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The development of the urban settlement pattern in peninsular Italy resulting from the Roman conquest (338 to 150 BC)

Final Report Summary - ROMURBITAL (The development of the urban settlement pattern in peninsular Italy resulting from the Roman conquest (338 to 150 BC).)

Project No: 300969
Project Acronym: ROMURBITAL
Project Full Name: The development of the urban settlement pattern in peninsular Italy resulting from the Roman conquest (338 BC to AD 300)

Researcher: Jamie Sewell PhD (email:;
Scientist in Charge: Robert Witcher (email:
Project blog:

The purpose of the project has been to gain insight into the processes driving changes in the pattern of (proto-)urban centres on the Italian peninsula in the period 350 BC to AD 300. This has been undertaken by creating an analytical database and a GIS of all the archaeologically known, ‘higher-order settlements’ of this period on the Italian peninsula, south of the Po River. For the study, the term ‘higher-order settlement’ denotes one that did or might have exercised control over a territorial unit, an archaeological definition of which was devised for the project. In 2015 the project’s data-files will be made Open Access through the Archaeological Data Service, making them a substantial, permanent and free online resource for other researchers.

Due to the very high number of (proto-)urban sites on the peninsula, they tend to be studied on a site-specific or regional basis. Integrating and analysing the results of these studies at a peninsula-wide level has permitted the identification of patterns in the overall dataset that are not apparent at site-specific or even regional levels. It allows regional comparisons to be made so that regional settlement trajectories may be better contextualised. Known historical processes can be quantified and geospatially defined. Specific research questions have determined the analytical structure of the database:

• What impact did the Roman conquest and subsequent known historical events have on the pattern of peninsular higher-order settlements?
• How did the pre-Roman settlement pattern of urban and proto-urban centres shape the network of towns in Roman Italy?
• Can a pattern be determined in the urban character of the municipia founded from the 1st century BCE onwards?
• Can a pattern be determined in the urban character of the veteran colonies founded from the 1st century BCE onwards?

Specific Roman categories of towns were higher-order settlements, such as colonies and municipia. Yet there were also pre-Roman centres that controlled territories, and for their inclusion in the database, an archaeological definition of a higher-order settlement had to be devised. A set of criteria was established for determining whether a settlement should be included in the study or not (see Table 1).

Only published works were utilised for the retrieval of the project’s data, 80% of which date to 1990 or later.
Data was retrieved for 1520 published sites during the course of the fellowship, 590 of which fulfilled the criteria for inclusion in the study. For each of the included sites, geographical and archaeological information was documented (if available or applicable). This included a georeferenced location and diagnostic indicators for physical development and their chronologies, such as size, regularised urban planning, fortifications and civic architecture. Information derived from ancient texts was also recorded, such as the name(s) of the pre-Roman people(s) associated with each site and the date-range of the period during which the people of the local area came under Roman dominion. Institutional development during the Roman period could be traced by documenting which Roman settlement categories are associated with each site (e.g. municipia, colonia). For all interpretive categories of data in the database, a separate indicator records the degree of reliability assigned to that interpretation by the Researcher. It is thus possible to conduct analyses on a number of levels according to data reliability.

All of this information has been input into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that has been structured in such a way that it can be queried to produce answers to a broad range of research questions: each row reflects one site, and each column, a category of data or reliability. A spreadsheet format was chosen because it possesses the required functionality with the added benefit that knowledge of its use is widespread - an important attribute considering its intended Open Access dissemination. It is possible to conduct analysis on every geographical level between individual site and the whole peninsula (see Figure 1). It has an absolute chronological structure which allows for settlement patterns of distinct periods to be isolated and compared (see Figure 2). The spreadsheet can be directly uploaded into a variety of database formats and without alteration it can be uploaded into GIS software as an attribute table in order to visualise site distributions.

The project has therefore produced the first comprehensive survey of all the archaeologically known municipia and veteran colonies on the Italian peninsula and structured the results into an analytical database. Interrogation of this database has produced important results (some highlighted below) which have either not previously been detectable (due to regional rather than peninsular scale of analysis) or which have been postulated but lacked empirical support. These results are being published in a series of papers addressing specific urbanisation processes in distinct historical periods.

Major results have been achieved by contextualising patterns emerging from the data to contemporary historical and archaeological phenomena. For example, it is well known that in central and southern Italy a dramatic increase in the number of rural sites is attested in the early Hellenistic period. A major result of the project has been to determine that in precisely these areas at this time there was also a very pronounced increase in the number of (proto-)urban sites and in the rate of urbanisation. Although this phenomenon coincided chronologically with the Roman conquest, it occurred both in regions impacted by the conquest and other areas where no Roman activity is recorded in the sources. This suggests that urbanisation happened in spite of the conquest rather than as a result of it. Establishing a link between urban and rural settlement growth makes a contribution to the discussion on the causes of urbanisation. For example, it emphasises the argument that urban and rural studies need to be integrated for a deeper understanding of the historical processes affecting both.

The results of the project have also demonstrated that after the Roman conquest, the overall number of urban sites decreased while the number of rural sites, with regional variation, continued to increase. Rather than this being a result of the Roman conquest, major decreases in the numbers of urban centres seem to occur at moments that correspond historically to major Roman wars on Italian soil, such as those against Pyrrhus and Hannibal. After the Hannibalic War, many sites in southern Italy were abandoned, and hardly any new urban sites were founded. From this moment through to the Late Republican period, the project has documented a tangible process of large urban centres having reduced in overall size, especially apparent in the ancient centres of Etruria and in the surviving Greek colonies of the south. Small urban centres seem to have been particularly successful in post-conquest Italy, with the highest number falling in the range of 10-20 ha, most of which developed in central and northern areas of the peninsula. In the north, most of these new towns were located in regions where very few (proto-)urban centres existed in pre-conquest contexts. The overall reduction in size and number of peninsular urban centres over time (even with the new foundations in the north taken into account) and the growing number of rural sites in the same period have important implications. It suggests that in Roman Italy there was a greater emphasis on towns serving the rural population, rather than vice versa, probably because of the central economic role the countryside played in production. These results are relevant for demographic historians and landscape archaeologists, and may shed light on processes occurring in Roman provincial contexts.

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