3. Specific Research Questions

Four research questions determined which data categories were to be incorporated into the database and how they should be structured. The database is designed to reveal patterns related to the following research questions.

  1. Are there chronological correlations between the Roman conquest of Italy, subsequent historical events and changes in the pattern of urban and proto-urban centres of the peninsula?
  2. Are supra-regional processes (e.g. abandonment, fortification, expansion) apparent that do not seem to be related to events reported in surviving ancient textual sources?
  3. Can any geographical or morphological patterns be determined in the urban character of the municipia founded from the 1st century BCE onwards?
  4. Can any geographical or morphological patterns be determined in the urban character of the veteran colonies founded from the 1st century BCE onwards?

A summary of the history and archaeology of urbanism in Italy: 350-30 BCE

These questions require qualification. Question 1 responds to a desire to understand whether the consequences of historical processes reported in ancient texts are reflected in changes in settlements and settlement patterns. The Roman conquest of Italy is chief among these, but other major historical events that occurred after the conquest are also thought to have impacted the network of major centres, such as the Pyrrhic War, the Hannibalic War, the Social War and the Civil Wars (see link). Question 2 aims to discern historical processes that may be identified archaeologically, the chronologies of which cannot be tied in to any specific historical event.

Together, Questions 1 and 2 allow for any potential pattern that might be generated by the database, regardless of specific cause, to be isolated and assessed. Although broadly formulated, the questions reflect the wish to contextualise the results of these analyses with historical information, while acknowledging that more was happening in ancient Italy than is reported in ancient texts.

The types of processes the database can elucidate are best demonstrated through some examples. As noted in the introduction, there was a proliferation of fortified centres in the period 350-300 BCE. Although this increase in settlement activity occurred during the period of the Roman conquest, after a critical evaluation of the evidence there is little to suggest that it occurred because of the conquest (Sewell forthcoming). As a result, although it is a pattern that appears to respond to Question 1, with further analysis it seems more likely to be a pattern that addresses Question 2. This demonstrates that care is required in the interpretation of patterns generated by the database. The chronological correlation of archaeologically attested change and historical events should not automatically imply causation.

An example of a pattern of the post-conquest period, and one that contrasts with the preceding period, is that hardly any new fortified centres greater than 2ha in size were founded by non-Roman cultural groups that did not subsequently go on to become Roman towns (Sewell in prep a). Another pronounced pattern is the reduction in the average size of peninsular settlements between the later 4th and 1st centuries BCE (Sewell in prep a), brought about through two distinct processes. Firstly, many of the older and particularly large pre-conquest centres underwent dramatic reductions in their urban areas, often by way of nucleation, most notably in Etruria, Magna Graecia, Messapia and Daunia. Secondly, many of the new centres founded after the conquest that became Roman towns were relatively small. As a result, by the Augustan period, on a scale of 10ha increments, more towns fell into the 10-20ha category than any other. This can be put into perspective for readers who have visited Pompeii, which comprises 65ha.

Another post-conquest phenomenon was the increasing preference for level terrain for the location of new urban centres (Sewell in prep a), especially apparent from the 2nd century BCE onwards, and in stark contrast to a pre-conquest preference for hilltop locations. Although many of the new settlements of the last two centuries BCE were founded in the less hilly northern areas of the peninsula (i.e. there was little option but to locate towns on level terrain), the general new preference for low-lying sites is very apparent in the mountainous Apennine chain. Here possible hilltop locations were rejected in favour of those on level ground. Although archaeologists are aware that this process occurred during the Late Republic (e.g. Cancellieri 1997), the database facilitates an accurate temporal and geographical assessment of its origins. In turn, such observations should prove useful to scholars interested in how the development of urban economies may have related to the growing network of Roman roads (viae publicae), water management and technology (aqueducts), and changing agricultural practices.

Questions 3 and 4 also form an interrelated pairing. The municipia that emerged in the 1st century BCE were communities with pre-conquest origins; analysis of these late republican sites may shed more light on Italy's pre-Roman peoples. Although the municipia were, by definition, communities of Roman citizens, this institutional status did not equate to a uniformity of settlement form. The majority have evidence of canonical Roman civic architecture, but there is otherwise a startling diversity in the physical character of these centres. For example, the 5th-century BCE Greek colony of Neapolis (Naples) became a municipium, and yet there are other municipia which seem never to have developed a fully urban form, such as Angulum or Genusia. A comprehensive study of the municipia created in the 1st century BCE has been already been undertaken from an institutional standpoint (Bispham 2007a; cf. Humbert 1978; Laffi 2007), which also explores the consequences of municipalisation for the communities concerned. Yet no peninsula-wide archaeological study of the municipia has ever been undertaken, and the database provides information to fill this lacuna (Sewell in prep b). By establishing and evaluating the archaeologically attested diversity of municipia, a clearer definition of what a municipium was may be achieved.

Similarly, in relation to Question 4, there are institutional and historical studies of veteran colonies (Brunt 1988, 240-80; Keppie 1983), but no peninsula-wide archaeological study; the database contributes towards such an analysis (Sewell in prep c). Like munipicia, veteran colonies were self-governing communities of Roman citizens. They differed in as much as municipia were existing communities bestowed citizenship, whereas the colonies were created when contingents of retiring legionary soldiers were given land in the territories of existing settlements, the vast majority of which had pre-Roman origins. The military background of these settlers suggests that the colonies might have had a different type of relationship to Rome than did the citizens of municipia. These socio-political differences might have led to divergences in the physical developments of municipia and veteran colonies. A preliminary observation may be made in this respect: more of the veteran colonies went on to assume a clearly urban form than did municipia. Care is required, however, since dozens of municipia subsequently became veteran colonies, and enormous investment in monumental architecture and infrastructure is apparent in both municipia and colonies, especially during the Augustan and Julio-Claudian periods.

Archive: An archaeological database of higher-order settlements on the Italian peninsula (350 BCE to 300 CE)

As this discussion of the research questions indicates, the project and its database are focused on the identification of spatial, chronological and morphological patterns across the network of (proto-)urban centres in peninsular Italy. The aim is to look beyond individual sites, and local and regional patterns, to examine wider trends both in relation to known historical events and in terms of broader settlement processes that may relate to issues of economy, demography or social organisation.