Want to know where to invest for the very, very long term? Just follow a Roman road

The Romans may be long gone, says Merryn Somerset Webb – but we're still using the same infrastructure they laid down 2,000 years ago.


The Romans may be gone, but the roads are still there

In my interview with author Peter Frankopan on the Silk Roads this week (see the upcoming issue of the magazine for the write up the video will be up here soon), we talked about the longevity of quality infrastructure. Goods are still moving back and forth along exactly the same east-west/west-east Silk Road routes between, say, Germany and China, as they were 2,500 years ago. Those goods might have been moved on horseback then, and via three-mile long freight trains now, but you don't really need a new map to follow their paths.

During the conversation, I mentioned to Peter that I had seen some fascinating research on the way in which European development has followed the paths of the 80,000km of roads built by the Romans:we think their empire is long gone, but we are still using the infrastructure the Romans put in place. Several of you have asked for the source for this. So here it is.

This link is to a presentation given by a group of academics in 2014. The title pretty much sums it up (RomanRoads to Prosperity: The Long-run Impact of Transport Infrastructure), but it's worth looking at the slides and the conclusion. If you accept that night-time light intensity is a proxy for economic development (which I think you can note how dark poor North Korea is at night), you will see that the roads built in Roman times are still with us in a good way.

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The report finds a "persistent positive effect of Roman roads on current levels of light intensity". Why? In the short term, it was about security. In the medium term, it was just because they were there the Dark Ages didn't have much to offer, but at least the roads were there as one of the few functioning modes of communication. And in the long term, it was because populations stayed settled along established routes. For 2,000 years.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.