated through the walls of the tomb and dissolved the leucite, releasing its potassium into the mortar. The potassium dissolved and reacted with a building block in the mortar called C-A-S-H binding phase (calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate).

This remodeling led to a more robust cohesion in the concrete, despite much less strätlingite than seen in the Markets of Trajan.

“It turns out that the interfacial zones in the ancient Roman concrete of the tomb of Caecilia Metella are constantly evolving through long-term remodeling,” said Admir Masic, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT. “These remodeling processes reinforce interfacial zones and potentially contribute to improved mechanical performance and resistance to failure of the ancient material.”

If Roman concrete is so awesome, why don’t we still use it? There are many reasons why the ancient construction material is not at all feasible for our contemporary needs. Sourcing the kind of volcanic ash in the original recipe is not possible for much of the world, which now uses an estimated 4 billion tons of cement every year. Roman concrete also lacks the compressive strength required for modern huge infrastructure projects, among other things.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be learned from Roman concrete that may help the next generation of concrete to overcome current shortcomings in our crumbling infrastructure. That’s exactly what Jackson and colleagues are set to do, part of an ongoing U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-e project. The objective is to find a new ‘recipe’ that could reduce energy emissions associated with concrete production by 85% and vastly improve the lifespan of the material.

The findings appeared in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society.

Bronze artifact indicates Romans threw enemies to the lions across their empire, even as far as Britain

Credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

It was rather common during ancient Rome, especially in times of economic hardship, to have prisoners, slaves, criminals, and various enemies of the state executed by feeding them to hungry circus animals, including lions and tigers. This capital punishment, known as Damnatio ad bestias (“condemnation for beasts”), is thought to have been widespread across the Roman empire, but it was only recently that archaeologists have found the first evidence that lions may have been used in executions in Britain.

Archaeologists surveying a site in Leicester came across an elaborately decorated Roman bronze key handle depicting a man locked in pitch battle with a ferocious lion, under the eyes of four naked and fearful youths. According to researchers at King’s College in London, this artifact likely depicts the execution of a ‘barbarian’, the fate of all who dare oppose Rome.

This unique artifact was found buried under the floor of a late Roman townhouse excavated in 2016.

“When first found, it appeared as an indistinguishable bronze object, but after we carefully cleaned off the soil remarkably we revealed several small faces looking back at us, it was absolutely astounding, ” said Dr. Gavin Speed, who led the excavations at a site off Great Central Street in Leicester

“Nothing quite like this has been discovered anywhere in the Roman Empire before.

Credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

The figure portrayed on the bronze key handle displays features typically associated with ‘barbarians’ (basically anyone not Roman or Greek), including a mane-like hair, bushy beard, bulging eyes, and trousers below a naked torso. The lion is about to deliver the killing blow, being wrapped around the body of its victim with its open mouth menacing the side of the head. The four youth witnessing the scene are thought to symbolize the ‘children of the tribe’, their harrowing experience serving as a warning to those who would oppose Roman dominion.

“A cautious reading of the handle would see it as a similarly generic representation of damnatio, albeit an unusually vivid one. However, recent osteological studies give grounds for suggesting that spectacles of this kind involving lethal violence were familiar to British audiences. In particular, the analyses of fragmentary human skeletal material from the London Wall and of skeletons from graves in the cemetery south-west of Roman York have linked them plausibly to arena violence. In both cases the remains are those of adult males of geographically diverse origins and show signs of frequent violent trauma, both over their lifetimes and as the cause of their deaths. One York individual’s pelvis bears possible puncture wounds from an as yet unidentified animal, and so takes us a little closer to a likely spectacle context in which humans met their deaths through violent contact with animals. Taking this evidence into account, and noting the evidence described above for destruction of captives in the provinces as well as in the metropolis, it is not impossible that the handle’s creation was inspired directly by a spectacle located in Britain, even perhaps in the adjacent theatre,” the researchers wrote.

Beautiful mosaic excavations from the opulent Roman home in Leicester where the key was found. Credit: University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

The artifact itself was probably forged a century or more after Britain was conquered by Rome by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Judging by its intricate ornaments, this fancy key probably served less of a functional role. Instead, it was probably used like a charm item that granted security and protection to the household.

Besides the exquisite key handle, archaeologists working at the Leicester Roman site also found a wonderfully preserved mosaic floor, roads, and an ancient theater.

The key handle will probably be displayed to the public at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester, following the completion of major refurbishment work expected to be completed by 2023.

The findings were reported in the journal Britannia.

rome empire map

What the Roman Empire looked like at its prime in one glorious map

Click or Tap for a full-size view of the map. Credit: Sardisverlag.

