BMCR 2024.07.07

Amiternum 1. Untersuchungen zur Siedlungs- und Wirtschaftsstruktur im zentralen Abruzzenraum in römischer Zeit

, Amiternum 1. Untersuchungen zur Siedlungs- und Wirtschaftsstruktur im zentralen Abruzzenraum in römischer Zeit. Kölner Schriften zur Archäologie, 3. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2023. Pp. 496. ISBN 9783954903207.

The Amiternum Project, carried out under the direction of Michael Heinzelmann from 2006 to 2013, belongs to a series of recent investigations of urbanism in the context of Roman colonization in central and southern Italy[1], making use of the potential of geophysical prospection to reveal small to medium-sized towns with an accessible, still-buried urban layout. This project contributed to the reconstruction of the town plan of Amiternum, a Roman praefectura in the Sabine region of Abruzzo (central Italy), using multidisciplinary methods. Historical, archaeological, and epigraphic evidence for Amiternum and its territory was previously systematically collected and studied by Segenni (1985) and preliminary results and scientific highlights from the fieldwork carried out in Amiternum and the Aterno river valley within the framework of the Amiternum Project have also already been published in several contributions.[2] This is the first volume dedicated to the investigation of the settlement and economy of the town and its rural hinterland with a chronological focus on the late Republic to the late Imperial period. The book organizes the project’s results around the question of the specific character of the urban fabric of Amiternum and of the settlement patterns in its territory in relation to the regional cultural background and economy.

The author aims to consider three main aspects of this question: 1. The urban structure of Amiternum and its long-term relationship with its rural hinterland; 2. the social actors in the community and the source of their economic power; 3. acculturation dynamics, i.e., the persistence and impact of pre-Roman socio-economic relations and settlement structures.

The book is structured in two main parts: 1. analysis and discussion of the results (Ch. 1-5), and 2. documentation of the geophysical prospections and of the 25 stratigraphic sondages (and two surface cleaning) aimed at verifying the survey results and providing stratigraphies and chronological sequences (Ch. 6 and 7).

Ch. 1 and 2 summarize the current state of our knowledge of Amiternum and its hinterland, mainly on the basis of literary and epigraphic sources. Ch. 1.2 explains the fieldwork strategy that the project adopted. The urban layout of Amiternum and its territory—the Aterno valley and a few selected upland areas of the Gran Sasso with its pre-and protohistoric pastures and cult places—were investigated using a multidisciplinary approach including extensive surface survey, geophysics, remote sensing (aerial photos and satellite images), stratigraphic excavations, and geoarchaeological and materials analyses. In particular, the project made extensive use of geophysical prospection and targeted excavation sondages. Since today’s urban area of Amiternum is covered with pasture or fallow fields, it is suitable for comprehensive geophysical prospections using different techniques. Magnetometry was the first method of choice in the town.[3] A few selected rural settlements have been also investigated by means of geophysics, e.g., on the hilltop settlement of San Vittorino, in the area of a large villa complex, and of an important vicus of the ager Amiterninus. The unfavorable landscape conditions did not permit an intensive surface pottery survey and only an extensive site-oriented survey in the 3 km around Amiternum was carried out, leading to the localization of several structures, vici and villas of different sizes, mainly according to previous topographic research, e.g., by Persichetti[4] and Segenni (1985). Therefore, the information collected does not allow the author to provide comparable figures based on intensive pottery survey, making it impossible for this work to contribute to issues important to current debates about the relationship between town and countryside in central Italy [5], such as site classification (e.g., farms versus villas), distribution and density patterns (e.g., clustered versus dispersed settlement), and rural ceramic supply and market penetration.

