The urban development of Rome in the Republic 400-100 BC

“Some would poke fun at their manners and customs, others at their achievements, others at the appearance of the city itself, which was not yet made beautiful in either its public or its private sections”
– Livy, 40.5.7.

This was the opinion of a Macedonian nobleman around 182 BC, and shows how some of the Greeks viewed Rome, as an out of place and less than pristine power; it couldn’t compete in terms of splendour. In this post I want to discuss the development of Rome, and whether or not this is a fair evaluation. I’m going to examine the layout of Rome, it’s recovery after the 4th century downturn, infrastructure and the development of colonies, such as Ostia.

The layout of Rome is a slightly haphazard affair, but this is due to constant development since the sixth century BC and no concept of zoning (designating areas for specific activities, e.g. housing, religious, industrial). An excellent example of this are two properties owned by Sulpicius Galba (consul in either 144 or 108) located just outside the Pomerium by the Aventine; they are his horrea (warehouses) and his tomb (Patterson (2000) 265). Two very different buildings with two very different purposes, so why are they so close together? A pragmatic reason would be that since he already owned the land, building his tomb by his warehouses made sense, since it saves him money in a city that was cramped and clustered together. Another reason might be that it developed a sort of dynastic precinct, an area which advertised the family, that aimed to bolster their reputation.

Another suggestion for the disorganisation, that is taken up by Roman writers, is that after the Sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC, Rome was completely destroyed and was rebuilt quickly (Livy 5.42-43.1; 5.55). However, we know from the archaeology of the city that there was no mass destruction from this period, and the Republican buildings that have survived also show no damage (Cornell (2000) 43). The disorganisation then must have come from constant development from the earliest periods of Rome.

The Servian Walls

The Sack of Rome was at the end of a century where the peoples of Italy went into decline (Cornell (1995)), there was no development in monumental architecture in Rome from around 490-390 due this. After the sack of Rome, the city and its people went on the offensive, especially in Etruria. The end of this period of decline and the start of wars of conquest lead to the return of monumentalism. The so called Servian Walls were constructed in 390s after the defeat of the Etruscan city of Veii, we can assume this, since the stone used was tufa from quarries near Veii. This is the start of a tradition of using stone from conquered lands, that picks up pace much later in the Imperial period. As well as representing the imperialism that Rome was now engaging in, it also represents the connections with other states and the ideas and culture that were exchanged. Mason’s marks (graffiti’s and name signing) on the wall are in the Greek alphabet, Cornell suggests that they were from Syracuse in Sicily (2000, 45). This demonstrates both interactions with neighbours in a non-aggressive way, plus further evidence for continual Hellenisation throughout the Republican period.

Appius Claudius, son of Caius, Caecus, censor, consul twice, dictator, interrex three times, praetor twice, curule aedile twice, questor, tribune of the soldiers three times. He captured several towns from the Samnites, routed an army of Sabines and Etruscans. He prevented peace being made with King Pyrrhus. In he censorship he paved the Appian Way and built an aqueduct for Rome. He built the temple of Bellona. (CIL XI 1827

During this period of prosperity, the population started to grow, and such was the growing strain on existing infrastructure that expansion became necessity. Water was essential, and to prevent shortages it began to be brought in from elsewhere. The first aqueduct was the Aqua Appia, built in 312 BC by Appius Claudius Caecus when he was censor; a role that during the Republic included the building of public works. This aqueduct was built with booty from the Samnite Wars, of which Appius was heavily involved. This shows how a practical need takes a political dimension, it becomes a permanent monument for his victories. This is reaffirmed by his tombstone (CIL XI, 1827), which goes to great lengths to outline his achievements (including his buildings and his magistracies).

The second Roman aqueduct builds on the political nature of infrastructure projects. It is called the Anio Vetus, and was built in 272 BC by Manius Curius Dentatus, a very significant rival of Appius. It was around four times as long as the Appia (63km compared to 16), built at a much more difficult and higher angle, and more water flowed through it per day (176,000 m3 compared to 72,000m3). This is some very serious and elaborate political upstaging. Competition between the aristocracy was an important way that Rome developed, as the elite built more and more elaborate and necessary buildings, and it was also a sign of recovery after the period of decline, since the stability and prosperity allowed the competitive nature of the aristocracy to flourish.

Another piece of infrastructure that was built by Appius was the Via Appia, also built in 312 BC. This was a very significant development that allowed Roman armies to march easily into the centre of Italy. This was essential to the continuous wars against the Samnites, from which, the road was funded. The road also symbolised Rome’s ascension as a major power in the Italian peninsula, allowing it access to the states that owned it allegiance and cementing overland trade links with the mountainous interior.

Temple of Portunus, in the Forum Boararium

The 4th Century was a period of major building for the Romans, and this included the fortification of the port town of Ostia (Meiggs (1973) 23). This process of fortification is an indicator for two things, that it became an important overspill area for the main city, and the importance of imported goods increased, which in of itself is an indicator of an increased population. What is interesting about this evidence of increased trade, is that the cult of Portunus (the god of ports) was introduced in this period, and that a temple was built almost contemporarily in the Forum Boarium, which had been an important trading hub since the 7th century BC.

The fortification of Ostia itself is further evidence for this increased reliance on trade, since the seaways became more dangerous as the maritime Etruscan cities collapsed (Meiggs (1973) 23). The dangerous nature of trading is also emphasised in a treaty made with Carthage in 344 BC (Livy 7.27; Diodorus 16.69). In 241 BC, after the capture of Sicily Ostia’s importance increased further, as Sicily was an important agricultural area that was needed to provide grain for the people of Rome.

What I hope to show with these buildings is that the development of Rome was an organic process that occurred due to the needs and wants of the population, with an emphasis on pragmatism. This would explain why the Macedonians were able to insult the city, as it was not planned to look beautiful, but to suit the needs of the population and provide a playground for aristocratic competition. Cornell argues that Rome was a paradoxical mix of tradition and innovation (2000, 42), this explains why the layout is a little haphazard. It is only with the rise of strongmen in the 1st century BC, that there is a more unified and coherent attempt to beautify the city, as they had the means and political will to create an elaborate and decorative building policy. I argue that the insults of the Macedonians are actually irrelevant, for the building traditions of Rome were different to those of the Macedonians, since they used buildings to further their careers and to gain the support of the people, whilst the buildings of Macedonia were a sign of their kings’ power. And for this reason, I don’t believe the quote given to us by Livy is a fair evaluation of Rome’s development.

Primary Sources

LivyHistory of Rome, Volume III: Books 5-7. Trans. B. O. Foster. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924)
Livy, History of Rome, Volume XII: Books 40-42. Trans. Evan T. SageAlfred C. Schlesinger. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938).

Diodorus SiculusLibrary of History, Volume VIII: Books 16.66-17. Trans. C. Bradford Welles. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).

Secondary Sources

Claridge (2010, revised) Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Cornell, T. (1995) The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars. (London: Routledge).

Cornell, T. (2000) ‘The City of Rome in the Middle Republic (400-100 BC)’ in Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City, eds. H. Dodge and J. Coulston. (Oxford: Oxford School of Archaeology). Chapter 3.

Meiggs, R. (1973) Roman Ostia (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Patterson, J. (2000) ‘ Living and Dying in the city of Rome: Houses and Tombs’ in Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City, eds. H. Dodge and J. Coulston. (Oxford: Oxford School of Archaeology). Chapter 10.


Figure 1: Servian Wall, from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Figure 2: Tombstone of Appius Claudius Caecus, from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Figure 3: Temple of Portunus, from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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