Communications and connectivity were everything in the Roman world. Much of Rome’s enduring success as world leader can be attributed to the Roman obsession with, and expertise in, road building, bridge building and its postal service. The fact that the site of Eboracum was at the confluence of two navigable rivers (leading eventually to the Humber and to the North Sea only some fifty miles to the east) would have been influential factors in the decision the Romans made to site their northern stronghold where they did. As with any occupying army, the Romans had to move men and supplies and they had to trade. The rivers Foss and Ouse were connected to the Humber, Trent and Fosse Dyke, which gave access to the Witham at Lincoln and the Nene at Peterborough and so to the fertile farmlands of East Anglia; they also brought materiel, supplies, food, weapons, soldiers and horses to the fortress quickly and efficiently. They fostered trade and provided a launching place for the deployment of soldiers in times of crisis or of routine defence or to go north to build roads, forts or defensive walls. The Romans, then, put their rivers to good use: shiploads of goods would have come in on the Ouse via the Humber from the North Sea, and on the Foss; two possible wharves on the east bank of the River Foss support this idea. We have already noted the large deposit of incinerated grain, found in a timber structure beneath modern-day Coney Street, on the north bank of the Ouse; it points to storehouses for the movement and storage of goods via the river.
One man who would have been familiar with this mercantile activity was Marcus Minucius Mudinus, gubernator (helmsman) of the VIth legion who worked on the cargo boats plying up and down the Ouse. His altar (RIB 613) found in Micklegate is dedicated to the ‘Mother Goddess of Africa, Italy and Gaul’ – adding a nice international flavour to the trade in and through York.
The Romans maintained four legions in Britain, in total about 20,000 soldiers supported by a further 20,000 auxiliaries, so deploying a full legion would on average entail moving around 5,000 men, their carts, mules and horses, equipment and supplies, and the extensive baggage train.
As well as the rivers, an efficient road system and supply chain was therefore required to support all of these needs. No doubt this volume of people and their encumbrances in some areas would clog up and damage trackways, bridges and fords making them difficult to use, often causing the column to be strung out and therefore vulnerable to attack. The ordinary Roman soldier carried all of his kit and weapons with him. This is where the Roman road comes in and, while not all road building was driven by military considerations and stretches of road were built to service farms, villas and other places with no military significance, the Roman army had to be able to move from A to B in the most expeditious way possible. It was not until the German Bundesautobahn network was initiated in the 1930s that anything like a comparable road scheme was completed; however, unlike in the Roman Empire, the military value to the Germans was limited as most major military transports in Nazi Germany were made by train to save fuel.
In almost four centuries of occupation the Romans built about 2,000 miles of roads in Britain with the aim of connecting key locations by the most direct possible route. The roads were all paved and all-season and all-weather, to permit heavy freight wagons to be used the year round.
Before the Romans came, Britain had few, if any, substantial bridges, so all rivers and streams would have been crossed by fords. Even well after the Romans had come and gone, many towns were at fording points, and the point nearest to the sea that a river could be forded was a major consideration in most journeys and military manoeuvres. In York the Ouse was bridged.
The Roman army was multi-skilled, with skilled soldiers who could quickly and efficiently construct bridges, plan and organise the building of defensive forts, signal stations and other structures in wood and stone; they could also build boats. Indeed, their skill sets were not so dissimilar to the mechanical engineering function of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in the modern British Army. Ordinary soldiers were expected to build walls, camps and fortresses as required, competent as they were at digging, quarrying, cutting and shifting stone. Apart from military facilities, many villas and towns were built by the soldiery.
The roads we know involving York include:
Dere Street leading north west from the city north through Clifton towards the site of Cataractonium (modern Catterick).
Cade’s Road west towards Petuaria (modern Brough).
Ermine Street south towards Lindum (modern Lincoln).
A road bypassing the south wall of the fortress, between the fortress and the Ouse has not been formally tracked, although its path is thought to run beneath Museum Gardens. Other roads came in to York from Malton and Stamford Bridge; in all eleven roads are known to converge on the city, full details of which can be found at www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol1/
The initial road network was, of course, built by the army to facilitate military communications. The emphasis was on linking up army bases, rather than anything else. To that end, three important cross-routes were established connecting the major legionary bases by AD 80 as the frontier of the Roman-occupied zone advanced:
Exeter (Isca) – Lincoln (Lindum)
Gloucester (Glevum) – York (Eboracum)
Caerleon (Isca) – York via Wroxeter (Viroconium) and Chester (Deva)
The roads leading into and out of Eboracum would have formed an integral part not just of the road network in Britannia but also of the empire-wide cursus publicus. Augustus formalised all routes of official communication when he established the cursus publicus (literally, the public way), a state-run courier and logistics service. Apart from acting as a means for distributing the general post, the cursus gave the legions the tactical opportunity to summon reinforcements and issue status reports before any situation got out of hand; slaves were also sent through the system.
Essentially, it was made up of thousands of posting stations (mutationes or mansiones) along the major road systems of the empire where horses were watered, shoed, cared for by vets, stabled, and passed over to dispatch riders (initially imperial tabellarii but later soldiers as the system became militarised). In 1969, the carved base of what was probably a milestone was found in the forecourt of the Eboracum principia.
Roman Streets In and Out of York
Today, three of York’s main streets, Chapter House Street, Stonegate and Petergate, more or less trace the line of the two principal streets in the fortress, the via praetoria and the via principalis so we can see how the layout of the fortress has determined the layout of the modern city. The via praetoria led to the south-west gate (porta praetoria) where St Helen’s Square now is, revealing that the fortress faced south west towards the River Ouse. The via principalis linked the gates on the north west and south-east sides – the portae principales – on the sites of Bootham Bar and King’s Square. The porta decumana – a rear gate central on the north-east sides remains hidden under the medieval rampart. Bootham and Clifton follow the track of a road which issued from the north-west gate (porta principalis dextra) all the way to Cataractonium (Catterick). From the north-east gate (porta decumana), the road to Malton came via the Groves and Heworth golf course along the Malton Road to Malton (Derventio).
In March 2020, it was reported that archaeologists had discovered a previously unknown ‘road’ under the Guildhall which was being restored and redeveloped at the time. ‘A silver coin and an abundance of Roman pottery’ have been unearthed by YAT who tell us that: ‘the excavation of new foundation trenches recently revealed an area of cobbled surface . . . buried over 1.5 m below modern street level.’ The archaeologists conclude that the area may have been a yard or lane rather than a main road ‘but its location was significant, as it was close to the projected location of the Roman crossing over the river’ – in other words ‘part of an important crossroad that once connected the fortress to the main approach from the south’.