The “Via Egnatia” was the most important road in antiquity in Macedonia and Thrace. Basically, it served as a Roman military and commercial highway constructed between 146 – 120 BC and named after the man who ordered its construction: Proconsul Gaius Egnatius.
Like all Roman roads, the pavement of the Via Egnatia was about six meters wide. The road was very important. Connecting the eastern and western part of a once powerful state, the Macedonian kings had already built a road from the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea. For the Romans, it was essentially the continuation of the Via Appia: anyone coming from Rome and travelling to the east, would come to Brundisium, cross the Adriatic, reach Dyrrhachium (or Apollonia), and continue along the Via Egnatia.
The main literary sources for the construction of the road are Strabo’s Geographica and a number of milestones found along the route’s length, marking the road for a length of 860 kilometres as far as the border between Macedonia and Thrace at the river Hebrus (Maritsa). It may have succeeded an earlier military road from Illyria to Byzantium, as described by Polybius and Cicero, which the Romans apparently built over and/or improved.
Strabo, describes the Via Egnatia as follows, “Of this seaboard, then, the first parts are those about Epidamnus and Apollonia. From Apollonia to Macedonia one travels the Egnatian Road, towards the east; it has been measured by Roman miles and marked by pillars as far as Cypsela [Now Ipsala] and the Hebrus [Now the Maritza] River–a distance of five hundred and thirty-five miles. Now although the road as a whole is called the Egnatian Road, the first part of it is called the Road to Candavia (an Illyrian mountain) and passes through Lychnidus,[Now Ochrida] a city, and Pylon, a place on the road which marks the boundary between the Illyrian country and Macedonia. From Pylon the road runs to Barnus [Now the Neretschka Planina Mountain] through Heracleia [Heracleia Lyncestis; now Monastir] and the country of the Lyncestae and that of the Eordi into Edessa [Now Vodena] and Pella [The capital of Macedonia; now in ruins and called Hagii Apostoli] and as far as Thessaloniceia [Now Thessaloniki or Saloniki]; and the length of this road in miles, according to Polybius, is two hundred and sixty-seven. So then, in travelling this road from the region of Epidamnus and Apollonia, one has on the right the Epeirotic tribes whose coasts are washed by the Sicilian Sea and extend as far as the Ambracian Gulf [The Gulf of Arta], and, on the left, the mountains of Illyrla, which I have already described in detail, and those tribes which live along them and extend as far as Macedonia and the country of the Paeonians”
The road was used by the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey as he traveled from Philippi to Thessalonica. It also played a vital role in several key moments in Roman history: the armies of Julius Caesar and Pompey marched along the Via Egnatia during Caesar’s civil war, and during the Liberators’ civil war Mark Antony and Octavian pursued Cassius and Brutus along the Via Egnatia to their fateful meeting at the Battle of Philippi. Surviving milestones record that the emperor Trajan undertook extensive repairs of the road prior to his campaign of 113 against the Parthians.
After Byzantium had become the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, a special gate was made for the Via Egnatia, called the Golden Gate. It was used for the triumphal entries of the Byzantine emperors. Moreover, Procopius records repairs made by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I during the 6th century, though even then the dilapidated road was said to be virtually unusable during wet weather. Almost all Byzantine overland trade with western Europe traveled along the Via Egnatia. During the Crusades, armies traveling to the east by land followed the road to Constantinople before crossing into Asia Minor. In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, control of the road was vital for the survival of the Latin Empire as well as the Byzantine successor states the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus.
Within the walled city of Philippi, the Via Egnatia (decumanus maximus) traversed its center and connected two of the three known gates in the walls: the “Neapolis Gate” and the “Krinides Gate”. The via Egnatia survives within the archaeological site to a length of around 300 m. The road passed along the central market, and a sewer made sure that the street was never too wet or dirty.
Today’s modern highway, Egnatia Odos, runs in parallel with the Via Egnatia between Thessaloniki and the Turkish border on the Evros river. Its name means “Via Egnatia” in Greek, alluding to its ancient predecessor.