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G - 138 : The Roman Via Julia Augusta

The Via Julia Augusta between Albenga and Alessio - a Funerary Memorial to the left

Sometimes one post leads to the next. Yesterday I talked about the railway linking Genoa to Ventimiglia. Its construction opened the Riviera dei Fiori to visitors from as far away as Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital. Studying the engineers’ project plans I noticed that the section from Albenga to Savona was built over the ancient Roman road Julia Augusta. How interesting!

The Eastern Leg of the Roman Via Julia Augusta from Piacenza to Monaco

The Via Julia Augusta was a late comer in the Roman road network. It was built in 13 BC under Emperor Augustus after his legions defeated the 45 Ligurian tribes who lived in the mountains across the French and Italian border. The Roman victory was celebrated with the erection of the monumental Tropaeum Alpium (Alpine Trophy) just above the Greek town of Monoikos (Monaco). The local village La Turbie its named after it.

The monumental Tropaeum Allium in La Turbie, the western End of the Via Julia Augusta

The monument was 35 meter high and built from white limestone. As 2’000 yeaers ago, it can be seen from many miles away. Used in the Middle Ages as fortress and refuge, it survived pretty well until the French King Louis XIV ordered its destruction during the War of Spanish Succession. After that the locals used it as quarry to build their own homes and the church of Saint-Michel. Today, a good ¼ of the monument is still standing. Enough to give a good impression how it once looked like. The Via Julia Augusta passes just below its feet.

Today's A9 follows the western Leg of the Via Julia Augusta, also called Via Aurelia, to Arles

Roman Roads were built for military use. Roman Legions could easily march 30 km a day on these roads. These roads also came with a postal system that allowed couriers to travel 70 km a day by changing horses four times. Thanks to these roads, a Legion from Roma was able to reach Lyon in 40 days or Paris in 60 days. The military roads were the arteries of the Roman Empire. The Emperor was always well informed and could quickly deploy and concentrate his 26 Legions (each 6’000 men) where and when needed.

The Roman Military Road System in 100 AD with 400'000 km of roads - 85'000 km were paved

The Roman roads were carefully constructed. Any source of water that could erode the road was carefully captured and deviated. The roads had a bed like modern roads. They were built with layers of clay and gravel before being covered with flat surface stones. The roads were regularly maintained and cleared from plants and trees to ensure that roots could not destroy them. The roads were so well built that many survived to these days even though they were not maintained for more than a thousand years.

This Table on the Via Julia Augusta above Alassio explains how Roman Roads were built

Several stretches of the old Via Julia Augusta also survived well. Specifically when the road veered away from the shore to bypass a coastal cliff. One of the best-preserved parts of the Via Julia Augusta lies between Albengo and Alassio, is 6 km long and gains 160 meters in altitude. On several turns it is flanked by funerary monuments which was customary at the time. The ancient track is well liked by mountain bikers and hikers. It is well documented. Am sure we will take the 2 hours to walk on this beautiful ancient road.

The Biker and Hiker Trail on the Julia Augusta between Albenga and Alassio

Due to its local topography, the Via Julia Augusta is narrow. It cannot accommodate more than 3 soldiers comfortably abreast. Its capacity is thus limited. The Julia Augusta was always a bottleneck in Roman transportation. The Legionnaires used it for marching but the bulk of their heavy equipment had to follow by sea. Louis XIV’s generals did not particularly like the road either. They thought it could not be used for moving big bodies of troops with their train and preferred maritime transportation.

One of the Places where the original Pavement of the Julia Augusta is visible

In the following centuries, the Via Julia Augusta was almost forgotten. It was revived by curious English tourists who used it to explore the Italian part of the Riviera. On their suggestions, excavations were started. The old road was found again under layers of dirt. Luckily, the dirt preserved the original. Where the road was frequently used during the Middle Ages, only the original foundation was left. The surface stones were all gone.

The beautiful view from the Julia Augusta - wonder whether the Legionnaires enjoyed it too!

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