How were roads built & maintained throughout history?

Oct 2017
219
America 🇺🇸
#1
Being a very broad & ubiquitous infrastructure, roads vary greatly in their size, nature & quality over time & space. Before roads, natural waterways were probably the closest thing used like them by prehistoric people, just as they were throughout history as well.

Roads throughout history were probably usually of inferior quality compared to modern roads. I think automobiles changed the nature of roads completely.

Something I’ve always wandered was how did people manage to stop plants, weeds, water & the elements from taking over unpaved roads, mostly dirt roads I assume, which I assume was the majority of roads historically? I assume that paved roads were usually only found in major urban centers & the most important highways/routes, am I right?
 
Jan 2015
2,950
MD, USA
#3
Actually building a new road would be mostly a matter of clearing vegetation and dodging obstacles. If you were homesteading, you'd need timber anyway, so cutting down trees would be easiest right next to your road, and would help clear the path as well. I doubt this was rarely done by one man alone! Communities would team up and band together for the work, like an Amish barn raising, or a modern Inca community getting together to build a new rope bridge (there's a wonderful old documentary on that!). Some shovel work, sure, but the path of least resistance was always easiest.

Roads that were used with any regularity wouldn't get badly overgrown, maybe just occasional forays to clear encroaching shrubbery and low-hanging branches. In places like Saxon England, I have read that road and bridge maintenance were part of fyrd obligations--you might spend your whole 40 days' service with pick and shovel rather than spear and shield!

There were always villages and towns, and there was always trade, so it was in everyone's interest to maintain at least some kind of functional road system. Winter weather and spring rains made for lousy travel conditions, lots of mud and washouts, because paving was rare indeed.

It has been noted that many Roman roads were simply improvements of roads that were already there. Straightening, widening, often (but not always!) paving, but something that went from here to there was frequently in existence beforehand. The Romans simply needed to move big armies, and took a more central hold on construction and maintenance. After Roman control ended, roads went back to being mostly a local matter. Luckily they had some nicer bridges and foundations to work with!

Matthew
 
Apr 2018
273
Italy
#5
Roman roads were paved, but only principal roads, not all. As for their maintenance theresponsability was of local communities, in middle ages there were public corvees for streets and bridge maintenance.
 
Oct 2009
3,610
San Diego
#8
Being a very broad & ubiquitous infrastructure, roads vary greatly in their size, nature & quality over time & space. Before roads, natural waterways were probably the closest thing used like them by prehistoric people, just as they were throughout history as well.

Roads throughout history were probably usually of inferior quality compared to modern roads. I think automobiles changed the nature of roads completely.

Something I’ve always wandered was how did people manage to stop plants, weeds, water & the elements from taking over unpaved roads, mostly dirt roads I assume, which I assume was the majority of roads historically? I assume that paved roads were usually only found in major urban centers & the most important highways/routes, am I right?
Actually, Roman roads were far better built than current roadways- Given the usage they are put to.

That is, Roman roads did not have to handle the weights and forces that modern roads do- but Roman roads were far better able to endure the forces they were designed to handles than are our modern roads.

For example- When Germany built its autobahns, they made the road bed TWICE as thick as is done in the US interstate highway system. As a result, their roads have not suffered anywhere near the amount of damage as US roadways- they cost more to build- but have cost a fraction as much to maintain.

Roman roads were built to require little maintenance- and many of them still exist today- where they are no longer existing it is mostly due to land being reclaimed for other uses over the millennia, to the stone materials being dug up for re-purposing, or because more modern roads were built directly on top of them.
 
Jan 2013
974
Toronto, Canada
#9
Roman roads were built to require little maintenance- and many of them still exist today- where they are no longer existing it is mostly due to land being reclaimed for other uses over the millennia, to the stone materials being dug up for re-purposing, or because more modern roads were built directly on top of them.
During the Middle Ages, the best land transportation routes in Europe were usually Roman roads that had been built more than 1,000 years earlier.

Try getting that kind of warranty today.
 
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Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,320
Dispargum
#10
Anyone can tell me much about colonial & modern history roads?
In America, tree stump pullers did come into use until the early 1800s. Prior to that, it was common to find tree stumps in roads. Anything less than a foot high could pass under a wagon's axles.

American roads often started out as game trails. Passing animals would beat down the brush and wear away the grass until dirt was exposed. People followed existing paths, eventually widening them with more and more traffic. Many roads were not wide enough for wagons to use.

During the French and Indian War a few famous military roads were built - Braddock's Road from Cumberland, MD to Ft Duquesne (now Pittsburgh, PA) and the Crown Point Road near Ft Ticonderoga, NY, but after the war traffic decreased and these roads became overgrown again.

In the 1700s the only alternative to muddy roads was to corduroy them with logs. Plank roads began to be built in the 1810s (smooth wooden planks instead of rough logs). In the 1820s, roads were first built out of macadam (sea shells that over time would be ground down by road traffic into a fine powder and then eventually compressed into a sheet of limestone). To pay for the cost of road maintenance, turnpikes (toll roads) were first set up in the 1790s.