Stretch above is one of the most interesting maps of the Roman Empire ever made, all carted in detail using modern computational techniques. It shows what the great empire used to look like during its period of maximum expansion under the reign of  Septimius Severus, about 211 CE. As you can notice, the Romans’ domain covered much of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains and from modern day Scotland to the Sahara or the Arabian Gulf.

At the height of imperial power, Rome had 55 to 60 million subjects — that’s if you count the women, slaves, and other classes of people under Roman rule who weren’t technically considered citizens. Overall, that’s 15% of the world’s population at the time.

Most of the population of the Roman Empire lived within easy reach of the Mediterranean, and the imperial government promoted and protected sea-trade and naval communications between the various parts of the empire. The map made by Sardis Verlag, a publishing house in Germany, elegantly illustrates some of the most used sea trade routes. Not incidentally, they all join at some point with Rome. The phrase ‘all roads lead to Rome’ was definitely rooted in history.

Although it could be relatively dangerous, sea-transport was much faster than over-land carriage. There had been sea-borne commercial empires in the Mediterranean Sea for well over two thousand years before Roman domination but the Romans worked to keep the sea clear of pirates and built lighthouses, as well as large and sheltered harbors for the great commercial cities maintained by that trade. One might go so far as to say that the existence of the Roman Empire depended on the unity of the Mediterranean or, as the Romans called it, Mare nostrum, “Our Sea.”

After Septimius Severus died, all four emperors that followed were assassinated in short succession. Rome at the time became a monster too big for its own good. Corruption had eroded the empire and it would culminate with the Crisis of the Third Century, which saw the empire almost obliterated at the hand of civil war and foreign invaders.

Here are some more tidbits from the map below.

  • Legend in English, German, French and Italian,
  • All nations and provinces with accurate borders and their respective capitals,
  • Independent non-urban tribes and peoples in the vicinity of the Roman Empire,
  • In addition to the capitals, the map contains the locations of over 870 Roman cities and settlements within the Roman Empire and more than 90 cities and settlements outside of the Empire,
  • The headquarters of all 33 active legions,
  • Linear barriers, such as Hadrian’s Wall and the Limes Germanicus,
  • The 28 main and auxiliary bases of the praetorian and provincial fleets,
  • Roman road network totaling more than 120.000 km,
  • Caravan and trade routes,
  • Major sea routes, including traveling times in the Mediterranean Basin,
  • 90 exporting quarries and 130+ mines,

The Roman Empire changed the environment so much it cooled all of Europe

A day in Rome. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s no greater challenge than the climate emergency we’re currently facing. Since 1906, the global average surface temperature has increased by more than 0.9 degrees Celsius, triggering the melting of glaciers, shifting precipitation patterns, and affecting wildlife. By 2050, global heating could pose an existential threat — the forecasted 3 degrees Celsius could displace as many as one billion people, according to a 2019 study

These gloomy outcomes are the result of human activities, mainly due to the release of greenhouse gas emissions. And although the scale of human-induced climate change is unprecedented today, we’ve been causing slight alterations of the climate since antiquity.

In a new study, a team led by researchers at ETH Zurich found that, at its height, the Roman Empire released so many aerosols from burning fuel (i.e. large quantities of organic matter like wood) and cleared so much land for agriculture that it effectively cooled all of Europe.

At its prime, the Roman empire stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Euphrates river, and from Scottland’s highlands to the Sahara desert.

The researchers employed the “climate model ECHAM-HAM-SALSA with land use maps and novel estimates of anthropogenic aerosol emissions from the Roman Empire.” They concluded that Roman air pollution produced a cooling effect which caused land surface temperatures to drop by as little as 0.23 degrees Celsius and as much as 0.46 degrees Celsius.

However, an exceptionally warm climate likely countered this effect. The Roman Warm Period, which lasted from around 250 BC to 400 AD, was an unusually hot period, which likely helped the empire expand to such great lengths. Previous studies have shown that this was a natural phenomenon.

“Cooling caused by aerosol emissions is largest over Central and Eastern Europe, while warming caused by land use occurs in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Our results suggest that the influence of Roman Era anthropogenic aerosol emissions on European climate may have been as important as that of deforestation and other forms of land use,” the authors reported in the journal Climate of the Past.

All of this is not to say that the Romans had nearly as much influence on the global climate as our current civilization. Nevertheless, these findings show that even 2,000 years ago, humans already had the means to make important contributions to the climate, nevermind today when there are more than 7 billion people living on the planet (and with vastly superior technology).

The passage of Roman carts eventually led to ruts in the road, as seen above. Credit: Eric Poehler.

Ancient Romans used molten iron to repair their stone-paved roads

The passage of Roman carts eventually led to ruts in the road, as seen above. Credit: Eric Poehler.

The passage of Roman carts eventually led to ruts in the road, as seen above. Credit: Eric Poehler.

