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The Via Emilia

The history | The Via Emilia today | SS 9 - State Road 9


- The history

O book, leave for Rome: if they ask you where you are from,

you will say from the region of the via Emilia”.

(Martial, Epigram, III, 4)


Approximately three hundred fifty years had gone by since the first arrival of the Romans in Emilia-Romagna, marked by the founding of the city of Ariminum (Rimini – 268 BC), when during his stay in Cispadane towards the end of the first century BC, the poet Martial eternalized with the immortal voice of poetry the indissolubility of a tie that for twenty-two centuries has closely linked a land and its master road.

No other Italian region can, in fact, boast of a name that so perfectly coincides with the one given to its most far-reaching street from east to west, a privileged axis connecting the Adriatic coast to the Po River ford.


None of the great Roman roads has survived the ages with the same skill of uniting communities, of bringing together a mosaic of people and different traditions, of directing their evolution, of conditioning the development of human settlements, of feeding the perfect identification between its path and the territory that stretches out around it.

A truly connective element of the Cispadane area, with a large cultural heritage passed down from antiquity, with its 1300 stadium, equal to about 230 kilometers (today its length is just over 260 km), calculated by the Greek geographer Strabone starting from the River Rubicon, the street continues in a succession of long straightaways that still characterize it today, an uninterrupted path that joins from southeast to northwest the extremes of the region which has remained largely unchanged over time, with only a few minute variations.


While it is true that officially only in the late imperial age, after one of the many administrative reorganizations of the Roman state, the name Aemilia was formally used to denote a vast western portion of the Cispadane territory, it is certain that as early as the second half of the II century BC, in everyday language, in the flowering of commercial relationships and even in political designs people spoke of this area as the region crossed through, served by and organized around the via Emilia.



The road began in 187 BC under the guidance of the consul Marcus Emilius Lepidus (see also the editorial "The Romans"). With its construction, a true programmatic and strategic “manifesto” of the consolidation of Roman power in Cisalpine Gaul, ends the tormented early phase of expansion into Northern Italy, dotted with conflicts with the Celtic tribes and by Hannibal's campaigns,  and the fertile season of the foundation of new colonies begins, giving Emilia-Romagna the settlement scheme it maintains today.

Most of the urban centers are located somewhere along the axis of the via Emilia, at regular intervals and near to a valley opening that coincides with one of the Apennine crossings.


Firstly, this road connects the preexisting centers, such as Piacenza, founded in 218 BC or Rimini, already the end point of the via Flaminia and fifty years later also caput viae of the Popilia, or like Bononia (Bologna), taken from the Boii and founded again just two years after the Aemilia. Then there are, always under Lepidus, the twin colonies of Modena and Parma (183 BC) and that of Reggio Emilia (175 BC).


Once Roman dominance was established, the road abandoned its early connotations as a "border" presided over by militaries.  Thus, other important urban entities will be added as well as commercial centers – ancestors, for example, of today's Cesena, Forlimpopoli, Forlì, Faenza, Imola - and a slew of towns, which popped up spontaneously thanks to the uniting force of this consular road.


The road also serves as the generating element of the system of land division and organization of the rural territories assigned to the colonies.  Due to its strategic, commercial and civil importance, the Via Emilia became the primary axis on which the entire street system leading to the Regio VIII developed.


- The Via Emilia today


But what would the via Emilia look like in the eyes of today's travellers?

Ancient sources often site that along its route, the road ran along elevated banks, a necessary aspect in order to facilitate walking this road on foot or on horseback and transporting on wheels in a territory that was still covered in woods dotted with swamplands and wetlands, which were then progressively eliminated by the need of the colonies to build and cultivate.

Crossing over rivers both big and small which flowed down from the Apennines and out into the plains was guaranteed by brick bridges, at times a monumental undertaking such as the Tiberus Bridge in Rimini in Istria rock with five arches, begun with a decree by Augustus and traditionally considered the end arrival point of the via Flaminia and the starting point of the via Aemilia.



Some of these bridges have survived up to today, even if they have been modified in their structure and exterior form to correspond to the changing needs of two millennia of history.  The series of stationes and mansiones, precursors to the modern post offices and hotels, which were located alongside the road and offered services to travelers such as exchanging a horse or taking a comfortable break, were often the beginning of minor settlements which are still in existence today.


To get oriented along this road and the distance from one place to another, those who set out here could count on the so-called "miliari", rocks originally marking every mile (1476 meters) which had directions carved on them and, quite frequently, the name of who was responsible for maintaining or restoring the street.


There are more than thirty "miliari" known of for the via Emilia; some of them have remained in situ, others are housed in some of the city museums (Rimini, Bologna, Castelfranco Emilia, Modena, Parma), and even others have been reused, like the miliario that became the base of the column in the Pieve del Thò in Brisighella.


A big difference in the creation of the road pavings characterized the suburban stretches, generally made with a heavy layer of gravel and river rocks without any lateral containment (viae glarea stratae), which were different from the stretches of road that entered into the urban centers.  Here a layer of basoli lapidei (viae silice stratae) or cobblestones were used with a sidewalk or small steps delineating the road's edge.


According to a solid Roman tradition, at the exit point of the city the two sides of the street were decorated with sepulchral monuments, often very formal and constructive, which with their inscriptions and decorations were destined to perpetuate into eternity the memory of those who lived in that land who were, and who still are, one with its road.



- State Road 9

The importance that this Roman road had at the time for commercial traffic in the areas that it crossed through has continued up to today: the state road SS 9 in fact has the same name.


The ancient route does not, however, match up exactly with today’s route, and it goes up to Milan, ending in the area of San Donato.

State Road 9 was instituted in 1928 with the route: Rimini - Forlì - Bologna - Modena - Reggio Emilia - Parma - Piacenza - Milan.

The Arch of Augustus in Rimini, also recognized as a starting point of the Via Emilia, dedicated to the emperor Augustus by the Roman Senate in 27 BC, actually marks the end of the Via Flaminia which connects Rome to Rimini, and which meets up with the modern day Corso d'Augusto, which lead at the time to the Via Emilia.


The Via Emilia is among the top twenty most beautiful roads for road trips and is the best that Italy has to offer for this kind of travel (*). What makes this road, which has connected Rimini to Piacenza since 187 BC, great are the enchanting cities of art, excellent food and luxury engines.


(*) source: The Sun, 2015

(Text edited in collaboration with IBC – Dr. Fiamma Lenzi)


Last modified Apr 12, 2018

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