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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Centuriation and Colonization
  • Villas and Farms
  • Latifundia
  • Villages: Vici and Pagi
  • Agricultural Production
  • Animal Husbandry and Pastoralism
  • Circulation of Goods
  • Manufacturing and Extraction Activities
  • Sanctuaries and Tombs
  • Conquest, Romanization, and Resistance
  • The End of the Roman Countryside

Classics Roman Countryside
Annalisa Marzano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0178


It is challenging to talk of a “Roman countryside” as if it were one homogeneous feature characterizing the wide geographical span of the Roman world. There are key elements that can be taken as being representative of the Roman countryside, for instance villas, land centuriation, and the road network, but the ancient countryside was much more varied than this and there was considerable regional diversity. The villa “system,” for instance, did not equally spread in every corner of the empire, and pastoralism, extraction activities, and manufacturing were all features of the Roman countryside alongside agricultural practices. The prevalence of one activity and mode of settlement over another was determined by regional topography, the natural resources available, the degree of urbanization, the role a region had in the overall administrative organization of the empire (for instance, whether taxation was extracted in kind), and its geographic position. Many important debates have unfolded around the Roman countryside: size of rural population and proportion of rural versus urban dwellers; type of settlements and the extent of continuity or disruption between Roman and pre-Roman periods (e.g., fortified hilltop villages versus farms and villas); type of land tenure, management, and labor; type of agricultural production and to what extent the ancient city lived “parasitically” exploiting the countryside; the list could go on. When discussing the Roman countryside it is obvious to start from Italy, and more precisely central Italy, the heart of Rome’s civilization, but it is necessary to distinguish between the elements and phases which constituted the “real” Roman countryside and the “idea” of a Roman countryside at home, and the processes in action in the provinces once Rome started to expand outside the Italian peninsula. Phenomena for a long time connected, in a more or less linear fashion, to the stages of Rome’s military expansion in the Italian peninsula, such as the appearance of farms and villas in central Italy, seem in fact to have been overarching phenomena disentangled from Rome’s annexation, since farms appeared at about the same time also in regions not yet conquered by Rome. But when considering provincial annexation in the late Republican and early imperial periods, land divisions and the appearance of farms largely producing surplus wine and olive oil are phenomena clearly observable in the archaeological record in regions such as Gallia, Baetica, and Tarraconensis. The incorporation into Rome’s empire here gave start to significant changes in the appearance of the countryside. The following sections aim at capturing the complexity of the Roman countryside and its regional diversity, while stressing those features that one would immediately associate with the idea of the Roman countryside. The approach taken in this bibliographical essay is to explore the ancient countryside mainly through the lens of archaeology. (Please see other related Oxford Bibliographies articles: Roman Archaeology, Roman Economy, etc.)

General Overviews

Dyson 2003 and Terrenato 2012 offer a clear introduction to the complexity of the debate surrounding the “Roman countryside” and focus on key themes, such as villas, roads, etc. Since Italy was the center of Roman political power and culture and in some of the new provinces Roman types of rural settlements appeared after annexation, any discussion of the Roman countryside starts with the Italian peninsula. Patterson 2006 does a very good job in discussing the diversity of the Italian landscape, which too often is presented as one homogeneous element, and the strengths and weaknesses of field survey (see also Field Surveys). The bibliography is rich and is a good starting point for further reading. Toynbee 1965, which emphasized the effects the Hannibalic War had on the transformation of the Italian landscape, has been an extremely influential study. Although many of Toynbee’s views are no longer accepted, it remains a “must-read” in order to understand the subsequent lines of research in the field. Recent years have seen considerable research on Italian settlement patterns and on the transformations that occurred in the countryside between the middle and late Republican periods and between the Republican and the imperial periods. Fioriello and Mangiatordi 2013 is an example of this kind of work for Apulia, a region thought to have been profoundly affected by the Roman conquest and the Hannibalic War. The article argues that no drastic change occurred; since other scholars reach different conclusions for neighboring areas, it is useful to read this article together with the items listed in its bibliography. Marxism is an important theoretical framework that has informed research on rural Roman Italy. Ancient slavery and the central role it occupies in the descriptions of the villas given by the Roman agronomists (Cato, Varro, and Columella) lent themselves well to being framed according to Marxist concepts such as “mode of production” and “class struggle.” Giardina and Schiavone 1981 is an example of the Italian Marxist school of thought applied to ancient history, while Carandini 1985 (cited under Villas and Farms) was influential in proposing the idea that key characteristics of the Roman villa were the slave mode of production and large estates which incorporated land previously owned by small farmers. Much field survey work carried out in central Italy after the South Etruria Survey (Potter 1979, cited under Field Surveys) was aimed at understanding whether, as presented in the ancient sources, in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE Rome’s imperialism caused the disappearance of small and medium farms to the advantage of large estates. In this category one can place Carandini and Cambi 2002, the publication of the survey undertaken many years before in conjunction with the excavation at Settefinestre. Horden and Purcell 2000 proposes a historical paradigm in alternative to the longue durée articulated by Braudel in his seminal work on Mediterranean history. Horden and Purcell 2000 instead emphasizes the diversity of regional developments and the cases of clear break with the past. The book is not focused specifically on the Roman countryside, as it covers a wide chronological span and has as its focus the Mediterranean, which is seen as the connecting element among its micro-regions, but it has much to offer for the understanding of the complex interaction between humans and natural environment over a long timescale.