The devastating eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed the city of Pompeii, killing thousands. But the deadly hot ash and lava also helped to preserve the ancient city and the remains of its inhabitants. In a new study, archeologists uncovered a previously unknown method of Roman street repair, which involved pouring molten iron over deep ruts in the road.

Potholes: an ancient problem

For centuries, one of Rome’s greatest advantages over its enemies was its huge and intricate network of stone-paved roads. From the Firth of Forth in Scotland to inland North Africa remains of these iconic landmarks have survived to this day — and in some cases even formed the basis for certain modern roads today.

All Roman roads were built by the Roman military, which employed various specialists for this occasion. According to Paternus, a Roman senator in the 3rd century AD, the first thing that legionaries would do when they were tasked with building a Roman road on behalf of the new governor or the procurator would be to use ‘agrimensores’. These were land surveyors who did all the surveying using measuring equipment to lay out the route of the road. Then, ‘liberators’ or land levelers would level the land that the road was going to be built on, followed by ‘Mensores’, or quantity measurers who would then measure out all the various quantities of the various stages of building the Roman road.

Roman road works were really sophisticated, and their maintenance was no different, as we’ve learned from a new study published in the American Journal of Archaeology. During a 2014 survey of Pompeii’s streets, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Texas at Austin were surprised when they consistently found iron between and below paving stones of the city’s most important streets.

“Recent research on the costs of paving stone streets in terms of time, money, and opportunity provides the economic context for this novel repair process and shows the use of iron and iron slag to have been an expedient alternative,” the authors wrote in their study.

Like other major towns, most of Pompeii’s streets were paved with stone. However, the passage of carts on a daily basis eroded the stones, forming deep holes and ruts which are still easily visible to this day. In fact, over a century and a half ago, the American satirist Mark Twain based his complaints about the corruption of city officials at Pompeii on these cavities:

“Have I not seen with my own eyes how for two hundred years at least the pavements were not repaired! – how ruts five and even ten inches deep were worn into the thick flagstones by the chariot-wheels of generations of swindled tax-payers? … I wish I knew the name of the last one that held office in Pompeii so that I could give him a blast. I speak with feeling on this subject, because I caught my foot in one of those ruts, and the sadness that came over me when I saw the first poor skeleton, with ashes and lava sticking to it, was tempered by the reflection that may be that party was the Street Commissioner,” he wrote.

Although the Romans were quite advanced in their public works (and corruption was indeed a problem in Roman society), Twain was perhaps not aware of how complicated road repair during that time could be. Repaving the street was out of the question in most situations — it was simply too expensive and time-consuming. If a narrow street was damaged, traffic could be blocked for months until specialists finished repaving the street.

Examples of iron fillings and drops on Pomepii's ancient stone-paved streets. Credit: Eric Poehler.

Examples of iron fillings and drops on Pomepii’s ancient stone-paved streets. Credit: Eric Poehler.

In Pompeii, at least, the Romans devised a creative solution to their problem. The city’s engineers heated iron to a molten state, then poured the material onto, into, and below the eroded paving stones. Hundreds of individual street repairs were discovered thus far in the city.

The molten iron was poured alongside other filler materials such as stone, grounded terracotta, and ceramics. Once the metal cooled down, the whole mash solidified to completely fill and cover holes. According to the archaeologists, this method was much cheaper and quicker than repaving a street.

It’s not exactly clear how the Romans carried out such repairs, but the researchers have some clues. We know that the iron would have needed to heat to about 1,600ºC (2,912ºF), a temperature which Roman furnaces could accommodate. Iron drops were found on sections of the street that didn’t require repair, suggesting that it was accidentally spilled while being carried, a task likely reserved for slaves.

In the future, the researchers hope to analyze the chemical composition of the iron from the street filings to find its source. They would also like to survey more Pompeii streets.

Some Roman breadmakers took season-long vacations

Life certainly had its ups and downs in the Roman Empire, but a new study suggests that mill-workers took long vacations during autumns.

A model of the Berbegal watermills. Image credits: Carole Raddato.

When the great watermills at Berbegal were built in the 2nd century, they were the very best of what science had to offer: 16 huge water wheels stretching downhill in pairs, cascading from one pair to the other, attached to massive wheels that milled grain into flour. It must have been a truly amazing complex, and probably a very efficient one.

Not much has remained today of the wooden complex, but the mineral-rich waters which flowed through the mills created the perfect scenario for archaeologists — they precipitated carbonate deposits, forming casts of the woodwork. Although the wood itself has decayed, these casts are still preserved, providing unique insights into the structure.

