Figures and Tables

Notes on Contributors

Series Editor’s Preface

The Ancient World: Comparative Histories



1 Overland Shortcuts for the Transmission of Buddhism

Introduction: Roads as Ideological Concepts and Everyday Realities

“Northern Route” (Uttarāpatha) in South Asia

Capillary Networks as Shortcuts for Buddhist Transmission

Central Asian Transit Zones

Paths of Buddhist Transmission to China


2 The Power of Highway Networks during China’s Classical Era (323 BCE–316 CE): Regulations, Metaphors, Rituals, and Deities

On Early Road Building and Aspirations for Centralized Order

On Road Regulations

Moral Associations of Highways and Byways

On Road Deities and Road Cults


3 Privatizing the Network: Private Contributions and Road Infrastructure in Late Imperial China (1500–1900)

Morality, Mobility, and Philanthropy

Roads, Ferries, and Bridges in a SouthwesternFrontier Region

Bridges and Ferries in Zhenxiong Department



4 Linking the Realm: The Gokaidô Highway Network in Early Modern Japan (1603–1868)

Network Users and Patterns of Movement

Infrastructure and its Administration


The Highway in Literature and Popular Imagination


5 Obliterated Itineraries: Pueblo Trails, Chaco Roads, and Archaeological Knowledge

Pueblo Trails

Chaco Roads

Creating Connections


6 Roads to Ruins: The Role of Sacbeob in Ancient Maya Society

Potential Functions of Sacbeob

Who Built Sacbeob?

Who Used Sacbeob?

Roads and Ruins

7 The Chinchaysuyu Road and the Definition of an Inca Imperial Landscape


The Chinchaysuyu Road from Cuzco to Vilcashuaman

Imperial Landscapes

Outward Signs

The Definition of Empire

8 The Sahara as Highway for Trade and Knowledge

The Ancient Background and Colonial Ideology

The Islamic Period

External Views

Africans and the Wider World

9 From the Indus to the Mediterranean: The Administrative Organization and Logistics of the Great Roads of the Achaemenid Empire

The Classical Sources

The View from the Center

10 The Well-Remembered Path: Roadways and Cultural Memory in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt


Egyptian Conceptual Geography and Religious Practice

Egyptian Roads in the Pharaonic Period: Construction and the Epigraphic Habit

Memory Marked in the Landscape


11 Roads, Integration, Connectivity, and Economic Performance in the Roman Empire

The Benefits of Roman Roads: General Observations

Case Studies

The Global Impact of Roman Roads: A Provisional Assessment

12 Roads Not Featured: A Roman Failure to Communicate?

Contemporary Comment

Muted Imperial Engagement and Possible Explanations

Limits of Conceptual Awareness

The Peutinger Map: A Creative Advance?


13 Road Connectivity and the Structure of Ancient Empires: A Case Study from Late Antiquity

Conclusions and Observations

14 Jews and News: The Interaction of Private and Official Communication-Networks in Jewish History

The Talmudic Period

The Islamic Period


The Ancient World: Comparative Histories

Series Editor: Kurt Raaf laub


War and Peace in the Ancient World
Edited by Kurt Raaflaub

Household and Family Religion in Antiquity
Edited by John Bodel and Saul Olyan

Epic and History
Edited by David Konstan and Kurt A. Raaflaub

Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies
Edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Richard J. A. Talbert

The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives
Edited by Johann P. Arnason and Kurt A. Raaflaub

Highways, Byways, and Road Systems in the Pre-Modern World
Edited by Susan E. Alcock, John Bodel, and Richard J. A. Talbert


Catherine Julien, distinguished archaeologist and ethnohistorian of the indigenous cultures of the Americas, died prematurely on May 27, 2011.

A reflection by her was the inspiration for this volume, and we dedicate it to her memory. The work that she so generously shared will live on.

Figures and Tables



Nodes of the Uttarāpatha


Petroglyph and graffiti complexes in northern Pakistan


Tarim Basin silk routes


The classical road system in China


Stretch of trestle road (zhan dao) cut into the rock face, Sichuan


The progresses of Han Wudi (r. 141–87 BCE) and Chengdi (r. 33–7 BCE)


Zhanguo example of a decorative tally awarded to a merchant by the pre-unification Thane of Chu


Rubbing of a typical pictorial stone showing a carriage procession, excavated in 1956 at Chengdu Tiaodenghe and now in the Sichuan Provincial Museum (41 cm high × 47.3 wide). Second century AD (Eastern Han) date


The Straight Road (still in use today) near the old Qin capital of Xianyang and Western capital of Chang’an


