Why didn't the Romans conquer China?

Free University of Berlin

Today, almost hidden between grass and rubble, was the center of the world: because next to the triumphal arch of the Septimius Severus in Rome, in the Roman Forum, where the Via Sacra ends, the Holy Road, where the Romans kept the state treasure and the tablets of the law in the Temple of Saturn in republican times - this is where the generals of Rome went when they celebrated their triumphs. Exactly here, in the center of the Roman world power, a column made of gilded bronze marked the Miliarium Aureum, the center of the world.

Little more than an overgrown wall and three pieces of marble remain, one of which is decorated with palmettes. This pillar was both an expression of power and a claim to power: Rome, that was the message, rules the world. The Reich sent its troops to war against those who dared to doubt it. But without roads and paths into the world there is no war - and without war there is no rule.

Rome as the center of the world at that time

“For the Romans, the roads were an important instrument of their power. And they put this power on display, ”says Michael Rathmann, associate professor for ancient history at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute of the Free University of Berlin. Emperor Augustus had the golden milestone set up in 20 BC: the distances to the provincial capitals were recorded on it and thus praised Rome as the center of the world. “The emperor wanted to say: 'Look here: we have not only conquered the world, we have also measured, developed and civilized it.” “Space had become controllable.

Rathmann researches the infrastructure of the Romans; In October he organized the conference “Measuring the Oikumene” together with Klaus Geus, Professor of Historical Geography of the Mediterranean Area at the Free University. Researchers from Canada, Italy, Switzerland and the United States gathered their knowledge there to answer the question of what concept the ancients had of the extent of the world - they called this known world Oikumene.

Rathmann's work is part of the “Topoi” cluster of excellence, in which around 200 researchers, professors and employees from Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität and other research institutions such as the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences or the German Archaeological Institute research how ancient people felt adapted to their environment, how they shaped it, and what impact these changes had in turn on the development of mankind.

Roman engineering is impressive

The routes that the Romans built through Europe, Asia and Africa were something unprecedented: They cut the country like lines. The Romans cut aisles through the woods; Valleys and rivers were bridged and rocky outcrops were removed or tunneled under - settlements cut through if necessary. The subjugated peoples must have been impressed by the engineering skills of the men from Italy - in many places they conquered natural barriers that they themselves considered insurmountable. It was a new experience for mankind - perhaps comparable to the laying of the tracks for the railroad in the 19th century. The idea of ​​opening up a large empire was not new: “The Assyrians, later the Persians and Alexander the Great also used a road system that was deliberately created on behalf of the state,” says Rathmann: “So the Romans had this idea - like many others Achievements of their civilization - taken over from foreign cultures, adapted to their needs and further developed by the Romans. ”But never before did this succeed so perfectly as in Rome.

Already in the times of the Roman Republic, centuries before our time, the roads of the empire ran towards the center of Rome like a spider's web: Via Appia, Via Salaria, Aurelia, Flaminia and Via Cassia were the veins that supplied the vibrant city with salt and grain, slaves and cattle for slaughter. First they led to the outskirts of the up-and-coming city, then to the borders of Italy, and finally to the conquered provinces: to Spain, the Balkans and northern Europe.

Then as now: Road construction overwhelms public finances

On the Roman roads, Hannibal marched through Italy with his war elephants, Spartacus and 6,000 of his followers were along the Via Appia crucified, and Caesar broke over the with his legions in 58 BC Via Aemilia to conquer Gaul. But whether on the Atlantic, or on Attica, in the Meseta or on the Cap Blanc: The Romans were initially not interested in a new transport infrastructure in the conquered provinces, because then as now, road construction cost a lot of money - even the costs of the roads in Italy had overwhelmed the state finances, and one was dependent on donors. That is why the Romans took over the road networks of the conquered tribes and empires - regardless of whether they were mule tracks as in Gaul or well-developed roads with pavement as in parts of Greece.

This changed when Augustus (between 44 and 27 BC) had consolidated his power and Rome passed into the phase of its imperial era. As a general - still under the name of Octavian - he had previously learned that the huge Roman Empire could not be ruled without a network of traffic routes: there was a lack of supplies for the troops, there was a lack of security for the traders and, above all, there was no network to Deliver messages. As long as there were no well-developed long-distance travel routes, civil wars would continue to threaten the fringes of the empire.

The Roman Empire was spatially networked under Augustine

“Under Augustus, the infrastructure in the Roman Empire was therefore massively expanded,” says Rathmann. "And in the following 150 years a road network was built, the total length and quality of which was only achieved again in Europe at the end of the 18th century."

The many milestones that were found in the provinces and that always indicated the distance to Rome were also an expression of the ruler's new self-confidence. “Under Augustus, the empire in people's minds was, so to speak, spatially networked,” says Rathmann. The emperor found a simple solution to finance the expansion: the costs were passed on to the neighboring communities. Via property taxes, they in turn passed their expenses on to the residents, who in some cases also had to lend a hand in so-called tension services. As long as this system worked, the governor and Rome did not interfere. A network of public roads was created Viae Publicae, on which the empire could not only send its troops into the battles: thanks to a sophisticated infrastructure, the network also became a transport route for official messages.