Even then, the wooden structures would have required constant maintenance and replacement work. A comparison of the microstratigraphy of some of these fragments reveals clear evidence of maintenance of the Barbegal mills and shows that wooden structures were replaced approximately every 5 to 10 years, dictated by the rate of mold and decay, researchers write. Periodic maintenance is known from medieval mills and was typically required at these intervals.

But things go even deeper.

These carbonatic casts also preserved some of the wood’s organic molecules, and thanks to modern analysis techniques, scientists can go even deeper: they can analyze the different isotopes of carbon and oxygen, revealing how and when the watermills would have been used. Researchers know, for instance, that isotopes of oxygen and carbon occur in different ratios in different seasons. Looking at 142 cast fragments from earlier excavations, they found a seasonal pattern associated with the milling process.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Heavy cleaning” footer=””]Of course, one might wonder why the Romans didn’t clean up the carbonatic deposits on their wooden mills. Simple math comes in handy: for a 2-m-long wooden flume consisting of 2-cm-thick pine wood boards, a 5 cm carbonate crust would have added about 170 kg to its total mass, making removal pretty difficult. [/panel]

Basically, the mills were only used from winter to the early summer — workers had the late summer and the entire autumn to themselves, or were assigned different tasks.

It’s not clear why this happens, and it’s not clear exactly what the millers were doing with their time off. But the researchers do note, however, that this seasonal pattern matches with the Roman shipping season. Roman shipping activities typically peaked in the spring and halted in late autumn, which is precisely in accordance with the cyclical period of operation of the Barbegal mills. The bread made at Berbegal could have been used produce bread for these ships, as it’s unlikely that the mills would have been used for urban food production, given the significant gap. An alternative explanation, that the mills were used to produce flour for the army, is unlikely because no large military concentration is known from the area for the period of activity of the mills.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Military bread” footer=””]Panis nauticus (the nautical bread), equivalent to panis militaris (military bread) or buccelatum (28–30), was a major staple aboard Roman ships. After it was double baked, it was suitable for long-term storage, just like ship’s bread typically used in later periods. A similar situation has been proposed to explain the large number of bakeries in Ostia, the harbor city of ancient Rome.[/panel]

Researchers also found that the initial fabric of the main deposits is identical to calcite formed in closed aqueduct channels with fast flowing water, which suggests that they were somewhere in the shade, or more likely, inside the building. But later on, they found evidence of increased photosynthetic activity, indicating that there was more exposure to sunlight.

“This suggest that the Barbegal mills either were shaded by overhanging roofs or, more likely, were enclosed within buildings” during the initial phase, researchers write, “and that these structures were partly removed or collapsed during the final phase of porous carbonate deposition. As a result, the water mills were exposed to sunlight, triggering the growth of photosynthetically active organisms.” Operation of the water wheels inside buildings may also explain why the carbonate deposits were not regularly removed from the woodwork.

The Berbegal complex was the largest and earliest known industrial utilization of hydropower by any society, and seems to contradict the idea that the Greco-Roman society was technologically stale. The watermills exhibit a series of impressive innovations which only re-appear during medieval times. Researchers suggest that there are other similar complexes in the area just waiting to be discovered.

“Because both the location of large urban centers and harbors in the Roman Empire, as well as the sites of large aqueducts and their springs, are known, it should be possible to predict the locations of further large and hitherto undiscovered mill complexes,” researchers conclude.

British archaeologists find Roman cavalry barracks loaded with weapons and valuables

It’s like winning the historical lottery, scientists say.

The barracks was located beneath the 4th century stone fort of Vindolanda — indicating that the fort was built on the old spot of the barracks. Image credits: Sonya Galloway / Vindolanda.

Real life Game of Thrones

The great northern wall from Game of Thrones was directly inspired by Hadrian’s Wall — a massive defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia, today’s Great Britain. The wall defended the Roman province from the “northern barbarians.” Hadrian’s wall stretched from the east to the west of what is today northern England, was manned for much of its length, and barracks dotted it from place to place. Now, archaeologists have found one of these structures, a Roman cavalry barracks complete with weapons and personal belongings left behind by soldiers almost two thousand years ago.

But what’s really interesting about this find is not only that it represents a trove of ancient artifacts in pristine shape — but that the barracks actually predates the wall. The barracks dates from AD105, whereas work on the wall didn’t start until AD122.

“The native Britons took an opportunity, when the emperor Trajan died in AD117, to rebel,” says Andrew Birley, who heads the archaeological team. “The soldiers stationed in the north before the wall was built became involved in fighting and were very vulnerable. The evidence we have from this [find] shows the incredibly rich and diverse lifestyle these people had.”

These rebellions provided the ultimate motivation for the wall, which became the largest Roman artifact anywhere, running a total of 73 miles.

