The first Roman milestone on Via Appia, just outside the city gates. This is a replica, the original being preserved in the Piazza del Campidoglio

There had been human roads before there were any milestones. It may be that the ancient Romans were the first to come up with a way of marking points along a road that would help cartography and navigation. Not to mention human psychology. The oldest Roman milestone was the one on Via Appia, just outside San Sebastian’s gate south of Rome. Via Appia also appears to have been the first paved Roman road, connecting Rome to Capua and then Brundisium, the present-day Brindisi on the heel of the Italian peninsula. The historical record and the archeology, frail as they may be, suggest that the Roman road had been, since the beginning, indissolubly linked to the need to mark distances, to know how far or how close a place is from one’s location.

The Roman milestones marked each mile, each milia passum, ‘a thousand paces’, or 1,476 meters. The milestone or miliarium (that of a thousand paces) took the shape of a column inscribed with the number of the mile, the distance to the Forum in Rome and information about the road. To reach a milestone was to get closer to your destination and to locate yourself on the vast surface of the earth.

What’s the point of going somewhere if you don’t know how long it is before you get there? Milestones are psychological obelisks, erected to make space bearable. The longest road seems shorter as soon as we reduce it to a number, which itself decreases as we keep walking. Are we there yet? Check the milestone.

It is no wonder that this ingenious Roman invention passed into common parlance as a metaphor for a notable stage in a process. Projects have milestones, even our lives admit of milestones, defining points on a narrative of development and growth. They bring order to an otherwise faltering itinerary. They make the surroundings look familiar and the horizon almost within reach.

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