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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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The Via Julia Augusta, as the highway was initially called, greatly improved overland travel in the empire. Roman legions could shuttle long distances along it at an average speed of almost four miles per hour. Messengers could travel between Arles and Rome, a distance of about 550 miles, in a mere eight days. "The highway was a means for Rome to assert its power," curator Martin told me. "Its real purpose was to move troops and public couriers at the fastest rate possible." By the third century A.D., the highway was known as the Via Aurelia and regarded as an extension of the empire's road from Rome to Pisa, commissioned in 241 B.C. by the censor Caius Aurelius Cotta.

But beginning around A.D. 235, the Via Aurelia fell on hard times. After centuries of political stability, a series of military coups roiled the empire. Roman divisions began turning on one another, the value of currency plummeted, urban renewal ceased and towns and entire districts were abandoned. The empire revived briefly under Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) and Constantine (A.D. 306-37). But in 406, the Rhine froze over and barbarians spilled into Gaul. By the 470s, Arles had surrendered to the Visigoths, opening the whole of Provence to barbarian control. Over the next millennium, roads, bridges, aqueducts and other public works commissioned by Augustus and his successors disintegrated, and the precise route of the Via Aurelia was lost.

It remained largely forgotten until 1508, when Konrad Peutinger, a book collector from Augsburg, in Bavaria, acquired a 22-foot-long medieval scroll portraying a map of the world, from the Atlantic to the mouth of the Ganges, as it existed during the Roman Empire. The map's origins were obscure: a 13th-century monk from Colmar had apparently copied it from a Roman source, possibly a fourth-century A.D. map, or an even older one drawn by Agrippa, aide-de-camp to Augustus, at the dawn of Roman dominance. Whatever its origins, the Table of Peutinger, as it became known—with detailed topography, a rendering of the entire Roman road network, and 550 illustrations of rest stops, Roman amphitheaters and other features along the routes—was widely published. It has offered archaeologists an incomparable opportunity to track down lost vestiges of the Roman world. During the 1960s, in the Italian town of Torre Annunziata, near Pompeii, researchers used the Table of Peutinger to locate and excavate a sumptuous villa from the first century B.C.

I first met Bruno Tassan on a sunny afternoon in June at an outdoor café in Salon-de-Provence, a medieval town 24 miles west of Aix. Burly and suntanned, with a shock of white hair, Tassan grew up in a village near Grenoble. He spent 25 years working as a graphic designer before retiring last summer to pursue a lifelong fascination with ancient Gaul. "When I was 17, my mother gave me a copy of The Civilization of Rome [by French historian Pierre Grimal], and from that point I was hooked," he said. In 1998 he began working on a documentary about another historic route, the ancient Christian pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of St. James, one of Jesus' Apostles, are said to be buried. To research the project, he set off on a 900-mile journey by foot across southern France and the Pyrenees, following the Roman road network. "I traversed three regions, and in two of them, the Roman road was in good shape," he told me. "The Via Domitia, which crosses two French départements, and the Via Acquitana, which joins Bordeaux and Astorga in Spain, were both well marked and preserved." This was not the case, however, he would learn, for the Via Aurelia.

What was going on, says curator Martin, was a process of urbanization and development around the Côte d'Azur that largely bypassed Languedoc-Rousillon, site of the Via Domitia. "Here you've got more roads being built, more auto routes, and, of course, more destruction," Martin says. "The vestiges of ancient Gaul just aren't as valued as they should be." As development accelerated, more and more of the road was fragmented into sections, stretches of it paved over or subsumed by housing tracts and factories. Rediscovering the surviving traces of the Roman route has been a matter of deduction, legwork and tapping into the historical memory.

After finishing our espressos, Tassan and I set out by car to inspect remains of the Via Aurelia that he had identified around the town of Salon-de-Provence. We crossed beneath an expressway, traversed an irrigation canal, bounced through fields of grapes, then turned down a narrow dirt road—actually a piece of antiquity—that cut a straight line between an olive orchard and a row of fenced-off villas.

Tassan peered through a barrier of cypress trees into a private garden, pointing out 20-foot-high ruins of a stone wall—what was left of a 2,000-year-old rest house where Via Aurelia travelers could water their horses, repair their chariots and lodge for the night. "Some rest houses had prostitutes as well," Tassan said. "Everything you could want for your journey." (The Table of Peutinger, which functioned as a kind of Michelin Guide of its time, graded guesthouses according to three classifications, basic, moderate and luxury, using a different illustration for each; the cushiest was represented by a rectangular villa with a pool in the middle.) Two guard dogs barked furiously at us, hurling themselves against a fence. Tassan admired the inn's ruins for another few seconds, then said, "Bien, let's get out of here."

We continued toward the village of Saint-Chamas, turning off the main road from time to time to pick up short stretches of the Via Aurelia—dirt paths, a row of ancient and cracked paving stones, narrow asphalted strips through vineyards. Approaching Saint-Chamas, we came across the ancient road's second-best-preserved vestige—after the Trophy of Augustus: Flavian's Bridge, marked by elegant arches at either end, spanning the Touloubre River. "This is a real treasure," Tassan said. Each arch, built from blocks of tawny limestone, rose about 20 feet high; atop a delicately carved pilaster stood sculptures of two crouching lions. (In 1944, a speeding U.S. Army truck accidentally rammed into one of the arches and knocked it down; American construction teams reassembled it and built a new bridge a few yards downriver.) Tassan pulled out a tape measure, knelt and measured the distance between grooves on the bridge's stone surface. "One point forty-two meters [4.5 feet]," he announced with satisfaction—the standard width of a Roman chariot axle.

The next day, I found Tassan in a blue mood. We had spent the morning touring a construction site near Marseille, where workers, oblivious to the damage they were inflicting, had been laying an oil pipeline across the Via Aurelia's original stones. Now we stood on a hilltop near the medieval village of Mouriès, not far from Arles, looking for traces of the ancient road. Though he was certain it had descended from this crest, he couldn't find a hint of it, not even after a dozen scouting expeditions. "I met an 80-year-old man who told me that when he was small, there was a road that ran through the olive fields here, and he said, ‘that was the Via Aurelia.' But it doesn't exist anymore." It was an all too familiar story. "All these vestiges are in danger of disappearing," Tassan said as we drove down the slope. "Of course, modernization is obligatory, but there should be some effort made to preserve what's left. Why can't it be like the Via Domitia? The milestones were saved, plaques were put up. Here, I'm afraid it's all going."

Still, there are the pleasures of discovery and mysteries at every turn. After a few minutes, we stopped outside the rural village of Fontvieille, a few miles northeast of Arles. A double row of great stone arches—the remains of two aqueducts that once ran beside the Via Aurelia—marched in parallel lines through the arid brush. We followed them to the edge of a promontory; below us, golden fields of wheat extended in all directions; the scene looked as it must have at the height of the Roman Empire. Two thousand years ago, water ran down this hill via the aqueduct to a mill, where wheat was ground into flour, then transported along the Via Aurelia to feed the growing population of Gaul. The height of the arches was delicately calibrated to maintain an even flow and pressure—another example of Roman engineering skill.


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