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Roman roads (in Latin, viae - singular via) were vital to the maintenance and development of the Roman state, and were built from about 500 BC through the expansion and consolidation of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. They provided efficient means for the overland movement of armies, officials and civilians, and the inland carriage of official communications and trade goods. Roman roads were of several kinds, ranging from small local roads to broad, long-distance highways built to connect cities, major towns and military bases. These major roads were often stone-paved and metaled, cambered for drainage, and were flanked by footpaths, bridleways and drainage ditches. They were laid along accurately surveyed courses, and some were cut through hills, or conducted over rivers and ravines on bridgework. Sections could be supported over marshy ground on rafted or piled foundations.
At the peak of Rome's development, no fewer than 29 great military highways radiated from the capital, and the Late Empire's 113 provinces were interconnected by 372 great road links. The whole comprised more than 400,000 km of roads, of which over 80,500 kilometres (50,000 mi) were stone-paved. In Gaul alone, no less than 21,000 kilometres (13,000 mi) of road are said to have been improved, and in Britain at least 4,000 kilometres (2,500 mi). The courses, and sometimes the surfaces of many Roman roads survived for millennia. Some are overlaid by modern roads.
Livy mentions some of the most familiar roads near Rome, and the milestones on them, at times long before the first paved road—the Appian Way. Unless these allusions are just simple anachronisms, the roads referred to were probably at the time little more than levelled earthen tracks. Thus, the Via Gabina (during the time of Porsena) is mentioned in about 500 BC; the Via Latina (during the time of Coriolanus) in about 490 BC; the Via Nomentana, or Via Ficulensis, in 449 BC; the Via Labicana in 421 BC; and the Via Salaria in 361 BC.
"With the exception of some outlying portions, such as Britain north of the Wall, Dacia, and certain provinces east of the Euphrates, the whole Empire was penetrated by these itinera (plural of iter). There is hardly a district to which we might expect a Roman official to be sent, on service either civil or military, where we do not find roads. They reach the Wall in Britain; run along the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates; and cover, as with a network, the interior provinces of the Empire."
A road map of the empire reveals that it was generally laced with a dense network of prepared viae. Beyond the borders were no roads; however, one might presume that footpaths and dirt roads allowed some transport.
The laws of the Twelve Tables, dated to approximately 450 BC, specified that a road shall be 8 ft (2.45 m) wide where straight and 16 ft (4.90 m) where curved. Actual practices varied from this standard. The Tables command Romans to build roads and give wayfarers the right to pass over private land where the road is in disrepair. Building roads that would not need frequent repair therefore became an ideological objective, as well as building them as straight as possible in order to build the narrowest roads possible, and thus save on material.
Roman law defined the right to use a road as a servitus, or claim. The ius eundi ("right of going") established a claim to use an iter, or footpath, across private land; the ius agendi ("right of driving"), an actus, or carriage track. A via combined both types of servitutes, provided it was of the proper width, which was determined by an arbiter. The default width was the latitudo legitima of 8 ft (2.4 m).
Roman law and tradition forbade the use of vehicles in urban areas, except in certain cases. Married women and government officials on business could ride. The Lex Iulia Municipalis restricted commercial carts to night-time access to the city within the walls and within a mile outside the walls.
Roman roads varied from simple corduroy roads to paved roads using deep roadbeds of tamped rubble as an underlying layer to ensure that they kept dry, as the water would flow out from between the stones and fragments of rubble, instead of becoming mud in clay soils. According to Ulpian, there were three types of roads:
The first type of road included public high or main roads, constructed and maintained at the public expense, and with their soil vested in the state. Such roads led either to the sea, or to a town, or to a public river (one with a constant flow), or to another public road. Siculus Flaccus, who lived under Trajan (98-117), calls them viae publicae regalesque, and describes their characteristics as follows:
Roman roads were named after the censor who had ordered their construction or reconstruction. The same person often served afterwards as consul, but the road name is dated to his term as censor. If the road was older than the office of censor or was of unknown origin, it took the name of its destination or of the region through which it mainly passed. A road was renamed if the censor ordered major work on it, such as paving, repaving, or rerouting. With the term viae regales compare the roads of the Persian kings (who probably organized the first system of public roads) and the King's highway. With the term viae militariae compare the Icknield Way (e.g., Icen-hilde-weg, or "War-way of the Iceni").
