The Roman idea of a city is civilisation; the civilised person (cives, plural civites) lives in a city (civitas), a constructed place for a human to live in. Aristotle said that those who live outside the city are gods or monsters; Romulus allegedly offered his followers a deal: follow my laws and you will be protected by me and free of all previous obligations.
We think we know what a Roman city looks like: a grid of streets, with the cardo and decumanus crossing at the place where the temple and law court denote a central square. By that token, the one city which fails that is, of course Rome. It had grown up long before the idea of planning a town had reached Italy and around several cores.
Three groups, two of them incomers, had settled on the seven hills above the marsh. The incomers were the Rhames, a bunch of runaways and malcontents led by a small core group of young men who’d recently left the village of Alba Longa to prevent overpopulation; the second group was a contingent of Sabines looking to populate the coastal region. They both kept themselves to themselves away from those who’d settled there, the so-called ‘aborigines’. Where they had to work in common, the three groups voted by threes, tribus; that ablative plural became a noun, giving us ‘tribe’.
As Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has recently pointed out, few Romans lived in villas or even town houses which presented a blank face to the street, but which surrounded a beautiful atrium in the centre. The vast majority lived in an insula, a multi-storey block of flats, often hundreds of years old. There would be shops on the ground floor, including cook shops for those who had no ability to cook for themselves. The poor maintenance led to innumerable court cases and to several spectacular collapses. Don’t think of a modern western block, but more of the jerry-built blocks still being out up in places like Bangladesh and Nepal with poor building standards and backhanders to officials to turn a blind eye. Fourth century estimates cite up to 46,000 insulae and only 1790 houses. This must mean that, even though the city of Rome had a declining population, everyone who was not a senator or senior member of the imperial or city bureaucracy must have lived in one.
Remains of insulae from Ostia Antica, second century AD
Pliny the Younger brought a case to the attention of Trajan in Book 10 of his collected letters: the city of Nikapolis in Bithynia-Pontus had erected an arena as a showpiece for the city, hoping to raise its status in Asia Minor. But they had built it without foundations and it soon collapsed, prompting Pliny to ask Trajan to endorse an official investigation as to how this had happened.
The truth about the layout of cities and towns in the Roman era is that the central concept of a regular planned urban space was perhaps an ideal, but many cities already existed and had to be accommodated. Nevertheless, the ideal was that the city you were born in was your citizenship: they used the same word: civitas. We might call this a city-district, since it comprised an urban core in which a number of higher-function activities took place (justice, religion, politics) along with different types of industrial activity. Dirty and noxious industry was often moved to the outskirts, downstream from the places where people drew water to drink, cook and clean themselves and their clothes, and ideally down the prevailing wind from the city is foul-smelling (rendering animal fats and fulling cloth being good examples).
People who lived in dependent communities outside the city would come there in the spring to bring animals to sell, and again in early autumn with grain. The political control of the city would extended to their journey inbound and going home, with the laws and gods invoked to depend the honesty of the market. Mis-selling goods and short measure were forbidden and the safety of all was protected. While in the city, the area’s farmers would look for any additional farmhands in a hiring fair, hear the latest news and gossip, eye up potential spouses for their children, ask the elders to settle any local disputes and perform for the gods what they had promised in the event of good fortune.
Such things have happened in many sorts of cities all over the world from the earliest days and still do. Rome’s rising cities fulfilled the traditional function.
When Augustus rebuilt Rome and other cities, he filled in the democratic spaces some had made use of. At Rome, he built a memorialised quarter over the Field of Mars; the Campus Martius had been the mustering place for the citizen army each spring; many places had a March field. It was also the area where citizens went to vote, through stalls like those used for some horse races. Now Rome’s wars were elsewhere, the legions stationed for hundreds of years in provicial cities, and democracy was dead. So how better to obliterate that apace than by building over it.
In Athens, the historic agora, where citizens had voted, was filled up with temples transferred their from across Greece. The democratic space in Athens was killed, as in Rome, by religion.
Around each city was a dead zone. It was considered unhygienic in a hot climate to bury the dead within the urban area; the idea of burying the dead near a sacred place only arrives with Christianity, so the burial of early Christians are the Vatican (Mons Vaticanus) is possible because it was ‘trans Tiber’; to this day the area is called ‘Trastevere’; curiously, this was a place where vates, Gaulish priests, performed their rituals. Circling the zones of the living and dead at Rome was a sacred belt, the pomerium, where religious and legal restrictions were enforced. These included forbidding the use of arms within the urbs under Augustus’s’s law (lex julia de vi privata).
Rome was divided into a number of districts, each named for a notable feature such as a monumental fountain, a particular temple or a theatre. Modern cities often do this (Charing Cross, Unter den Linden, Temple Bar, Opéra, Tivoli Gardens, etc.). We also know that different districts had different status levels; the Subura at Rome is described as a red light district, a working class district (not that Romans had class structures as we would understand the term)
Surviving structures from Rome’s Subura district
However, areas then as now changed over time and it should be noted that Julius Caesar was born in a house in this district. The district lies in a dip between the Viminal and Esquiline Hills at the north side of the city. Then as now, the higher the altitude, the higher the status; the imperial palace was on top of Palatine, one of Rome’s seven hills; the Italian royal palace was atop the Quirinal Hill; today the Italian President lives there.
Walls set boundaries and were obviously available for defence. Rome’s original wall dates back only to the fourth century BC, but was credited to Servius Tullius, Rome’s penultimate king. Clearly, this wall, which survives in places, was not extant when the Gauls seized Rome in c380BC, so the name may have been traditional, or maybe the plans for it were approved by Servius but it was never built.
