A map of urban culture in the Roman world (I)

This map (click on it for a full version) is, to some extent, an accident. It is not really a core product of the Building Tabernae project, but it comes from a desire to give the project a better context and to make it a bit easier for me to legitimize my decision to limit the primary focus of the project to Roman Italy: how does Italy relate to the rest of the Roman world, and what does that mean for the wider significance of a study focusing on urban commercial investment in this part of the Roman world? To some extent, I think I have found that answer, but it resulted in a by-product that I didn’t really expect, and that has significantly enriched my view of the Roman world – both in terms of the questions that I would tend to ask, and the answers that I would imagine to get.

Archaeological remains and epigraphic evidence

The map offers an integrated view of the geographical spread of several sets of data – all consisting of inscriptions, some also including buildings – and highlights the regions with concentrations of evidence are higher. The dots indicate the places where the evidence has been found, and they have been coloured yellow to red based on the amount of other dots in their direct environment: the redder the color, the higher the density of places with relevant evidence. The size of the individual dots indicate the amount of evidence found locally. In total, there are 2283 dots on the map, based on 11.642 inscriptions and 1494 buildings.  It is immediately clear from the map that the evidence on which this map has been based was not divided equally over the Roman World.

So what do we see? I brought together five datasets by searching the epigraphic databases and using some catalogues of archeological evidence – in practice, I experimented a bit before selecting the five datasets that, as far as I could see, were least polluted by search- and recovery biases. These are:

  1. Inscriptions mentioning sums of money or report money being spent (e.g. ‘pecunia sua’).
  2. Inscriptions mentioning the erection of statuary.
  3. Spectacle buildings (theatres, amphitheatres, stadiums, hippodromes) and inscriptions referring to them.
  4. Inscriptions mentioning the organization of spectacles.
  5. Bath buildings and inscriptions referring to them.

There is some overlap between these datasets – particularly between the first and the other four – but they mostly stand on their own, and more-or-less confirm each other in that the geographical spread of each individual dataset mostly conforms to the general spread of evidence.

Money spent on civic life and urban development

I would suggest that the five datasets offer, each from a different perspective, a view on Roman urban culture. They particularly, highlight the spread of euergetism, but also shed light on the spread of urban leisure facilities. Together, they provide a roughly reliable index of where in the Roman world money was spent on public urban life and on urban development. To some extent, this also tells us a bit about where wealth was concentrated, and where communities tended to have enough money above subsistence to be able to afford themselves these public urban luxuries.

Most of the places where evidence was found were cities, though, notably, sanctuaries and bath spas are included too, particularly in densely urbanized regions. Conversely, the majority of cities and larger settlements are present, but some are lacking – because they failed to develop an urban culture that expressed itself in monumental baths and spectacle buildings and in euergetism worth inscribed commemoration. The map comes very close to being an index of Roman urbanism, but it offers a more direct view of urban culture than a map of Roman cities would offer.

Archaeological biases and epigraphic habits

The Roman World

The interpretation of this map is not straightforward, and I will share some of my ideas about this here at a later moment. I would like to insist, though, that while some distortion due to recovery bias and diverging epigraphic habits is inevitable,  the overall picture is not seriously affected by it:  the concentrations of evidence visible on the map do not stop at modern research boundaries, nor at ancient cultural boundaries, but rather at ecological boundaries; they also conform to transport routes such as valleys and roads (see e.g. the Via Popilia and the Via Appia in southern Italy). Moreover, as far as the epigraphic record is concerned – there are few regions where there is a lot of epigraphic evidence and no archaeological evidence at all, and this is also true the other way around. Thus, the inclusion in the datasets of archaeology alongside epigraphy, makes that the distortion caused by diverging epigraphic habits remains fairly limited.

The picture on this map, therefore, reflects a historical reality. The question to be discussed next is which historical reality this is, and what it means.