Classics Colonization in the Roman Republic
Saskia T. Roselaar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0238


During the conquest of Italy and later the provinces, the Roman state acquired a great amount of land. In the Republican period, land was often confiscated from defeated enemies and made into ager publicus: land owned by the Roman state. One way the Roman state could use this land was by founding colonies on it. In short, this meant that a group of settlers were sent to the land and lived there as an independent community. Sometimes a new city was built on conquered territory; in other cases a captured city was inhabited by the settlers. Each settler received a piece of land in private ownership. It is likely that some land was granted as common land to the colony, to be used by all its inhabitants. These colonies had a great impact on Italy in the Republican period. They made it possible for Rome to keep control over its defeated enemies and consolidate its hegemony, created urban settlements in areas where cities did not always exist, and influenced the cultural integration of Italy, sometimes called “Romanization.” Many long-held ideas about colonization have recently been questioned, as part of the greater revisions in the socioeconomic history of the Republic in general. For example, it was often assumed that the settlement of a colony was a strictly regulated project, in which everything was arranged by the foundation committee, usually a board of three men: the selection of the colonists, the measurement and allotment of the land, the building of a city, the establishment of boundaries, and the creation of roads. However, there is actually very little evidence for the intensive involvement of the state with colonization during the Republican era. It may be that the colonists were assigned some land without the creation of any of the other traditionally postulated elements of a colonial landscape. Another long-held idea—namely, that colonies were already created in the early Republic as part of a centrally coordinated plan by the Roman state—has also been rejected; more-varied ways of expanding Rome’s hold over central Italy should be envisaged (see Origins of Roman Colonization). A diachronic approach to colonization is necessary, instead of assuming that colonization appeared as a fully developed concept and remained unchanged throughout the Republic. Furthermore, the exact extent of the influence of colonies on the Italian landscape and culture has been debated. The concept of “Romanization” in general is no longer considered a valid model to describe cultural changes in Republican Italy, which means that the role of colonies as “Romanizing” elements has also been discarded. Therefore, the idea of colonies, especially colonies with Latin rights, as archetypical towns spreading Roman urban culture to the rural areas of Italy has been rejected (see Colonies and “Romanization”). More attention is also needed for the religious aspects of colonization, both within the colonies themselves and for the religious importance of colonization for the Roman state in general. Still, it seems that the Roman state had specific considerations in mind when founding colonies. The most important was the stabilization of newly conquered territory in order to discourage hostile peoples from warring against the Romans and to serve as bridgeheads for further conquests. Apart from military purposes, colonies also served to reduce the pressure on Roman arable land by providing additional territory for Rome’s ever-growing population. Colonies, whatever they looked like exactly, had been an important way in which the poor could gain access to land. When colonization ceased in the 2nd century BCE, economic and social problems occurred only a few decades later, culminating in the events of the Gracchan reform (see Oxford Bibliographies in Classics article “The Gracchi Brothers”).

General Overviews

Most works in this section cover both the Republican and the Imperial periods, although in many cases the emphasis is on the Imperial era. This is the case for Moatti 1993, for example, although it offers an introduction on the Republican period as well. On Republican colonization, Edward Salmon’s works are especially influential: Salmon 1969 is still the only monograph on Republican colonization, although it is now outdated on many specific issues. He had already written shorter overviews in Salmon 1936 and Salmon 1955. There is unfortunately not a more recent English-language monograph on Republican colonization, but the subject has received frequent attention in other languages, and the works here are a good start. Broadhead 2007 is a clear and short English-language introduction. Stek and Pelgrom 2014 offers a good overview of the many debates currently taking place in the field of Republican colonization (e.g., whether Rome was a cultural model for the colonies, the strategic functions of colonization, the role of private initiatives in colonial foundation (as opposed to state initiatives), the colonial landscapes, and religious life in colonies). Bertrand 2015 is a valuable collection of papers on an important aspect of the colonization process: the confiscation of land from the defeated people. This aspect, often neglected, was in need of updated scholarly attention, and Audrey Bertrand’s volume is an important contribution.

