From Roman roads to Autobahnen

Finally there is that historical phenomenon, the Roman genius for road-building. As detailed maps will testify, the course of many roads of today was set by a Roman model. The spider’s web of paved roads that once underpinned the Roman Empire reached an astonishing total of 53,000 miles.32 The existence of these durable roads made it possible for legions, the arbiters of power, to move relatively quickly, say up to twenty miles a day, to wherever needed. Chains of post-houses with stables made it possible for a hurrying traveller or messenger to cover more than ninety miles in a day. I suspect that, to some degree, it was a race memory of the Roman period that led Nazi Germany to embark upon the building of Europe’s first motorways, the Autobahnen, in the 1930s. Ostensibly providing work for the unemployed and facilitating rapid commercial transport, they also provided the military with internal lines of communication. After all, there was an encouraging precedent. Their nineteenth century equivalent, an efficient steam railway network, had enabled Prussian and Bavarian army corps to invade France swiftly in 1870, completely forestalling French intentions and counter-plans to invade Germany. In turn, the nature of Autobahnen emphasized the need for fast and, above all, reliable vehicles and thus stimulated German automobile engineering as a whole. Interestingly, there was a tendency for early Autobahnen to be perfectly straight over large distances in the Roman manner. Experience showed that they had a mesmerizing effect upon drivers, causing accidents. Autobahnen built more recently in Germany tend to be less direct and incorporate sweeping curves.

  1. Victor W. von Hagen, ibid, 8. []