When we think of the Roman Empire as a physical space, cities are what come to mind. We see the huge bulk of the Coliseum. The ruined husks of aqueducts, bathhouses, and grand temples reach for the sky, reminders of the engineering prowess and resources the Romans had at their disposal. Those kinds of monuments, all residents of the Empire’s cities, define it in popular imagination far more than farmhouses, vineyards, mines, or squat, functional military bases.
Rome itself and its tapestry of monumental buildings might be what stands out for us today, but the Roman Empire was a world full of cities. Rome was just one of them. Thousands of smaller cities also dotted the landscape, from Antioch in Syria to London in Britain and hundreds more. Populations ranged from a few thousand in small regional centers to hundreds of thousands of inhabitants in the great megalopolises of the Mediterranean, like Alexandria or Constantinople. More of the Roman population lived in cities—estimates range between 10 and 20 percent, varying a great deal from region to region—than had before or would again until the early modern period.
Cities weren’t just agglomerations of people, though. They were central to how the Romans controlled their far-flung territories. It was city-based aristocrats who administered taxation and justice throughout most of the Roman Empire. This decentralized system connected elites in these communities to the political center of the Empire while leaving them in charge in their home regions. In areas where cities didn’t already exist—large chunks of Iberia, inland Gaul, Britain, and Germania—they would have to be built. Those local aristocrats would have to be drawn into city life to fulfill their proper role within the Roman political system.
As much as they were political centers, cities were also representations of a particularly Roman way of looking at the world and living in it. They were where you went to go do Roman things, like sacrifice at organized temples, buy goods in markets, talk philosophy and literature in the town forum, bathe in bathhouses, and attend games in the arena. Being Roman wasn’t a switch that people decided to flip; it was a product of choices made daily, of operating in the physical space provided by a city.
Finally, cities were both a product of the Roman economy and its bedrock. The Roman economy was really, really good at producing bulk quantities of agricultural goods like grain and olive oil and then transporting them to centers of demand, like Rome itself. You can’t have cities if you can’t feed them, and everybody who’s hauling crates of pottery in a city warehouse or what have you isn’t out in a field growing wheat. The Romans excelled at specializing regions in particular goods: Egypt and Sicily were known for grain, North Africa and Spain for olive oil, and Spain for the pungent fish sauce the Romans loved, garum.
The hard part was then getting those specialized goods to centers of demand. Cities were the answer to that. They were the nodes in the trade networks that bound together suppliers and consumers, the points where goods could be collected, loaded, and transferred from ships to carts or river barges for sale further on. Contrary to some scholars’ beliefs, cities weren’t just consumers, leeches on the productive countryside; they were the key points that held together the entire economic system.
As the Roman Empire fell apart, though, so did the cities. Those aristocrats we talked about grew less interested in spending their time and money in cities, for one thing. On a more serious note, those networks of trade depended on the Roman state for security, on the state tax system to drive production and demand, and the state’s infrastructure to move all those bulk goods and support cities. Slowly but surely, over decades and centuries, the cities emptied out. People died or left. Rome’s population dropped from half a million to perhaps 100,000 between 400 and 500, and it was just the most striking example of a wider trend.
If that sounds interesting to you, check out these two episodes of Tides of History, my new history podcast. As always, I’m Patrick Wyman. You may remember my old show, The Fall of Rome. In Tides, I’m covering not only the fall of the Roman Empire, but also the rise of the modern world, with topics like the rise of the state, the Military Revolution, the beginnings of capitalism, and the Reformation. Think of Tides of History like a TV show that happens to have two seasons running simultaneously.
If you have any questions or comments, let me know down in the comments.
Episode 7 - The Roman City
Episode 8 - The Decline and Fall of the Roman City
Selected Further Reading:
J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, The Decline and Fall of the Roman City
Helen M. Parkins (ed.), Roman Urbanism: Beyond the Consumer City
Ray Laurence, A.S. Esmonde Cleary, and Gareth Sears, The City in the Roman West, C. 250 BC-A.D. 250
Claudia Rapp and H.A. Drake, The City in the Classical and Post-Classical World