A section of the Servian Wall, near to Rome’s railway station
The much larger Aurelian Wall, the one which survives today, is built completely outside the Servian Wall, and encloses an area some three times as large. This was built c270–5 for utterly changed political circumstances. Before that, the outer parts of the city must have been entirely extramural.
Aurelian Wall section near Via Veneto
The wall was improved by Maxentius by improvements to forts and again by Stilicho in AD401. This shows that it was in fine condition when Alaric’s Gothic Army turned up in AD410 and that they must have been invited in, as they could hardly have broken through.
It is well known that eventually Constantinople developed a triple ring of walls, which is why it survived till AD1453, when the cannon of Sultan Mehmet II, known as The Prophet and built for him by the Venetians, blew a hole in it.
However, walls could be decorative, and as such might be part of civic eurgetism by social competing citizens. Those of Le Mans in France (Cenomanum) are particularly pretty, with at least four rows of contrasting designs.
The third century AD walls of Le Mans, Maine, France
These are walls designed for display more than four defence. By contrast, the walls of Arverna (modern Clermont-Ferrand) were ruinous in the fifth century when they needed to be strong; they fell down through great age and the city’s bishop, the celebrated letter writer Sidonius Apollinaris, conducted Christian rogations, beating the bounds of the city in a hope that magical thinking would stop the forces of King Euric from seizing it.
Le Vasso Galate, a surviving section of the imperial city wall of Arverna (Clermont-Ferrand)
It the later parts of the empire, cities everywhere shrank and became less multi-functional.
It would be useful to consider the link between cities and early Christianity. In every town where there was a Roman presence, there was a priest; in every city with a governor, a bishop; in cities which were seats of vicarii, there was a metropolitan, what we’d call an archbishop. In imperial capitals and cities of high standing, there were senior metropolitans with overarching authority; some were termed patriarchs, great fathers, a term used civicly for men of high authority just below the emperor: Stilicho, Aetius and Theodoric held such a title. Thus it can be seen that the Christians shadowed the urban authority of the empire. Once legal, the network of clergy stepped forward. Constantine allowed bishops to run their own law courts in parallel with the civic ones. In the late empire, towns generally survived if the bishop stayed; if he left, the city was eventually abandoned, such was his network of patronage. There were no rural clergy at that time, so Christianity was professed as an urban religion and those who had no priest to instruct them were termed pagani – country people.
We discussed before the straight Roman streets of many cities; these remained while there was a city authority of decurions to prosecute anyone who impinged his shop or house onto the public highway. In the earlier empire and before, local nobles had wanted to be on the city council. Latterly, however, they had to be compelled. The praetorian prefect and governor set the tax expectations of the emperor as a precept and it was the job of the decurions to collect it; they therefore were loaned the money by a tax farmer, who then forced locals to pay, skimming off the surplus collected.
In the countryside taxes were harder to collect and there were no Christian clergy to demand a tithe and attendance at church. The fact that being outside the walls with the gods and monsters and at risk of seizures by brigands (Bacaudae) did not stop removal from the city to a country retreat suggests that there was an impetus to leave the city.
The fifth century comic play Querolus (the Complainer) refers to a man fed up with paying taxes is offered a chance to join the ‘free men of the Loire’ who live under the trees and pay no taxes. He refuses because he is civilised.
Research on the city of Antioch shows that the straight, Romanised streets were becoming deviated in the 300s AD, centuries before the Islamic conquest of Syria in the 630s. Shop owners had built out into the city streets, possibly with shaded awnings, narrowing the road and making it crooked.
In Britain, there was a forced removal of skilled artisans after the regime of Carausius and Allectus was defeated. A Latin panegyric poem to Constantius Chlorus from the people of Autun (Augustodunum) in Gaul refers to such people being transported to repair Autun because they were so numerous in Britain. It should be recalled that by the time of St Wilfrid the Anglo-Saxons had to import glass-makers from the kingdom of the Franks because nobody in Britain knew how to make glass. Archaeologists tell us that for a while watermills, a common sight in the Roman world ceased to exist in Britain.
There are curious burials associated with urban buildings at Wroxeter, Shropshire (Viroconium), where high-status buildings were turned into forges and city houses were partly demolished to be turned into cattle pens. However, a change in function need not be read as a social collapse; today we find people living in oast houses, old windmills, maltings, converted stables and barns, even old factories and warehouses, as in the US, and we don’t consider any of that to be a sign of social collapse; if anything some may think it cool.
Climate change in Britain may have exacerbated many other problems. We read in Gildas about severe famines, which would have hastened departures from cities. A typical small town like Ixworth, Suffolk (Sitomagus) may have suffered from earthquakes; in the 19th century the town underwent severe quakes, and people may have left the Roman town of Sitomagus for similar reasons. It is quite clear across Britain that there were no resources to repair dilapidated buildings, that urban life with its high taxes, controlled labour, nosy clergy and the possibility of being transported to Gaul on a whim would not have been attractive to building workers. The rise of rural villa life in Britain in the fourth century, something that is well attested, may have been a way for pagans and discontented people to supply skilled labour to others who had opted out of the Roman system.
In some places, cities retreated back into their cores, with a barrier built across exit roads. Populations shrank away, but as long as the priest stayed there and the ruler at least went there to administer ritual and justice, the community might survive. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records kings with British names losing the Battle of Dyrham in AD577; their kingdoms were the towns of Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath, which suggests highly local rule, based solely on a town.