You are free to reproduce any of the text of this work for non-commercial purposes only, provided proper attribution, credit and citation is given to the author, any original contributor or source, and the RRRA. Where photographs and diagrams carry additional copyright details, this Creative Commons license does not apply.
It is beyond the scope of this website to attempt to recount all the many references to Britain, or places and peoples within Britain, in the classical sources. We are only concerned with those documents which provide evidence of Roman roads and/or the places along them, and such sources are extremely few, there are really only five.
We know from the fourth century writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (usually known as Vegetius) in his Epitoma Rei Militaris, essentially a late Roman book of war,that itineraries (lists of places along roads with the distances between them), were a well used tool of the Roman military.
“So a general ought to give every care and attention to seeing that he is not attacked on the march or that he can repel any attack easily and without loss. First of all, he should have itineraries of all those regions in which the war is being fought very fully set out, so that he might become fully acquainted with the distances between places in terms not only of mileage but also the quality of the roads, and may have at his disposal reliable accounts of the short cuts, alternative routes, mountains and rivers: indeed the more able generals are said to have not only annotated but pictorial itineraries of the provinces in which they were operating, so that they could decide which way to take not merely by mental calculation but by visual inspection too.”
(Epitoma Rei Militaris, III, 6 - Rivet and Smith 1979 p. 148)
This description makes it very clear that itineraries and probably maps were a very common tool of the army and the state, and the inference is that there were different types and quality. Crucially, it seems certain that there were itineraries for every road, and yet we have just two surviving itineraries that relate to Britain, covering just a small fraction of the whole network. Only a tiny fragment of the British section of the so called Peutinger Table (probably one of the pictorial itineraries referred to by Vegetius) survives, covering parts of the South East and South of England, which leaves us with the Antonine Itinerary, a collection of just 15 routes or journeys across Britannia. The Antonine Itinerary is invaluable, however, as it doesn’t quite mesh in some cases with our understanding of the network, with some issues that cannot all be explained away by its many errors of transmission.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, there was thought to be another set of British Itineraries, ascribed to a copy made by the 14th century monk Richard of Cirencester, however this was almost certainly a hoax perpetrated by one Charles Bertram. As they still crop up from time to time on the internet and elsewere as being possibly genuine, it seemed only right to include a piece about them here, although we have not reproduced the “itineraries” themselves.
The largest source of Roman period place-names for Britain is the Ravenna Cosmography, however due to its errors, corruptions, and lack of apparent logic in the order of names, it is also the most baffling. It is essentially a series of lists of places, which may originally have been intended to have some sort of geographic order. It’s value to us is that it gives names not mentioned elsewhere, which may just give occasional clues as to the road network that linked those places. A similiarly valuable document is Ptolemy’s Geography, which whilst not giving any direct evidence of roads, it does provide geoigraphical information and gives us a picture of those settlements and military sites that existed in the late first and early second centuries AD, exactly the period when much of the road network was being built.
And finally, there is the late 4th century, or possibly early 5th century assessment of military dispositions across the Empire, the Notitia Dignitatum. It doesn’t have a huge impact on our understanding of roads, except that the lists of places appear to be in geographical sequence which could tell us about the roads linking them. There are also a few places listed that are not known from other sources.
Rivet, A.L.F. & Smith, Colin (1979); The Place-names of Roman Britain; B.T. Batsford Ltd., London