The History of the Egnatia Motorway

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  7. The History of the Egnatia Motorway

In Roman Times, one of the two most important roads leading to the capital Rome was the Via Egnatia, an overseas extension of the Via Traiana that, via the port of Gnaphia, crossed present-day Greece to the Evros Rive. The Via Egnatia run through Dyrrachium, Lychnidos, Heracleia, Edessa, Pella, Thessaloniki, Amfipolis, Filippoi, Topeiro, Maximianoupolis and Traianoupolis.

The Via Egnatia was built between 146 and 120 BC, initially following the traces of an older, pre-Roman road running from the Adriatic to the Aegean . Later, it was extended from the Evros to Byzantium , and eventually the name “Egnatia” was given to the entire road, i.e. from Rome to Constantinople , in honour of the Roman proconsul Gnaeus Egnatius who built it.

The first reference to Via Egnatia is found in Strabo’s work, between 40 BC and 10 AD, as well as some years before that, in 59/58 BC in Cicero’s work, where an explicit reference is made to the via militaris (military road) going to Thessaloniki, which the great orator used in order to visit the city. Disciple Paul also used Via Egnatia, from Neapoli (now Kavala) to Thessaloniki, circa 40 AD when he visited Greece.

The Via Egnatia was a road of European standards. There was uniformity in pavement, signage, construction of army camps, stations and horse changing posts, bridges, entrances to towns and internal routes, either in Britain or in Italy , Spain or Greece . The Via Egnatia was built according to the specifications of other roads; construction methods can be summarized in Strabo’s extract, mentioning that Romans “cut hills and regraded slopes in order for carriages to pass smoothly”.

The minimum width of Via Egnatia was 10 roman feet (approx. 3m) which increased to over 5m when crossing big towns.

Roman travellers have left accounts of their journeys, with details of the distances between cities (civitates), inns (mansiones), rest-houses and changing-posts (mutatiae). From the Adriatic coast to Thessaloniki they reckoned a distance of about 400 kilometres (535 Roman miles), and the same from Thessaloniki to Evros. Every thousand paces (mille passuum) along the road a milestone was set up, marking off the distance and naming the location.

The Via Egnatia was partially rebuilt several times between its original construction and about 300 AD.

In 1270 AD it is mentioned as the road linking Dyrrachium with Constantinople , and until the 16th century it was used principally as a trade route, carrying peoples, religions, social classes, ideologies, manners and customs, economies, concepts, ways of looking at the world.

On the traces of ancient Via Egnatia one could meet chapmen or tradesmen, villagers or workers from Western Macedonia , Epirus , Thessaly etc, seeking better living conditions. There were also many builders that travelled in groups, including masons and lumberjacks. In these clusters of people one could tell the seasonal workers, but also professional beggars, the infamous Cravarites.

The Romans initially used the road for military purposes, but as it became more widely used it rapidly developed into the main road from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, competing with the traditional sea route from Italy across the Isthmus to the North Aegean and into the Black Sea, a history which is repeating itself two millennia later.

The Via Egnatia played an important role during Byzantine and post-Byzantine times. Painters and mosaic makers left Constantinople heading to all directions and with all transport means, through sea or land. There were all kinds of artists travelling on the Via Egnatia with their works, such as miniature manuscripts, icons, smalt, goldsmith’s, silversmith’s, coppersmith’s or embroidery items. Thessaloniki , especially from mid-Byzantine times on was the centre of many artistic developments and the starting point of most artists going north, west or south.

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