Friday, January 31, 2020


M.C. Bishop, The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain. Yorkshire; Philadelphia: Pen & Sword Military, 2019. Pp. 224. ISBN 9781526761132. $29.95.

Reviewed by Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen, University of Southern Denmark (

Version at BMCR home site

There has been no shortage of books on Roman roads recently, but few have as catchy a title as this one. Opening the book for the first time, the reader wonders whether a volume on ancient roads can match the level of sex and scandal attained by Procopius or Donna Tartt. Let it be said straight away that it does not, but it is a good read and the author's straightforward, nuts-and-bolts approach will appeal to many readers, not least among the numerous non-specialists who take an informed interest in Britain's road heritage.

The history of a Roman road network may be approached from two angles: synchronically, studying the roads within their Roman context and drawing on parallels from other provinces within the imperium Romanum; or diachronically, viewing the Roman network as a stage in the development of the road system from prehistory to the modern period. Dr. Bishop takes the latter approach, placing the Roman roads of Britain within a longue durée that stretches from prehistory to as far as the eighteenth century, where the road-building activities of Marshal Wade in Scotland are cited as a parallel to the activities of Roman road surveyors (e.g., pp. 20-22).

Though outdated in many respects, Ivan D. Margary's Roman Roads in Britain remains the standard work for British road-hunters, thanks not least to the numbering system for Roman roads which it introduced. Margary's approach was morphological, taking the physical appearance of the road – especially its straight alignment – as the point of departure. 1 His method was taken up by a group of enthusiasts calling themselves the Viatores (glossed as 'road surveyors' on p. 121, but Latin viator means 'traveller') who produced a volume on Roman Roads in the South- East Midlands (London: Gollancz, 1964). They succeeded in reconstructing a dense network of 'Roman' roads within their region, but their results were later called into question by Angela Simco,2 who pointed out that many linear features cited as evidence of Roman origin were in fact created during the Enclosures of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

More recent studies tend to favour a contextual approach, setting roads in relation to known settlement or burial sites, e.g., the work of Dorsey on Iron Age Israel (1991) or of Lysandrou and Agapitou on Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus (2016).3 Bishop, too, follows a contextual approach with a special focus on military camps of the Roman period and the use of Roman roads by medieval and early modern armies (pp. 49-58; 70-71).

The first five chapters of the book are chronological, beginning with prehistoric roads (pp. 1-15), the Roman conquest (pp. 16-38), the development of the road network (pp. 39-69), its afterlife (69-108) and rediscovery (pp. 108-130). These are followed by a brief chapter summarizing the main results ('secrets') of the study (pp. 131-135), an equally brief guide to further reading, five appendices, notes, bibliography and a detailed analytical and geographical index.

The author is careful to present the reader not only with the facts as he sees them but with his arguments as well—a laudable principle, though sometimes taken to extremes. The idea that the invading armies of AD 43 built roads as they marched forward is discussed in detail, then emphatically rejected (pp. 16-19); but to this reviewer's knowledge, such a theory has never been put forward by any serious student of Roman roads. On the contrary, thanks to Strabo (4.6.11) we know that work on the highways from Lyon into the Three Gauls did not commence until more than a generation after Caesar's victory, which supports Bishop's contention that in the first stage of conquest, Roman commanders made do with whatever routes were at hand. With good reason, Bishop also rejects Hugh Davies' theory, first put forward in Britannia4 and later reiterated in several books, that Roman road surveyors used scale maps (p. 23), for which there is no evidence in the sources.

In his discussion of milestones (pp. 25-26; 30-34), the author loses himself (and his reader) in a labyrinthine argument for 'the possibility that not all Roman miles within Britain were the same length' (p. 26), but when rounding errors and the omission of sections intra muros from the calculation are taken into account, the distances found in itineraries and on milestones are compatible with the 'canonical' Roman mile of 1482 metres. Based on the skewed chronological distribution of British milestone finds, Bishop further theorizes that 'the practice of carving inscriptions' on milestones only 'became popular' in the third century AD (p. 33). But there is ample evidence from other provinces that inscribed milestones were already being set up during the Republic.

Chapter 3 on 'Development and Use' examines the context of the roads, the travellers who used them and, briefly, the evidence of the Peutinger Table and the Antonine Itinerary (pp. 47-49); this is followed by a more detailed analysis of the spatial relationship between roads, forts and urban settlements in the second century AD, supported by a series of useful maps (figs. 15-20, pp. 54-58). The interplay of roads and warfare is further explored in chapter 4, the book's longest and richest, which takes the story of Britain's road network beyond the collapse of Roman control and traces the military function and strategic value of the Roman road network through the Middle Ages into the Early Modern period. The text is supplemented by three useful appendices (2-4, pp. 150-162) listing port-Roman battles in chronological order and giving the Margary number of the nearest Roman road. From the viewpoint of the ancient historian, chapter 4 comes closest to fulfilling the promise of a 'secret' history – or at least a history that is not generally known – of Britain's Roman roads.

