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The itinerary of the Emperor Antoninus, or the “Itinerarium Provinciarum Antoni(ni) Augusti”, to give its full Latin title, is a collection of 225 lists of stopping places along various Roman roads across the Roman Empire. The British routes are at the end of the land itinerary. Following the end of the land itinerary is the Imperatoris Antonini Augusti Itinerarium Maritimum, which gives a few sea routes and a list of small islands.
Its value, especially for Britain, comes from it being one of a very few documents to have survived to modern times which provide detail of names and clues to location of Roman sites and the routes of roads. Each list, or Iter, gives the start and end of each route, with the total mileage of that route, followed by a list of intermediate points with the distances in between. They do not cover every Roman road; in Britain they utilise less than 25%. They cannot even be said to focus on the most important roads. Furthermore, some stretches of road appear as part of several itineraries so, for example, the road usually referred to these days as Dere Street, between Catterick and York, forms part of Iters I, II & V.
There are at least five primary manuscripts from which published texts are drawn, and it is generally agreed that they all probably derive from the ‘Codex Spirensis’ which was copied between AD 1427 and 1551 (Reed, 1978, p. 228). How many times they were copied and re-copied between the late Roman period and the 15th century is not known, although it seems likely that multiple copying accounts for some at least of the many obvious errors and omissions contained within it. The standard modern transcription is that of Otto Cuntz (Cuntz, 1929), and it is that version as utilised by A. L. F. Rivet (Rivet, 1970 & Rivet & Smith, 1979) which is used here. It should be pointed out however, that in many individual Iters, there remains some dispute as to precise routes and also the identity and locations of some of the places to which they refer.
Thanks to its title, the Itinerary has often been ascribed to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138 – 161) but it is clear that this cannot be the case. The British section, crucially, is headed “Iter Britanniarum”; Britanniarum is plural, indicating that the collection was put together after Britain was divided into two provinces by Septimius Severus c.197 A.D. (Rivet & Smith, 1979, p. 154). Indeed, it is likely that the collection was actually written over almost two centuries, the earliest seeming to be the maritime route from Rome to Arles compiled before AD 107 (Reed, 1978), with the majority written much later, with one at least as late as AD 284 containing the place-name Diocletionopolos instead of Pella (Rivet 1970, p.37), Diocletian reigning between AD 284 and AD 305. In the British section, the gap in time between the writing of some of the itineraries may be exemplified by Iter IX referring to Camolodunum (Colchester) whereas Iter V refers to the same place as Colonia, which seems to be how it became known later (in full, Colonia Claudia Victricensis). Given their dedication to a single Antoninus, it is likely that they were originally gathered together for a single Emperor (even if a few were added later). The argument proposed by Denis van Berchem that this was Caracalla (whose formal name was Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus and ruled 198 to 217) remains the most accepted alternative (van Berchem, 1937).
Distances in the Itinerary are generally measured in miles, written as m.p. (mille passus) that is to say 1000 paces (full paces – ie two steps) of five pedes (feet) each. The standard Roman foot appears to have been 11.65 inches (296mm), based upon the measurement of it on the tombstone of T. Statilus Aper, a mensor aedificiorum in Rome, and by the length of several foot-rules, so the Roman mile is generally thought to have been 1,618 yards, ie 0.9193 miles. In Gallia Comata however, the leuga or Gaulish League was used, equal to 1.5 Roman miles. Distances at sea were usually measured in stadia, one stadium equalling an eighth of a mile, although miles are sometimes used.
The function of the Itinerary, either as individual routes or as a collective work, is far from clear, with opinions ranging from them representing routes of the Cursus Publicus (in effect the Imperial postal service) to their being routes of journeys planned for emperors or their armies. The most plausible explanation came from Nicholas Reed, who argued that the Itineraries are a collection of routes to be used for the collection of annona militaris, a tax of food and supplies originally imposed by Septimius Severus to provide for the Roman Army (Reed, 1978, p. 244). Casado sums this up perfectly “This would explain the arbitrary way in which the routes contained in the document were selected, and would also account for the strange “detour-type” layouts chosen, on some occasions, to link two cities relatively close to each other, when the second city is reached after passing through other places that would have made the route much longer than was really necessary” (Casado, 2013).
