Everyone travels along it, everyone praises it, but few know the true history of the Via Emilia, today known as the SS 9 main road. More than 2,000 years have passed since its construction began, under the guidance of the Roman Consul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (187 BC).
Since then, none of the great Roman roads has succeeded in the same task: to withstand the test of time unscathed and to have such a profound impact on a region, so much so that it affected the development and settlement of the communities in the area.
With a total length of approximately 230 km (today’s length is just over 260 km), calculated by the Greek geographer Strabo, starting from the Rubicon River, the ancient Via Emilia unfolds in a succession of long straight stretches that still characterise it today: a route that has essentially remained unchanged over time, except for small variations, which from the south-east to the north-west crosses the entire Emilia-Romagna region.
Considered one of the most beautiful roads in the world, the Via Emilia is not simply a road but a symbol, a historical, cultural and economic map to the identity of the area that has marked Italy and Emilia-Romagna for millennia, giving it the name it still bears today with pride and joy.
The Via Emilia in the past
Built, in part, on top of an older road system that linked the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Sea, the consular road first connected pre-existing towns, such as Piacenza, Bologna and Rimini. The most important cities of art that still distinguish Emilia-Romagna today were later added to this network over time and in various ways: the colonies of Modena and Parma (183 BC), Reggio Emilia (175 BC), Cesena, Forlimpopoli, Forlì, Faenza, Imola, and a multitude of small towns that sprung up spontaneously thanks to the magnetic power of the consular road.
According to ancient sources, the Via Emilia was built on elevated embankments to avoid the natural obstacles along its route. In the cities, it was paved with large paving stones or cobbles, with footpaths or raised steps to demarcate the street; outside the ancient town centres, it transformed into a roadbed made of gravel and river pebbles. Some sections of the original road are still visible and accessible today, such as at the Bridge of Tiberius in Rimini and in the underground areas of Bologna; others, on the other hand, have randomly come to light during construction works carried out along this ancient road axis.
To orient themselves and give precise information on the distance between places, those travelling along the road could rely on the milestones, stone markers that were originally placed at each Roman mile (every 1,476 metres). Along the way, a number of way stations (stationes) and inns (mansiones) were at the service of travellers who needed a change of horses or a comfortable place to rest. Wooden and masonry bridges, some of them monumental like the Bridge of Tiberius in Rimini, allowed travellers to cross the rivers that flow down from the Apennines towards the plain and the sea.