chapter  4
19 Pages

The politics of road building

Road building was a political act. Roman emperors in undertaking to improve the transport system of Italy looked back to their Republican antecedents for a political precedent for doing so. At the same time, many of our historical accounts of the actions of politicians in the Republic were written under the empire. These writers do not provide a contem­ porary understanding of the actions of, for example, Tiberius or Gaius Gracchus in the second century BC , but offer a fundamental insight into the work of Trajan and other emperors. Of these emperors, Augustus and Trajan stand out as the key actors. They were both associated with a politics that emphasised a geographical unit - Italia, In Augustus's case it was tota Italia (all Italy), whereas Trajan looked to an Italia restituta (restored Italy, Figure 4.1). The emphasis points us, in the case of Augustus, to a recent unification and later with Trajan to an established geographical element. The cohesion of Italia depended on a space economy defined by the road system established in the Republic and focused on the figure of the emperor as benefactor. In their acts of renewal of the road system, the Roman emperors were creating a continuity with the past of the Republic and drawing on the politics of an earlier era to create meaning for their actions in the present and for the future (on this issue, see Bourdieu 1992: 54-7). Politically, by spending their own resources on the building of roads, they were legitimating their position not only with reference to the past, but also looking towards their own posterity in the future. The expenditure of economic resources on road building created the image of a princeps who was a patron of those doing the work, the travellers themselves, and of the communities through which the road passed. This pattern of patronage already existed in the Republic, but in the imperial period was taken further to include all of Italy. Within Italy, at a local level, key figures had been extending the road system to integrate their home towns. As we shall see at the end of the chapter, these figures were involved in a similar task to that of the emperors - but at a local level with rather smaller rewards. The combination of the emperor maintaining the long-distance roads and local magistrates and others extending that system created a spatial unity for

Republican precedents

focus on the action of Gaius Gracchus as the main historical agent in the process. In contrast, the epigraphic evidence points to a greater complexity, in which individuals built roads or contracted out for the building and repair of roads in their quaestorship. We will return to the importance of Gaius Gracchus as a historical precedent for Trajan later in this chapter.