Micro-urbanism? On the towns of Roman Italy

Looking back on the field trip through Italy, back in June, one thought that remains, is how small many of the Roman cities of Italy appear to have been. I mean, there are exceptions, of course, especially in the coastal plains, and some sites are excavated in a way that induces visitors to underestimate their size, but the general impression left by two weeks of professional sightseeing is that of a peninsula dotted with a near endless quantity of small towns and village-sized settlements that were equipped with town-like monumental architecture.

I mean, take the town Saepinum, with its walled circuit, its monumental forum, and its oddly oversized monumental theatre: it cannot have been a community of more than a thousand souls. Juvanum may have been smaller still, and then, below that, there was yet another category of ‘urban’ settlements, best exemplified by the mysterious non-town of Fagifulae in the hills above the Biferno valley, where a small medieval church and some twenty-four inscriptions attest the existence, in Roman times, of a place deemed worthy enough of a basilica equipped with a portico – and thus, probably, of a forum.

Micro-urbanism reached great heights in the Appennines, and may have been part of the Roman approach to the region of Samnium, where no real cities existed before Roman rule. However, elsewhere, things could be equally undersized. I was amazed by Terracina, which because of its position can barely have been much larger than the forum square that still (or should I say ‘again’?) exists today, and its immediate surroundings. Rusellae, in Tuscany, is a bit bigger but it still can barely be called a huge population centre. Cosa, which is famous for its remains of Roman colonial city planning, never got the population boost that its location might have suggested. Lucus Feroniae is a wonderful excavation, perhaps the best we saw, but the impression that you get is one of a rather tiny ‘urban’ community (if the presence of an ampitheatre is enough to call the settlement ‘urban’). Herdoniae, in the baking hot plains of Apulia, was a nice stop along the Via Traiana, but how many people lived there? Not that many.

Shops around the forum in Juvanum
The forum in Juvanum essentially is the entire ‘city’

It is, not, of course, really very new or surprising that many Roman cities, even in Italy, were phenomenally tiny, and I have always been aware of the fact that the two sites that I know best – Ostia and Pompeii – were, from a Roman point of view, rather big cities, but it was only on visiting them all in a row, and walking through the remains of tiny city after tiny city, that it really dawned on me. Roman ‘urbanism’ actually is ‘settlementism’, and what we label as ‘cities’ may often actually be more aptly called a village, despite its official legal status, and its monumental overhead: there is no relation between the size of a city and the number and dimensions of its monuments. Indeed, the size of a theatre or an amphitheatre is barely indicative of the size of the city to which it belongs. Ask the people at Saepinum.

Saepinum: a theatre with a city
Saepinum: a theatre with a city?

However, and predictably, the overall picture is, in the end, as deceptive as any. There were many bigger cities in Roman Italy as well: Spoletium, Puteoli, Florentia, Patavium and many more. The problem is that these larger urban centres tended to be more fortunate in terms of their survival after antiquity. Thus, they have not been excavated for the simple fact that a medieval town proudly stands top of them.  This is a reality that the project will have to come to terms with: certain types of cities are better known than other types of cities, archaeologically. This is less banal than it may seem: we know more about the commercial landscapes of small cities than we do about those of larger cities. If we make the assumption that investment patterns in larger cities like Pompeii and Ostia tend to be more complex, and include more investment on a larger scale, this large-scale investment will be under-represented in our evidence. This also was patently obvious in June: virtually all tabernae encountered on the field trip were part of small-sized complexes, except for when they were related to a forum complex built by the government, such as at Paestum, Herdoniae, Juvanum and Alba Fucens. Not unimportant to keep in mind, over the next years.



One thought on “Micro-urbanism? On the towns of Roman Italy”

  1. Hi Miko. I’m enjoying your blog, and look forward to further posts.

    Great minds and all that… I posted on this very theme only two weeks ago. Please visit my blog:

    Small towns were definitely the norm in peninsular Italy by the Augustan period, but I guess ‘small’ needs to be defined. There are c.272 peninsular settlements that had (or are hypothesised to have had) some form of Roman legal status we associate with Roman urban centres, and for which an estimate of their size has been made at some point. Fifty-eight of them were =<10 ha, 75 were 10-20 ha, 53 were 20-30 ha, and 86 various sized between 30 and 200+ ha, all based on their known or hypothesised perimeters. Towns of the 10-20ha category seem to have been very numerous, of which Saepinum is a good example.

    The difficult question is how relevant these sizes are to population levels. Some large cities could had very extensive unbuilt areas within their walls, and small towns could have had very high numbers of people living outside the urban areas who frequented the town to exploit its functions as an urban centre.

    Settlements that do not appear to match our perceptions of what a Roman town should be are most numerous among the municipia. Iuvanum and Fagifulae are great examples. I am investigating non-urban and polycentric municipia as part of my current research project.

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