BMCR 2014.12.30

The Urbanization of Rome and Latium Vetus: From the Bronze Age to the Archaic Era

, The Urbanization of Rome and Latium Vetus: From the Bronze Age to the Archaic Era. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xx, 411. ISBN 9781107030350. $99.00.


Anyone familiar with the issues discussed in this book will note immediately that in spite of the sober title the author is venturing into highly contested territory. Few questions in early Roman archaeology are so disputed as the “urbanisation” of Rome (and Latium).1 One of the crucial questions is the extent to which archaeological discoveries conform to ancient accounts on the origins of Rome as a city. As Fulminante puts it in the introduction (p. 1): “When did the city begin in middle Tyrrhenian Italy…And what was there before the city?”

Fulminante argues that there was actually a significant step in the urbanisation of Rome around the middle of the 8 th century, but that the process of settlement nucleation and urbanisation had started already much earlier, in the Final Bronze Age. She uses a broad spectrum of data, though the main contribution of her book lies clearly in the field of landscape archaeology and spatial analysis.

After presenting a brief survey of theoretical approaches to urbanisation in middle Tyrrhenian Italy (chapter 1), the second chapter addresses the nature of data used for the study. The mapping and assessment of major field survey projects carried out in Latium vetus is of great value for anyone who wants to get an idea about the state of the art in this field.

The third chapter focuses on the development of Rome from Bronze Age village to Archaic city and is in large part a summary of the work of Andrea Carandini and his team during the last three decades or so. Although there are occasional references to differing views, the fundamental problems in Carandini’s model are not discussed. In various places Fulminante correlates archaeological data with ancient accounts on the seven kings of Rome, but she does not discuss when and on which basis these accounts were written. For example, she refers to Numa Pompilius, who reigned “ca. 715-672 BC” (p. 92) and Tullus Hostilius, “dated to ca. 672-640 BC according to the tradition based on literary accounts” (p. 80), implicating that there is at least some historical truth in the dates, whereas historians and philologists agree that this is highly improbable.2

In chapter four (“The territorial level: definition and dating of the Ager Romanus Antiquus ”) the study proceeds with the application of GIS-based spatial analysis. Fulminante attempts to estimate how many people could live off the original territory of Rome as reconstructed on the basis of cult practices that survived into the historical periods. In a further step, she relates this to population estimates on the basis of settlement sizes, applying densities between 85 and 300 inhabitants per hectare. According to the model proposed here, the population exceeded the carrying capacity of the Roman territory as early as the 8 th century BC. Fulminante suggests that “the traditional accounts of the aggressive stance of the city towards neighbouring communities from a very early stage reveal a core of historical truth” (p. 132). However, the numbers should be taken with extreme caution, given that we know actually very little about the inner structure of the settlement.

Chapters 5 and 6 are the most innovative and important parts of the study. In chapter 5 Fulminante examines a sample area north of Rome, roughly circumscribed by the ancient sites of Crustumerium, Fidenae, and Casale Capobianco, where an intensive field survey was carried out in the 1990s. Using data from unpublished theses dealing with the survey, Fulminante is able to verify major settlement trends in the region, emphasizing nucleation processes in the Early Iron Age as well as a new increase in small rural sites during the Orientalizing period (ca. 730-580 BC). Spatial analysis carried out on the basis of the survey data leads to some interesting results, e.g. when the author observes that the increased density of sites beyond a walking distance of 20 minutes from rivers coincides with innovative processes in water management (emergence of so called cuniculi, or underground water channels).

In chapter 6 spatial analysis, combined with statistical models such as rank-size distribution, is extended to the entire region of Latium Vetus. Fulminante argues that an important step towards “higher complexity” was made during the late 10 th and the first half of the 9 th century BC, i.e., long before the beginning of Greek colonisation in Italy. At the same time, the author claims that changing settlement patterns reflect the transformation of Bronze Age chiefdom societies into early states or city-states.

In chapter 7, the results of spatial analysis and landscape archaeology are compared with other kinds of data, with the objective of elaborating a “multi-dimensional and multi-theoretical approach to urbanisation and state formation in Latium Vetus”, as the title reads. The chapter discusses issues such as funerary evidence, economy, artisanry and specialisation, rituals and cult places, ethnicity, and vegetation history. It is followed by twelve pages of conclusions as well as an appendix with tables and graphs regarding the spatial analyses carried out in chapters 5 and 6. Finally, there is a bibliography and an index.

