Roman Sardinia, all roads lead to Rome

In Roman times economy and social life on Sardinia were governed by the political center of the Roman Empire, Rome. Literally all roads lead to Rome. The roman engineers laid the basis for the road system on Sardinia to serve the army, the imperial couriers and the transport of products for the markets of Rome that were shipped through the main harbours of the island. The agricultural production was determined by the needs of Rome as well, either through taxation or through the organization of production. Throughout Roman times the division of the island in two distinct economic areas remained: on the one hand the fertile lands of the main plains near the towns where the Romans introduced the rational production of the villa system and on the other hand the hills and mountains where local independent farmers of the Sardic tribes continued to survive.

Roman roads and transport

The Romans expanded on the former punic and sardic infrastructure where needed, building many new bridges over creeks and rivers. That this was done in a rational and efficient way can be deduced from the fact that many roads nowadays still follow the same route and some bridges were in use even long after the middle ages. How the infrastructure looked like is known from various historical sources, like the Itinerarium Antonini (the full title reads Itinerarium provinciarum Antonini Augusti), the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemaeus and the writings of the anonymous cosmographer of Ravenna (Anonymus Ravennas), but has also been confirmed by the discovery of about 150 milestones with inscriptions (a Roman mile is a thousand steps and is equivalent to 1478 metres) and ofcourse by the location of the roman bridges like the one near Santa Giusta 1.

a. the roman roads

Most of the roman roads were never paved but were covered with gravel contained by a stone ridge on each side (the socalled viae glariae). The most important roads were oriented north-south and according to the Itinerarium Antonini started in the north in Portus Tibulas (Coghinas?) or Tibulas (Castelsardo) ending mainly at Caralis (Cagliari). The most eastern of the roads, the a Portus Tibulas Caralis, followed the entire eastcoast of Sardinia. More inland a parallel road ran from Olbia to Caralis through the region of the Barbagia, the aliud iter ab Ulbia Caralis. The central road connected Tibulas with Caralis, passing first through Turris Libisonis (Porto Torres), and then through Forum Traiani (Fordongianus) and Othoca (Santa Giusta) across the plains of the Campidano right down to Caralis. The itinerary is roughly that of the current strada statale Carlo Felice built in the 19th century. However orginally this central road would not have passed through Othoca but west of the Monte Arci via the Colonia Uselis (Usellus). The most western road, the a Tibulas Sulcis, ran along the entire westcoast of Sardinia through Bosa, Cornus, Othoca, Neapolis (Terralba) and Metalla (Fluminimaggiore) to Sulcis (Sant'Antioco). Other important roads that have been identified ran east-west, like the roads connecting Sulcis with Caralis, one through the valley of the Cixerri, another along the coast through Bithia (Chia) and Nora (Pula). Another east-west road in the north connected Portus Tibulas with Portus Liguidonis on the eastcoast, via Caput Tyrsi, the source of the river Tirso 2. Secondary roads connected other centers to the main roads. Tharros was considered a caput viae according to a milestone found at Cabras which indicates a road running from Tharros to Cornus that intersected the a Tibulas Sulcis 3. Another secondary road (deverticulum) connected Neapolis with Acquae Napolitanae near Sardara, the Colonia Uselis and Forum Traiani.

Along these roads stations were built where high officials or couriers of the empire (cursus publicum) could rest or change horses. One of these stations, also called praetorium, has been found near Marrubiu at Is Bangius (The baths). It is an example of how ancient functions of buildings sometimes survive in local toponyms. Another praetorium could have been that of Domu 'e Cubas near San Salvatore on the Sinis peninsula 4.

b. the navigation

Su Pallosu on the northside of the peninsula of Sinis
Su Pallosu on the northside of
the peninsula of Sinis

Transportation of the Sardinian products was done mainly with wagons over the roads to the harbours 5. The most important harbours were those of Turris Libisonis, Olbia and Caralis. Ofcourse there were also many smaller harbourtowns of phoenician-punic origin where the products were shipped that came from the surrounding country. Next to research on harbour structures archaeologists also do research on shipwrecks around Sardinia to get information on the kind of products they transported and which navigation routes they took. This research has shown that Sardinia remained central in Mediterranean navigation: from southern Italy (Rome and Naples) ships navigated through the Straits of Bonifatius to Spain and from north Africa to the mainland of southern France (Marseille) along the coast of Sardinia. These routes remained throughout Roman and Medieval times important for navigation 6.

