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Roman streets

Gracheva A.D.

Ancient Roman streets should be described using cities such as Rome and Pompeii as examples. Being the capital of a sprawling state by the end of the Republican period, Rome was a large, crowded city with lots of high-rise buildings (insulae) and lots of small, narrow streets (the widest of which was about 6-7m). The small width of ancient streets of the Italian peninsula had its roots in saving living space within the city limits, bounded by the fortress wall. Life outside the walls was unsafe because of attacks. The scorching sun and craving for some shade in the southern cities sometimes made the crowded layout an advantage, as the heat was mitigated in the narrow streets through the shadow of the buildings (G. I. Sokolov, Art of Ancient Rome, p. 46).

A foreigner or an out-of-towner could easily get lost in the vast city. The main street of the quarter always had a name, but the small streets, dead ends and lanes often remained nameless (E. M. Sergeenko, Life of Ancient Rome, p. 18). And that's not all the trouble a visitor could get into. Central streets got their names from the craftsman or merchant who lived there or from some famous incident that supposedly took place in that street, or the street was just named after the person who laid it out; even though there were a great many of them, they had no recognisable signs. Simply said, neither the streets nor the houses were named: people had to refer to shops, to workshops or to the house of a nobleman in order to find the right street. Another disadvantage of Roman streets, besides the above-mentioned, was their narrowness.

The average width of a street was 5-5.5m, while alleys and dead ends could be less than 3m. It should be noted that the width of the same street could fluctuate: for example, Sacred Road was 6.5m at its widest and 4.8m at its narrowest. This layout was caused by the saving of living space. Unlike small cities of republican Rome, e.g. in Pompeii, where daytime traffic was pedestrian only, people in Rome before 45 BC could move along the streets on foot as well as on horses and carts, causing great discomfort to the residents. This is how Juvenal describes life in the streets of Rome: 'The passing of wagons in the narrow curves of the streets, and the mutual reviles of the team drivers brought to a standstill, would banish sleep even from Drusus and sea-calves. If duty calls him, the rich man will be borne through the yielding crowd, and pass rapidly over their heads on the shoulders of his tall Liburnian, and, as he goes, will read or write, or even sleep inside his litter, for his sedan with windows closed entices sleep. And still he will arrive before us. In front of us, as we hurry on, a tide of human beings stops the way; the mass that follows behind presses on our loins in dense concourse; one man pokes me with his elbow, another with a hard pole; one knocks a beam against my head, another a ten-gallon cask. My legs are coated thick with mud; then, anon, I am trampled upon by great heels all round me, and the hob-nail of the soldier's caliga remains imprinted on my toe... You may well be accounted remiss and improvident against unforeseen accident, if you go out to supper without having made your will. It is clear that there are just so many chances of death, as there are open windows where the inmates are awake inside, as you pass by. Pray, therefore, and bear about with you this miserable wish, that they may be contented with throwing down only what the broad basins have held. One that is drunk, and quarrelsome in his cups, if he has chanced to give no one a beating, suffers the penalty by loss of sleep' (Juvenal, Satire III, 222). This is what the streets of ancient Rome were like.

Fragments of the marble plan of Rome (Forma Urbis Romae). Figure 1756
Holy road (Via Sacra). Rome, modern view
Roman Street. Reconstruction

We must now consider the arrangement of other, smaller cities. A good example here is Pompeii. This city destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 is a gift for modern archaeologists and historians, as this very tragedy has caused the city to be preserved. Unlike Rome, which has survived so many ages, each of which has left its mark on the city layout, Pompeii has not been subjected to any changes. The city was covered in volcanic ash and suffered a lot of damage, not to mention the number of dead, but the layout of the city, its cobbled streets, its ground floors of the buildings, its mosaics and paintings have survived. Pompeii was not a national capital, so its the street life was quieter. The streets and alleys we know from the excavations did not exceed 10 metres in width. The widest of the 7 streets we have seen so far is north-south Mercury Road which runs to the city centre (forum) and was for some time the major artery of the city. The historical names of the streets remain unknown, that is why the archaeologists, when excavating, named the streets according to their direction (e.g. Stabia Road and Nola Road were the streets going to Stabia and Nola cities) or the more important and distinctive buildings on these streets (Eumachia Lane named after the wool market built by Eumachia; Hanging Balcony Lane named after the house with protruding balcony that defined the appearance of the entire lane) or, finally, according to their appearance (Crooked Alley). Street of Abundance was named after the image looking like the figure of Abundance on one well at its beginning (M. E. Sergeenko, Pompeii, p. 25). Important to note that the streets of Pompeii were better arranged than the streets of Rome: they were paved and had footways: the street could be crossed without stepping on the roadway, but with stones that were placed at most intersections; they were placed so far apart that cart wheels could easily pass between them at night. Horseback riding and the use of carts was prohibited during the day for safety reasons; rich citizens could travel in the daytime on litters. The streets had fountains with fresh water from the Campania mountains.

Map of Pompeii with the names of the main streets. 2nd floor of the 20th century.
Street of Plenty. Pompeii, modern view
Crossroad. Pompeii, modern view


1. Sergeenko M. E. Pompeii. Moscow-Leningrad, Publishing House of the USSR Academy of Sciences, 1949

2. Sergeenko E. M. Life of ancient Rome [Life of ancient Rome]. St. Petersburg, Neva Publ., 2002.

3. Sokolov G. I. Art of Ancient Rome [The Art of Ancient Rome]. Moscow, Iskusstvo Publ., 1971

4. Decimus Junius Juvenal. Satires. Saint Petersburg, Alethea Publ., 1994