Wooden tablets (ca. 300 BCE) representing road deities, as identified by the grave inventory, from Baoshan, tomb 2, strip 249


The apotropaic Pace of Yu diagram


Overview of transport systems in late imperial China


The dike of Lord Fan


Northeastern Yunnan, with major roads, cities, towns, and administrative jurisdictions


Trough cut into a slab next to the main road near Tuogu, some three hours from the city of Huize by foot and pack horse


The Nagu copper transport road: road section with tunnel around a cliff, and parts of the original stele at the bridge head


Bridges and ferries in Zhenxiong department


The Gokaidô network


Proportional linear maps of the Gokaidô network (Gokaidô sono hoka bunken mitori nobe zu)


Kôshû highway at Kami Suwa station (from Gokaidô sono hoka bunken mitori nobe zu)


The checking station at Hakone by the edge of Lake Ashi; note Mt. Fuji in the background


Hata, near Hakone. Hand-colored albumen print, Japanese. Studio unknown, ca. 1870–80s


The North American southwest, illustrating the Chaco and northern Rio Grande regions


The pre-Columbian pueblo of Tzenatay (La Bajada), north at bottom, illustrating the colonial-era Camino Real crossing the site from the southeast


Segment of the Sandia Canyon trail network on the Pajarito Plateau, illustrating worn pathway in tuff bedrock


Segment of the Sandia Canyon trail network on the Pajarito Plateau, illustrating a staircase that shows signs of repeated reconstruction


The Jackson Staircase at Chaco Canyon, illustrating constructed staircase features


Distribution of road signatures in the vicinity of Pueblo Alto (redrawn after Kincaid 1983, with only the most obvious features retained)


Maya sites mentioned in the text


Photograph of sacbe 3 at Yo’okop


Yo’okop’s sacbe system


Modern roads, footpaths, and a sacbe at San Felipe


Photograph of sacbe 2 at Yo’okop




The Chinchaysuyu road from Vilcashuaman to Cuzco


The Chinchaysuyu road from Limatambo to Cuzco


The Chinchaysuyu road from Limatambo to Jaquijaguana (modern Zurite)


Pampa of Anta


Chakllanka terraces near the site of Chakllanka


Terraces near the site of Limatambo/La Rioja


Aerial view of Chakllanka


Field Patterns on the pampa of Anta


Jaquijaguana (modern Zurite)


Terraces and fields near Jaquijaguana


Trans-Saharan routes


The great roads of the Achaemenid empire


PFS*7: collated seal with a trilingual inscription on Persepolis fortification tablets


Seal of Aršāma


Map of Egypt showing places mentioned in the text


Stele from the Chephren quarries


The Seti I temple at el-Kanais


Graeco-Roman graffiti overlying Pharaonic inscriptions and images of Pan at the Paneion in the Wadi Hammamat


Territory of the Vocontii showing main roads and urban centers


The high steppe in Tunisia showing main roads, olive farms, and urban centers


Paved highway: the Via Egnatia near Philippi in northern Greece


Unpaved road in Egypt’s eastern desert: a gravel surface cleared of boulders for a width of approximately 8 m


Milestone 79 on the road from Beneventum to Brundisium in southern Italy constructed by the emperor Trajan (CIL IX.6021)


Routes as listed on the pillar at Patara mapped out according to modern conventions and numbered


The pillar at Patara as it might have appeared to viewers


Arch erected to Augustus at Ariminum (modern Rimini), endpoint of the Via Flaminia, to commemorate his repair of Italy’s highways


Reverse of one of several silver coin-types issued between 18 and 16 BCE featuring Augustus’ construction or repair of roads (QVOD VIAE MVNITAE SVNT)


Silver coin reverse celebrating Trajan’s construction of the new VIA TRAIANA from Beneventum to Brundisium


Panel, originally from a triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius and later reused in the Arch of Constantine at Rome, depicting a “departure” ceremony (profectio)


The city of Rome with roads (named) fanning out in all directions on the Peutinger map, segments 4–5


Antonine Itinerary


Twelve clusters


Dioceses of Diocletian


Clusters and dioceses



Stele commemorating Zhao Menglin


Ferries, bridges, and a road section recorded in Zhenxiong zhouzhi


Gokaidô statistics


Correlation between Inca genealogy and the European calendar


Tambos from Vilcashuaman to Cuzco


Resettlement of Inca communities in Spanish-style towns on the pampa of Anta


Movements from Susa to Persepolis and Tamukkan (500–499)

Notes on Contributors

Susan E. Alcock is Director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Joukowsky Family Professor of Archaeology, Professor of Classics, and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University. Her current research interests include the Hellenistic and Roman eastern Mediterranean and southern Caucasus, landscape archaeology, and the archaeology of memory and of imperialism. She received her PhD in classical archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

John Bodel, who received his PhD in classical philology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is W. Duncan MacMillan II Professor of Classics and History at Brown University. He specializes in the history and literature of the Roman empire, and has specific interests in epigraphy, Roman religion, slavery, funerals and burial customs, ancient writing systems, and the editing of inscriptions and literary texts. Since 1995 he has directed the U.S. Epigraphy Project, which gathers information about Greek and Latin inscriptions in the United States.