Ch. 2 describes the geographic and environmental context as well as the historical-political and socio-economic background of the region. Ch. 2.2 summarizes the historical development from the Iron Age through the Roman conquest until Late Antiquity. Central Abruzzo was inhabited by the Sabini and other Italic groups. After the Roman occupation in 293 BC and the development of the road system (centered on the Via Caecilia), Amiternum probably originated from a previous site when the main settlement shifted from the hill of San Vittorino (likely corresponding to the Sabine site of Testruna) to the river plain near the main road. Urban growth was accompanied by the creation of villae rusticae in the centuriated plain.[6] The epigraphic habit of the wealthy local élites with their rich tombs demonstrates the prosperity of the town during the late Republican and early Imperial period. During the Augustan period, the main monumentalization phase took place in tandem with the building of the Via Claudia Nova in the 1st century AD, which increased the connectivity of the region. The Flavian period saw more intense building activity, especially on the right bank and south of the Aterno. The heyday of urban economic investment at the site fell in the 2nd century AD. By the end of the 2nd century AD, urban development was completed and all the major public buildings were in place. The Late Antique period is marked by a dramatic seismic event in the 4th century AD that probably also damaged Amiternum and initiated its decline, leading to the abandonment of the rural villas and the relocation of the main settlement back to the hill of San Vittorino in the Medieval period. The author suspects the abandonment of the town and/or only sporadic reuse practices after the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Recent excavations at Campo Santa Maria in Amiternum,[7] however, show the reuse of the domus in this area during the 5th and 6th centuries AD for metal production with amphorae and African fine ware indicating continuous economic connectivity. Ch. 2.3 is dedicated to the epigraphic and prosopographic analysis of the social context of town and territory. After a general discussion of the origin of Roman municipal élites and homines novi, the author focuses on the local élites in Amiternum and the ager Amiterninus and its economic basis, which was mainly related to agriculture and livestock. A large section (Ch. 2.4.3-7) is devoted to the written sources for transhumant pastoralism in Roman Italy,[8] and more specifically in central Abruzzo and the Aterno valley (Ch., where pasturing herds was of major economic importance. In this section, the author considers whether and how specific regional patterns are related to a livestock economy based on transhumance, i.e., the seasonal movement of herds from the plain for winter grazing to upland summer pastures.

Ch. 3 is the core of the book and analyses the results of the fieldwork (2006-2013), in particular of the urban, suburban and rural structures recorded through pedestrian survey, geophysics and targeted excavations. Through geophysical prospections and sondages the townscape of Amiternum could be reconstructed and significantly supplemented by various building structures and complexes including sanctuaries, baths, residential and commercial buildings. The city’s forum has been be located and, on the western narrow side of the forum, it was possible to recognize the outline of a basilica. Between the theater and the forum, a domus with a built area of approximately 6000 m2—the largest late Republican/early Imperial domus of this type known to date—occupies an entire insula with an atrium area, two peristyles and a large garden area. This chapter includes a rich body of images and 3D reconstructions (by D. Hinz) of the urban settlement, as well as views of the valley with the city and the immediate surrounding area. The administrative, cultural and commercial center of Amiternum developed north of the Aterno river, where representative domus were also located; on the other side of the river, temples, a theater and an amphitheater were built, while some private houses were located in the southern periphery and villas with graves were identified in the immediate suburbium along the axis of the Via Caecilia. Villas, farms and vici were scattered throughout the countryside, the latter distributed all over an area within a 5 km radius around the town.[9] Ch. 3.10 is an excursus on the inscription CIL I2 1853 on farming (vineae and segetes) and water management practices in this microregional landscape. The author makes some hypotheses based on previous studies and survey data to locate on the ground the detailed topographic information contained in this inscription. However, he explains that it was not possible to connect precisely the epigraphic to the archaeological evidence. Ch. 3.11.6 asks the question of the possible relationship of this specific regional site pattern—with its middle-sized town with an important public infrastructure but a very limited housing area—to the transhumance economy. Spatial analysis[10] of the available GIS dataset might have made it easier to understand the extent to which rural sites and estates were aligned with persistent networks of pastoral routes and/or according to land division systems.

