When History Leaves a Mark: A New Measure of Roman Roads


This paper introduces a new measure of Roman roads that has been constructed for the Italian territory. The measure computes the length in kilometers of Roman roads at different administrative and territorial levels (NUTS, Local Labor Systems, grid cells), and contributes to the literature on historical infrastructures, providing a new precise measure to use for empirical purposes and easy to extend in all those territories where Roman roads have been constructed. From a mere econometric point of view, the index allows to capture the intensity of the treatment, providing an alternative empirical strategy for all those cases where the simple binary treatment cannot be performed.

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  1. 1.

    An earliest proof of the long-lasting effect of history can be found in the work of Fogel (1964), who analyzes the impact of railways on the American economic development in the nineteenth century. Subsequent to the work of North (1981), a contribution by North (1990) and two papers by Greif (1993, 1994) can be considered the most influential contributions of the nineties that precede the birth of the ‘new economic history’ literature. They analyze the long-term relationship between international trade, growth and changing institutions.

  2. 2.

    The construction of a network of paved roads empowered not only the transport of goods and services, enabling the movement of larger quantities and people and making transfers easier, but armies were able to travel 25 miles a day, even in bad weather conditions (Thompson 1997).

  3. 3.

    During the Republican and Imperial periods, the Roman Empire conquered territories in the Mediterranean Sea (like Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, the northern coasts of Africa), in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Black Sea.

  4. 4.

    The peak of the Roman Empire corresponds with full extent of the road network (117 A.D.—death of Trajan), as further proof that roads construction and the constitution of a vast empire were highly correlated.

  5. 5.

    This process included first of all the digging of a 1.5 m deep trench for the width of the road. In order to guarantee the stability and durability of the substrate, the trench was filled and packed with several textures and types of material from the land around it. Then they applied a layer of gravel or pavestones, ensuring that the road had a camber, or rise in the center, to prevent erosion and make the surface all-weather capable (Gleason 2013).

  6. 6.

    It has been argued that land transport was an inferior, expensive alternative to maritime transport.

  7. 7.

    The journey from Egypt to Rome, for example, took only two to three weeks by ship.

  8. 8.

    The access to the inland regions of the empire was allowed by the large navigable rivers: the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube, the Tigris and the Euphrates and the Nile (Roth 1999).

  9. 9.

    The shape file is made freely available on the internet by the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations (DARMC).

  10. 10.

    Talbert (2000).

  11. 11.

    Albania, Algeria, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, Palestine, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Syria, the UK, Tunisia, Turkey.

  12. 12.

    A single road, such as the Via Appia, is composed by 67 segments, and each segment has a unique id number.

  13. 13.

    If it is a major or a minor road. Hereinafter the terms road and segment are used interchangeably.

  14. 14.

    Certainty refers to the path followed by the road. The road is certain in the existence and in the Roman origin, it is uncertain in the route.

  15. 15.

    For the majority of Roman roads in Greece and Turkey there is no information available about the certainty.

  16. 16.

    Exactly 192,861 km.

  17. 17.

    The instructions and technical notes of this section are the ones employed by the author. The procedure described is not the only one available. Expert users of GIS methods might come out with the same result using different tools or following a diverse method.

  18. 18.

    However, the measure can be computed for all those countries where Roman roads have been constructed and using different ‘within-country organizations’.

  19. 19.

    According to Eurostat the current NUTS classification is structured in three main levels: major macro-regions (NUTS 1), basic regions (NUTS 2) and small regions (NUTS 3). Municipalities and communes are defined by Eurostat as LAUs (Local Administrative Units). Formerly two levels of LAUs existed: LAU level 1 (NUTS 4) and LAU level 2 (NUTS 5). Since starting from 2017 only one level of LAU has been preserved, hereinafter the subdivision in municipalities will be referred as NUTS 4.

  20. 20.

    Local Labor Systems or Labor Market Areas or Sistemi Locali del Lavoro (SLL) in Italian are sub-regional geographical areas that identify where the bulk of the labor force is concentrated. They take into account where workers live, work and commute.

  21. 21.

    Grid cells are geometric units of a grid. They have identical size, that can be set by the researcher in meters or a different unit of length. However, when combined with countries’ layers, cells along the national boundaries are irregular in order to accommodate national borders.

  22. 22.

    Elaborations can be performed using ArcGIS as well.

  23. 23.

    The Italian National Statistical Institute provides three different polygonal shape files: one for the regions (NUTS 2), one for the provinces (NUTS 3) and one for the municipalities (NUTS 4). The polygonal shape file for the macro-regions (NUTS 1), not provided by Istat, can be obtained using the shape file of the NUTS 2 regions, creating a new field named ‘macro-region’, classifying regions according to the macro-region they belong to, and then dissolving the regional borders according to the macro-region field by using the ‘Dissolve’ geoprocessing tool. However this shape file could not work properly when exploiting some geoprocessing tools, like ‘Intersect’. Therefore, elaborations at the NUTS 1 level have been performed using the calculations for the NUTS 2 level, and then collapsing the information at the NUTS 1 level.

  24. 24.

    This geoprocessing tool in QGIS is named ‘Clip’.

  25. 25.

    However, it does not matter which linear layer for Roman roads is employed, since both lead to the same result.