Pierre Briant defended his thèse d’État in ancient history at the University of Besançon. He holds a professorship at the Collège de France, Paris, focusing on the history and civilization of the Achaemenid world and Alexander’s empire. He is also director of the Persika series and of the website A related interest is the historiography of ancient Persia and of Alexander, especially in the eighteenth century.

Jennifer Gates-Foster is an archaeologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics, University of Texas, Austin. She received her PhD in classical art and archaeology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has worked with pottery and other artifact types to explore material manifestations of cultural interaction between groups, particularly in the context of the Hellenistic and early Roman Near East, especially Egypt.

R. Bruce Hitchner is Professor of Classics and International Relations at Tufts University. He is a Roman historian and archaeologist with special interests in north Africa, southern France, and the Roman economy. He received his PhD in history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Catherine Julien is Professor of History at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo. She received her PhD in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work centers on South America during the sixteenth century, before and after the arrival of Europeans, including the transition from Inca to Spanish rule in the Andes, and Inca genres used by Spaniards in narrating the Inca past.

Nanny Kim is a research fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Heidelberg University. She received her PhD in Chinese history at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her current project in the research group “Monies, Markets and Finance in China and East Asia, 1600–1900” (directed by H. U. Vogel) explores transport technologies in the context of changing economic and ecological conditions. It draws upon sources for the transport of mint metals from the mines of southwest China to the Beijing mints. Results are to be published in Mountain Rivers, Mountain Roads: Transport in Southwest China, 1700–1850.

Michael Maas is Professor of History and Classical Studies at Rice University. He received his PhD in ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. His areas of research are the Roman empire and late antiquity. He edited The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (2005). Currently he is writing a book about Roman imperial ethnography.

Pekka Masonen is adjunct Professor of History at Tampere University, Finland. His research interests include Africans and the wider world before the nineteenth century; European exploration and images of Africa; and the precolonial history of Sudanic Africa. His book The Negroland Revisited: Discovery and Invention of the Sudanese Middle Ages was published in 2000. He received his PhD in history at Tampere University.

Jason Neelis, who received his PhD in Asian languages and literature at the University of Washington, is Assistant Professor for South Asian Religions at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. His research focuses on the historical and religious contexts of Buddhist inscriptions and manuscripts. His book Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks (2011) retraces artery and capillary routes for Buddhist institutional expansion in the northwestern borderlands of South Asia.

Michael Nylan, who received her PhD in East Asian studies at Princeton University, is Professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Berkeley. Her recent research has focused on the “classical era” in China (304 BCE–316 CE), pursuing such themes as the northwest frontier areas, administration of the family, modes of persuasion in mid-Han (with particular attention to orality and writing technologies), and the thinker Yang Xiong (53 BCE–18 CE). She is currently completing two books, the first on theories of pleasure in early China, the second on the capital of late western Han Chang’an.

Derek Ruths is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at McGill University. He received his PhD in this subject at Rice University. His research focuses on the problems of modeling and predicting the behavior of interconnected living systems, from biological cells to human societies. Recently he has been considering how social groups form, how social media alter human behavior, and how human communities can be detected in online social networks.

Justine M. Shaw is Professor of Anthropology at the College of the Redwoods, Eureka, California. Her primary research areas are Maya sacbeob, regional settlement patterns, and water management systems, which she examines as principal investigator for the Cochuah Regional Archaeological Survey. She received her PhD in anthropology at Southern Methodist University. Her book White Roads of the Yucatan appeared in 2008.

Adam Silverstein received his PhD in Islamic history at the University of Cambridge, and has been a fellow of Oxford’s Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and university research lecturer in Oriental Studies. In 2011, he moves to King’s College, London, as senior lecturer in Jewish Studies and the Abrahamic Religions. He specializes in Near Eastern history and civilization, with particular reference to continuities and discontinuities between periods and peoples. He is the author of Postal Systems in the Pre-Modern Islamic World (2007) and Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction (2010).

James E. Snead received his PhD in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and teaches at California State University, Northridge. The pre-Columbian trail and road networks of the American southwest are among his principal research interests. His research is featured in two forthcoming publications, his book Ancestral Landscapes of the Pueblo World (2008), and a co-edited volume Landscapes of Movement: Paths, Trails, and Roads in Anthropological Perspective (2009).

