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Power, Culture, Or Patronage?

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Patterns of Urban Settlement

In the light of recent threads concerning Roman urbanisation, here's a few thoughts on urban settlement in the the Roman world. Whilst this subject is interesting enough, and hauntingly familiar to us with modern perspective, it must be remembered that an estimated 80% of the population in Roman times were rural, and not all of those living as Romans. There are basically three types of Roman town.


1 - Existing settlements.

In areas where the Romans made their presence known it was always possible to find larger settlements. With Roman patronage there would have been people in these settlements, not necessarily Roman, but those willing to conform and profit from the system, who would have built and sponsored Roman-style facilities alongside those of the native culture. Street layouts would broadly retain their former character although Roman planning would eventually impose itself to some degree during redevelopment.


2 - The Vicus

Roman forts were either temproary marching camps, or more usefully, permanent installations built either of wood or stone. Once the Roman soldiers had become established in an area, they were a ready source of customers for local artisans and entrepeneurs. The importance of the Roman military in this respect cannot be overstated - entire local economies depended on soldiers money.


Initially, these vicae were native settlements, built by those people who wanted to profit from the forts soldiers, and the existence of Roman facilities emerges to satisfy their requirements as customers. As the settlement becomes more successful, it would develop a Roman character.


3 - Colonies

Towns created from scratch by urban planning were a feature of the principate, especially under the Augustan Franchise which saw the distribution and settlement of more than thirty legions of veteran soldiers. These colonies served two purposes - Firstly, they provided a nucleus of Roman culture in wilderness or declining regions. Secondly, they provided new markets and growth, therefore widening the tax base.


Colonies were built to a generic pattern. They always had a north-south aligned street grid, and facilities would be found in more or less the same relationship to each other, a feature designed to make these towns familiar to travellers and enhance communications and community life.


Urban Issues in the Roman World

In all cases, the Romans encouraged the development of urban development and landmark changes might receive rewards and concessions to the community. A spirit of competition existed in the first stage of this urbanisation of the Roman World as communities vied with one another for prestige.


The issue of 'Romanisation' is an exaggerated concept. Provincial populations for the most part carried on life as they always had done, apart from having to observe Roman law. Some provinces adapted to Roman culture readily and thus seem more 'Romanised' to our eyes. Britain was never fully compliant, the north of England in particular proving troublesome. Judaea and Mauretania were rebellious. Hadrians promise to rebuild Jerusalem turned to outright revolt when he decided to create a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina in its place.


The familiarity of Roman architecture we see preserved around Europe, Africa, and th Middle East tends to reinforce the view that the Roman world was a unifrom culture, but that wasn't the case. Rome was a city state at the center of an empire, a confederation of barbarian regions under Roman rule. Some regions were more willing than others, and its worth noting that after the varian Disaster of AD9, the Romano-Germanic towns undergoing settlement beyond the Rhine were quickly abandoned by the native tribes. Urbanisation was therefore a product of Roman patronage, not culture, further encouraged by the presence of the Roman military and its need for logistical support.


An interesting trend is the fortifying of towns from the 2nd Century AD. On the one hand, it can be seen as symbolic of civic pride and possibly an employment initiative. On the other, a sign of increasing defensive posture and a desire to live in safe protected surroundings? The implications in the second case is that the Roman Empire felt less safe, thus encouraging defensive works, and it may be no coincidence that Hadrians policy of border control is linked to this atmosphere.


By the late empire Rome was in decline as a city, the center of power had moved to Constantinople, or in the case of the Tetrarchy, Trier and Antioch too. There was therefore less focus to emulate Roman civil engineering and urban development, and less wealth to support and patronise it. The old fanchise system was long dead as provincial towns became increasingly independent of central control and wholly concerned with their own survival in an unstable empire.


The drawback to urban life is the ever-present risk of disease. Rome itself had outbreaks of disease and althogh there was some provision for health care and cleaniness, assuming you were wealthy enough to afford it, the average Roman lived in conditions not far removed from his barbarian neighbours. Noticeably, there seems to be an increasing prevalence of disease toward the late empire.


It's tempting to believe this is linked to a decline in Roman culture with the influx of foreign immigrants over the centuries, but it can also be demonstrated that the spread of disease was due to Roman trade, that the merchant ships and overland caravans were carrying disease to all corners of the Empire once it emerged in one place. The comfort and wealth of Roman life was also immensely attractive to many barbarian peoples across the border. It would therefore be correct to say that the urbanisation of the Roman world was a victim of its own success.

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You've mentioned a number of important ideas here. There's been somewhat of a breakthrough in the archaeology of Italy in the past decade. Ricardo Franocovich and Richard Hodges, for a few, have devoted study to the transformation of the Roman countryside from late antiquity to the 11th century as revealed by archaeology. I recommend their "Villa to Village, " Duckworth Press, UK.


Not nearly enough attention has been paid to rural areas within the Roman Empire. The authors take issue with relying on texts alone to trace the development from villa to village in Italy. The archaeology seems to be telling us that between villa and village there were transitional forms of rural organization, some of it without the participation of lords or feudal potentates, at least for a time. Of course, the market for agricultural goods changed rapidly after the ravages of the Gothic Wars, mid-6th centuries. Market became almost completely local.


Perhaps a whole new, and necessary, field of study is opening up: the Roman people without a history.


Yes, I can see where dilapidated Roman cities would be much less safe than the Roman countryside.

Edited by Ludovicus

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