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Via Aurelia: The Roman Empire’s Lost Highway

French amateur archaeologist Bruno Tassan fights to preserve a neglected 2,000-year-old ancient interstate in southern Provence

In 7 B.C., at a point along the Via Aurelia, the Romans erected a monument to the emperor Augustus. (Clay McLachlan)
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At first glance, it didn't appear that impressive: a worn limestone pillar, six feet high and two feet wide, standing slightly askew beside a country road near the village of Pélissanne in southern France. "A lot of people pass by without knowing what it is," Bruno Tassan, 61, was saying, as he tugged aside dense weeds that had grown over the column since he last inspected it. Tassan was showing me a milliaire, or milestone, one of hundreds planted along the highways of Gaul at the time of the Roman Empire. The inscription had worn away ages ago, but Tassan, a documentary filmmaker and amateur archaeologist, was well versed in the artifact's history. This particular stone, set in place in 3 B.C. during the reign of Augustus, was once a perfect cylinder, set along the nearly 50 miles between Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) and Arelate (Arles). "It's one of the last standing," Tassan said.

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In 12 B.C., Augustus, at the height of his power, commanded his legions to build a highway that would traverse the province of Gallia Narbonensis, or southern Gaul, the last of whose unruly tribes had only recently been subdued. Over the next ten years, surveyors, engineers and construction crews carried off one of antiquity's greatest feats: grading and paving a road from the mountains above the Mediterranean near modern Nice to the Rhone River, 180 miles distant. For nearly four centuries, the Via Aurelia served as the region's principal artery, over which armored legions, chari­oteers, couriers, traders, government officials and countless others passed. It was the Interstate 95 of its time, complete with rest stops and chariot service stations every 12 to 20 miles—a crucial part of a 62,000-mile road network that extended from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor. Along this paved and finely graded route, Rome maintained its control over far-flung provinces, developed commerce, and disseminated its culture and architecture. But as the empire began its long decline—Rome would fall in the fifth century A.D.—the Via Aurelia began to disintegrate. In contrast, the Via Domitia, an even older Roman route, constructed around 122 B.C. in neighboring Languedoc-Rousillon, has been well preserved, thanks to the intervention of local governments and private interests.

Tassan and a handful of fellow enthusiasts have appointed themselves custodians of the Via Aurelia. During the past few years, he has matched pre-medieval maps to 21st-century aerial photographs, located broken bits of ancient macadam and tried to protect a handful of 2,000-year-old stone walls, sarcophagi, aqueducts, bridges and road markers that point to the engineering sophistication, as well as the reach, of ancient Rome. He has created a Web site devoted to the Via Aurelia, conducted tours for growing numbers of Gaulophiles and hopes to make a documentary about the road.

Tassan has also sought to solve some of the lingering questions about the highway, including how the Romans managed to transport milestones, weighing an average of 4,400 pounds, from rock quarries to road-building sites, often a dozen or so miles away. The Roman legal code in place at the time forbade chariots from carrying loads heavier than 1,082 pounds, the maximum that the vehicles' wooden axles could safely support. "Did they carry them on foot? Did they get a special exemption?" Tassan wondered aloud, as he scrutinized the worn Pélissanne pillar. "It remains," he says, "a mystery."

Experts on the era acknowledge that Tassan has made a unique contribution to ancient Gaulian scholarship. "Everyone knows about the Roman amphitheaters of Arles and Nîmes," says Michel Martin, curator in chief of the library at the Museum of Arles and Ancient Provence. "But the Via Aurelia is a largely lost piece of Roman history. Bruno has done much to keep it alive and to protect the little that's left."

A series of military triumphs paved the way for construction of one of the greatest roads through the empire. During the second century B.C., the region that is now France was a no man's land of warring tribes—a vast stretch of untamed territory lying between Rome and its colony of Hispania (present-day Spain and Portugal). In 125 B.C., citizens of the Greek colony of Massalia (Massillia in Latin), now Marseille, a port since 600 B.C., came under attack from the powerful Salyen tribe, a Celtic confederation whose holdings extended from the upper Rhone to the Alps. Marseille appealed to its nearest power, Rome, for help; in 123 B.C., Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus led a force of legionnaires to face the Celts, who were legendary for their ferocity. ("They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses," the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote of them in the first century B.C.) The Roman legion thrashed the tribe at the Celtic garrison of Entremont, a fortification set on a 1,200-foot-high plateau. The victorious Sextius Calvinus then founded the settlement of Aquae Sextiae on the site of nearby thermal baths, giving the Romans a firm foothold in southern Gaul.

Nearly 20 years later, a Teutonic horde stormed across the Rhine River intent upon seizing Aquae Sextiae. A small force of Roman soldiers lured the invaders toward the town; 3,000 troops then attacked the Teutons from behind, killing 90,000 and capturing 20,000. "By the conditions of the surrender [of the Teutons] three hundred of their married women were to be handed over to the Romans," the Christian scholar Jerome wrote in the fifth century A.D. "When the Teuton matrons heard of this stipulation, they first begged the [Roman] consul that they might be set apart to minister in the temples of Ceres and Venus; and then when they failed to obtain their request and were removed by the [guards], they slew their little children and next morning were all found dead in each other's arms, having strangled themselves in the night."

After the slaughter of the Teutons, Rome consolidated its control over the region. In 62 B.C., the last southern tribe to rise against the empire was subjugated. Julius Caesar established a naval base at Fréjus and founded Arles as a settlement for retired veterans of his Sixth Legion, whom he had led to a series of bloody victories in Asia Minor. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., his adopted son Octavian, later renamed Augustus, rose to power and made the development of Gallia Narbonensis, his province in southern Gaul, a priority.

One afternoon I drove through a series of long tunnels north of Nice to La Turbie, a medieval village hugging the hills 1,600 feet above the Mediterranean. Here, where the Alps jut sharply down to the sea, the Romans built a section of their new highway in 12 B.C. Surveyors, engineers and construction crews improved and linked paths that had existed since the time of the Greeks, cleaving passes through the mountains, introducing a sophisticated drainage system, erecting milestones and standardizing the road width to 15 feet—wide enough for two chariots to pass. It wound along the rugged coast to Fréjus, then cut across fertile plains to the Rhone. There, the thoroughfare merged with the Via Domitia, running west through the Spanish Pyrenees. When the two roads met—a convergence comparable to the 1869 linking of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah—Roman control over the Mediterranean basin was cemented.

The Romans commemorated the feat with a victory monument at La Turbie, placing, in 7 B.C., a statue of Augustus on a limestone cylinder surrounded by 24 Doric columns. This is what I had come to see: I hiked along a wooded footpath to a hilltop clearing, from which the 115-foot-high Tropaeum, or Trophy, of Augustus—still partially standing after two millennia—dominates the landscape. The emperor's statue has disappeared, and only four of the marble columns that encircled the monument remain intact. One side of the great marble base features reliefs of winged deities flanking a Latin inscription that hails Augustus and the pacification of Gaul. Sheltering myself from a fierce wind, I gazed down the rocky coast of Italy; directly below, the hotels and villas of Monaco glittered at the edge of the turquoise sea. It seemed a fitting place to proclaim Rome's glory.


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