  • Bertrand, Audrey, ed. 2015. Special issue: Expropriations et confiscations en Italie et dans les provinces: La colonisation sous la République et l’Empire. Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome: Antiquité 127.2.

    This is a collection of conference papers focusing on one aspect of colonization: the confiscation of land from the defeated peoples. It discusses the status of the land of colonists and indigenous peoples and relationships between locals and colonists. This volume is not a basic introduction into the topic, and some issues are not discussed, but the papers individually represent the latest insights into their respective subjects.

  • Broadhead, William. 2007. Colonization, land distribution, and veteran settlement. In A companion to the Roman army. Edited by Paul Erdkamp, 148–163. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470996577.ch10

    This article offers a clear overview of the general history of colonization in the Roman period after 338 BCE. It discusses recent debates (e.g., whether colonies were modeled on Rome and the legal position of Latin colonists). Broadhead also discusses the way colonization was used in politics: promises to colonize new land could be used by the Senate or individual politicians to gain the support of the landless poor.

  • Cornell, Timothy J. 1995. The beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000–264 BC). Routledge History of the Ancient World. London and New York: Routledge.

    This is a general overview of the history of Rome from 1000–264 BCE. It offers a clear overview of scholarly debates into the most-important questions regarding Roman history, including the role of colonization in the conquest of Italy. Obviously it does not incorporate the most recent insights, but it is a good starting point for this crucial period in Roman history.

  • Moatti, Claude. 1993. Archives et partage de la terre dans le monde romain (IIe siècle avant–Ier siècle après J.-C.). Collection de l’ École Française de Rome 173. Rome: École Française de Rome.

    Moatti describes the process of colonization in detail, from the conquest and measurement of the land to the recruitment of settlers and their deduction into the colony. He then focuses on the way in which the colonial landscape and the local laws were documented and archived. Most of the evidence dates from the Imperial period, so it cannot be assumed that his reconstructions are reliable for the Republican period.

  • Salmon, Edward T. 1936. Roman colonisation from the Second Punic War to the Gracchi. Journal of Roman Studies 26.1: 47–67.

    DOI: 10.2307/296705

    Salmon discusses the source material for all post-200 BCE colonies and the reasons for their establishment. He then discusses the complex issues of ius migrandi and ius duodecim coloniarum (without offering convincing explanations for either), and the reason why Latin colonies were no longer founded after 177 BCE; he argues that the decline of the census figures made the Senate reluctant to further reduce the number of citizens.

  • Salmon, Edward T. 1955. Roman expansion and Roman colonization in Italy. Phoenix 9.2: 63–75.

    DOI: 10.2307/1086705

    Salmon emphasizes the military and strategic role of the colonies: Latin-rights colonies were intended to deter enemy attacks, while Roman-rights colonies served as coastguards. The primary goal of colonization was, therefore, not to supply the poor with land, but to serve the military needs of the Roman state. After the Second Punic War this changed, when Italy was dominated by Rome and there was less need for strongholds in strategic locations.

  • Salmon, Edward T. 1969. Roman colonization under the Republic. Aspects of Greek and Roman Life. London: Thames and Hudson.

    This book was once the standard work on Republican colonization and is still the only English-language monograph on the subject. It gives a good overview of the (limited) historical facts about the colonies and the process of founding a colony. However, it established many ideas about colonization that have now been discarded, such as the idea that colonies resembled Rome and that a general strategy lay behind Rome’s colonization policy.

  • Stek, Tesse D., and Jeremia Pelgrom, eds. 2014. Roman Republican colonization: New perspectives from archaeology and ancient history. Papers of the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome 2014.62. Rome: Palombi Editori.

    This book is an important contribution outlining the new directions in Republican colonization studies. It offers various thematic studies, including articles on the question of whether Rome was a model for the colonies, the strategic functions of colonies, private initiatives in colonial foundations, colonial landscapes, and religious life in colonies. All contributions offer excellent, up-to-date reinterpretations of Republican colonization.

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