  • Carandini, Andrea, and Franco Cambi, eds. 2002. Paesaggi d’Etruria: Valle dell’Albegna, Valle d’Oro, Valle del Chiarone, Valle del Tafone; progetto di ricerca italo-britannico seguito allo scavo di Settefinestre. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

    There was a notable delay in the publication of this volume, but the book is of interest because the results highlight the differences in villa size between coastal and inland Etruria. To be consulted together with the review by A. I. Wilson, JRA 17.2 (2004): 569–76.

  • Dyson, Stephen L. 2003. The Roman countryside. Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Duckworth.

    A slim and very accessible book, it is a useful introduction, suitable for students, to various themes, methods, and types of evidence that have occupied the debate on the Roman countryside.

  • Fioriello, Custode S., and Anna Mangiatordi. 2013. Urban and rural Roman landscapes of central Apulia. Journal of Roman Archaeology 26.1: 143–166.

    DOI: 10.1017/S104775941300010X

    A synthesis of more extensive work published by the authors in Italian, covering the 3rd c. BCE–4th c. CE period. Against Toynbee it argues that no clear impact on rural settlements or on the dynamics of production/consumption is discernible in the aftermath of the Hannibalic War.

  • Giardina, Andrea, and Aldo Schiavone, eds. 1981. Società romana e produzione schiavistica. 3 vols. Bari, Italy: Laterza.

    This has been a very important work for all historians and archaeologists interested in ancient Italy, regardless of its Marxist framework. Volume 1, on the agricultural systems of Roman Italy, has several influential essays, such as Giardina’s on pastoralism and Manacorda’s on landowners, agriculture, and ceramic production in the ager Cosanus.

  • Horden, Peregrine, and Nicholas Purcell. 2000. The corrupting sea: A study of Mediterranean history. Oxford: Blackwell.

    It argues that there were notable differences in the rural developments of different areas of the Roman Empire and proposes the need for a historical ecology of the Mediterranean. It examines Mediterranean history and the interactions between humans and natural environment over a long timescale.

  • Patterson, John R. 2006. The rural landscapes of imperial Italy. In Landscapes and cities: Rural settlement and civic transformation in early imperial Italy. Edited by John R. Patterson, 5–88. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198140887.003.0002

    It offers an overview, suitable for graduate students, of the diversity of the Italian landscape, field survey methodologies, migration, models of rural settlement, etc. The discussion of settlement trends is valuable, as is the appendix presenting, in summary form, the data for settlement patterns derived from a selection of surveys.

  • Terrenato, Nicola. 2012. The essential countryside (b): The Roman world. In Classical archaeology. Rev. 2d ed. Edited by Susan E. Alcock and Robin Osborne, 144–167. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This chapter is the revised second edition of the 2007 publication and offers a clear introduction, suitable for undergraduate students, to the complexity of the debate surrounding the “Roman countryside.”

  • Toynbee, Arnold, J. 1965. Hannibal’s legacy: The Hannibalic War’s effects on Roman life. 2 vols. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Seminal work on the devastating consequences of the Hannibalic War on the Roman economic, social, and military spheres. The aftermath of the war is treated in Volume 2. It had considerable influence on ancient history studies and on how Italian settlement patterns recovered through field survey have been interpreted.

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