Richard J. A. Talbert, who received his PhD in classics at the University of Cambridge, is William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of History and Classics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His recent preoccupations have been mapping, worldview, and travel. He edited the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000), as well as co-editing Cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Fresh Perspectives, New Methods (2008), and Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies (2010). His monograph Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered also appeared in 2010.

Constantine N. Vaporis, who received his PhD in East Asian studies at Princeton University, is Professor of History and director of the Asian studies program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His books include Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan (1994); Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo and the Culture of Early Modern Japan (2008); Nihonjin to sankin kôtai [The Japanese and Alternate Attendance] (2010); and (forthcoming) Voices of the Shogun’s Japan. Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life in Tokugawa Japan, 1600–1868.

Series Editor’s Preface

The Ancient World: Comparative Histories

The application of a comparative approach to the ancient world at large has been rare. This series, of which the current volume is the sixth, intends to fill this gap. It pursues important social, political, religious, economic, and intellectual issues through a wide range of ancient or early societies, occasionally covering an even broader diachronic scope. “Ancient” will here be understood broadly, encompassing not only societies that are “ancient” within the traditional chronological framework of ca. 3000 BCE to ca. 600 CE in east, south, and west Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe, but also later ones that are structurally “ancient” or “early,” such as those in pre-modern Japan or in Meso- and South America before the Spanish conquest. By engaging in comparative studies of the ancient world on a truly global scale, this series hopes to throw light not only on common patterns and marked differences, but also to illustrate the remarkable variety of responses humankind developed to meet common challenges. Focusing as it does on periods that are far removed from our own time, and in which modern identities are less immediately engaged, the series contributes to enhancing our understanding and appreciation of differences among cultures of various traditions and backgrounds. Not least, it thus illuminates the continuing relevance of the study of the ancient world in helping us to cope with problems of our own multicultural world.

Earlier volumes in the series are War and Peace in the Ancient World (ed. Kurt A. Raaflaub, 2007); Household and Family Religion in Antiquity (eds. John Bodel and Saul Olyan, 2008); Epic and History (eds. David Konstan and Kurt Raaflaub, 2010); Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Premodern Societies (eds. Kurt Raaflaub and Richard Talbert, 2010), and The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (eds. Johann Arnason and Kurt Raaflaub, 2011). Other volumes are in preparation, including Thinking, Recording, and Writing History in the Ancient World (ed. Kurt A. Raaflaub), and The Gift in Antiquity (ed. Michael Satlow).

The current volume has its origin in a workshop held in 2008 at Brown University under the auspices of the Program in Ancient Studies (now the Program in Early Cultures) and the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. The papers given and discussed there in a stimulating atmosphere and under ideal conditions were later profoundly revised or rewritten and complemented by others that seemed needed to realize the concept and framework of this volume as they emerged during those discussions. I thank the organizers of the workshop and editors of this volume, Susan Alcock, John Bodel, and Richard Talbert, and the contributors for producing another excellent volume in our series.

Kurt A. Raaflaub


The present volume originates in the first instance from a 2006 workshop at Brown University that resulted in the publication of Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies, co-edited by Kurt Raaflaub and Richard Talbert for the former’s series The Ancient World: Comparative Histories (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Raaflaub, having taken the lead initially in proposing the geography and ethnography project, then endorsed with alacrity Talbert’s subsequent proposal for a related study of highways. The trigger for this suggestion was in fact a passing reference by Catherine Julien (a participant, it would turn out, at both conferences) at breakfast during the 2006 workshop to comparisons that the sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors of Peru made between Roman and Inca roads. The remark sufficed for Talbert to envisage at once how fruitfully such comparisons might be extended to pre-modern societies worldwide which developed overland transport and communication networks.

Raaflaub generously offered to sponsor this second conference, though in the end he could not participate himself. Susan E. Alcock and John Bodel, his colleagues at Brown and his successors as directors of the Program in Early Cultures (formerly Program in Ancient Studies), were pleased to be asked then to become involved.

Alcock and Bodel, following a tradition established by Raaflaub for the Program in Ancient Studies, built this conference into the curriculum of an undergraduate seminar they taught in spring 2008 on “Highways and Byways in Antiquity.” The students in this class attended and participated in the conference, and maintained the practice of each student “shadowing” a chosen speaker. The conference was a great success, and we are delighted that all those who presented (or sent) papers are represented in this volume, with the welcome addition of two chapters, one by Jason Neelis exploring the transmission of Buddhism across pre-modern Asia, the other by Justine Shaw on the Mayan sacbeob system. The chapter by Pierre Briant was translated from the French by John Bodel.