However, there were many other people, besides special officials, who from time to time, and for a variety of reasons, sought to connect their names with a great public service like that of the roads. Gaius Gracchus, when Tribune of the People (123-122 BC), paved or gravelled many of the public roads, and provided them with milestones and mounting-blocks for riders. Again, С. Scribonius Curio, when Tribune (50 BC), sought popularity by introducing a Lex Viaria, under which he was to be chief inspector or commissioner for five years. Dio Cassius mentions as one of the forcible acts of the triumvirs of 43 BC (Octavianus, Antony, and Lepidus), that they obliged the senators to repair the public roads at their own expense.
The second category included private or country roads, originally constructed by private individuals, in whom their soil was vested, and who had the power to dedicate them to the public use. Such roads benefited from a right of way, in favor either of the public or of the owner of a particular estate. Under the heading of viae privatae were also included roads leading from the public or high roads to particular estates or settlements. These Ulpian considers to be public roads themselves.
Features off the via were connected to the via by viae rusticae, or secondary roads. Both main or secondary roads might either be paved, or left unpaved, with a gravel surface, as they were in North Africa. These prepared but unpaved roads were viae glareae or sternendae ("to be strewn"). Beyond the secondary roads were the viae terrenae, "dirt roads".
The third category comprised roads at or in villages, districts, or crossroads, leading through or towards a vicus or village. Such roads ran either into a high road, or into other viae vicinales, without any direct communication with a high road. They were considered public or private, according to the fact of their original construction out of public or private funds or materials. Such a road, though privately constructed, became a public road when the memory of its private constructors had perished.
Siculus Flaccus describes viae vicinales as roads "de publicis quae divertunt in agros et saepe ad alteras publicas perveniunt" (which turn off the public roads into fields, and often reach to other public roads). The repairing authorities, in this case, were the magistri pagorum or magistrates of the cantons. They could require the neighboring landowners either to furnish laborers for the general repair of the viae vicinales, or to keep in repair, at their own expense, a certain length of road passing through their respective properties.
With the conquest of Italy, prepared viae were extended from Rome and its vicinity to outlying municipalities, sometimes overlying earlier roads. Building viae was a military responsibility and thus came under the jurisdiction of a consul. The process had a military name, viam munire, as though the via were a fortification. Municipalities, however, were responsible for their own roads, which the Romans called viae vicinales. The beauty and grandeur of the roads might tempt us to believe that any Roman citizen could use them for free, but this was not the case. Tolls abounded, especially at bridges. Often they were collected at the city gate. Freight costs were made heavier still by import and export taxes. These were only the charges for using the roads. Costs of services on the journey went up from there.
Financing road building was a Roman government responsibility. Maintenance, however, was generally left to the province. The officials tasked with fund-raising were the curatores viarum, similar to a supervisor who manages and administers. They had a number of methods available to them. Private citizens with an interest in the road could be asked to contribute to its repair. High officials might distribute largesse to be used for roads. Censors, who were in charge of public morals and public works, were expected to fund repairs suâ pecuniâ (with their own money). Beyond those means, taxes were required.
A via connected two cities. Viae were generally centrally placed in the countryside. The construction and care of the public roads, whether in Rome, in Italy, or in the provinces, was, at all periods of Roman history, considered to be a function of the greatest weight and importance. This is clearly shown by the fact that the censors, in some respects the most venerable of Roman magistrates, had the earliest paramount authority to construct and repair all roads and streets. Indeed, all the various functionaries, not excluding the emperors themselves, who succeeded the censors in this portion of their duties, may be said to have exercised a devolved censorial jurisdiction.
The devolution to the censorial jurisdictions soon became a practical necessity, resulting from the growth of the Roman dominions and the diverse labors which detained the censors in the capital city. Certain ad hoc official bodies successively acted as constructing and repairing authorities. In Italy, the censorial responsibility passed to the commanders of the Roman armies, and later to special commissioners – and in some cases perhaps to the local magistrates. In the provinces, the consul or praetor and his legates received authority to deal directly with the contractor.