Ch. 4 compares Amiternum to another 22 towns in central Apennine Italy and the regions of the Potenza and Tiber valley in order to understand if the upper Aterno valley, with its praefectura and distinctive octoviri institutional structures, represents a special case or if it has comparisons in the macroregion of central Apennine Italy. Amiternum does not emerge as an exception here. Aveia, Peltuinum, Iuvanum and Carsulae show a similar cultural and environmental background with a strong pastoral orientation and an urban layout with limited housing space. A further example not included here is Interamna Lirenas, a town in the Liris river plain, a previously Samnite area close to the Apennines in southern Latium, which also shows a public and political space arranged with an eye to the administrative control of the surrounding territory.[11]

In his conclusions (Ch. 5), the author summarizes aims and results against the background of his central question regarding the reasons for the limited housing space available in this middle-sized town versus the scattered distribution of the population in the rural villae and, in particular, in the vici. By asking why the praefectura never, or maybe only at a late stage, became a municipium, the author hypothesizes a merging of functions between town and countryside and finds similarities between this settlement pattern and that of the vici along the roads of the Gallo-Celtic regions and the northern provinces. However, it should be considered that the role of secondary settlements[12] and the development of polynuclear colonial landscapes[13] deriving from pre-Roman settlement patterns are known also from central and southern Italy.

Ch. 6 presents a catalog of images that show the results of the geophysical prospections in the urban and rural area by overlaying the unfiltered raw data and the subsequent interpretative drawings on rectified Quickbird satellite images. Ch. 7 produces detailed documentation of the targeted small-scale stratigraphic excavations in selected urban and rural structures, consisting in sondages with an area of 4 to a maximum of 10 m side length, with descriptions of stratigraphy and presentations of Harris matrices, as well as images, plans and sections.

The fieldwork in Amiternum shows that the town—despite its well-developed monumental public infrastructure (i.e., a theater on the main axis of the Via Caecilia, an amphitheater, a forum with a basilica, baths, market and further trade buildings, several temples with porticus, an aqueduct)—never reached a significant urban population, as demonstrated by the relatively few luxury residential buildings. This publication provides much-needed fresh archaeological data on the urban and rural settlements, considering livestock economy and transhumance as key economic factors. The readability of the book suffers sometimes from a certain redundancy in the summary sections and from the heterogeneous organization of different chapters, as the author himself admits in his concluding remarks. The author’s goal, which appears as a central theme throughout the book, is to explain the unusual imbalance between the large public infrastructure and the comparatively limited space for private housing in what is defined as a “country town” functioning as an administrative central place for a population living in the vici and scattered in the villas and farms of the Aterno valley. In my opinion, this evidence once again demonstrates the diversity and adaptability of urban settings as well as the variability of regional patterns that are increasingly emerging from the current research.[14]

The publication of the remaining investigations of topography, geoarchaeology and finds is anticipated in a series of future volumes. The analysis of the ceramic material from the urban contexts and the rural sites. including common ware, may have the potential to provide well-dated local sequencies and to integrate the prosopographical evidence for the élites with the investigation of local economies and rural daily life in the hinterland. The archaeozoological material from the excavated contexts may provide further insights into the scale and modalities of animal management. In this specific regional context, bioarchaeological analyses would also offer a deeper understanding of patterns of movement of herds (e.g., local vertical plain to upland and/or horizontal transhumance from Apulia) and pastoral strategies (e.g., animal feeding regimes), as recent research using an isotopic approach on livestock economy shows.[15]



Attema P., Schörner G. (2012) (eds), Comparative Issues in the Archaeology of the Roman Rural Landscape: Site Classification Between Survey, Excavation and Historical Categories, JRA Suppl. 88, Portsmouth, R.I.

Casarotto, A., Pelgrom, J., & Stek, T. (2016), “Testing settlement models in the early Roman colonial landscapes of Venusia (291 B.C.), Cosa (273 B.C.) and Aesernia (263 B.C.)”. Journal of Field Archaeology, 41(5), 568-586. Open access.

De Ligt L., Bintliff J. (2020) (eds), Regional Urban Systems in the Roman World, 150 BCE – 250 CE. (Mnemosyne Supplements 431.), Leiden and Boston: Brill

Forgione A., Campanella R., Siena E. (2021), “Gli impianti metallurgici di Campo Santa Maria ad Amiternum: indicatori della destrutturazione della città antica e dei suoi spazi tra V e VI secolo d.C.” Fasti Online. Open access.

