This is an excerpt from Are we there yet?, a Globe Opinion newsletter about the future of transportation in the region. Sign up to get it in your inbox a day early.
So, apparently men think about ancient Rome a lot. On a daily basis, even.
Or at least, that’s according to the latest social media trend, which The Washington Post reports was sparked by “a 32-year-old Roman reenactor and history influencer from Sweden” who popularized the claim that men are secretly obsessed with the erstwhile empire and that you just need to ask them to prove it.
Well, if an influencer says so, that settles it! So today’s newsletter is about what at least half of you were secretly thinking about anyway: Roman roads and what they might teach us about infrastructure decisions today.
(Before going further: how would I, as a man, answer the Roman empire question? To the best of my recollection, I don’t ruminate on Rome very often. But if I’m being honest, I do think about its fictional foes, the squabbling People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front, pretty much every day — but that’s because part of my job involves interviewing progressives in Boston.)
As it turns out, there’s plenty of scholarship about the contemporary impact of the 50,000-mile network of Roman roads, which were built for military purposes but have had an enormous economic and cultural legacy. One fascinating paper published last year by Swedish researchers found a surprisingly strong link between Roman roads and economic health today. “Roman roads … remain a strong correlate of prosperity today.”
“Infrastructure investments often have a strong positive influence on population growth and economic activity,” they write, but those influences are typically measured in years or decades. “With a two millennia perspective we believe the present study has the longest observation window hitherto explored.”
A 2017 paper found that, in parts of Germany that were part of the empire, “the persistence of the Roman road network until the present [is] an important factor causing [the] developmental advantage of the formerly Roman part of Germany both by fostering city growth and by allowing for a denser road network.”
Others have examined how Roman investments continue to shape the physical environment in parts of Europe, by influencing decisions over where to site highways and railroads. A paper published in July argued that the Roman road network “has had a persistent effect on the present-day infrastructure” in Italy, a finding that has “important implications for policymakers” since it attests to the way an ancient road network can become the basis for subsequent development.
What to make of all this? We don’t have Roman roads in Massachusetts. (Though we do have ancient infrastructure: as its name suggests, the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts runs along an old Native American path.) But we do have plenty of infrastructure decisions, and measuring their impact on decades, or even centuries, might not do them justice.
Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at email@example.com.