In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cities in the Roman World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • The Ideology of the City
  • The City and Archaeological Methodologies
  • Romanization
  • The City and Economic Models
  • Urban Institutions/Organization
  • Urban Space, Society, and Housing
  • Demography and the City
  • Monumentalization and Euergetism
  • The Transformation of the City in the Late Antique Period

Classics Cities in the Roman World
Gareth Sears
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0171


The Roman Empire was an empire of cities. The city was the primary organizational building block of the empire; almost the whole empire was divided into city territories. Despite this, there are problems when defining a Roman city. In this article the “Roman city” is understood as an urban space within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Even on these terms, given that this definition encompasses over a thousand years of history and a space that stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia, the “Roman” city is a much-varied entity. Furthermore, many of these cities predated the Roman conquest, complicating analysis of what is “Roman” about them; it is perhaps better to think of them as cities that existed under Roman rule. It is also important to note that the Roman legal definition of the city did not just comprise the urban area but also the rural hinterland with its villages and small towns that were dependent on it. In any definition of the Roman city, there is also a question of whether we should include the vici (small towns) of these territories. Although not institutionally independent, some demonstrate aspects of urban life, for instance the erection of public buildings, while others contain more-industrial installations than many cities. If these settlements developed enough, they might petition for their freedom and become a city in their own right; Orcistus in Asia Minor famously managed to free itself from Nacolia by appealing to Constantine I (Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum III 352 = 7000). The city itself, as a special category of study, has come under attack on numerous fronts. Horden and Purcell 2000 (The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, cited in the City and Economic Models), for instance, argues that the city was not ontologically different from other settlement types (although others have pointed to the importance of the density of specialists making such places qualitatively different), while the concentration on the “Roman” city at the expense of rural sites has sometimes been viewed as an expression of cultural colonialism. Because of the nature of the evolution of urban space, the examination of the Roman city has been inherently bound up in the study of Romanization and has benefited and suffered as a result. Examinations of the Roman city encompass a variety of approaches, from assessments of institutions and legal charters to demography, urban religion and Christianization, monumentalization, public writing, and the city as lived experience.

General Overviews

Given the diversity discussed in the Introduction, it is unsurprising that no one book provides a comprehensive overview of all cities in the Roman world. Laurence, et al. 2011 uses different elements of the city to examine how provincial cities, west of the Adriatic, fit within processes of cultural change, especially given the fluidity of the concept of Romanness. The chapters in Erdkamp 2013 present an overview of Rome itself, but the aspects of urban life that are examined will, for the most part, be relevant to those working on Roman cities more generally. Anderson 2002 also focuses on Rome and Italy for the most part, and some of the elements that appear in Erdkamp 2013, such as the logistics of building work, are also considered; assessments of provincial cities are perhaps less convincing than that of Rome. Goodman 2007 examines the nature of settlement on the urban periphery. The nature of Roman “cities” that encompassed suburban and rural areas within the polity makes Penelope Goodman’s analysis of the periphery as important as the far-more-numerous works that focus on the urban core. One problem of some approaches to the Roman city is that they divorce it from the wider historical perspective. Any number of histories of the city that embrace Rome within a wider context might be included here. Nicolet, et al. 2000 contains several important chapters on Roman-period cities but also many important chapters on Mediterranean cities across history; Hall 1998 is an examination of the city and civilization across time that briefly considers Rome (and Athens); it has been criticized for being Western-centric (most case studies focus on the 19th and 20th centuries).

  • Anderson, James C., Jr. 2002. Roman architecture and society. Ancient Society and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Examines builders, buildings and building materials (in Part 1), and different elements of the city: planning, public buildings, and housing and space (in Part 2). Focuses particularly on Rome and Italy and on the “society” element rather than on the evolution of building types. First published in 1997.

  • Erdkamp, Paul, ed. 2013. The Cambridge companion to ancient Rome. Cambridge Companions to the Ancient World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Focuses on the city of Rome rather than on Roman cities, although the chapters, which include examinations of urban life, logistics, ruler and ruled, the sacred, demography, and economics, will be helpful to the student of Roman urbanism in general.

  • Goodman, Penelope J. 2007. The Roman city and its periphery: From Rome to Gaul. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203446256

    Points to the importance of the relationship between cities and their hinterlands. Settlement was a continuum from monumental urban centers through many gradations to rural settlements. Argues for little evidence of exclusion of economic activity from urban cores.

  • Hall, Peter. 1998. Cities in civilization: Culture, innovation, and urban order. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

    Examines Rome in the context of how societies maintain order and provide amenities in large urban centers.

  • Laurence, Ray, Simon Esmonde Cleary, and Gareth Sears. 2011. The city in the Roman West, c. 250 BC to AD 250. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511975882

    Argues that one of the essential functions of the Roman city was to produce Romans and that differences can be attributed to differing priorities among elites and differential rhythms of development. A good starting point for those new to the study of the Roman city.

  • Nicolet, Claude, Robert Ilbert, and Jean-Charles Depaule, eds. 2000. Mégapoles méditerranéennes: Géographie urbaine rétrospective; Actes du colloque organisé par l’École française de Rome et la Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l’homme, Rome, 8–11 mai 1996. Collection de l’École Française de Rome 261. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose.

    Several chapters relate directly to the Roman world, including by Nicolet, Martine Boiteux, and Gramsci Sartre on Antioch; Filippo Coarelli on Rome; and Pierre Gros on Roman Carthage and on the Greek and Roman periods. Other chapters present approaches to the city in other eras.

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