BMCR 2021.01.29

Regional urban systems in the Roman world, 150 BCE-250 CE

, , Regional urban systems in the Roman world, 150 BCE-250 CE. Mnemosyne, supplements, 431. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. Pp. xviii, 582. ISBN 9789004414334 €136,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book collects a range of papers outlining part of the results of the European Research Council (ERC) funded project “An Empire of 2,000 Cities”, which was held at the University of Leiden from 2013 to 2018. The extent of topics covered in the volume and the broad chronological and geographical frameworks encompassed are immediately evident even when one just looks at the table of contents, which lists 16 papers by international scholars. The relevance of these contributions to the study of regional urban systems across the Roman world is demonstrated not only by the authors’ discussions, but also by the wealth of analytic data, tables, catalogues and appendices supplementing many of these texts. Undoubtedly, the volume provides new information that will be of use to anyone working on the urbanism, economic and socio-political history of the Roman Empire, striking a good balance between archaeological and ancient historical standpoints.

The opening chapter by the two editors is an excellent essay that contextualizes the papers collected in the book, but its scope goes far beyond that and engages with the definition itself of “city” in antiquity and the different approaches to the study of urban systems. While assessing the regional features of specific areas of the ancient world, a problem that has been faced by many scholars concerns the calculation of city sizes and their population. In these pages, Luuk de Ligt and John Bintliff offer a lucid account of these problematics and are willing to take a strong position on previous attempts, such as those undertaken by Annalisa Marzano or Andrew Wilson among others.[1] Despite individual disagreements, one can hope this will foster a productive academic debate where different views can be compared, with the ultimate goal of progressing our knowledge about Roman urbanization and urban societies.

The principal advantage of regional and cross-regional analyses lies in the fact that they allow drawing broader conclusions than studies on individual urban centres. That said, one should be aware of a number of variables that occurred through time. This is shown, for instance, by Frida Pellegrino’s examination of city sizes and the extent of the territory under their control in the provinces of north-western Europe during the second century CE (chapter 3), which leads to wondering what the status of provincial capital actually meant. The role played by pre-Roman land organization and settlement patterns emerges clearly from Florian Baret’s study of small towns (civitates) in the “Massif Central” of Roman Gaul (chapter 4), where it appears that the urban system under the Empire was more indebted to the earlier configuration of this territory than to direct interventions by the Roman governance. An extreme variability of regional patterns is recognizable across the Iberian Peninsula, as argued by Oliva Rodríguez Gutiérrez (chapter 6), which determined an equally complex framework of urban trajectories. This plurality of urban systems might also be used to assess the phenomena that took place in Late Antique Spain, about which recent scholarship has proposed a more dynamic model based on the redistribution of centres of power as opposed to earlier, monolithic views of “continuity” vs “discontinuity”.[2]

The theme of redistribution applies well to Roman-era Sicily. In his thorough account (chapter 8), Luuk de Ligt examines the island’s shift of settlement patterns from the Hellenistic to the Roman imperial period, which shows a marked discrepancy between coastal sites and the hinterland. The study engages with a vast bibliography and up-to-date scholarship, being aware at the same time of the gaps in past research. Indeed, the extent of the Roman and Late Antique phases of certain urban centres is still debated, but it appears that the picture presented in earlier studies should be reconsidered to some extent. Solunto is a case in point: there is evidence of at least some transformation and reoccupation of spaces within the civic district, as suggested by the presence of a (Roman or late Roman) pressing device in a building along Via dell’Agorà, which was traditionally interpreted in the literature as a Punic altar with baetyls.[3]

A substantial section deals with the North African regions. Matthew Hobson presents an assessment of over a thousand sites, which are examined through a multi-levelled hierarchical system (chapter 9). This has the advantage of avoiding strict distinctions such as “rural” and “urban”, which often prove unsatisfactory when applied to ancient settlements. From this analysis, a pattern emerges which points to the identification of urban phenomena that kept strong regional characteristics under Roman rule. This study is usefully supplemented by David Stone’s paper, where the extent of regional productions and exports are taken into account as part of the respective urban systems (chapter 10). The model of micro-regional urbanism is explored by Paul Scheding (chapter 11), who draws upon the contents of his recent monograph on Carthage’s pertica (the present paper in English will appeal to a broader readership, including university students).[4] The author convincingly argues for the existence of specificities amongst the smaller centres of the hinterland, where monumentalization and urban embellishment had to deal with the nature of these sites and their topographic and geographical characteristics.

Another densely urbanized territory, Asia Minor presented a wide and varied range of regional patterns. Rinse Willet looks at the self-governing cities, with particular regard to their sizes and interconnectivity (chapter 15). While the presence of features such as rivers and roads facilitated trade amongst these urban centres, his analysis suggests there is no evidence for the channelling of goods from large cities to medium- and small-size sites within a well-structured hierarchical urban system. Going beyond the intended time frame of the book, Frank Kolb examines the evolution of urbanism in Lycia from archaic and classical times through to the Roman imperial period (chapter 16). This overview of the regional longue durée shows that the Hellenistic era was a moment of slow urban development, which was boosted under the Roman provincial administration, particularly throughout the first and second centuries CE.

