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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Roman roads pave the way to prosperity in the 21st century

The old via Prenestina, a Roman road we "ran across" in the Roman countryside,
this near Gallicano nel Lazio, during our mostly-successful search for aqueducts.

At RST we're fascinated by the new in Rome, and how it often ties into the old. We've also spent a fair amount of time in and outside of Rome, "discovering" ancient Roman roads, including one in the woods that we couldn't believe dated back two centuries (see photo at right).

Via Sacra ("Holy road") on Monte Cavo
on the way to what once was probably
a temple to the goddess Diana.

At its peak (second century CE), the Roman road system covered Europe and parts of the Middle East and Africa. The tie between the old Roman roads and contemporary life is the thesis of a recent study by Danish economists that links today's European centers of healthy economic activity with infrastructure created 2,000 years ago - the Roman road system.

Looking at the Roman roads in 117 CE, the four economists conclude "greater Roman road density goes along with (a) greater modern road density, (b) greater settlement formation in 500 CE, and (c) greater economic activity in 2010." Underscoring this conclusion is their finding that this tie is weakened to the point of insignificance "where the use of wheeled vehicles was abandoned from the first millennium CE until the late modern period" - that is, in the Middle East and North Africa.  They also found market towns flourishing from the medieval period to modern times along those Roman roads.

Ancient Roman roads (light yellow) superimposed on 2010 satellite imagery of nighttime lighting in Europe. (Washington Post illustration using data from NOAA Earth Observatory, Natural Earth and Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization)

How did the economists figure this out?  Among other tools, they used contemporary population and road density and night-time satellite imagery of light. (See photo above.) The Danes piggybacked on Harvard University's research and mapping project - its Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations - which we plan to feature in a future post.

This article from the Washington Post, here, summarizes nicely the Danish research and has some illustrative maps.

The original paper is here:

Talk about the need for infrastructure?  Could the US take a lesson here?


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