That the navigation was not without dangers is shown by the many shipwrecks near the smaller islands and cliffs. A notorious passage were the Strait of Bonifatius between Sardinia and Corsica, the Fretum Gallicum. Worth mentioning are also the shipwrecks near the island Mal di Ventre. One of these wrecks had been loaded with lead ingots and these have been lying there twothousand years underwater. The load was not only interesting for archaeologists, also the world of chemists and nuclear scientists were very much interested in the possible use of this lead for isolation purposes in nuclear plants. The underwater archaeology has contributed much to our knowledge on shipping and the economy in roman times, although many sites have been depredated by illegal treasurehunting by divers. The locations of new shipwrecks are kept as long as possible secret and the coastguard plays an active role in safeguarding these sites. A lot of research has lately been done around the harbour called Korakodes Limen (or portus. Korakodes is greek for cormoran) on the northside of the Sinis peninsula at Putzu Idu 7.

The countryside: the villa economy and the Barbaria

Although no extensive archaeological research on the villa system in Sardinia has been done the general opinion is that around the towns this system was intimately connected to the production of surplus and the export of grain to Rome. Important families owned the grain production and the shipping enterprises at the same time as can be seen with the family of Eutychianus in the territory of Cuglieri (near Bosa). The Roman villa was divided in a pars urbana and a pars rustica. The pars urbana was meant for the living quarters of the villa owner and had all the luxuries of an urban villa and often baths. The pars rustica was that part of the villa where production took place and was managed by an intendant who overviewed the labour force of slaves and free men. The villa was an autarkic enterprise where surplus of products was sold to the markets and exported. The Sardinian villa-economy was a continuation of the large punic latifundia which made the change to the roman system easier. In most cases the actual owners of the villae never set foot on Sardinia and the pars urbana was never as comfortable as that of villae on the Italian peninsula. But the development of the villa-system was the cause of the disappearance of the small farmsteads and the rise of a new landowning middle class. Around these villae small villages arose where slaves, free labourers and craftsmen worked and lived, causing the country side in the fertile plains to romanize quite early 8.

The interior of Sardinia was proclaimed in theory ager publicus populi Romani and the local farmers owed taxes to the central government (the decimus, a tenth of their produce) but the tribes were not at all romanized and their economy was still small scale and based on selfsufficiency and comunal use of the surrounding territory 9. In the area's with many nuraghi the production remained small scale as well, nuragic villages remained the main centres and the villa-system was not introduced there. In many cases reoccupation of nuraghi has been ascertained where under punic rule they were previously abandoned. Surplus of grain and livestock products were brought to the markets. Examples of nuraghi and nuragic villages in Roman times are the nuraghe Genna Maria and Nuraghe Losa 10. The romans called the most interior regions of Sardinia the Barbaria (today it is called Barbagia) where tribes like the Iliensis, the Balari, the Barbaricini and the Gallilensis lived mainly with their herds of sheep and goat 11. For a long time these tribes raided the fertile plains and villae, taking away what they could. To contain these tribes the Romans built a number of fortified places and intervened directly against the tribes in their own heartland. Under Augustus Sardinia was placed directly under imperial government because the island had still not been pacified. A cohors (VII?) Lusitanorum was stationed in Austis (the name derived from Augustus) 12 and a cohors I Corsorum was stationed in Forum Traiani to get control over the sardic tribes 13. Another cohors, the III Aquitanorum, was stationed around the first half of the first century AD but this cohors was moved after 74 AD to the province of Germania Superiore 14. Only by breaking the resistence of the Sardic tribes the interior regions could finally be romanized more effectively.

Other economic activities in Sardinia during Roman times

In the southwest of Sardinia ore mining remained an important activity. Metal ores were mined in the region of the Iglesiente to obtain iron, lead, copper, silver and even gold. Locals and slaves worked in the mines but in the course of the centuries the romans exiled also political opponents, criminals and christians and condemned them to forced labour. Near Cagliari and on the peninsula of Sinis seesalt was produced. This was intimately connected to the fishing industry, tunafish for example, and the conservation of fish products. From archeological excavations it is also known that coral was harvested and used in jewellery, just like in preceding punic times 15.