The care of the streets and roads within the Roman territory was committed in the earliest times to the censors. They eventually made contracts for paving the street inside Rome, including the Clivus Capitolinus, with lava, and for laying down the roads outside the city with gravel. Sidewalks were also provided. The aediles, probably by virtue of their responsibility for the freedom of traffic and policing the streets, co-operated with the censors and the bodies that succeeded them.
It would seem that in the reign of Claudius (41-54) the quaestors had become responsible for the paving of the streets of Rome, or at least shared that responsibility with the quatuorviri viarum. It has been suggested that the quaestors were obliged to buy their right to an official career by personal outlay on the streets. There was certainly no lack of precedents for this enforced liberality, and the change made by Claudius may have been a mere change in the nature of the expenditure imposed on the quaestors.
The official bodies which first succeeded the censors in the care of the streets and roads were two in number. They were:
Both these bodies were probably of ancient origin, but the true year of their institution is unknown. Little reliance can be placed on Pomponius, who states that the quatuorviri were instituted eodem tempore (at the same time) as the praetor peregrinus (i.e. about 242 BC) and the Decemviri litibus iudicandis (time unknown). The first mention of either body occurs in the Lex Julia Municipalis of 45 BC. The quatuorviri were afterwards called Quatuorviri viarum curandarum. The extent of jurisdiction of the Duoviri is derived from their full title as Duoviri viis extra propiusve urbem Romam passus mille purgandis. Their authority extended over all roads between their respective gates of issue in the city wall and the first milestone beyond.
In case of an emergency in the condition of a particular road, men of influence and liberality were appointed, or voluntarily acted, as curatores or temporary commissioners to superintend the work of repair. The dignity attached to such a curatorship is attested by a passage of Cicero. Among those who performed this duty in connection with particular roads was Julius Caesar, who became curator (67 BC) of the Via Appia, and spent his own money liberally upon it. Certain persons appear also to have acted alone and taken responsibility for certain roads.
In the country districts, as has been stated, the magistri pagorum had authority to maintain the viae vicinales. In Rome itself each householder was legally responsible for the repairs to that portion of the street which passed his own house. It was the duty of the aediles to enforce this responsibility. The portion of any street which passed a temple or public building was repaired by the aediles at the public expense. When a street passed between a public building or temple and a private house, the public treasury and the private owner shared the expense equally. No doubt, if only to secure uniformity, the personal liability of householders to execute repairs of the streets was commuted for a paving rate payable to the public authorities who were responsible from time to time.
The governing structure was changed by Augustus. In the course of his reconstitution of the urban administration he created new offices in connection with the public works, streets, and aqueducts of Rome. He found the quatuorviri and duoviri forming part of the body of magistrates known as vigintisexviri. These he reduced to twenty members (vigintiviri), but retained the quatuorviri among them. The latter were certainly still in existence under Hadrian (117-138). Augustus abolished the duoviri, no doubt because the time had come to deal comprehensively with the superintendence of the roads which connected Rome with Italy and the provinces. Dio Cassius relates that Augustus personally accepted the post of superintendent. In this capacity he represented the paramount authority which belonged originally to the censors. Moreover, he appointed men of praetorian rank to be road-makers, assigning to each of them two lictors. Lastly, he made the office of curator of each of the great public roads a perpetual magistracy, instead of a special and temporary commission, as had been the case hitherto.
In Augustus' capacity as supreme head of the public road system, he converted the temporary cura of each of the great roads into a permanent magistracy. The persons appointed under the new system were of senatorial or equestrian rank, according to the relative importance of the roads respectively assigned to them. It was the duty of each curator to issue contracts for the maintenance and repairs of his road, and to see that the contractor who undertook the work performed it faithfully, both as to quantity and quality. Moreover, he authorized the construction of sewers and removed obstructions to traffic, as the aediles did in Rome. It was in the character of an imperial curator, though probably of one armed with extraordinary powers, that Corbulo (as has been already mentioned) denounced the magistratus and mancipes of the Italian roads to Tiberius. He pursued them and their families with fines and imprisonment for 18 years (21-39), and was rewarded with a consulship by Caligula, who was himself in the habit of condemning well-born citizens to work on the roads. It is noticeable that Claudius brought Corbulo to justice, and repaid the money which had been extorted from his victims.
