Ancient cities on the move: changing names and locations

Some of the ancient cities in Italy were less easy to track down due to them having been relocated at various points in history. Their names could move with them. Very many of the names of Italy’s ancient cities have survived through to today, with ‘Roma’ being the most obvious example. Often the ancient names have mutated over the centuries (Caere Vetus to Cerveteri), but the locations of ancient cities were also subject to change. The Romans themselves were responsible for relocating some settlements: Falerii Veteres, a Faliscan settlement, was forcibly abandoned in c.241 BC and the community was moved to a new location, known as Falerii Novi. Another classic example is the destruction of Etruscan Velzna in 264 BC (modern Orvieto), and the transferral of the population to the new centre of Volsinii Nova (Bolsena).

Roman Sipontum was founded as a Roman colony in 194 BC, and located on the coast of Daunia. Its archaeology seems not to date back earlier than the founding of the colony, but it is mentioned by Livy as existing in 335 BC, when it was captured by Alexander the Molossian, the uncle of Alexander the Great. In fact, archaeologists believe that pre-Roman Sipontum has been found, located nearby in an area with the modern name of Cupola-Beccarini. The earlier site is very large and seems to have been a dispersed settlement with a history spanning from the early first millennium through to about the moment the Roman colony was founded.

It seems that cities could also move on health grounds. The relocation of Salapia, a Daunian settlement, is described by the Roman architect, Vitruvius. It was allegedly transferred to a new location in the 1st century BC due to an outbreak of malaria in the old town. There are still some disagreements among archaeologists in relation to individual sites regarding the process of re-location. For example, the modern town called Ginosa, located in the Province of Taranto in Puglia, is built on the ancient Peucetian settlement called Ginusia. This suggests continuity from the founding of the settlement (c.800 BC), to the present. Not so. As far as I can make out, there has been no systematic archaeological study of the area of the modern town, but tombs are known dating from the 8th to the end of the 4th centuries BC – not that this necessarily means that the city was abandoned at the end of the 4th century BC – and late antique ceramic is also known. But the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, stated that the town existed in his day, the 1st century AD, as Latinised, Genusium. Some have argued that Roman Genusium was to be found at the village of Montecaglioso, based on epigraphic evidence, while others prefer Contrada della Madonna Dattoli, where excavations have revealed a nucleation of villa type structures. Either way, it seems that the site of modern Ginosa was reoccupied in late antiquity because it was easily defensible.

This is another cause of wandering cities, the insecurity of the late Roman and early medieval periods on the Italian peninsula led some communities to relocate to higher ground where they could defend themselves more easily. Falvaterra is a modern village on a hilltop in the Province of Frosinone in Lazio. It moved to its current location, it seems, as a result of incursions by the Lombards in the 6th / 7th centuries AD. Prior to that, it had been located on a plain and was called Fabrateria Nova, a settlement founded in the last quarter of the 2nd century BC by the Romans, which itself was a replacement of an earlier Volscian settlement called Fabrateria Vetus!

Sometimes the location and name of original antique settlements can be reconstructed based on names surviving today.  A good example is ancient Forum Cassii, located on the route of via Cassia in Etruria, the name of which has survived in that of a church: Santa Maria di Forcassi. But because some settlements were liable to move over time, surviving names might not relate to the original location of the settlements. Capua, for example, is located today where the ancient port-town of Casilinum once stood. Ancient Capua was destroyed in the 9th century AD, and its population eventually moved to the city’s current location a few years later.

Settlements moved to new locations for various reasons, but it has to be emphasised that it was actually communities of people that moved. The names of their settlements moved with them because they provided historical and cultural identity to those communities. Modern settlements with ancient names conjure up a sense of ancient tradition, longevity and permanence in the landscape. Most recently, in the 20th century, there have been cases of medieval and later settlements changing their name to those of antique cities, most notably under fascism. For example, in 1928, Monteleone di Calabria changed its name to Vibo Valentia, being the title of the Latin colony of the third century BC that was buried under its streets.

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