Perhaps the biggest issue with the Itinerary is the large number of apparent errors, mainly in its mileage figures; a precise geographical document it is not. Logically, these errors fall into two groups, those of transmission ie errors made by scribes when copying and those in the original work (Rivet, 1970, p. 37). Some of the copying errors are obvious, for example missing stages as in Iter II of the British section where some twenty miles are missing between York and Manchester. Setting these on one side and focussing on apparent errors in the original, it can be seen that most of the errors are quite small. Of the 141 stages in the British section examined by Rivet in his 1970 analysis, after correcting for probable scribal error (Rivet, 1970, p. 38), 54 appeared to be correct, with 17 having too great a distance and a massive 70 having too short a distance, 39 being of these being of two miles or more. It is conceivable that the bulk of the 41 errors that are one mile either way may be caused by minor errors of measurement, or by rounding off (distances are given in whole miles). However the consistent and unexplained shortfall in nearly all the others suggests that there is a fundamental cause. One possibility is that not all distances were measured from the centre of a town or fort, rather they might have been measured from an outer boundary, or “town zone” (Rodwell, 1975). This suggestion was countered by Mann, who suggested that it might have arisen from the difficulties experienced by Rome in enforcing standard units of measurement, with a longer mile perhaps being used in southern Britain and North-West Gaul (Mann, 1987). Another, and intriguing suggestion, came from Arias who suggested that many of the British anomalies resulted from the misunderstanding and occasional losses of Latin grammatical endings. Arias contended that when a station was written in the accusative case (ending in ‘um’ or ‘am’), it denoted that the place lay apart from the main road, with distances measured to a junction on the main road, and not to the place itself (Arias 1987), although his assertions are not easily supported by our current understanding of the road network.
Whatever the actual cause of the apparent errors in the original work, debate will no doubt continue for a very long time to come. In the production of the accounts of each Iter, I have endeavoured to provide the most plausible explanation for transmission errors in each case.
Arias, Gonzalo. (1987); Grammar in the Antonine itinerary. A Challenge to British archeologists, self published, Cadiz
van Berchem, D., (1937); L'Annone militaire dans l'Empire Romain au IIIe siecle.in Memoires de la Societe Nationale des Antiquaires de France, Volume xxiv, pp. 117-202.
Casado, C., (2013); Roman Roads: The Backbone of Empire. s.l., Fundacion Juanelo Turriano, pp. 69 - 86.
Cuntz, Otto (1929); Itineraria Romana Vol 1; Itineraria Antonini Augusti et Burdigalense , in aedibus B. G. Teubneri, Leipzig
Edson, Charles (1951); The Location of Cellae and the Route of the via Egnatia in Western Macedonia; Classical Philology Vol 46 No. 1, pp. 1-16
Fodorean, Florin-Gheorghe (2015), Distances along the Roman roads in the ancient itineraries: from Britannia to Asia. A short comparison; in Dacia Lix 2015, Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History; Editura Academie Romane, Bucharest.
Mann, J. C., (1987); A Note on the So-Called Town-Zone. Britannia, Volume 18, pp. 285-286., London
Reed, N., (1978); Pattern and Purpose in the Antonine Itinerary. The American Journal of Philology, 99(2), pp. 228-254.
Rivet, A. L. F. (1970); The British Section of the Antonine Itinerary in Britannia, Volume 1, pp. 34-82., London
Rivet, A.L.F. & Smith, Colin (1979); The Place-names of Roman Britain; B.T. Batsford Ltd., London
Rodwell, W., (1975); Milestones, Civic Territories and the Antonine Itinerary in Britannia, Volume 6, pp. 76-101.
Fig. 1. Map from Wikipedia, which, whilst far from being an accurate or definitive Roman road map of Britain, is still indicative of how in Britannia the roads probably utilised in the Itineraries (black) represent less than 25% of the whole network (other roads shown in red). Reproduced under a Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0
This entry was written, compiled and last updated: 11 September 2017 by Mike Haken