Gratitude is owed to many people for the productive conversations and smooth running of the event and this subsequent publication. First and foremost, of course, we thank the conference participants for their intellectual investment and good humor. We would like to acknowledge also the members of Alcock and Bodel’s undergraduate seminar: Isa Abdur-Rahman, So Yeon Bae, Sarah J. Baker, Joseph Bobroskie, Evan Kalish, Chistopher Kendall, Kathleen Loyd-Lambert, Carissa Racca, Devin Wilmot, and Jose Yearwood. Their dedication to the project enriched the conference for all its participants. For administrative support, thanks are due to Sarah Sharpe of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, as well as to the event’s sponsors at Brown: the Program in Early Cultures, the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, the Department of Classics, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, the Department of Egyptology and Ancient West Asian Studies, the Department of History, and the Program in East Asian Studies. Finally, we are grateful beyond measure to Lisa M. Anderson for her careful copy-editing of the volume, and to Bryan Brinkman for compiling the index.

Susan E. Alcock
John Bodel
Richard J. A. Talbert


A distinctive and exciting feature of The Ancient World: Comparative Histories series in general, and of this volume and its predecessor Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) in particular, is its expansion of the spatial and cultural scope from the areas traditionally encompassed in studies of western civilization to the entire globe. Pre-modern societies, worldwide, developed systems of overland (and in some cases riverine and maritime) transport and communication: this observation might seem both basic and obvious. Yet we would argue that there has been not only a slowness to enumerate and describe the innumerable “highways” of these societies and their functioning, but even more a failure to evaluate them, and their social, cultural, and even religious importance, in any comparative fashion.

Such is the goal of the present volume. At the outset there appeared to be no comparable work available, although one admirable study has now appeared, Landscapes of Movement: Trails, Paths, and Roads in Anthropological Perspective, a 2009 set of twelve contributions co-edited by James Snead (a contributor to the present volume), Clark Erickson, and J. Andrew Darling. Pioneering and invaluable though this work is, it nevertheless focuses primarily on societies within the American continent.

Full, comprehensive global coverage is also, inevitably, beyond the capacity of the present volume in turn. Even so, the range of its fourteen contributions by an international team of scholars is extraordinary – India, China, Japan, the Americas, North Africa, Europe, and the Near East, spanning from the second millennium BCE to the nineteenth century. An early surprise, and challenge, was the repeated difficulty of identifying any scholar with the relevant interest in certain likely regions or cultures. In the case of West Africa, for example, all three co-editors’ combined efforts ended in failure. We faced the same prospect for Classical Era China. In this instance one possible expert of whom we had hopes, Michael Nylan, assured us that in any case there was next-to-nothing to be said about highways there. When we entreated her to attempt a contribution nonetheless, she kindly consented, and then reported three months later the discovery that there was in fact plenty to say, and of immense value and interest, as her chapter now richly demonstrates. Meantime, the established experts we found with greater ease (for Japan, for example, and the Roman empire) acknowledged that they had never envisaged, much less participated in, a comparative cross-cultural endeavor where the circumstances of the time and place familiar to them were set against those elsewhere. The volume’s vital comparative dimension enables it to cohere to a remarkable degree, and should encourage inter-disciplinary research aimed at developing the further potential of such approaches. Even more fundamentally, we hope that the volume will inspire inquiry into the highways of major pre-modern states where these have yet to be studied.

We set no single terminal date for the “pre-modern” period. Rather, the request made to contributors was merely that they should not extend their coverage into the stage at which mechanized forms of land transport, railroads in particular, were introduced. In much of China, for example, that development had still to occur as recently as the 1930s, according to a contemporary report quoted by Nanny Kim (p. 66): “Except where railroads or modern automobile service is available, travel is on foot, by sedan chair, on muleback, in two-wheeled carts, or by boat. Twenty miles a day is a good average.”

Even in parts of western Europe conditions might remain pre-modern far into the nineteenth century, as evoked by Giuseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa (1896–1957; see Gilmour 1988), of a summer journey made by his forbears from Palermo to Santa Margherita Belice in south-west Sicily during the revolution of 1860 (now possible by car in a couple of hours):

