Being a native son of the car crazed United States, I always find the subject of transport, whether in ancient, medieval or modern Europe, utterly fascinating. My fascination extends to such everyday objects as road signs and motorways. For instance, on the bus ride into Thessaloniki from the airport, I studied the road signs and found comfort in the fact that they did not look much different from the ones back home. The highway was just like those to be found in any developed country. In a land where the language, customs and culture can seem so foreign, driving down the highway is much the same as anywhere else. One thing I failed to realize until my arrival in Thessaloniki was that the bus travelling between the airport and city center plied one of the most famous ancient Roman thoroughfares, the Via Egnatia.
After realizing this, I looked up expecting to see something that would remind me of Roman times. Perhaps there would be an ancient cobbled roadway, some historical markers explaining the route or at least a few signs written in Latin script. There was nothing of the sort. Instead, I saw modern concrete block buildings on either side of a road jam packed with vehicles. I was the unlucky recipient of a heavy dose of urban congestion as the bus crawled through the city center. I was relieved when me and my wife were able to alight at the bus stop nearest our accommodation, but the Via Egnatia had made an impression upon me. It would not be the last time.
An Eastern Movement – Borderless Travel
The Via Egnatia as it exists today in both neglected and entirely modernized form offers a tangible link with ancient Rome. That might be expected in Greece, but the Via Egnatia also crosses countries such as Albania that one usually does not associate with the Roman Empire. Constructed 2,200 years ago to link a chain of Roman Provinces from the Adriatic Sea to the Bosphorus Strait, the 1,120 kilometer long Via Egnatia was among the most important roads in the empire. It was the first road to connect Rome with the further reaches of the empire in the eastern Mediterranean. The Via Egnatia’s construction represented an incredible engineering feat. In what was then the Roman provinces of Illyricum and Macedonia, the road traversed extremely mountainous terrain, threading its way through mountain passes and running across ridgelines.
The Via Egnatia was a symbol of progress that helped facilitate trade and commerce between the western and eastern areas of the empire. The case could be made that in some ways the road was the pinnacle of progress for commercial trade in the region. Consider that in Roman times, a traveler along the Via Egnatia would have been able to make their way from what is Dyrrachium (Durres, Albania) all the way to Adrianople (Edirne, Turkey) without crossing a single border. Driving the same route today, a traveler will be stopping at border controls for Albania-Macedonia, Macedonia-Greece and Greece-Turkey. Travel along the Via Egnatia has gotten more, rather than less, complicated over the past two millennia. Of course, due to modern technology travel is also faster, at least once past border crossings.
Marking Roman Miles – Written In Stone
I did not think too much about the Via Egnatia after that initial shock when I found myself riding into Thessaloniki along the ancient road. Then on my third day in the city, when my wife and I visited the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, an artifact suddenly brought it back to mind. Among the many exquisite works of ancient craftsmanship on display in the museum, I found the single most intriguing to be a milestone that had been dug out of seven meters of sand. It was discovered during excavation on the construction of an industrial plant west of Thessaloniki. The 1.31 meter marble stone was illuminated in such a manner that the carving on it was highly visible and could easily be read. Three lines of rather large Latin text (it was also inscribed in Greek) were arranged in the following order:
The three lines offered clues to the milestone’s origins. The Roman numerals stood for the number 260. The second line spelled out the name of Egnatius, the man who ordered the road constructed and for which it is named. This has been confirmed by mention of Egnatius in the work of Polybius, an ancient historian. The final line was Engnatius’ title of Proconsul, governor of the province. The milestone had once stood along the Via Egnatia, seven miles west of Thessaloniki, marking Roman Mile 260. The mileage was calculated from where the road began at Dyrrachium along the Adriatic coast. Every mile along the Via Egnatia had one of these marble milestones marking distance.
The milestone looked to be in as pristine condition as could be expected for something that had survived over two thousand years of history. I found it fascinating from a modern perspective because mile markers are now built of metal rather than marble. No one expects the modern markers to last more than a couple of decades. Whether the Romans were building these milestones to last is anyone’s guess, but the fact is that a few did. It is too bad that replicas cannot be erected to replace the ancient ones. Of course, the cost to manufacture them would be prohibitive. This is ironic since today’s societies are much wealthier and technologically savvier than the ancient Romans. I shudder to think what our own civilization will leave behind. I am quite certain it will not be modern highway markers. The Roman use of marble for the milestones enshrined a bit of their legacy in stone.
The Road To Glory – A Great Historical Drama
On the rest of this trip, anytime I walked along or across the Via Egnatia I felt like I was following in the footsteps of history. My assumption was correct. For the Via Egnatia was where a rich cast of historical characters traveled on their way to or from making history. The ancient celebrities who used the road were a powerfully eclectic group. These included such luminaries as Julius Caesar and the Apostle Paul. They did not realize at the time that each one of them was caught up in a great historical drama that would not become clear until after they vanished from the earth. The Via Egnatia was the pathway that led to great triumphs and tragedies. It still does today.