From this select summary, one can glimpse the variety and complexity of the themes encompassed by the book. This is an ambitious effort and it is obvious that future research and inclusion of further case studies will offer more data to refine or revise some of the arguments discussed here. It is praiseworthy that the editors made no attempt to constrain the authors within fixed ideological boundaries, allowing a generous degree of autonomy in their assessments and conclusions (this seems the only logical way to tackle such multi-faceted themes as Roman urbanism and urban systems). Editorial choices with regard to the breadth of regional case studies are appropriate, and the editing of papers is equally careful; the presence of a general index at the back of the volume is useful for readers to identify subjects of interest. The publisher, on the other hand, could have been more generous in terms of number of illustrations included and their quality, especially given the high retail price of the book. For instance, most maps are rich in detail but some of them are reproduced at a scale that makes their legends difficult to read (see Figs 3.6, 5.4, 6.2, 9.2-8, 15.8, 16.3-8). Luckily these defects do not diminish the value of the volume or the importance of the topics it covers. Overall, it is a welcome initiative that enhances our understanding of urban patterns across the Roman world, offering plenty of food for thought. It also fits well with other publications where the formation and development of urbanism beyond the Roman Empire are being assessed, such as a recent volume that collects ground-breaking essays on urbanization across the Sahara.[5] It seems only natural that the next step will be a closer, comparative investigation of how urban systems evolved within the Roman State and in the realities outside the borders of Empire, to understand whether reciprocal influences can be identified.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (Luuk de Ligt and John Bintliff), 1-34
2. A World of 200 Oppida: Pre-Roman Urbanism in Temperate Europe (Manuel Fernández-Götz), 35-66
3. The Size Distribution of Self-governing Cities in the North-Western Provinces: Trends and Anomalies (Frida Pellegrino), 67-102
4. The Roman ‘Small Towns’ in the Massif Central (civitates of the Arverni, Vellavii, Gabali, Ruteni, Cadurci and Lemovices): Methodology and Main Results (Florian Baret), 103-127
5. Towns, Roads and Development Dynamics in the Territory of the Arverni in Roman Times (Auvergne, France) (Frédéric Trément, Florian Baret, Marion Dacko, Jérôme Trescarte, Maxime Calbris, Lise Augustin, and Guy Massounie), 128-157
6. Urbanisation of the Iberian Peninsula during the Roman Period: Choices, Impositions and ‘Resignation’ of the Newcomers (Oliva Rodríguez Gutiérrez), 158-187
7. The Urban Landscape of Roman Central Adriatic Italy (Frank Vermeulen), 188-216
8. The Impact of Roman Rule on the Urban System of Sicily (Luuk de Ligt), 217-280
9. Roman Towns and the Settlement Hierarchy of Ancient North Africa: A Bird’s-Eye View (Matthew Hobson), 281-323
10. A Diachronic and Regional Approach to North African Urbanism (David Stone), 324-349
11. Micro-regional Urbanism: An Ancient Urban Landscape in Roman North Africa (Paul Scheding), 350-374
12. Urbanisation and Population Density: The Case of the ‘Small Municipia’ in the Balkan and Danube Provinces(Damjan Donev), 375-404
13. Between the River and the Fort: Applying Critical Regionalism to Roman Towns in the Pannonian Basin (Dragana Mladenović), 405-439
14. Urban Networks in Early Roman Macedonia and Aegean Thrace (Michalis Karambinis), 440-481
15. Regional Perspectives on Urbanism and Settlement Patterns in Roman Asia Minor (Rinse Willet), 482-533
16. From Mountain to Coastal Plain: Settings of Settlements and Stages of Urbanisation in Ancient Lycia (Frank Kolb), 534-566


[1] Marzano, A. 2011. Rank-size analysis and the Roman cities of the Iberian Peninsula and Britain: some considerations. In A. Bowman and A.I. Wilson (eds), Settlement, Urbanization, and Population. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 196-228; Wilson, A.I. 2011. City sizes and urbanization in the Roman empire, ibid., 161-195.

[2] See the introduction and essays in Brassous, L. and Quevedo, A. (eds) 2015. Urbanisme civique en temps de crise. Les espaces publics d’Hispanie et de l’Occident romain entre le IIe et le IVe siècle. Madrid: Casa de Velázquez.

[3] A similar device, probably of Late Antique date, is known at Mozia: De Vincenzo, S. 2013. Tra Cartagine e Roma. I centri urbani dell’eparchia punica di Sicilia tra VI e I sec. a.C. Berlin: De Gruyter, 188-96, 226-27.

[4] Scheding, P. 2019. Urbaner Ballungsraum im römischen Nordafrika. Zum Einfluss von mikroregionalen Wirtschafts- und Sozialstrukturen auf den Städtebau in der Africa Proconsularis. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag.

[5] Sterry, M. and Mattingly, D.J. (eds) 2020. Urbanisation and State Formation in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.