Roman Roads, or are they Celtic Roads?

Graham Robb recently released a book (called The Ancient Paths in Britain, and The Discovery of Middle Earth in America) that put forth a whole new theory on the creation of the Roman Roads in Britain.  The Roman Roads are some of the oldest continuous paths in Britain, and they’re often still used.  They’re ancient, broad, and straight paths.  For centuries it has been assumed that they were built by the Roman empire.  It’s not an odd assumption, after all the Romans were geniuses when it came to infrastructure, and these roads are found all over the former Roman empire.  Aqueducts, plumbing, paved streets, city planning on a grid, they did it all.  Not always first, though.  That’s exactly what Graham Robb puts forth. The Romans did not build these roads first, they simply used them and expanded them.  Rather, they were built by druids.

Roman Roads in Britain at approximately 150 CE

Roman Roads in Britain at approximately 150 CE

Not very much is known about druids since they didn’t leave written records of their beliefs, their ceremonies, or their lives.  Mostly, they’re known through Roman and Greek sources, which are always problematic, through literature from their age, and through archaeological records.  Now, I’m not one to argue with the usefulness of archaeological records; they’re extremely useful sources for anything that happened before the advent of serious record keeping.  But the sources given about druids, and early Celtic society in general, are few and somewhat scant.  So anything written about Celts or druids I take with a grain of salt.

Graham Robb came up with his idea about the old Roman Roads really being old Celtic Roads while planning a cycling trip.  He realized, apparently, that the path of the Via Heraklea, a very ancient route across the European continent, ran straight along the solstice lines through several former Celtic settlements.  I’ve had a very difficult time pinning down exactly what a solstice line is via the internet, but it seems to be a line that mirrors the angle of the sunlight on the earth at each solstice.  If these roads are based on the solstice lines that would mean that the druids, and with them the Celts, had a far more advanced understanding of the earth and the universe than they have ever been credited with before.  It’s worth noting that this would not be an unfeasible piece of knowledge, since the Greeks knew this information as well.

Celtic areas in the 3rd century BCE

I haven’t read Graham Robb’s book, since it isn’t readily available to me.  Sections of it are on Google Books here.  A Telegraph article about it can be found here; this is where I discovered it.  Since I haven’t read it, I can’t judge it too much.  What I can say is that I’m somewhat skeptical, given the little evidence of general Celtic life that we have, that anything of this magnitude could be determined.  I don’t know the full history of Roman Roads, so I don’t know how historians know just how old they are and that one in particular, the Fosse Way, was built before the Romans had control of the whole territory.  I’m also a bit skeptical of Graham Robb being able to determine this.  His PhD is in French Literature, not a historical discipline.  Scholars of literature do have to do some digging in history to understand the context of the literature they’re reading and writing about, but I doubt that Mr. Robb has the knowledge base required to do research into the Iron Age.  He did spend five years on the book, so he had plenty of time, but I will remain skeptical until I can read some scholarly reviews of the book, and of course the book itself.

As far as whether the Roman Roads were, or at least could have been, built by Celts, I don’t doubt that it’s entirely possible.  Roads are often built on top of other roads, and those on top of paths used by earlier people, which are often on top of paths used by animals.  That’s no secret.  Moreover, being of Celtic ancestry myself, I would like to believe anything positive that comes out about ancient Celtic societies.  And of course, if there is one thing I’d like to be able to tell everyone, you should never underestimate a Celt.


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