A pristine trove

Archaeologists found the site by chance and were stunned to see how well-preserved it was. They found an impressive number of weapons, including cavalry lances, arrowheads, and ballista bolts. The icing on the cake are two extremely rare cavalry swords, one of which is complete: its wooden scabbard, hilt, and pommel incredibly-well preserved. Archaeologists also found two wooden toy swords, one of which has a gemstone in its pommel.

Dig volunteer Sarah Baker with one of the rare cavalry swords. Credits: Sonya Galloway.

These findings also pose some important questions — for starters, why would anyone leave something so valuable behind?

“Even for us, it’s very unusual to get things like complete Roman swords, sitting on the ground in their scabbards with their handles and their pommels. We were slightly dumbfounded by that. Then, to find another complete sword in another room next door only two metres away, two wooden swords and a host of other cavalry equipment, all in beautiful condition, is just terrific.”

“Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor … This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

There seems to be only one solid theory: the soldiers had to leave in a hurry. After all, this was a period of great strife, the border hadn’t yet been secured, and raids were frequent. If they moved out in such a hurry that they left behind gemstone swords, one can only imagine that there was some serious trouble coming their way.

“There was strife. This is the precursor to Hadrian coming to the UK to build his wall. This is the British rebellion. So you can imagine a scenario where the guys and girls at Vindolanda are told: ‘We need to leave in a hurry, just take what you can carry.’ If it’s your sword or your child, you grab the child.”

Also, it’s not just weapons. The team discovered all sorts of day-to-day objects like combs, brooches, and hairpins. Beautiful clothes have also been unearthed, with archaeologists now working to establish what kind of garments they were.

Just moments after being uncovered, the artefact still shines, due to the anaerobic burial conditions. Credits: Sonya Galloway.

The barracks itself was discovered beneath the fourth-century stone fort of Vindolanda, in Northumberland. Archaeologists first learned of it after they lifted up a piece of concrete flooring from the 4th-century fortress. They were greeted by a pitch black, perfectly preserved anaerobic soil — a completely unexpected finding.

As they dug to 3.5 meters deep, they quickly identified timber walls and floors, eight rooms, stables, and accommodation with ovens for about 1,000 soldiers. It’s so well preserved that archaeologists have likened it to winning the lottery. Much of the pottery even has visible graffiti, which the researchers hope to use to identify the pots’ owners. Birley said:

“We have got successive barracks above them, some of which are also cavalry, but they’re much later and not preserved with anything like the range of material that has come from within the anaerobic conditions. What you’re seeing here is the full range of stuff, and all those little details that normally rot away completely.”

Neapolis Tunisia

Over 20 hectares of Roman ruins discovered submerged off Tunisian coast

On July 21, 365 AD the pearl-city of Alexandria, Egypt was devastated by a massive tsunami which was triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Greece. Though the ancients couldn’t measure earthquakes at the time, contemporary scientists estimated from the historical records that the largest of the two tremors had a magnitude of 8.0.

In Alexandria, approximately 5,000 people lost their lives and 50,000 homes were destroyed. Of course, the great port city was not alone with surrounding villages and towns suffering even worse damage. Some were wiped off the map. What’s more, the resulting tsunami traveled far and wide around the Mediterranian.

Now, we have evidence of just how far the tremor’s devastation traveled.

According to a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission, the ancient Roman city of Neapolis located in northeastern Tunisia was also hit by the tsunami, confirming a long-held assumption.

Neapolis Tunisia

The archaeologists found over 20 hectares of Roman ruins submerged off the coast of the modern-day Tunisian town of Nabeul. Among the most interesting findings, the researchers reported streets, monuments, and at least 100 tanks used to produce garum.

Colatura di alici, or garum, is one of the basic ingredients in the cuisine of Roman antiquity. It is a fish sauce that was used to salt dishes, seen pictured in this Roman mural. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Colatura di alici, or garum, is one of the basic ingredients in the cuisine of Roman antiquity. It is a fish sauce that was used to salt dishes, seen pictured in this Roman mural. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Garum is fermented fish-based condiment which the Romans adored and imported from Neapolis.

“This discovery has allowed us to establish with certainty that Neapolis was a major centre for the manufacture of garum and salt fish, probably the largest centre in the Roman world,” Mounir Fantar, the head of a Tunisian-Italian archaeological mission told AFP.

“Probably the notables of Neapolis owed their fortune to garum.”

The expedition first started searching for Neapolis artifacts and ruins in 2010 but it was only recently that they struck gold. The fact that the Tunisian authorities thought very little of the historical value of Neapolis didn’t help at all, though. Nabuel is a popular tourist attraction and all sorts of buildings, particularly hotels, have popped up like mushrooms in the past decades. Some have been erected atop Neapolis ruins, much to the disdain of archaeologists.

Submerged for more than 2,000 years, this section was spared, revealing a rich history.