The same contextual approach is chronologically inverted in appendix 5 on 'Possible Roman Roads in North-East England and South-East Scotland'; here, the use of roads by medieval armies is taken as a possible indication of a Roman or prehistoric origin. Further fieldwork will be needed to confirm or reject these conjectural 'Roman' roads. (Though Bishop elsewhere acknowledges the uses of Google Earth for tracing roads, he gives map coordinates according to the British grid. Geographical coordinates of latitude and longitude, or UTM coordinates, would be more helpful for a reader wishing to find a specific site on Google Earth).

Chapter 5 on 'Rediscovery' offers useful hints to the road hunter on how to search for and identify roads in the landscape (pp. 108-116) and an overview of older and more recent scholarship on the Roman roads of Britain including an assessment of Margary's work, which is criticized on a number of points (pp. 120-123). Bishop is less critical of the Viatores, and while he acknowledges that 'their methodology can be criticized' he nonetheless accepts their hypothetical road network more or less at face value, as 'a salutary lesson of what may await discovery in the rest of Britain' (p. 124). In general, he takes a charitable view of the amateur scholars to whose work 'the steady increase in our knowledge of the Roman roads of Britain is almost exclusively due' (p. 125), even including such heterodox figures as Alfred Watkins, the originator of the ley line theory (pp. 117-118).5

In the same chapter, the author offers an overview of the cartographic resources available to would-be students of Roman roads (pp. 125-127); this is supplemented and to some extent duplicated by the suggestions for 'Further reading' (pp. 135- 137). These include the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain (fourth edition, 1978) and the two British sheets of the Tabula Imperii Romani (1983 and 1987), but no mention of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton UP, 2000). Equally surprisingly, a list of useful websites does not include the Orbis project at Stanford University.6

Free access to satellite coverage on Google Earth has, as the author points out, 'revolutionized' road studies (p. 114). One of the many advantages of Google Earth and other new digital tools over older, non-digital aerial imaging is that with a few clicks of the mouse, it is possible to generate a longitudinal profile of a route – an operation which formerly required hours of tedious work using topographical maps or stereoscopic photo images. However, while its linearity (or lack thereof) in the horizontal plane is a recurrent theme, the vertical profile of a road is rarely discussed by Bishop, save for a brief excursus on road inclines (p. 67). Other new opportunities which might have deserved at least a brief mention are Least Cost Path Analysis and Network Analysis, both of which have been successfully applied to Roman road networks in other provinces.

The reader who has been waiting for the 'secrets' will find them in the Conclusions, where they are listed one by one: 'Our first "secret" is that the Romans did not give us a new road network, they merely adapted an existing one' (p. 131); 'rather than staring forlornly across frontiers, the Romans looked along their roads' (p. 132), 'the provision of an all-weather road networks for military purposes ... had unexpected benefits for the inhabitants' (p. 132); 'the road network as it is ... a palimpsest, an accumulations of many different networks' (p. 133); 'the Roman system definitely had a profound effect on medieval life ... most of the post-Roman battles ... were fought on or next to a Roman road' (p. 133); 'our knowledge of the Roman road network can be a valuable tool in assessing the location of unknown or poorly attested battle sites' (p. 133); 'our seventh and final secret is that the study of Roman roads in Britain is patently incomplete' (p. 134). Few readers will find reason to disagree with any of these points, and as the author himself soberly concedes (p. 134), 'The secret history of the Roman roads of Britain does not really contain any secrets at all'.

The book is generally well produced, with only a few typos (Charthouse for Charterhouse, p. 115), and the black-and-white plates are crisply printed. The maps accompanying the text are on the whole easy to interpret, though some lack place- names (e.g., fig. 2, p. 4; figs. 16-17, pp. 54-55); at least a handful of names would be helpful to readers who were not born and raised in the UK.


1.   Margary, Ivan D., Roman Roads in Britain, 3rd ed. (London: Baker, 1973), 18-26.
2.   Simco, Angela, Survey of Bedfordshire: The Roman Period (Bedford: Bedfordshire County Council, 1984), 78-79; not in Bishop's bibliography.
3.   Dorsey, David A., The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991), 52-56; Lysandrou, Vasiliki & Agapitou, A., Cities of the Dead: Approaching the Lost Landscape of Hellenistic and Roman Necropoleis of Cyprus, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 8 (2016), 873-874.
4.   Davies, Hugh, Designing Roman Roads, Britannia 29 (1998), 1-16; not in Bishop's bibliography.
5.   Watkins, Alfred, The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones (London: Methuen, 1925).
6.   ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman Empire, ORBIS

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