Heinzelmann M., Jordan D., Murer C. (2010), “Amiternum and the upper Aterno valley: a Sabine-Roman town and its territory”, JRA 23,1, 2010, 55-83

Heinzelmann M., Jordan D. (2012), “Amiternum and the upper Aterno valley: approaching a Sabine-Roman town and its territory”, in: F. Vermeulen et al. (eds), Urban Landscape Survey in Italy and the Mediterranean (Oxford 2012) 23-33

Launaro A., Millett M. (2023) (eds), Interamna Lirenas: A Roman town in Central Italy revealed, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Open access.

Pasquinucci M. (2021), “”Frequently the winter grazing grounds are many miles away from the summer ones” (Varro, de r.r. 2.2.9): a review of recent historical, anthropological and archaeological approaches to transhumance in Central and Southern Italy”, in: Bowden M., Herring P. (eds), Transhumance: Papers from the International Association of Landscape Archaeology Conference, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2018, Archaeopress, 23-41. Open access.

Segenni S. (1985), Amiternum e il suo territorio in età romana, Pisa.

Terrenato N. (2019), The early Roman expansion into Italy. Elite negotiation and family agendas, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Tol G., de Haas T., Armstrong K., Attema P. (2014), “Minor centres in the Pontine Plain; The cases of Forum Appii and Ad Medias”. Papers of the British School at Rome 82: 109–34.

Trentacoste, A., MacKinnon, M., Day, C., Le Roux, P., Buckley, M., McCallum, M., & Carroll, M. (2023), „Isotopic insights into livestock production in Roman Italy: Diet, seasonality, and mobility on an imperial estate“. Environmental Archaeology, 1–23. Open access.

Tuteri R. (2019), „Silvae, calles “vineae et segetes” nei paesaggi antichi d’Abruzzo tra Sabini e Peligni“ in: Segenni S. (ed.), L’agricoltura in età romana, Ledizioni, Milano, 49-83. Open access.

Verdonck, L., Launaro, A., & Millett, M. (2023), “The urban survey: methodology”, in: Launaro A., Millett M. (eds), Interamna Lirenas: A Roman town in Central Italy revealed, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 19-37. Open access.

Verhagen, P. (2018). “Spatial Analysis in Archaeology: Moving into New Territories”. In: Siart, C., Forbriger, M., Bubenzer, O. (eds) Digital Geoarchaeology. Natural Science in Archaeology, Springer, Cham. Open access.



[1] For example, Potentia, Ocriculum, Falerii Novi, Aeclanum and Interamna Lirenas.

[2] Among them, Heinzelmann, Jordan and Murer 2010 and Heizelmann and Jordan 2012.

[3] In the city center and its periphery, 76 hectares were recorded using this method. Occasionally also resistivity survey, ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography have been used. Recently, the enormous potential of ground-penetrating radar (GPR) for generating high resolution 3D information have been demostrated at Interamna Lirenas (Verdonck, Launaro and Millett 2023).

[4] Niccolò Persichetti regularly published on the topography of the territory of Amiternum from 1890 onwards for about twenty years in Notizie degli Scavi.

[5] See Attema and Schörner 2012.

[6] Recently, Tuteri 2019.

[7] Forgione, et al. 2021.

[8] On the state of the practice, see Pasquinucci 2021.

[9] The documentation of the results of the extensive site-oriented survey is also part of this chapter. Unfortunately, maps that visualize the survey dataset according to typology and

chronology of the sites are missing.

[10] See Verhagen 2018.

[11] Launaro and Millet 2023.

[12] Tol, et al. 2014.

[13] Casarotto, Pelgrom and Stek 2016.

[14] It is to be noted that the author does not consider some relevant literature on the youngest debate about urbanization (see De Ligt and Bintliff 2020) and Roman expansion in Italy (see Terrenato 2019).

[15] Trentacoste, et al. 2023.