For this purpose, horse changing stations were set up every 15 to 20 kilometers, and rest houses with overnight accommodations every 40 to 50 kilometers: “This created a system that enabled imperial messengers to send messages from Rome to the provinces and from there as quickly as possible to transport them back to the emperor's court ", says Michael Rathmann:" You called this messenger service Cursus Publicus, so public transport. "

Up to 300 kilometers in one day

At each exchange station, the neighboring communities had to provide mules, horses and wagons, which were reserved solely for the imperial messengers. "Thanks to this infrastructure, important messages could be transmitted at a transport speed of up to 300 kilometers a day," says Rathmann. For comparison: the Pope's express couriers in the Middle Ages covered a maximum of 100 kilometers per day. Messenger brought the news of the murder of Emperor Maximinus in 238 in just four days from Aquileia in northern Italy to Rome, more than 600 kilometers away.

However, Emperor Hadrian (76 to 138 AD) did not trust this messenger system. Between 117 and 138 of our time he marched through the empire personally with his troops to show himself to the peoples: first he put down revolts in Mesopotamia and Judea, then he rode from Rome via Gaul, Germania and the Danube region to Britain to inspect the construction work on the wall that was later named after him. After visiting what is now Catalonia on the way back, he later fought the Parthians in Syria and finally moved into the capital as a great triumphant via the Black Sea, Asia Minor, Greece and Sicily - a true travel emperor.

Messages as if carried by wings

His successor Antoninus Pius (86 to 161 AD) was completely different: he relied entirely on the system of messengers on horseback and ruled his empire from the Roman Palatine: The Greek writer and rhetor Aelius Aristides therefore praised the advantages of the huge road network in a famous speech in Rome : “The emperor does not need to undertake arduous journeys through the whole empire. He can afford to stay where he is and rule the world with written orders. They are hardly written when they arrive as if they were carried by wings. "

In order for the messages to really reach their recipients as if carried by wings, the streets had to be protected against erosion and were not allowed to turn into huge bodies of water after rain. The structure of the road was therefore very well thought out: gravel, small stone slabs, earth and mortar were placed on a bed of sand, then it was covered with fine gravel - and usually paved near the city. The profile of the street was arched so that the rainwater could flow into the channels on both sides.

In swampy terrain, pegs were also driven into the ground and tree trunks laid as the basis for the road bed - floating roads were created, as they were also used on the route of the first railway in England almost 2,000 years later. Real channels were driven into the rocky subsoil to accommodate the bed of the road - stone walls supported the construction on slopes.

Sensational find on the Harzhorn

Today excavations on the Harzhorn in Lower Saxony show how important broad and paved roads were for the security of the Roman troops. Here, in the "Free Germania", far away from the Roman road network, amateur archaeologists found a Roman battlefield in the summer of 2008. The responsible authorities in the district and state commissioned a team of experts to research the sensational find in more detail: Professor Michael Meyer from the Institute for Prehistoric Archeology at Freie Universität is one of them. "The battlefield can clearly be dated to the 3rd century AD", says the Germanen researcher, who works on site with colleagues from classical archeology, geologists and restorers. Historians have always doubted that a “battle in the swamp” reported by the historian Herodian in the 3rd century was based on historical facts. It seemed too improbable to them that the Romans could have penetrated so far into undeveloped Germania: The Roman bases on the Main were more than 350 kilometers away. "It is quite possible that the find on the Harzhorn is the remains of the battle in which the legions were involved when they were retreating from that punitive expedition against the Germanic peoples, which, according to Emperor Maximus Thrax Herodian, had ordered" says Meyer.

The Germanic peoples strike at a bottleneck

His excavations also show that the Teutons knew that the equipment of the Roman legions during their marches with horsemen, archers and catapults was geared towards well-developed roads that they could not find here. And the Teutons used the advantages that the site offered them at this point. The Romans followed an old mule track through the Leinetal. The Teutons struck at a bottleneck between the swamps and the Harzhorn, which narrowed the path at this point to the eye of a needle. "The traces indicate that the Romans were able to repel the attack," says Michael Meyer: "They used their catapults, and the Roman troops probably succeeded in pinching the Teutons." Nonetheless, the finds on the show Battlefield: The equipment and strategy of the Roman army were laid out over a wide area, and where there were no roads and the usual marching order was broken, the armies of Rome were vulnerable.

A few decades after the Battle of the Harzhorn, Germanic peoples finally invaded Rome's sphere of influence, conquered Gaul, sacked Rome and advanced to the Balkans and North Africa. New empires emerged that took over the Roman routes and tended the roads as best they could. But the structures of the empire were lacking and the quality of the roads deteriorated. Ferns, bushes and trees overgrown the drainage ditches, and grass grew between the gravel. Although the ruler of the Rhine and Elbe, Danube and Po continued to call himself the “Roman Emperor”, he could hardly use the network of paths in the ancient world: in many places, travelers had to ride through river fords again.

This was fatal for one of the Roman-German emperors in 1190: When Friedrich Barbarossa wanted to cross the Saleph River on his crusade in Asia Minor, according to a source, he gave his horse the spurs. This shuddered, and the emperor in his heavy armor drowned in the cold water of the river.