Special curatores for a term seem to have been appointed on occasion, even after the institution of the permanent magistrates bearing that title. The Emperors who succeeded Augustus exercised a vigilant control over the condition of the public highways. Their names occur frequently in the inscriptions to restorers of roads and bridges. Thus, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Trajan, and Septimius Severus were commemorated in this capacity at Emérita. The Itinerary of Antoninus, which was probably a work of much earlier date, republished in an improved and enlarged form, under one of the Antonine emperors, remains as standing evidence of the minute care which was bestowed on the service of the public roads.
Ancient Rome boasted impressive technological feats, using many advances that would be lost in the Middle Ages. These feats would not be rivaled again until the 19th and 20th centuries. Many practical Roman innovations were adopted from earlier designs. Some of the common, earlier designs incorporated arches.
Roman road builders aimed at a regulation width (see Laws and standards above), but actual widths have been measured at between 3.6 ft (1.1 m) and more than 23 ft (7 m). Today, the concrete has worn from the spaces around the stones, giving the impression of a very bumpy road, but the original practice was to produce a surface that was no doubt much closer to being flat. Many roads were built to resist rain, freezing and flooding. They were constructed to need as little repair as possible.
Roman construction took a directional straightness. Many long sections are ruler-straight, but it should not be thought that all of them were. Some links in the network were as long as 55 miles (89 km). Gradients of 10%–12% are known in ordinary terrain, 15%–20% in mountainous country. The Roman emphasis on constructing straight roads often resulted in steep slopes relatively impractical for most commercial traffic; over the years the Romans themselves realized this and built longer, but more manageable, alternatives to existing roads. Roman roads generally went straight up and down hills, rather than in a serpentine pattern.
As to the standard Imperial terminology that was used, the words were localized for different elements used in construction and varied from region to region. Also, in the course of time, the terms via munita and vía publica became identical.
Viae were distinguished not only according to their public or private character, but according to the materials employed and the methods followed in their construction. Ulpian divided them up in the following fashion:
The Romans, though certainly inheriting some of the art of road construction from the Etruscans, borrowed the knowledge of construction of viae munitae from the Carthaginians according to Isidore of Sevilla.
The Viae terrenae were plain roads of leveled earth. These were mere tracks worn down by the feet of humans and animals, and possibly by wheeled carriages.
The Viae glareatae were earthed roads with a graveled surface or a gravel subsurface and paving on top. Livy speaks of the censors of his time as being the first to contract for paving the streets of Rome with flint stones, for laying gravel on the roads outside the city, and for forming raised footpaths at the sides. In these roads, the surface was hardened with gravel; and although pavements were introduced shortly afterwards, the blocks were allowed to rest merely on a bed of small stones. An example of this type is found on the Praenestine Way. Another example is found near the Via Latina.
The best sources of information as regards the construction of a regulation via munita are:
After the civil engineer looked over the site of the proposed road and determined roughly where it should go, the agrimensores went to work surveying the road bed. They used two main devices, the rod and a device called a groma, which helped them obtain right angles. The gromatici, the Roman equivalent of rod men, placed rods and put down a line called the rigor. As they did not possess anything like a transit, a civil engineering surveyor tried to achieve straightness by looking along the rods and commanding the gromatici to move them as required. Using the gromae they then laid out a grid on the plan of the road.
The libratores then began their work using ploughs and, sometimes with the help of legionaries, with spades excavated the road bed down to bed rock or at least to the firmest ground they could find. The excavation was called the fossa, the Latin word for ditch. The depth varied according to terrain.
The method varied according to geographic locality, materials available and terrain, but the plan, or ideal at which the architect aimed was always the same. The roadbed was layered. The road was constructed by filling the ditch. This was done by layering rock over other stones.
Into the ditch was dumped large amounts of rubble, gravel and stone, whatever fill was available. Sometimes a layer of sand was put down, if it could be found. When it came to within 1 yd (1 m) or so of the surface it was covered with gravel and tamped down, a process called pavire, or pavimentare. The flat surface was then the pavimentum. It could be used as the road, or additional layers could be constructed. A statumen or "foundation" of flat stones set in cement might support the additional layers.
The final steps utilized concrete, which the Romans had discovered. They seem to have mixed the mortar and the stones in the ditch. First a small layer of coarse concrete, the rudus, then a little layer of fine concrete, the nucleus, went onto the pavement or statumen. Into or onto the nucleus went a course of polygonal or square paving stones, called the summa crusta. The crusta was crowned for drainage.