A particular inscription: the bronze tablet of Esterzili

In roman times important laws and decrees were written down on bronze or stone tablets. For example military diploma's, issued when a soldier had finished to serve his term in the army, were made out of bronze. Many inscriptions have not survived to our times, bronze is easy to recast and has been reused throughout our history for statues (for churches) and artillery, canons. Still it can happen that an important inscription survived through the centuries as with the tablet of Esterzili, a bronze plaque that contains the summary of a court sentence proconsul Lucius Helvius Agrippa pronounced in the case of the quarrel between Gallilenses and the orginally Campanian Patulcenses. The proconsul restored the boundaries between the tribes based on the division made by Marcus Caecilius Metellus some 170 years before. The bronze tablet weighs twenty kilo and measured 61 by 45 centimeters. It is a valuable source on the age old rivalry between farmers, the Patulcenses, and the tribes of inland Sardinia that roamed the countryside with their herds, the Gallilenses.

The bronze tablet had been fixed to the walls in Roman times as a reminder of this sentence and was recovered in 1866 by a local of Esterzili who handed it over to Giovanni Spano. The famous archaeologist Theodor Mommsen was informed by Spano and both published at the same time the translation. After Giovanni Spano passed away the tablet was donated to the archaeological museum of Sassari where it still can be admired. The the tablet of Esterzili is still considered by historians to be the most important inscription of Roman Sardinia 16.


1 Mastino 2005, p 333-340, information in this article is mainly based on this work; Dyson 2007, p 149-150
2 Mastino 2005, p 333-340, with a map of the roman roads; Belli 1988
3 Mastino 2005, p 378; Acquaro 1999, p 11
4 Mastino 2005, p 369; Donati 1992, p 48-53 Le terme di Domu 'e Cubas by Raimondo Zucca.
5 Mastino 2005, p 334
6 Zucca 2003, In his work Insulae Sardiniae et Corsicae the author describes the smaller islands of Corsica and Sardinia in ancient times and a number of shipwrecks. He reconstructs navigation in ancient times using written sources and archaeological sources.
7 Mastino 2005, p 188; Mastino 2006: In Tharros Felix 2 several authors, including Raimondo Zucca, Attilio Mastino and Pier Giorgio Spanu report on the excavation and research on shipwrecks near Putzu Idu and the island Sa Tonnara
8 Mastino 2005, p 180-183; Dyson 2007, p 139
9 Mastino 2005, p 183; Mastino 2004, p 92
10 Dyson 1992, p 484-489; Webster 1992, p 462-468; Dyson 2007, p 137, 139-140
11 Mastino 2005, p 307
12 Mastino 2005, p 310-311, 395
13 Mastino 2005, p 296,395; Zucca 1986, p 5
14 Mastino 2005, p 395-396
15 Mastino 2005, p 185-189; Mastino 2004, p 98-102; Dyson 2007, p 171
16 Mastino 2005, p 137-144; The complete text of the tablet of Esterzili is contained in the Corpus Inscriptionem Latinorum (CIL) in volume X number 7852; Ruggeri 1999, p 255-256, introductions to the reprints of the publications of G. Spano of 1866 where the same publishes the translation of the text of the tablet of Esterzili.; Dyson 2007, p 135 (photo of the tablet of Esterzili)


1. Acquaro C., Finzi C., 1999, Tharros, Sassari
2. Belli E., 1988, La viabilità romana nel Logudoro-Meilogu, in: Il Nuraghe S. Antine nel Logudoro-Meilogu, Moravetti A. ed., Sassari, p 331-395
3. Donati A., Zucca R., 1992, L'ipogeo di San Salvatore, Sassari
4. Dyson S.L., 1992, Roman Sardinia and Roman Britain in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, Tykot R.H., Andrews T.K. ed., Sheffield, p 484-492
5. Dyson S.L., Rowland R.J., 2007, Shepherds Sailors and Conquerors, Philadelphia
6. Mastino A., 2004, La Sardegna romana in: Storia della Sardegna, Brigaglia M. ed., Cagliari, p 75-130
7. Mastino A., 2005, Storia della Sardegna Antica, Sassari
8. Mastino A., Spanu P.G., Zucca R., 2006, Tharros Felix 2, Roma
9. Ruggeri P., 1999, Africa ipsa parens illa Sardiniae studi di storia antica e di epigrafia, Sassari
10. Webster G.S., Teglund M., 1992, Toward the study of colonial-native relations in Sardinia from c. 1000 BC-AD 456 in: Sardinia in the Mediterranean: A footprint in the sea, Tykot R.H., Andrews T.K. ed., Sheffield, p 448-473
11. Zucca R., 1986, Fordongianus, Sassari
12. Zucca R., 2003, Insulae Sardiniae et Corsicae: le isole minori della Sardegna e della Corsica nell'antichità, Roma

Last updated 04/05/2020

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