The ancient Romans prided themselves on their roads. The famous “Roman roads” were not only expertly constructed (many still survive today and are still in use), but they also formed a massive network stretching virtually from one end of the known world to the other. Great highways radiated outward from Rome (you have doubtless heard the expression “All roads lead to Rome”), and by the time of the late Empire all Rome’s 113 provinces were interconnected by 372 great roads totaling almost a quarter of a million miles (over 400,000 km).
The Roman roads were used to move armies as well as for trade and international communication, and virtually everyone used the vast network of roads for any kind of travel by land. In fact, the roads of Rome became a kind of institution, and they were carefully maintained and protected by laws appropriate to their importance.
So it is interesting to realize that, despite the vast amount of national and international travel in which the Romans regularly participated, they made few maps as we know them, with landforms and other features. Instead, the Romans made itineraria which were simply lists of roads (and in some cases, sea routes) with distances between the major points along the way. These itineraria ranged from small local road lists to ones covering vast distances.
Julius Caesar and Mark Antony commissioned the first known master itinerary of all Roman roads in 44 BC. Skilled Greek geographers were hired to compile the information on the Roman road system, and this task took over 25 years to complete. The result was a master itinerarium which was engraved on a stone set up in Rome from which travelers could make copies. The famous Tabula Peutingeriana is a later copy of another, Fifth Century, schematic listing of the Roman roads from Spain in the West to India in the East.
So, with such an itinerarium, if you knew where a person was from, you could know where he or she could go and how long it would take them to get there. The possible roads any person could take were well documented, and the Romans were doubtless especially proud of this. We should remember this fact as the context in which the apostle Paul wrote, in his letter to the Romans themsleves, of the wisdom and knowledge of God - whose paths (Greek hodoi: “travelled ways,” “roads”) were “beyond tracing out” (Romans 11:33).
In writing this Paul makes a point about the greatness of God that is easy to read over. The documentation of the Roman roads demonstrated not only human ability to know exactly where and how others could come and go, the itineraria symbolized Rome’s – and humanity’s – knowledge and control of the world: over the very universe from a human perspective.
In pointing out to the Romans that God’s paths were beyond “tracing out,” Paul did more than simply tell them that God was great beyond our comprehension. That is an essential part of his meaning, of course, but he also reminded them of the true scale of things and that it was God, not Rome, who “mapped” the world and controlled it with unimaginable power.