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One side of the great marble base features reliefs of winged deities flanking a Latin inscription that hails Augustus and the pacification of Gaul.

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Sheltering myself from a fierce wind, I gazed down the rocky coast of Italy; directly below, the hotels and villas of Monaco glittered at the edge of the turquoise sea. It seemed a fitting place to proclaim Rome's glory. The Via Julia Augusta, as the highway was initially called, greatly improved overland travel in the empire.


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Roman legions could shuttle long distances along it at an average speed of almost four miles per hour. Messengers could travel between Arles and Rome, a distance of about miles, in a mere eight days. But beginning around A.

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After centuries of political stability, a series of military coups roiled the empire. Roman divisions began turning on one another, the value of currency plummeted, urban renewal ceased and towns and entire districts were abandoned. The empire revived briefly under Diocletian A. But in , the Rhine froze over and barbarians spilled into Gaul. By the s, Arles had surrendered to the Visigoths, opening the whole of Provence to barbarian control.

Over the next millennium, roads, bridges, aqueducts and other public works commissioned by Augustus and his successors disintegrated, and the precise route of the Via Aurelia was lost. It remained largely forgotten until , when Konrad Peutinger, a book collector from Augsburg, in Bavaria, acquired a foot-long medieval scroll portraying a map of the world, from the Atlantic to the mouth of the Ganges, as it existed during the Roman Empire. The map's origins were obscure: a 13th-century monk from Colmar had apparently copied it from a Roman source, possibly a fourth-century A.

Whatever its origins, the Table of Peutinger, as it became known—with detailed topography, a rendering of the entire Roman road network, and illustrations of rest stops, Roman amphitheaters and other features along the routes—was widely published. It has offered archaeologists an incomparable opportunity to track down lost vestiges of the Roman world. During the s, in the Italian town of Torre Annunziata, near Pompeii, researchers used the Table of Peutinger to locate and excavate a sumptuous villa from the first century B. Burly and suntanned, with a shock of white hair, Tassan grew up in a village near Grenoble.

He spent 25 years working as a graphic designer before retiring last summer to pursue a lifelong fascination with ancient Gaul. In he began working on a documentary about another historic route, the ancient Christian pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of St. James, one of Jesus' Apostles, are said to be buried.

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To research the project, he set off on a mile journey by foot across southern France and the Pyrenees, following the Roman road network. Rediscovering the surviving traces of the Roman route has been a matter of deduction, legwork and tapping into the historical memory. After finishing our espressos, Tassan and I set out by car to inspect remains of the Via Aurelia that he had identified around the town of Salon-de-Provence.


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  • We crossed beneath an expressway, traversed an irrigation canal, bounced through fields of grapes, then turned down a narrow dirt road—actually a piece of antiquity—that cut a straight line between an olive orchard and a row of fenced-off villas. Tassan peered through a barrier of cypress trees into a private garden, pointing out foot-high ruins of a stone wall—what was left of a 2,year-old rest house where Via Aurelia travelers could water their horses, repair their chariots and lodge for the night.

    Two guard dogs barked furiously at us, hurling themselves against a fence.

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    Tassan admired the inn's ruins for another few seconds, then said, " Bien , let's get out of here. We continued toward the village of Saint-Chamas, turning off the main road from time to time to pick up short stretches of the Via Aurelia—dirt paths, a row of ancient and cracked paving stones, narrow asphalted strips through vineyards. Approaching Saint-Chamas, we came across the ancient road's second-best-preserved vestige—after the Trophy of Augustus: Flavian's Bridge, marked by elegant arches at either end, spanning the Touloubre River.

    Each arch, built from blocks of tawny limestone, rose about 20 feet high; atop a delicately carved pilaster stood sculptures of two crouching lions. In , a speeding U. Army truck accidentally rammed into one of the arches and knocked it down; American construction teams reassembled it and built a new bridge a few yards downriver.

    Tassan pulled out a tape measure, knelt and measured the distance between grooves on the bridge's stone surface. The next day, I found Tassan in a blue mood. We had spent the morning touring a construction site near Marseille, where workers, oblivious to the damage they were inflicting, had been laying an oil pipeline across the Via Aurelia's original stones. Though he was certain it had descended from this crest, he couldn't find a hint of it, not even after a dozen scouting expeditions.

    Why can't it be like the Via Domitia? The milestones were saved, plaques were put up.

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    Here, I'm afraid it's all going. Still, there are the pleasures of discovery and mysteries at every turn. After a few minutes, we stopped outside the rural village of Fontvieille, a few miles northeast of Arles. A double row of great stone arches—the remains of two aqueducts that once ran beside the Via Aurelia—marched in parallel lines through the arid brush. We followed them to the edge of a promontory; below us, golden fields of wheat extended in all directions; the scene looked as it must have at the height of the Roman Empire.

    Two thousand years ago, water ran down this hill via the aqueduct to a mill, where wheat was ground into flour, then transported along the Via Aurelia to feed the growing population of Gaul.

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    The height of the arches was delicately calibrated to maintain an even flow and pressure—another example of Roman engineering skill. Now we're going to see something unusual. Then, abruptly, it disappeared. He shrugged. Nobody knows. Tassan stood pensively beside the last stone arch for a time. Then, he pulled out his tape measure, got back down on his hands and knees, and began examining one more set of chariot-wheel grooves on the ancient road. Writer Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin. Photographer Clay McLachlan works from Paris.

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    Chariots and Other Wheeled Vehicles in Italy Before the Roman Empire

    The Innovative Spirit. Featured: Reality Gets an Upgrade. Travel Taiwan. American South. Travel With Us. The delicate task required carefully drilling around the tip of the nail so that it could be delicately pulled out with dental pliers without damaging the surface. The conservators were gratified to find that the ancient sheets of bronze had enough flexibility that they did not break during this procedure.

    Next the sheets were pried from their wood frame. In the process, conservators discovered decorative details that had been obscured by the misplacement of some pieces. They also found bits of Oriental paper with ink calligraphy marks — probably vestiges of the restoration — glued to the back of the panels as a sort of Band-Aid. Emiliozzi recognized that the pole needed to bend so that the harness would fit over the backs of the two horses. Making the correct bend was not a problem for the conservators, and faint traces of lashings on the front of the pole helped her to confirm that it was complete.

    As the conservators studied the chariot piece by piece, Dr. Emiliozzi made a life-size foam model of it to make sure all the pieces would fit. At some point in its life, conservators discovered, the chariot had suffered a serious accident to its right side. This had broken off the lower legs and feet of the youths on that side and had damaged the right ear of the boar.

    It made the entire chariot asymmetrical.