  26. 26.

    Istat makes available the shape file by Local Labor Systems.

  27. 27.

    Although the starting linear layer by McCormick et al. (2013) provides the length of each segment, after having isolated and ascribed the segments to each territorial unit, the length in meters is not more valid since it refers to the complete section.

  28. 28.

    The information about the area in square kilometers at the NUTS level is provided by Istat. For the NUTS 1 level, data can be obtained by collapsing the information at the NUTS 2 level according to the macro-region the regions belong to.

  29. 29.

    The measure is 0 for all those territorial units where Roman roads are absent: this allows to construct a new binary variable that takes the value of 1 if Roman roads were present in the territory, and 0 otherwise.

  30. 30.

    Italy is composed by 611 local labor systems. Elaborations refer to the 2011 classification.

  31. 31.

    Italy can be decomposed exploiting different cell sizes.

  32. 32.

    Italy is structured in four macro-regions: North-West; North-East; Center; South.

  33. 33.

    Italy is composed by 20 regions.

  34. 34.

    The 2019 Italian National Statistical Institute (Istat) classification includes 107 provinces. However, all elaborations have been performed referring to the 2010–2016 Istat classification, according to which the Italian territory is divided in 110 provinces. The number of provinces has changed during last decades: they were 103 until 2005, 107 from 2006 to 2009, 110 from 2010 until 2016. The use of a broader classification allows a larger use of the measure, since it can be easily adapted to limited classifications by collapsing the index.

  35. 35.

    Italy is currently composed by 7926 municipalities. However, all elaborations have been performed referring to the 2010–2016 classification that includes 8092 municipalities.

  36. 36.

    The two Italian provinces where the Roman road network is absent are the province of Pordenone (in North-East) and the province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola (in North-West).

  37. 37.

    The relationship between mountainous territories, elevation and Roman roads is examined in Sect. 5.

  38. 38.

    Consular roads, named after a consul, were the major and most important roads of the Roman Empire.

  39. 39.

    Figure 12 concentrates on the NUTS 3 level since this dimension seems to better represent differences within the Italian territory.

  40. 40.

    See Pirenne (1969) and McCormick (2001) for a more detailed analysis.

  41. 41.

    Lopez (1956) discusses the importance of the Roman road system in Europe during the Middle Ages.

  42. 42.

    At the NUTS 3 level the Italian National Statistical Institute does not make GDP data available, therefore the information about the total value added is exploited.

  43. 43.

    As mentioned before, the NUTS 3 classification is, for the Italian territory, the level that better allows to appreciate local differences in terms of institutions and government.

  44. 44.

    2016 is the last year for which data about value added at the NUTS 3 level are available. In order to make the analysis consistent, data about total exports and population refer to 2016 as well.

  45. 45.

    Variables in Fig. 8 are expressed in logarithm.

  46. 46.

    For the correlation analysis four main measures have been used: blood donation, organ donation approval, associationism, voluntary work.

  47. 47.

    Results are available upon request.

  48. 48.

    Data on kilometers of motorways at the NUTS 3 level are provided by Automobile Club d’Italia (ACI) and refer to 2011. Kilometers of railways are sourced from Istat and refer to 2005.

  49. 49.

    Data are provided by Istat.


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Correspondence to Vania Licio.

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The research underlying the paper was conducted during my Ph.D. studies at the University of Cagliari. I wish to thank the two anonymous referees and the editor Luca De Benedictis for their constructive comments and helpful suggestions. I also thank Anna Maria Pinna for her advice. I gratefully acknowledge the Sardinia Regional Government for funding my Ph.D. scholarship (P.O.R. Sardegna F.S.E. Operational Programme, Autonomous Region of Sardinia, European Social Fund 2007–2013—Axis IV Human Resources, Objective l.3, Line of Activity l.3.1.).

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See Figs. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and Tables 6, 7.

Fig. 9

Grid cell analysis: Roman roads by \(10 \times 10\) km grid cell. Source: Author’s elaboration from McCormick, M. et al. 2013. “Roman Road Network (version 2008),” DARMC Scholarly Data Series 2013-5

Fig. 10

Major Roman roads in density by NUTS level: quantiles. Source: Author’s elaboration from own data and from Istat (2011) data

Fig. 11

Certain Roman roads in density by NUTS level: quantiles. Source: Author’s elaboration from own data and from Istat (2011) data

Fig. 12

Major Roman roads in length, NUTS 3 level: equal intervals. Source: Author’s elaboration from own data and from Istat (2011) data

Fig. 13

Proxies of economic development in Italy: value added, total exports, nighttime luminosity, total population. Source: Author’s elaboration from Istat data and from Version 4 DMSP-OLS Nighttime Lights Time Series data

Table 6 Kilometers of Roman roads by NUTS 3 Italian province
Table 7 Density of Roman roads (kilometers of road per 100 square kilometers of land area) by Italian NUTS 3 province

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Licio, V. When History Leaves a Mark: A New Measure of Roman Roads. Ital Econ J 7, 1–35 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40797-020-00120-5

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  • Roman roads
  • History
  • Historical infrastructure
  • Persistence
  • Italy
  • NUTS

JEL Classification

  • H54
  • N13
  • O18
  • O52
  • R40