By: Marlena Whiting
Travellers have always needed to know where they are in order to get where they wanted to go. Milestones are a universal feature of the road system of the Roman Empire. They occur from Britain to Arabia, and are especially plentiful in the eastern provinces, including Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. Often inscribed with the emperor’s name as well as useful information like distances, milestones constitute highly visible roadside monuments. Milestones served a number of functions: as utilitarian road markers, as devices for measuring distance, and as canvasses for imperial propaganda.
Milestones typically adorned the main imperial highways, which accounted for only 20% of the roads of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, not all official milestones bear inscriptions – only about a quarter of the existing corpus of milestones from the Levant are inscribed. Those that are, however, typically record some combination of a) the mile point, i.e., the distance either to or from the nearest city, b) the city from which the distance is being reckoned, c) the emperor during whose reign the work was carried out, d) the provincial governor or other official in office at the time, and sometimes e) the type of work carried out (e.g., building of new road, extending, repaving). The majority of inscriptions on milestones of the eastern provinces were in Latin, although a few were in Greek, with the mile distance in many cases rendered in both Roman and Greek numerals.
At their most simplistic, milestones record the number of miles travelled from one point on the road, or the distance remaining to the next. A traveller could then use the milestones as reference points, pinpointing his or her location to within a mile in relation to the nearest city, where food and lodging could be found. The distance between milestones is one Roman mile (0.919 miles).
Milestones could also serve as markers of boundaries between two cities or even provinces. In this capacity they served the needs of the imperial administration, providing information to the central authority on the extent and conditions of roads, and of the limits of various settlements and provinces, information useful for gathering taxes.
Milestones also had an ideological dimension. Since they recorded, primarily in Latin, the names of the Roman officials and emperors under whom the work was commissioned, milestones advertised Roman hegemony. This was especially significant in the first two centuries CE, as Rome asserted its dominance in Eastern Mediterranean through annexation and conquest – an increased military presence that led, naturally, to the construction of roads.
The native language of most of the population of the eastern provinces was not Latin, but Greek and various Semitic languages. The fact that inscriptions on milestones were in Latin suggests they were meant to be read by the military. As Benjamin Isaac puts it, milestones should not necessarily be seen as “helpful markers for travellers, but an exercise in political control.” But milestones are not exclusively in Latin: there are many instances where, in addition to the formal inscription, the Greek number for the mile-distance has also been carved onto the milestone, which to my mind stresses their practical function.
Milestones, once erected, were not left to stand as unchanging reminders of a distant past. Instead, successive generations used them to make their mark. Many bear multiple inscriptions naming different emperors, recording the initial construction of the road and subsequent repairs. This especially appears to be the case in the fourth century, where many inscriptions naming Constantine (who ruled from 306 to 337 CE) and his various co-emperors were added to existing milestones. But erecting new milestones, and carving new inscriptions, appears to cease after the mid-fourth century. This has led to a number of erroneous assumptions about road conditions and road usage in the Late Antique period, from the fourth to the seventh centuries.
Only a handful of new milestones date to the reign of Constantine and his immediate successors. New inscriptions on old milestones cease after Julian (ruled 361 to 363 CE) in Arabia, in the region of the Decapolis, between Philadelphia, Gerasa, and Madaba. The last dated inscription on a milestone in the entire Levant dates to the reign of Arcadius (r. 395-408 CE).
But is it really true that no milestones belong to this later period? Nearly three quarters of all milestones bear no datable inscription. Others do clearly date from the fourth century or later, such as a milestone found near Antipatris that is inscribed with a cross.
Yet others bear traces of painted text on a layer of plaster, which suggest that now blank milestones may once have borne writing that has since weathered away. Of a sample of six painted inscriptions studied by David Graf, plaster was used to cover one second-century inscription and a text datable to AD 324-326 was painted over it. In other cases red paint was applied directly to the stone, or used to highlight new inscriptions, most of which dated to the reign of Constantine (between 324 and 337).
The picture of reuse after the early fourth century is confirmed by a series of milestones on the roads leading to Nikopolis in Palaestina Prima. These milestones bear secondary inscriptions only in Greek, the locally used language, that provide only the most basic and useful information: the name of the city and the mile number. One of these, found on the road leading north from the city, has an underlying inscription dated to 333-337, dating the Greek secondary inscription squarely to the Late Antique period, maybe even related to increased pilgrim traffic in the fifth and sixth centuries.
There is another possibility for why no new milestones were erected from the mid- fourth century on: there already were enough. The survival of hundreds of Roman milestones in situ attests to their longevity; if they are still standing and legible now, surely they were serviceable in the centuries after they were put up. In fact, they are frequently found in clusters with numerous milestones of the same date marking the same spot. The only reason, then, to erect a new milestone would be to commemorate an emperor or work done, or to make a political statement, as Julian did to promote his Philhellenism by placing Greek inscriptions on existing milestones.
But such statements are often found in inscriptions that are not specifically milestones. For example, from Procopius we know that Justinian (r. 527-561 CE) was responsible for road and bridge repairs in the Levant and Asia Minor. But only one of these repairs is accompanied by an inscription, carved directly onto a rock face and not a milestone. Christianity and pilgrimages also provided another arena for imperial patronage towards travellers. By founding charitable institutions and monasteries that also served pilgrims, members of the imperial family simultaneously exhibited their piety and their concern for the needs of travellers.
Some scholars see Late Antiquity as a period of universal decline and state that the lack of milestones from Late Antiquity suggests changes in road usage or decline in the state of the road network. Others suggest that the lack of milestones recording road repair means that the roads were not being maintained, or that the absence of re-carved mile numbers indicates milestones were not being used for measurement.
These suggestions are easily disproved by Late Antique texts, in which miles feature prominently as units of measurement, where milestones are described as landmarks, or the location of a particular site is given in terms of the closest milestone. The fourth-century pilgrim Egeria noted that the turn-off for the Memorial of Moses is at the sixth mile on the road between Livias and Esbus: the very same milestone that Egeria would have seen and noted as a landmark was found in its original spot in 1996: it is preserved today in the Mount Nebo museum. Marble slabs used as mile markers in the Umayyad period specifically refer to miles (mīl in Arabic), and demonstrate continuity of practice into the eighth century.
Late Antique toponyms also record the importance of milestones; there are numerous settlements that derive their names from their mile posting, such as Ad Nonum (9th) in Phoenicia, the fashionable suburb of Constantinople, Hebdomon (7th), and three Egyptian monasteries mentioned in a fifth century pilgrim account named Enaton (9th), Oktokaidekaton (18th), and Eikaston (20th), after their respective distances from Alexandria.
Milestones were prominent on the ground, and therefore easy to count off when making one’s way from one location to the next. One could measure the distance travelled by the number of milestones passed. While religious motivations, especially the desire to explore the Holy Land, might have provided a new impetus for travel in Late Antiquity, this did not alter the way people perceived of their journey as a series of miles and incremental movement through the landscape.
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