The Disappearing Roads of Provence

According to a recent article in the Smithsonian magazine, parts of southern France’s Roman heritage are disappearing fast. Worse still, they are being lost to new building sites, motorways and developments west of the busy tourist area of the Cte d’Azur. Of particular concern is the gradual disappearance of one of the Roman empire’s artery roads the via Aurelia, which once stretched all the way from Rome to France. The section of it in question lies in Provence between Nice and Arles and was originally built by Augustus as a means of dominating the province of Gallia Narbonensis in the first two decades of the empire. This section of the via Aurelia wasn’t connected to Italy until an Alpine pass was hewn from the rock much later during the empire and eventually it joined up with the more famous Rome to Pisa section (today’s strada statale no.1 in Italy), which was constructed under the censor Caius Aurelius Cotta in 241 BC.

But according to the article’s author, Joshua Hammer, many tracts of the ancient road in Provence are now untraceable. His exploration of the region, in the company of local amateur archaeologist and film-maker Bruno Tasson, found that, while some parts of the road have been completely destroyed by developers and companies laying gas pipes, other stretches of the road in rural areas are simply disappearing due to lack of preservation and local awareness. While the Roman monuments of Nmes, Pont du Gard and Arles are well preserved some of which are on the Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites the via Aurelia has been sorely neglected. Tasson’s passion for saving the ancient Roman highway has even led to him to set up his own website about it, (French only). He acknowledges that the issue of preserving heritage from the past often comes into conflict with the relentless pace of modern urban development, saying: “Of course, modernization is obligatory, but there should be some effort made to preserve what’s left.” Hammer relates in his article that Tasson has made a valuable contribution to the local history of Provence by documenting and raising awareness of its disintegrating Roman roads.

The empire’s road network comprised 250,000 miles of tracks, up to a fifth of them paved with large stones similar to the photo above of the via Appia, which runs from Rome to Brindisi in the heel of southern Italy. Construction and dimensions of the empire’s roads were written into Rome’s legislative codes, for example, the standard width of a road was 2.4 metres supposedly wide enough to let two chariots pass each other. Usage of the roads was also legislated for by the Lex Iulia Municipalis in 45 BC, which said that vehicles should not enter urban areas, and that commercial vehicles could only enter or come within a mile of city walls at night time. This seems like a stroke of genius on the part of Rome’s municipal authorities. While keeping town centres free of those noisy and polluting chariots and horse carts, it also established an excellent precedent for today’s Congestion Charge.