A country of “numerous minor kings” where fierce tigers and lions kill travelers. That doesn’t sound like your average description of Rome, does it?

The borders of the Roman Empire and Han China around 100 AD.

The borders of the Roman Empire and Han China around 100 AD.

It’s hard to forget just how connected the world is nowadays. In ancient times, most people would be blissfully unaware of the entire world outside their local community. The average Chinese, for instance, would have never known that elsewhere on the globe, a glorious people called the Romans ruled over a massive empire. But the Chinese scholars were well aware of the Romans.

Yu Huan was a respected scholar and historian, held in high regard in the Chinese society of the 3rd century. Huan published a long text called Weilüe, or “Brief Account of Wei”, which was originally lost. Some chapters, however, survived and were published in 429. Among others, a part of the surviving text discusses the Roman Empire, which was known as Da Qin — literally, The Great Qin.

It seems that the Romans actually made contact with the Chinese. Chinese sources describe several ancient Roman embassies arriving in China, beginning in 166 AD and lasting into the 3rd century. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests this — archaeologists even found Roman coins in the distant, southeast parts of Asia — though the Chinese themselves weren’t really aware just how big and powerful the Roman Empire really was. No depictions of Rome survive, and many historians believe Chinese scholars were only aware of the areas the Romans controlled in Asia — largely, today’s Syria. However, this text seems to contradict that idea. While Yu Huan never left China himself, he carefully gathered descriptions and stories from Roman sailors. He wrote:

This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions. The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). The outer walls of the city are made of stone.

…The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.

The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese, but wear hu (‘Western’) clothes. They say they originally came from China, but left it.

They have always wanted to communicate with China but, Anxi (Parthia), jealous of their profits, would not allow them to pass (through to China).

Boundaries of the Qin dynasty in 210 BC. Image via Wikipedia.

We know this because, thankfully, the University of Washington’s John E. Hill drafted an English copy of the Weilüewhich features not only recollections of the Roman Empire, but also of other areas outside of China.

 “Although the Weilue was never classed among the official or ‘canonical’ histories, it has always been held in the highest regard by Chinese scholars as a unique and precious source of historical and geographical information,” says Hill.

Artistic depiction of ancient Rome. Image credits: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho.

The text moves on to describe the agriculture, as well as some of the more entertaining aspects of the Roman Empire. No doubt, the Roman parties made a tremendous impression on the Chinese.

This region has pine trees, cypress, sophora, catalpa, bamboo, reeds, poplars, willows, parasol trees, and all sorts of plants. The people cultivate the five grains [traditionally: rice, glutinous and non-glutinous millet, wheat and beans], and they raise horses, mules, donkeys, camels and silkworms. (They have) a tradition of amazing conjuring. They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.

Yu Huan even describes Rome, saying that it is “surrounded by stone” and that it is “more than 100 li (42 km) around.” He also goes on to create a list of the most popular products manufactured in Rome, including gold and silver, but also the numerous types of cloth that were available at the time. He even featured directions on how to get there — just cross the Indian Ocean, go straight through Egypt, sail the Mediterranean for about six days, and you’ll end up straight in the Roman Empire — though it’s doubtful that too many people followed them.

[Also Read: Meet Islam’s Da Vinci: Al-Biruni, father of geodesy, anthropology, and master of pharmacy]

Sadly, China and the Roman Empire never got to establish a solid diplomatic relationship. Not long after Yu Huan’s time, the country was torn apart by civil war and other internal conflicts, and cut off from Western society for centuries.

I’ll leave you with this long description of some valuable Roman products which, let’s face it, seems just a bit jealous.

This country produces fine linen. They make gold and silver coins. One gold coin is equal to ten silver coins.

They have fine brocaded cloth that is said to be made from the down of ‘water-sheep’. It is called Haixi (‘Egyptian’) cloth. This country produces the six domestic animals, which are all said to come from the water.

It is said that they not only use sheep’s wool, but also bark from trees, or the silk from wild cocoons, to make brocade, mats, pile rugs, woven cloth and curtains, all of them of good quality, and with brighter colours than those made in the countries of Haidong (“East of the Sea”).

Furthermore, they regularly make a profit by obtaining Chinese silk, unravelling it, and making fine hu (‘Western’) silk damasks. That is why this country trades with Anxi (Parthia) across the middle of the sea. The seawater is bitter and unable to be drunk, which is why it is rare for those who try to make contact to reach China.

The mountains (of this country) produce nine-coloured jewels (fluorite) of inferior quality. They change colour on different occasions from blue-green to red, yellow, white, black, green, purple, fiery red, and dark blue. Nowadays nine-coloured stones of the same type are found in the Yiwu Shan (a mountain range east of Hami).