The journey had lasted more than three days and been quite appalling. The roads, the famous Sicilian roads which had cost the Prince of Satriano the Lieutenant-Generalcy, were no more than tracks, all ruts and dust. The first night at Marineo, at the home of a notary and friend, had been more or less bearable, but the second at a little inn at Prizzi had been torture, with three of them to a bed, besieged by repellent local fauna. The third was at Bisacquino; no bugs there but to make up for that the Prince had found thirteen flies in his glass of granita, while a strong smell of excrement drifted in from the street and the privy next door, and all this had caused him most unpleasant dreams; waking at very early dawn amid all that sweat and stink he had found himself comparing this ghastly journey with his own life, which had first moved over smiling level ground, then clambered up rocky mountains, slid over threatening passes, to emerge eventually into a landscape of interminable undulations, all the same color, all bare as despair. (Tomasi 1960, 50–1)

The dismissive reference to the nature and state of Sicily’s roads in 18601 can act as a caution against interpreting the “highways” of the present volume’s title at all strictly. “Highways” is intended here as nothing more than an elastic shorthand term. Naturally enough, those of a pre-modern culture may well not match what current western expectations take for granted, let alone even remotely resemble an interstate or transcontinental highway today. Indeed the sheer variety of highways across pre-modern cultures emerges as both remarkable and instructive. At one extreme they may even attain the width of a U.S. Interstate with a total of six lanes, as in the case of the seventy meter-wide grand imperial highways constructed in China’s capital regions – so wide, explains Nylan, that scholars disbelieved their recorded dimensions until recent archaeological discoveries confirmed them. Equally remarkable constructions for their deliberate design and obvious high cost are the Maya sacbeob causeway roads discussed by Justine Shaw, and the Inca highways discussed by Catherine Julien. Moreover, as both contributors show, in these two instances road construction was clearly only part of a more extensive remodeling of the landscape that served either to impress upon the population the proud grip imposed by a dominant power (Julien) or to unite kin groups and facilitate social integration (Shaw).

At the other extreme, despite the traffic passing between principal settlements, there might even be no road visible at all to the untrained eye – the most obvious cases, in this context, being the Egyptian deserts (the context of Jennifer Gates-Foster’s chapter) and the Sahara (discussed by Pekka Masonen), a desert conceived of by Arabic geographers and others as an ocean, with its oases as islands, and camels (only used widely after the Arab conquest) as ships for the perilous two-month crossing. Elsewhere, as the inclusion of “byways” in the volume’s title recognizes, a landscape was often more suitably penetrated and traversed by multiple paths rather than by highways. In discussing the diffusion of Buddhism from India to China through the region of the so-called Silk Road, Jason Neelis underlines the need for travelers to vary their routes in the face of “constant shifts in the high mountain terrain caused by the movements of glaciers, avalanches caused by earthquakes, rivers, and streams made difficult to cross by swollen snowmelt in the late summer, and extremely vertical topography” (p. 21). Equally extraordinary for its use of whatever available route might best fit its purpose is the private communication-network maintained for several centuries during the Geonic and Abbasid periods between the principal Jewish centers of learning in Iraq – at Babylon especially – and Jewish communities as distant as Spain and Central Asia. This network is discussed by Adam Silverstein, together with one developed later and operated from Egypt – so efficiently in fact that Egypt’s Fatimid rulers, who had no postal system of their own, even employed the Jewish service.

The modern western assumption that a road of any importance would be a state-sponsored, rather than a private, initiative is undercut by the insights into China offered by Nylan and Kim, and into Tokugawa Japan by Constantine Vaporis. In China during both the Classical Era and the Late Imperial period, local communities and prominent individuals can be seen to have played a major role in building roads and maintaining vital infrastructure (bridges especially), while in Japan a network of unofficial byways grew up to allow movement by the many travelers who were liable to face restrictions and delays on the state highways. Undercut, too, by this volume is the further modern assumption that a road will necessarily be constructed to accommodate wheeled traffic. On the contrary, even cultures aware of the wheel might use it little or not at all on their roads. The point applies most strikingly to the Incas (the word “wheel” does not appear in Julien’s contribution), and also to Japan. As a result, the gradients on Inca highways could be far steeper than any to be found on a Roman road, and the Japanese Gokaidô did not suffer the damage done to contemporary European roads by carts. Maya sacbeob were even spared pack animals, because the Maya had no beasts of burden.

Surprising today – as they would also have been to ancient Romans – are the limitations placed upon the use of highways in several societies. North American drivers are familiar with toll roads and parkways restricted to certain types of vehicles, but in China, the grand imperial highways already noted were reserved for the sole use of the emperor (and were often hidden from view by walls or palisades erected on either side). On other highways in China during the Classical Era, official checkpoints regulated travelers so as (in Nylan’s words) “to control the flow of people, things, and ideas as much as possible, lest too much commerce and too much movement disrupt subject populations engaged in sedentary agriculture, the basis of stable rule within civil society” (p. 42). Japan’s Tokugawa government established a comparable scheme of regulation on its highways for similar reasons, moreover with a gendered bias that reflected a special concern to keep movement by women to a minimum. The lack of written testimony from the non-literate cultures of the Maya and the Inca makes it impossible to establish just what restrictions, if any, were placed upon use of their sacbeob and highways respectively. However, Julien is surely right to see some restrictions as likely in the case of the imperial Inca, and the forms and destinations of the Maya sacbeob suggest to Shaw that they were not designed for common uses or users. More broadly, Julien leaves no doubt that residence in the Chinchaysuyu district, through which a highway approached Cuzco, was itself a prestigious reward for loyal service to the Inca.