As to the two questions raised in the introduction—when did the city begin in Middle Tyrrhenian Italy and what was there before the city? —Fulminante is quite clear on the first one: The middle of the 8 th century BC coincides, in her eyes, with a critical point in the development of Rome. From now on, the city was a “political community” and the inhabitants were organized as a citizen-body. Rome was therefore “perhaps the first city-state in the western Mediterranean” (p. 251). However, landscape archaeology approaches are hardly apt to verify Carandini’s model according to which Rome was founded during the middle of the 8 th century (on April 21 st in 753 BC, to be precise3 – which is, as has to be stressed, not the only foundation date given by ancient authors, as Fulminante seems to presuppose on p. 84). What landscape archaeology can do is to reveal long-term settlement transformations, and Fulminante’s work actually sheds new light on this aspect, especially on the profound transformations going on from the beginnings of the Orientalizing period ca. 730 BC onwards. Apart from Orientalizing elite tombs, which the author has studied in a previous monograph,4 the transformation of Latin settlements and social organisation becomes evident in various fields. In the case of ritual activity, Fulminante emphasises the existence of early cult places at Rome, but there is also other evidence that could be mentioned here. In fact, besides the sanctuary of Vesta at Rome, finds from other sites such as the East Sanctuary at Gabii and the acropolis of Satricum point to collective banquet rituals already in the late 8 th century BC.5 Although in the beginnings the participants of the banquets used almost exclusively local impasto pottery, the fact that they did not gather in ‘private’ dwellings or at tombs, but on sites that would become (or just had become) public sanctuaries (the sacra publica of the Twelve Tables), points to the emergence of new forms of communication and interaction within the community. Fulminante’s work shows that these developments were accompanied by transformations in the settlement pattern, most notably the spread of secondary sites, which are interpreted as dependent villages.

As to the second question (what was there before the city?), Fulminante provides no real answer. Instead, she prefers to define that which was there before the city as something that will become a city (proto-urban settlements). The underlying model is basically an evolutionary one, as becomes evident from the subtitle of chapter 3 “Rome from a small Bronze Age village to the great city of the Archaic Age,” but especially from the frequent use of the term “proto-urban.” According to Fulminante, early Latin settlement centres were proto-urban for several centuries (in the case of Rome, 11 th /10 th – 8 th century BC), and some never developed into urban settlements. However, the concept of proto-urban settlements is problematic because of its teleological character—it makes sense only in retrospect. The inhabitants of 9 th century Rome, who had no idea of the twins and the she-wolf or whatever happened in the 8 th century and later, must have had a proper notion of the settlement they lived in, independently from future developments. This is, of course, not a new problem. Expressions like la città prima della città 6 point to the same difficulty in defining what was there before the city. What Fulminante makes clear is that neither the term village nor the term city really apply to the central places of Early Iron Age Latium.

In her interpretation of the evolution of Bronze Age villages to proto-urban and finally to urban settlements, Fulminante repeatedly stresses the increasing complexity of both settlement patterns and society as a whole. In her eyes, the general development during the periods studied in the book is characterized by “evolutionary trends towards greater complexity” (p. 250, see also p. 259: “long-term processes leading to higher complexity”, p. 260: “remarkable trend towards higher complexity and settlement hierarchical organisation”). The idea that urbanisation is synonymous with increasing complexity is widespread and can be found also in publications on Geometric and Archaic Greece.7 But I wonder if it is not precisely this idea that somewhat obstructs our view on non-urban settlements. After all, why should such settlements be considered less complex than cities? In fact, examples of “proto-urban” settlements that are relatively well known thanks to field surveys and excavations, e.g. the “polycentric settlement” of Early Iron Age Torre di Satriano in southern Italy, where an elite building that collapsed during an earthquake around 480 BC was brought to light, demonstrate that such settlements were characterized by a great variety of religious, ritual, economic, and “political” activities.8 The feasts celebrated in the dwellings of local chiefs comprised more or less the whole community, and permitted the expression of complex hierarchies.9 In a way, such settlements may appear even more “complex” in the sense of “complicated” than urban settlements where the various forms of social interaction are contextualised within specific and well defined spaces: sanctuaries, private houses, public spaces, and necropoleis.

In conclusion, while some crucial questions regarding the urbanisation of Rome and Latium remain open, Francesca Fulminante’s book represents an important contribution, since it provides a new basis for the debate on changing settlement patterns in Early Iron Age and Archaic Latium. It should be read not only by archaeologists, but also by historians and other scholars interested in the origins of Rome and Mediterranean urbanisation.


1. Cf. recently Ampolo, C. 2013. Il problema delle origini di Roma rivisitato. Concordismo, ipertradizionalismo acritio, contesti. I, “Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Classe di Lettere e Filosofia” 5/1: 217-248.

2. Ibidem.

3. Carandini, A. 2006. La leggenda di Roma, I. Dalla nascita dei gemelli alla fondazione della città, Milan; 2007. Roma: il primo giorno, Rome/Bari.

4. Fulminante, F. 2003. Le tombe principesche nel Latium vetus fra la fine della prima età del Ferro e l’inizio dell’età Orientalizzante, Rome.

5. Cf. Zuchtriegel, G. 2012. Gabii I: Das Santuario Orientale im Zeitalter der Urbanisierung. Eisenzeitliche und archaische Funde der Ausgrabungen 1976/77, Venosa: 244-7, with further references.

6. Bettelli, M. 1997. La città prima della città: i tempi di una nascità. La cronologia delle sepolture ad inumazione a Roma e nel Lazio nella prima età del Ferro, Rome.

7. See for example Lang, F. 2007. House – community – settlement: the new concept of living in Archaic Greece, in Westgate, R., Fisher, N., Whitley, J. (eds.). Building communities. House, Settlement and Society in the Aegean and Beyond (“British School at Athens Studies” 15): 183-193.

8. Osanna, M., Vullo, S. (eds.) 2013. Segni del potere. Oggetti di lusso dal Mediterraneo nell’Appennino lucano di età arcaica, Venosa, with bibliography.

9. M. Osanna, ibidem: 117-135.