In the third Yangjia year (CE 134), the king of Shule (Kashgar), Chen Pan [who had been made a hostage at the court of the Kushan emperor, for some period between 114 and 120, and was later placed on the throne of Kashgar by the Kushans],9 offered a blue (or green) gem and a golden girdle from Haixi (Egypt).

Moreover, the Xiyu Jiutu (‘Ancient Sketch of the Western Regions’) now says that both Jibin (Kapisha-Gandhāra) and Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana) produce precious stones approaching the quality of jade.

Rome: the unsurpassed supercity of the ancient world


According to Roman Mythology, the ancient city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC by the half-god twins Romulus and Remus. Romulus killed Remus, thus becoming the first King of Rome and the fair city was named after him. The city started out small, atop one of the seven hills overlooking Rome called the Palatine Hill. Slowly, but surely, the city of Rome grew into a behemoth — the capital of an empire that at its prime stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Euphrates river, and from Scottland’s highlands to the Sahara desert.

It’s thought that during Rome’s heyday, the city numbered more than a million residents who lived in a sparkling metropolis fitted with infrastructure, public services, and grand buildings the likes of which we wouldn’t see again for more than 1,500 years. This infographic beautifully illustrates the sophistication of the ancient city of Rome — a place of innovation, the Silicon Valley of antiquity.

Archaeologists zoom in on sunken, ancient African metropolis

Rhapta was one of the most prosperous cities on the African coast, and one of the last trading posts of the Roman Empire. The ancient Periplus of the Erythraean Sea described Rhapta as “the last marketplace of Azania,” referring to southeastern tropical Africa, but its position remained a mystery. Now, archaeologists may finally be zooming in on its position.

Photo by Alan Sutton.

For years, the lost city of Rhapta has baffled scholars, divers, and archaeologists. Dating to roughly 50 A.D., it was originally documented in Ptolemy’s Geography as Africa’s first metropolis and a major trading hub, with people buying and selling everything from metal weapons to tortoise shells. Rhapta was one of the richest cities of the age, but it simply disappeared and was mostly forgotten for almost 2,000 years. But something changed on a clear day in February 2013.

The usually turbulent waters off the coast of Mafia Island, one of the islets in the Zanzibar archipelago, were strangely still. There was also an unusually low tide, and a strange formation started peaking just above sea level, as reported by a helicopter which was flying nearby. Initially, archaeologists didn’t want to get too excited, but there may well be reason for this after all. Diver Alan Sutton, who documents hidden wreck sites and blue holes online, was flying the helicopter.

He wanted to come back and see the site up close, but couldn’t find it when he tried. After several failed attempts, in March this year, he struck gold. He found walled structures, some still connected to their original fortifications, and pieces of pottery – one of the main indicators of a human settlement.

“What we found was far larger than expected,” he writes. “A series of what appear to be wide foundations ring a large area. Along the entire perimeter created by these foundations, many thousands of square and oblong blocks lie to either side. Some have fallen right off the foundation and others are still leaning against it.”

His findings were confirmed by archaeologist Felix Chami from the University of Dar es Salaam. He is currently dating the artefacts, after confirming sightings of “underwater houses” in the vicinity. Members of nearby communities believe the ruins come from their Portuguese ancestors, but Chami believes that even if this is the case, then the Portuguese likely built on other ruins, possibly the ruins of Rhapta.

“It seems like this is really Rhapta. I feel safe that it’s not German, British or Portuguese. I didn’t see anything that indicates it could be Swahili – no materials. Also, this is the place where Rhapta should be. The Romans say Rhapta is at the delta of a large river that is sailable. The only river that is sailable on the coast of east Africa is the same one [the ruins] sit in – in the bay of Mafia.”

More research is also underway

Archaeologists Discover The World’s Largest Ancient Stone Block

Look at this incredibly big rock. Take a moment, ponder its dimensions, and its weight. Oh, but if you’re looking at the one in the middle, that’s not it – look over to the right. The one to the right, not fully excavated yet, is the biggest ancient stone block, weighing an impressive 1,650 tons (that’s 3,300,000 pounds, or 1,496,850 kg).

Photo credit: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.

The year is 27 BC – the Roman Empire is in its more developed stages, and Lebanon is one of the most thriving areas on the planet. The place is the Baalbek site in Lebanon – a well known and studied site. It’s not completely unexpected to find huge monoliths in the area, but German archaeologists weren’t expecting something quite as big – 19.6 meters (64 feet) in length, 6 meters (19.6 feet) wide, and is at least 5.5 meters (18 feet) high.

The aim of this year’s excavations was to find new data about the mining techniques and the transporting of the megaliths.  At the same site, archaeologists discovered an already famous monolith – “Hajjar al-Hibla”. Hajjar al-Hibla is called The Stone of the Pregnant Woman or Stone of the South. It’s a Roman monolith from granite. Its exact purpose is still a matter of debate.