Regulation of highway users is a matter that leads into the larger issue of what “road systems” in the volume’s title may imply. There looms the danger that the modern mind may be unduly quick to perceive a system or network when perhaps none existed. Thus, in Snead’s view, improved documentation by archaeologists has now invalidated the notion that the roads of the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico formed a centralized system. There were, rather, many short, separate roads here, whose function often seems by no means, practical or otherwise, obvious; conversely, the roads that must have connected to many areas of critical resources used by the inhabitants of Chaco have yet to be identified.

Where the presence of a system is not in doubt, the modern mind still may too readily take for granted a degree of conscious planning and control. To be sure, several contributions do confirm such an assumption. In Classical Era China, as Nylan stresses, persistent concern with buttressing strong centralized authority made the construction, maintenance, and smooth operation of the road system a priority for the emperor’s ministers; standard axle-lengths were even prescribed by Qin’s First Emperor “so that the empire’s carts and carriages could race along the ruts” (p. 37). The close insight offered by Pierre Briant into the network of Persian “Royal Roads” – with relay stations and royal warehouses sited along them at regular intervals for the benefit of authorized travelers – lends full conviction to his claim that “the road system itself formed an essential feature for military strategy and for the organization of territories” (p. 196). The same can be said of the Gokaidô system built and maintained by the Tokugawa shogunate with the primary aim of keeping Japan’s 260 or so local rulers (daimyo) in subjection. Elaborate regulation of route and timing governed the movements of each daimyo – accompanied by an entourage that could number up to several thousand – as he traveled to fulfill his legal obligation to wait upon the shogun at Edo every other year.

The Inca road system in turn bears all the marks of imperial authority and so too, it is commonly thought, does the Roman. In this latter instance, however, Richard Talbert queries whether Roman emperors exploited, or even envisaged, “their” system as an integrated whole. As rulers they exercised authority in a far less proactive manner than, say, their counterparts in Persia or China. If Roman officials were ever instructed to gather comprehensive data for the management and control of the empire’s road system, it is hard to detect any such records or maps being put to use.

Even so, whatever the level of the emperor’s understanding or of the authority he chose to exercise, there can be no doubt that the far-flung Roman road system did serve as an active force for social, economic and cultural change. Bruce Hitchner’s chapter is devoted to this impact, with special reference to urbanization and economic growth in south-east Gaul, as well as in areas of the province of Africa Proconsularis which today lie within Tunisia. The chapter by Michael Maas and Derek Ruths further develops the same theme by underlining the later importance of the road system for the spread of Christianity and pilgrimage, and – even with its upkeep neglected – for holding the empire together in the fourth and fifth centuries. Maas and Ruths propose lines for fresh research dedicated to clarifying the role of the connectivity furnished by Roman roads in fostering cultural, political, and linguistic change during Late Antiquity and beyond. The chapters by Neelis and Masonen offer important reminders that routes linking distinctly different cultures have the potential to influence the spheres at both ends, not merely at one. For example, while Arabic sources tend to present the role of black Africans in the trans-Saharan trade as unduly passive, in fact – as Masonen demonstrates – this trade raised the interest taken by the peoples of Sudanic Africa in the wider world, and their knowledge of it, to an impressive level.

A matter of indifference it may have been to Roman emperors that the roads within their empire functioned as a powerful force for change and development. Elsewhere, ironically, it emerges that even repressive efforts to control roads and their use might not succeed in preventing travel or arresting the social consequences of such movement. Tokugawa Japan, again, provides a most striking example. For many common people there, peace and improved economic conditions made travel feasible and attractive, and they typically declared pilgrimage to be their purpose, because the regulations for pilgrims were the least restrictive. If there was strong likelihood of obstruction on the official highways, as women in particular had reason to fear, they could, and did, still resort to the private (and illegal) “side roads” or byways. By the late seventeenth century, commoners’ determination on the one hand, and less harsh supervision by the authorities on the other, formed the basis for a “culture of movement” manifested in an extensive and very varied travel literature, as well as woodblock prints and maps. Consequently (in Vaporis’ words), “by the end of the eighteenth century travel had developed into what seems like a national obsession” (p. 104). Regarded by the Japanese as a leisure pastime, a liberation from day-to-day restrictions and troubles, travel also unwittingly became as an influential element in the formation of a national identity.

