My history lessons, courtesy of Mr Wallbank, told us how these wonderful Romans brought the civilized world to our barbaric islands. Every week we heard of how they educated the savage Celts, brought viaducts, the arch, roads, housing, etc. Doubtless if I had bothered to listen long enough we would have been told the Romans also invented television, internet, iPad and every other technological advance of modern times.
Of course we now know this is not quite correct. The Romans came here to find a thoroughly advanced group of Britons skilled in metalwork - with the Britons equally keen to find a market for their products and the conquerors were simply responsible for writing the history. Doubtless the technologies of the day were not dreamt up by the Romans but acquired from those they encountered. For example our lesson on how the Romans invented the viaduct fails to take into consideration the Babylonians moved water around centuries before the foundation of Rome and its subsequent empire.
The same is true of the famed Roman roads. In Britain there are a number of major arteries known as Roman roads and yet the names alone tell us these are not simply 'Roman'. Indeed the tracks were undoubtedly in use for uears before the Romans arrived. Whilst we should concede the superior surface, enabling rapid movement of troops, is down to Roman intervention, these are no more Roman roads than the modern version of Watling Street with its dual carriageways, traffic lights, white lines and electric lighting.
To find the use and routes prior to the arrival of the Romans is impossible. However we can look at what happened in the years following their departure. For example, note how many of the following names are known as 'Streets', indeed none of the Roman roads are named 'Roads'. The term 'street' comes from Old English straet, a Saxon term referring very specifically to 'a paved road' and that would only be a Roman road. This element is seen in place names such as Stratford 'the ford on a Roman road' and Stretton 'the farmstead on a Roman road'.
The names of the roads themselves also provide information on how they developed and why they were named.
Watling Street was originally a stretch of road around St Albans, albeit then the place was home to the Saxon tribe known as the Waeclinga or 'the people of Waecla'. Eventually the name of this short stretch of road began to stretch along the route, albeit very slowly. Not until the 11th century did the name begin to be used for the whole length and also for other routes not part of this ancient route. This was down to a royal proclamation ordering designated 'safe' routes, among which was Watling Street. Those keen to ensure the trade routes to their towns were considered 'safe' took the clever step of naming such Watling Street. Thus anyone considering committing any crime (no matter how trivial) received the same punishment - death.
Ermine Street, running from London to Lincoln, follows a similar tale to Watling Street. With the earliest recorded version as Earninga Straete, this is from the Earningas tribe who lived around Arrington in Cambridgeshire where they gave their name to the Armingford Hundred and also to the route.
Icknield Street is originally recorded as Hikenild Street and generally accepted as a reference to the Iceni tribe of Boudicca fame as the earliest Saxon records speak of this as Icenhilde Weg.
Ryknield Street is a little different, with the name not found before the 12th century. Both the route and the lack of early forms (not to mention the differences in those records found) have brought into question whether this road ever existed as a true Roman road but is simply another attempt to copy a safe route and thus an erroneous version of Icknield Street above.
Fosse Way is undoubtedly both a Roman road and one named by the Saxons. Indeed, because this comes from Old English fosse meaning 'ditch', it is clear it will not have been named until the Saxons arrived (and the Romans had departed our shores).
Athough the Latin fossa has the same meaning of 'ditch', it is difficult to see why the Romans would name one road when leaving all the rest nameless. Indeed, at a time when the maximum distance travelled in a day would have been 32 miles - the distance a group of soldiers could march in a day and no coincidence as also the distance between Roman forts on these roads - the only thing to know was the next place to rest, final destinations were not applicable and the major roads are all known for their destination.