A different perspective of the Stone of the Pregnant Woman. Image via Wiki Commons.

Judging by this stone’s level of smoothness and configuration, it seems likely that it was meant to be transported without being cut. While techniques have been described for transporting the huge rocks, it’s still not clear how ancient Romans used to carry them. The next goal is to figure out how they transported them and why the rock still remained in the quarry.

Story via Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.

Paving stones discovered at the Roman military camp. Here a shoe nail from a Roman soldier can be seen between the stones. (c) Sabine Hornung, Arno Braun

Oldest Roman fort discovered in Germany paints an episode of history

A group of archeologists have identified the oldest known Roman military fortress in Germany, located near the small town of Hermeskei. The site has been hypothesized as once being a roman military encampment since it was first discovered in the 19th century, however only after recently surfaced evidence, coupled with modern analysis tools, could it be confirmed.

Apparently the camp was built as an outpost housing and protecting roman legions during the Galic Wars in the years 50 B.C. The site itself, measured at 260,000 square meters, has been in the archeologists’ attention since the 19th century, however solid evidence wasn’t discovered until recently. Unfortunately, agricultural exploitation had much of the wall and camp destroyed, but there was still some tantalizing signs left.

“From an archaeological point of view our findings are of particular interest because there are only few sites known that document Caesar’s campaign in Gaul,” researcher Sabine Hornung, of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (JGU), told LiveScience in an email.

The team of researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) first started working at the camp in March 2010. Through a systematic workflow, the archeologists were able to determine the size and shape of the camp, which was fortified by means of an earth wall and a ditch. They also found an 18-acre (76,000-square-meter) annex that incorporated a spring, which may have supplied water to the troops. Judging by its size, the researchers believe the camp could have house a couple thousand roman troops.

Paving stones discovered at the Roman military camp. Here a shoe nail from a Roman soldier can be seen between the stones. (c) Sabine Hornung, Arno Braun

Paving stones discovered at the Roman military camp. Here a shoe nail from a Roman soldier can be seen between the stones. (c) Sabine Hornung, Arno Braun

Having the site mapped, targeted digs were made which allowed for the excavation of one of the fort’s gates in 2011. In the gaps between stones that paved the gateway, the archaeologists hit the jackpot – one of those subtle clues, which when identified can completely turn around an investigation. There, the archaeologists found numerous shoe nails originating from the sandals of Roman soldiers. These nails, just one inch in diameter, had the pattern of a cross with four studs, which was typical for that time period. This, coupled with pottery shards analysis which confirmed the same time period, namely during the Galic Wars, made the claim that this site was indeed a roman fort irrefutable.

What makes this camp special, however, isn’t the fact that it’s the earliest roman fort found in Germany, but its relationship with the neighboring site of Hunnenring (Circle of the Huns), a fortified Celtic settlement only 5 kilometers away. The settlement was occupied by the Treveri tribe which mysteriously left the camp around the middle of the first century B.C. With this recent confirmation of the roman site, the pieces of the puzzle come together and suddenly a clear fresco of this particular episode of history is revealed. In his “De Bello Gallico,” Julius Caesar reported that the tribe of the Treveri was split into anti-Roman and pro-Roman factions. During the years 53 and 51 BC roman retaliations were conducted against the rebels, and the Hermeskei roman site most likely also served as a launching pad.

“The most exciting part of our discovery is that it seems possible to link the military camp to an episode of world history by trying to make our dating just a little more precise,” Hornung told LiveScience. “It is already highly probable that legionaries were camped there during the Gallic War, but hopefully one day we can tell, whether this happened 53 or rather 51 B.C.”

Findings have been published in the German journal Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt.

Gorgeous Roman helmet sells for 3.6 million

Pictured above is an exquisite Roman helmet and mask, dating from the late first to second century AD, was discovered in May 2010 by a treasure hunter who used a simple metal detector in Cumbria, a county in northwestern England. Of extraordinary taste, this art piece dubbed Crosby Garrett was sold for $3,6 million, eight times the amount it was estimated to earn, by Christie’s auction house in London last week, who described the helmet as “an extraordinary example of Roman metalwork at its zenith.”

“When it was initially brought to Christie’s and I examined it firsthand, I saw this extraordinary face from the past staring back at me and I could scarcely believe my eyes,” said Georgiana Aitken, Christie’s Head of Antiquities, for the AP.

The 2000 year old artifact is considered to have been used by nobles as a cavalry parade helmet, worn for sporting events rather than for combat. Besides the excellently crafted face and ornaments, on top of its Phrygian-style cap, the helmet features a solid-cast bronze piece in the form of a griffin.