In crossing landscapes, the experience of traversing an age-old route could clearly inspire travelers to articulate their sense of relationship both with the predecessors in whose footsteps they were following, and with the gods. Gates-Foster develops this theme in her treatment of the various types of inscriptions discovered at sites of ritual or topographic importance in Egypt’s Eastern desert; the theme recurs in Neelis’ chapter with reference to comparable inscriptions and petroglyphs found in the Silk Road region. Classical Era China, however, is the culture where the idea of the highway finds its fullest and most passionate expression. To quote Nylan, “The ‘path’ or ‘way’ or ‘road’ is unquestionably the most important metaphor in the early received writings composed in classical Chinese” (p. 45). Notably, the Chinese perceived roads as a force for evil as well as for good. Road construction (not to mention subsequent maintenance) could only add to the oppression suffered by the countless common people whose labor was required; at the same time it could even ruin the reputation of otherwise distinguished officials whose ambition to build a Straight Road eventually offended the gods of regions disturbed by such large-scale engineering. Roads in China (as everywhere) could bring banditry and disease, as well as extend invaders’ reach. For travelers to placate Road Deities was always essential, above all because to die on the road was most inauspicious.

Antonine Itinerary

Connectivity unites many of the chapters, but four in particular test its theoretical and practical limits. Snead’s sharp review of scholarly misreading of poorly archaeologically documented Pueblo trails and Chaco roads in the American Southwest advocates an approach to connectivity that turns the focus away from points and lines toward archaeologies of movement and emplacement. Where the evidence is better and the scale larger, as Maas and Ruths demonstrate in their test-case analysis of the road system of the later Roman empire, the possibility exists of detecting through patterns of connectivity “clusters” of economic, social, or political significance that broadly correspond to the regional divisions (dioceses) of provincial organization at the dawn of late antiquity. No roads connected the North African littoral to Sudanic Africa, but the caravans that traversed the Sahara Desert from the eighth through the nineteenth century conveyed knowledge and goods in both directions. That the reciprocal nature of the exchange has not been better recognized is, as Masonen argues, largely because vectors of connectivity are seen largely from the perspective of the beholder. According to Talbert, Roman emperors and their upper-class subjects showed little awareness of or interest in the much vaunted road network on which their mastery of the world supposedly depended – until it was first conceptualized and graphically represented at precisely the time (ca. 300 CE) when the imperial itinerary on which the analysis of Maas and Ruths is based laid out the patterns of a coherent network largely corresponding to the then existing administrative divisions of empire.




The passage from Lampedusa quoted above reflects the ancient Chinese perception of the road as metaphor for life and its mixed fortunes. In the vivid evocation of the slow, arduous journey from Palermo to Santa Margherita Belice in 1860 is also to be found a brief but valuable counterweight to the focus of the present volume, a reminder of the deprivation and isolation associated with lack of roads. Collectively, the volume’s fourteen contributors convey how widely pre-modern road systems vary in character, and in the degree of organization and investment they represent. Also exposed are the multiple ways in which built systems may reflect the ideology of their makers and users. Still more striking perhaps is the contradiction embedded in them all, regardless of their different character: namely that, while agents of conscious change in the first instance, sooner or later these systems are likely to serve in turn as agents of unanticipated and sometimes less welcome change – be it social, economic, linguistic, religious, or other. If this volume can inspire further comparative investigation into the linkage between highways and change, then all those who have contributed to it will be well satisfied.

1 For conditions in the decades immediately prior to 1860 (when it was still the norm to travel between the island’s two principal cities, Palermo and Messina, by ship) and after, see Mack Smith 1968, 428–30, 474–5. No railroad was built in Sicily until the early 1860s. Compare the memorable collection of reports of road and traveling conditions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, Asia, and the New World in Braudel 1981, 415–19.

Arnaud, P. 2005. Les routes de la navigation antique: itinéraires en Méditerranée, Paris: Errance.

World Strategic Highways

Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century. Vol. I. The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible

Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome

The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Riparia dans l’empire Romain: pour la définition du conceptProceedings of the Quebec Seminar/Actes des journées d’étude de Québec, 29–31 Octobre 2009

Janus and the Bridge

The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History


A History of Sicily: Modern Sicily after 1713

Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean

Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300–900

Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt

Landscapes of Movement: Trails, Paths, and Roads in Anthropological Perspective

The Leopard


Seas and Waterways of the World: An Encyclopedia of History, Uses, and Issues