The challenges of categorising ancient settlements

Circeii (San Felice Circeo, Province of Latina). The roughly rectangular area defined by adjoining houses is due to their foundations being built on the ancient city wall

Circeii (San Felice Circeo, Province of Latina). The roughly rectangular area defined by adjoining houses is due to their foundations being built on the ancient city wall


The project is interested in large and important settlements, the most obvious descriptive words for which are ‘city’ or ‘town’. It is an archaeological study, and thus an archaeological definition of ‘town’ was required so that non-urban sites, such as villages, didn’t find their way into the database. Deciding how to precisely define the object of study required some head-scratching.

Major ancient settlements in Italy and elsewhere tend to be described by scholars as ‘urban’ if they had a city wall. Yet it turned out that the presence of fortification walls could not be used to define the settlements I’m interested in. Most large centres on the Italian peninsula had such walls by the late fourth/early third century BC, but not all. Plus, fortifications were not just a feature of cities. The adjective ‘proto-urban’ is also commonly used in publications to describe fortified centres inside which there is little sign of highly structured or dense habitation. Fortification walls are also found around very small settlements that contained only a few dwellings, many examples of which are found in Liguria and Etruria in the Hellenistic period. They were also a feature of forts, some small ancient Greek examples of which have been found in southern Italy.

Size also turned out to be a poor indicator for defining urban centres. For example, Latin colonies founded by Rome during the Hellenistic period comprised a territory administered by a fortified settlement, many of which had rectilinear street-systems that over time filled with dense structured habitation and monumental architecture. These settlements are uncontroversially described as towns. Yet the walled centre of one of them, Circeii (see image), was only 1.5ha in size! This can be set against some of the settlements described as ‘villages’ by landscape archaeologists, found during field survey through the presence of scatters of ceramic, numerous examples of which are over 5ha in size.

In the end, I decided the term ‘higher-order settlement’ best described the type of centres I am interested in, which, for the purposes of the project, is defined as one that administered a territory. This allows, for example, all of Rome’s colonies to be included regardless of size. It also permits the exclusion of all sites described as villages since they are likely to have been subordinate settlements located in the territories of administering towns.

During the 1st century BC, many settlements in Italy became municipia, being self-governing communities of Roman citizens. They administered the territories in which they were located and were thus higher-order settlements. Many became very recognisably urban, but not all. The excavation of one of them, Iuvanum (see image), has revealed that it had a monumental forum and public buildings, but no obvious habitation! There are signs of earlier occupation of the site in the 4th century BC, but in the form of a religious sanctuary rather than a settlement. Iuvanum probably had the same function as a Roman town, in terms of it being a centre of commerce, local political administration and justice. Archaeologists believe its inhabitants perhaps lived in dispersed, village-like nuclei in the surrounding area.

What this indicates is that the modern nouns ‘town’, ‘city’ and ‘village’ are not always adequate for describing ancient settlement forms.

Iuvanum (Santa Maria di Palazzo, Province of Chieti).  A forum, basilica, baths and theatre, but little sign of urban habitation.

Iuvanum (Santa Maria di Palazzo, Province of Chieti). A forum, basilica, baths and theatre, but little sign of urban habitation.

A new archaeological database of major settlements in peninsular Italy (350 BC to AD 300)

With this post a new blog is launched. It accompanies my research project to create an analytical database and a GIS (Geographic Information System) of all the archaeological sites of ancient towns and so-called proto-urban centres on the Italian peninsula (south of the Po River) as existed at some point between 350 BC and AD 300. The sites included in the database are those that have been published somewhere, are at least 2 hectares in size, and not described as either ‘rural’ (e.g. village) or as a minor road-station. What I am trying to capture are ‘higher-order settlements’, meaning those that once administered a territory of some kind. Currently, the database contains 599 sites.

One of the major problems with studying such sites in Italy is that there are just so many of them, and new ones continue to be discovered! This is why they tend to be studied on a site-specific or regional basis. As a result, no overview exists for whole peninsula. The intention with the database is to fill this void. It will be a research tool available for all, as it will be made freely available online in 2015.

The database has been constructed to answer specific research questions. I want to find out what impact the Roman conquest of Italy and subsequent major events had on settlements existing at the time. How many survived and why? It also provides the chance to compare regional settlement patterns and their trajectories over time. Our perception of the period is dominated by the surviving historical narratives of Titus Livius and other Roman writers. The database has the potential to identify historical processes not mentioned in these works. For example I have been able to establish that by far the most successful period for peninsular settlements, at least in terms of the number of sites occupied and the investment in major infrastructure projects, such as building city walls, curiously coincided exactly with the Roman conquest: the second half of the 4th century BC. In its extent it was limited largely to central-western and southern Italy, including areas supposedly impacted by the conquest but also those for which there is no indication of Roman activity.

Over the coming weeks, as well as providing more information on the project, I will introduce some of the archaeological gems I have found during the course of the research conducted. There is a staggering variety of settlement sites in Italy. If you have had any encounters yourself, please feel free to share your experiences here.



Italy has a confusingly high number of ancient urban and proto-urban sites!