Traffic Policy and Circulation in Roman Cities

By van Tilburg, Cornelis | Acta Classica, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview
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Traffic Policy and Circulation in Roman Cities

van Tilburg, Cornelis, Acta Classica


Throughout history, research into ancient Roman traffic circulation was an 'untrodden path'. The famous stepping-stones and wheel ruts in Pompeii, now typical touristic features, were for a long time not considered worthy of more detailed research. In 1991, the Japanese author Tsujimura published an article 'Ruts in Pompeii', but only after 2000 did more information appear on this theme, when Poehler, (1) Van Tilburg, (2) Laurence, (3) Newsome (4) and Kaiser, (5) among others, published books and articles concerning traffic in this well preserved city.

Nowadays there is a growing interest in traffic, traffic circulation and congestion and even blocked arteries in other ancient, less well preserved Roman cities. Was the traffic circulation here comparable with that of Pompeii or was it quite different? New research shows evidence that here, too, fixed traffic routes, which road-users were encouraged to follow, were quite usual.

Two cities in particular will be discussed: Pompeii and Xanten. These are both Roman cities, but their identities and features differ, as well as their infrastructures and traffic circulation. However, there are also similarities. In this article, I shall attempt to demonstrate the similarities and differences, and their backgrounds. The article will conclude with some aspects of town planning and traffic, particularly the infrastructure around fora and their corresponding traffic flow.

Pompeii: an old city built against the slope of a volcano

When Pompeii was destroyed in AD 79, the city was already six centuries old. Pompeii was probably founded in the 6th century BC as an Oscan settlement. This settlement (Altstadt) is still visible in the regions VII and VIII. In the 5th century, the city was extended to the north, region VI today. In the 4th century, the final and largest extension was built: the Samnitic extension east of the new cardo between Porta del Vesuvio and Porta di Stabia. The Forum, the centre of the Oscan settlement, remained in its original situation; a new Forum was not built at the intersection of the new cardo and decumanus. A reason for this is perhaps that the existing Forum was situated on the top of a hill, facilitating drainage. This street plan remained unaltered right up until Pompeii's destruction in AD 79.

The street system of Pompeii

The three above-mentioned extension phases correspond with the street system. The oldest Oscan region, regions VII and VIII today, had a relatively irregular street pattern. Some streets were even winding, such as Via degli Augustali and Vicolo del Lupanare. Region VI has straight streets, running parallel with each other (apart from Via Consolare), but the corners are not at right angles; there are sharp as well as obtuse corners, and the insulae are diamond-shaped. Only the section to the east of the cardo (the Samnitic extension) shows the typical Graeco-Roman chess-board grid with right-angled corners and parallel-running streets. Only this part of the city incorporated thoroughfares, wide enough for two-way traffic: Via dell' Abbondanza, Via di Nola and Via di Stabia. (6) Via Consolare could also, partially, function as a two-way street. (7)


Traffic circulation in Pompeii

Tsujimura and Wallace-Hadrill have mapped the street system with the varying depths of street ruts: deep, shallow, faint or none at all (fig. 1). (8) According to present-day knowledge on this theme, it can be stated that east of the cardo the majority of streets have deep ruts; west of the cardo the street ruts have varying depths and sometimes no ruts at all.

The entire system of mainly one-way streets, blocked streets, closed streets, deep and/or shallow ruts show that traffic flow was not unrestricted, but that it followed fixed routes. These routes, however, could be altered by the local government or a group of civilians.

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