An example is found in an early basalt road by the Temple of Saturn on the Clivus Capitolinus. It had travertine paving, polygonal basalt blocks, concrete bedding (substituted for the gravel), and a rain-water gutter.
Romans preferred to engineer solutions to obstacles rather than circumvent them. Outcroppings of stone, ravines, or hilly or mountainous terrain called for cuttings and tunnels. An example of this is found on the Roman road from Cazanes near the Iron Gates. This road was half carved into the rock, about 5 ft. to 5 ft. 9 in. (1.5 to 1.75 m), the rest of the road, above the Danube, was made from wooden structure, projecting out of the cliff. The road functioned as a towpath, making the Danube navigable. Tabula Traiana memorial plaque in Serbia is all that remains of the now-submerged road.
Roman bridges, built by ancient Romans, were the first large and lasting bridges built. River crossings were achieved by bridges, or pontes. Single slabs went over rills. A bridge could be of wood, stone, or both. Wooden bridges were constructed on pilings sunk into the river, or on stone piers. Larger or more permanent bridges required arches. These larger bridges were built with stone and had the arch as its basic structure (see arch bridge). Most also used concrete, which the Romans were the first to use for bridges. Roman bridges were so well constructed that many are in use today.
Causeways were built over marshy ground. The road was first marked out with pilings. Between them were sunk large quantities of stone so as to raise the causeway to more than 5 ft. (1.5 m) above the marsh. In the provinces, the Romans often did not bother with a stone causeway, but used log roads (pontes longi).
The public road system of the Romans was thoroughly military in its aims and spirit. It was designed to unite and consolidate the conquests of the Roman people, whether within or without the limits of Italy proper. A legion on the march brought its own baggage train (impedimenta) and constructed its own camp (castra) every evening at the side of the road.
Milestones divided the via Appia even before 250 BC into numbered miles, and most viae after 124 BC. The modern word "mile" derives from the Latin milia passuum, "one thousand paces", which amounted to 4,841 feet (1,480 m). A milestone, or miliarium, was a circular column on a solid rectangular base, set for more than 2 feet (60 cm) into the ground, standing 5 feet (1.50 m) high, 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter, and weighing more than 2 tons. At the base was inscribed the number of the mile relative to the road it was on. In a panel at eye-height was the distance to the Roman Forum and various other information about the officials who made or repaired the road and when. These miliaria are valuable historical documents now. Their inscriptions are collected in the volume XVII of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.
|Examples of Roman Milestones|
The Romans had a preference for standardization whenever they could, so Augustus, after becoming permanent commissioner of roads in 20 BC, set up the miliarium aureum (golden milestone) near the temple of Saturn. All roads were considered to begin from this gilded bronze monument. On it were listed all the major cities in the empire and distances to them. Constantine called it the umbilicus Romae (navel of Rome), and built a similar—although more complex—monument in Constantinople, the Milion.
Milestones permitted distances and locations to be known and recorded exactly. It was not long before historians began to refer to the milestone at which an event occurred.
Combined topographical and road-maps may have existed as specialty items in some Roman libraries, but they were expensive, hard to copy and were not in general use. Travelers wishing to plan a journey could consult an itinerarium, which in its most basic form was a simple list of cities and towns along a given road, and the distances between them. It was only a short step from lists to a master list, or a schematic route-planner in which roads and their branches were represented more or less in parallel, as in the Tabula Peutingeriana. From this master list, parts could be copied and sold on the streets. The most thorough used different symbols for cities, way stations, water courses, and so on. The Roman government from time to time would produce a master road-itinerary. The first known were commissioned in 44 BC by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Three Greek geographers, Zenodoxus, Theodotus and Polyclitus, were hired to survey the system and compile a master itinerary; the task required over 25 years and the resulting stone-engraved master itinerary was set up near the Pantheon. Travelers and itinerary sellers could make copies from it.
Outside the cities, Romans were avid riders and rode on or drove quite a number of vehicle types, some of which are mentioned here. Carts driven by oxen were used. Horse-drawn carts could travel up to 40 to 50 kilometres (25 to 31 mi) per day, pedestrians 20 to 25 kilometres (12 to 16 mi). For purposes of description, Roman vehicles can be divided into the car, the coach, and the cart. Cars were used to transport one or two individuals, coaches were used to transport parties, and carts to transport cargo.
