Northern Italy in the Roman World

I started writing this book, Northern Italy in the Roman World, with a question: what effects did the Roman Empire have on territories under its control? That question has been a mainstay of Roman studies for decades, and I was hoping to apply it to northern Italy, an area that has been relatively neglected in scholarship on the Roman Empire.

In attempting to answer that question, I encountered further questions.  What did I mean when I spoke of the Roman Empire? Was it the Roman state? Was it a larger imperial system of emperors, administrators, soldiers, and economic infrastructure?  If so, how did this system function, and did that system evolve over time? Combined evidence from ancient inscriptions, archaeological remains, literature, and material culture eventually suggested that the Roman Empire was a complex and ever-changing system. Correspondingly, the effects of the Roman Empire on territories under its control changed as the empire itself changed.

Those effects can be seen throughout northern Italy.  A good example can be found about 70 miles from Venice, in the small town of Aquileia. While the town now has just over 3,300 inhabitants, in the Roman era it was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean and was part of a vast trade network stretching from Egypt to the shores of the Baltic. The town had been founded in the second century BCE as an outpost of the Roman Republic as it was expanding, and as Rome took control of the Adriatic Sea, Aquileia became the commercial center of the upper Adriatic. Under the emperors, Aquileia’s merchants prospered by supplying goods to the legions along the Danube river, and the city’s success was predicated on the particular configuration of Roman troops during the first through fourth centuries CE. In the fifth century, Rome’s legions were no longer able to protect northern Italy, and Aquileia was sacked by Attila the Hun. Deprived of secure commercial networks and eclipsed by more protected cities, Aquileia never recovered. The city that grew with the empire also fell with the empire.

In a more concentrated form, the effects of the Roman imperial system can also be seen in the town of Como, on the southern shores of Lake Como. There, many of the town’s amenities were the gifts of one man, Pliny the Younger, who at 17 had survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Pliny achieved political success under the emperor Domitian, who ruled with increasing paranoia and demanded that his subjects address him as “god and master”. After Domitian’s assassination, Pliny, who owed his career to the hated Domitian, had to reinvent himself to save his reputation. He did so through benefactions, particularly to his hometown of Como. The gifts that he gave his hometown as part of his reinvention were all very much in style at the time: baths, a library, public teachers, funds for poor children, and annual banquets for the town.  That style was set by the imperial family and particularly by one of Domitian’s successors, Trajan. Trajan’s baths, libraries, and provisions for the maintenance of Italy’s orphans and poor children served as models for Pliny’s benefactions. Pliny’s benefactions, which changed the urban landscape of Como for centuries, were a product both of a system in which the emperor set taste for the entire empire and also of Pliny’s own personal ambitions and scholarly tastes. 

What I hope people take away from this work is an appreciation for the Roman Empire as a constantly evolving system, not solely an impersonal one of abstract trade networks and population movements but also of individuals, with distinct personalities.

Carolynn E. Roncaglia is an assistant professor of classics at Santa Clara University. She is the author of Northern Italy in the Roman World: From the Bronze Age to Late Antiquity.