The request for investment in infrastructure is a request that has had a positive response from all political alignments. Capital and employees benefit equally from a well-developed transport network. Sure, you have to spend money, but in the long run everyone benefits. A group of economists now wants to find out exactly how long-term it will be, and they’ve published their findings in Journal of Comparative Economics released. First of all: the benefit is therefore actually very long-term.
The team led by economist Carl-Johann Dalgaard of the University of Copenhagen took a close look at the famous road network of the Roman Empire. In doing so, he superimposed maps of the Roman transport network onto today’s satellite images. Where once there were important roads, today there are traffic junctions and the layouts of the old road network are still in use. More important, however, are the economic implications: Anyone who lives where there was a road 2,000 years ago probably lives in a relatively prosperous area. The investments made by the Romans still seem to bear fruit today.
To support their argument, the scientists used the use of night light as an indicator of economic activity. Indeed, the cities of Europe today are illuminated by night-time satellite images along the Roman roads. “Since so much has happened in the meantime, a lot should have adapted to modern circumstances,” says Ola Olsson, professor of economics at the University of Gothenburg and co-author of the study. In reality, however, the concentration of economic activity is still based on the road layout of the Roman Empire: “Even if the roads have long since disappeared or have been rebuilt”.
The construction of the first Roman road was by no means subject to the primacy of the economy. Unsurprisingly, it was about the military. In order to be able to supply the army active in Campania more quickly during the Second Samnite War, it was decided in 312 BC to build the Via Appia, a paved and weatherproof traffic route from Rome to Capua. Also in the following centuries the expansion progressed, above all from the logistic-military point of view. The road network enabled the Romans to move their legions more efficiently.
In North Africa and the Middle East, roads have had no lasting effects
The economic effects only manifested themselves later. Affiliated cities benefited from trade, others sank into insignificance. The authors illustrate this with Lugdunum, a Roman foundation from the 1st century BC. At that time, Vienne, some 30 kilometers to the south, was the political center of the region. However, the Roman provincial governor decided to turn the new colony into a hub and a fabulous development began. Today Lugdunum is called Lyon and is the third largest city in France. Vienne is a small city with about 30,000 inhabitants.
This course also survived the turbulent late antiquity. “The fall of the Roman Empire would have provided an opportunity to readjust economic structures,” says Ola Olsson. However, the urban structures have been preserved. Aside from the North African and Middle Eastern parts of the empire, the roads here had no long-term impact on economic development, because they were no longer used. From the 4th century AD, camel trains supplanted wheeled transport, eliminating the need for roads. While these in Europe were somewhat maintained or overbuilt, the Roman roads to the south and east withered and disappeared. “Roads have become irrelevant,” says Olsson.