Of the cars, the most popular was the carrus ("car"), a standard chariot form descending to the Romans from a greater antiquity. The top was open, the front closed. One survives in the Vatican. It carried a driver and a passenger. A carrus of two horses was a biga; of three horses, a triga; and of four horses a quadriga. The tyres were of iron. When not in use, its wheels were removed for easier storage.
A more luxurious version, the carpentum, transported women and officials. It had an arched overhead covering of cloth and was drawn by mules. A lighter version, the cisium, equivalent to a gig, was open above and in front and had a seat. Drawn by one or two mules or horses, it was used for cab work, the cab drivers being called cisiani. The builder was a cisarius.
Of the coaches, the mainstay was the raeda or reda, which had four wheels. The high sides formed a sort of box in which seats were placed, with a notch on each side for entry. It carried several people with baggage up to the legal limit of 1000 Roman Libra (pounds), modern equivalent 327 kg. It was drawn by teams of oxen, horses or mules. A cloth top could be put on for weather, in which case it resembled a covered wagon.
The raeda was probably the main vehicle for travel on the roads. Raedae meritoriae were hired coaches. The fiscalis raeda was a government coach. The driver and the builder were both referred to as a raedarius.
Of the carts, the main one was the plaustrum or plostrum. This was simply a platform of boards attached to wheels and a cross-tree. The wheels, or tympana, were solid and were several centimetres (inches) thick. The sides could be built up with boards or rails. A large wicker basket was sometimes placed on it. A two-wheel version existed along with the normal four-wheel type called the plaustrum maius.
The military used a standard wagon. Their transportation service was the cursus clabularis, after the standard wagon, called a carrus clabularius, clabularis, clavularis, or clabulare. It transported the impedimenta, or baggage of a military column.
Non-military officials and people on official business had no legion at their service and the government maintained way stations, or mansiones ("staying places"), for their use. Passports were required for identification. Mansiones were located about 25 to 30 kilometres (16 to 19 mi) apart from the next one. There the official traveller found a complete villa dedicated to his use. Often a permanent military camp or a town grew up around the mansio. For non-official travelers in need of refreshment, a private system of "inns" or cauponae were placed near the mansiones. They performed the same functions but were somewhat disreputable, as they were frequented by thieves and prostitutes. Graffiti decorate the walls of the few whose ruins have been found.
Genteel travelers needed something better than cauponae. In the early days of the viae, when little unofficial provision existed, houses placed near the road were required by law to offer hospitality on demand. Frequented houses no doubt became the first tabernae, which were hostels, rather than the "taverns" we know today. As Rome grew, so did its tabernae, becoming more luxurious and acquiring good or bad reputations as the case may be. One of the best hotels was the Tabernae Caediciae at Sinuessa on the Via Appia. It had a large storage room containing barrels of wine, cheese and ham. Many cities of today grew up around a taberna complex, such as Rheinzabern in the Rhineland, and Saverne in Alsace.
A third system of way stations serviced vehicles and animals: the mutationes ("changing stations"). They were located every 20 to 30 kilometres (12 to 19 mi). In these complexes, the driver could purchase the services of wheelwrights, cartwrights, and equarii medici, or veterinarians. Using these stations in chariot relays, the emperor Tiberius hastened 296 kilometres (184 mi) in 24 hours to join his brother, Drusus Germanicus, who was dying of gangrene as a result of a fall from a horse.
Two postal services were available under the empire, one public and one private. The Cursus publicus, founded by Augustus, carried the mail of officials by relay throughout the Roman road system. The vehicle for carrying mail was a cisium with a box, but for special delivery, a horse and rider was faster. On average, a relay of horses could carry a letter 80 kilometres (50 mi) in a day. The postman wore a characteristic leather hat, the petanus. The postal service was a somewhat dangerous occupation, as postmen were a target for bandits and enemies of Rome. Private mail of the well-to-do was carried by tabellarii, an organization of slaves available for a price.
There are many examples of roads that still follow the route of Roman roads.
In France, a Roman road is called voie romaine in vernacular language.
These roads connected modern Italy and Germany
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