Can small towns have any chance to flourish in a ‘globalised’ world dominated by larger cities? With communities across the planet being so highly interconnected, the tension between global transformations and local trajectories is something every society – past and present – has to cope with. In the case of urban civilisations this tension often results in greater divergence between big cities and small towns: larger centres tend to be both the primary drivers and beneficiaries of growth, the vital nodes of a network in which smaller centres often find themselves placed at the margins. Some may call them “left behind’. This is a massive problem for smaller communities in our contemporary world. But it was also a problem faced in a big way by many towns in the Roman period.
All these cities and towns, big and small, represented the nodes of a dense network centred on Rome, and constituted the infrastructure without which a complex organism like the Roman empire could have hardly survived, let alone prospered. It is not by chance, therefore, that it is through the lens of Rome that our understanding of the development of Italian towns is often framed. Not only has Rome’s increasing political hegemony often been linked with the process of Italian urbanism, but the great opportunities which the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean opened up have similarly been considered the main driver behind the growth of many Italian cities (2nd century BC to 1st century AD). Conversely, those towns which appeared not to have partaken actively in these developments have tended to be viewed as secondary, declining, backwater settlements.
The town of Interamna Lirenas (in Southern Latium/Lazio) offers us an illuminating perspective on the problem. We learn from ancient authors, such as the historian Livy (59 BC – AD 17), that it was founded as a colony in 312 BC, placed along a heavily contested frontier with the Samnite people, where it withstood the impact of Hannibal’s marauding armies during the Second Punic War (218–201 BC). After these events, however, Interamna left the spotlight: having fulfilled its strategic role as one of Rome’s bulwarks in Central Italy, we can find only vague references to its existence. Were we to judge this town based exclusively on the accounts of the Roman literate elite, it would squarely fall in the above category of the secondary, the declining, the backwater.
Indeed, for a long time, the visible material remains of Interamna appeared to confirm this view: they were limited to little more than very few and scattered (barely) standing structures. There was nothing to suggest the existence of a theatre – a type of building that, by the end of the 1st century BC, basically every other nearby town had acquired. To this day, the site appears as a series of crop fields, giving away only hints of what might still be buried underneath, mostly in the form of potsherds and tile fragments that are periodically brought to the surface by seasonal ploughing. Despite these unpromising appearances, renewed efforts towards reappraising the archaeology of Interamna were launched in 2010.
We must first bear in mind that structures buried in the ground, such as a concrete wall, possess different physical qualities from the surrounding soil (clay, sand, etc.). As a result, current archaeology routinely employs a range of techniques to detect and map any ‘geophysical anomalies’ in the subsoil. Such an integrated geophysical survey was carried out over the entire area of Interamna Lirenas, a region of about 25 hectares, as indicated by the surface spread of potsherds and tile fragments. Apart from making it possible to reconstruct the general layout of the town, the survey detected the buried remains of a dense network that contained private houses of all sizes as well as a wide range of public buildings:
And among these remains there was… a theatre!
This prompted a more general reassessment of the available evidence. A well-known inscription, tentatively dated to the 3rd or 4th century AD, was revisited: a benefactor of the town had been awarded the honour of a bisellium, that is a double-seat, at the theatre! This little piece of evidence had been in front of everyone’s eyes for a very long time, but, in the absence of the visible remains of a theatre, had been simply overlooked.
It was therefore only natural that the first ever excavation of this town focused on the theatre. What was brought to light, however, was not the standard plan of a theatre, but that of a theatrum tectum or odeum (roofed theatre). This architectural type was considerably less common in Roman Italy than its open-air counterpart, with most known examples dating to the age of Augustus – including the one at Interamna (of the late 1st century BC). It could seat about 1,500 spectators and its roof spanned 24.3 metres, enough to put it in line with some of the largest roofs attested in the Roman world. Its stage was later decorated with precious coloured marbles from all over the Mediterranean, possibly the gift of a wealthy freedman named Anoptes. Indeed, a fragment from a large inscription (which dates to the 1st century AD and might have decorated the stage itself) not only preserves his name, but also gives an indication of the family to which he originally belonged – the Sulpicii Galbae, a powerful Roman household whose last member succeeded Emperor Nero in AD 68, ruling Rome for less than a year. But there is more.
An inscribed sundial, recovered just outside the theatre, mentions a certain Marcus Novius Tubula, who is said to have paid for the dial with his own money, whilst being a ‘tribune of the plebs’. Various considerations about the date (late 1st century BC) and the nature of his office make it likely that this individual was in fact a plebeian tribune… of Rome! In other words, Tubula, hailing from Interamna, would have celebrated his entry into a (senatorial) political career in the centre of the empire by gifting his home town a sundial – a monument that would have remind his fellow citizens of his achievement.
This document can therefore be taken as a more general indicator of the level of involvement in Rome’s own affairs that individuals hailing from this and other relatively secondary communities could aspire to. By contrast, prominent figures from Rome could equally demonstrate their activities at the local level. Indeed, a now largely lost inscription (recorded by the author of a 19th-century cadastral (land valuation) map a nearby farm. This text, which had later been seen by other scholars albeit only in an incomplete form, confirmed that Julius Caesar himself was patron of the town in 46 BC – an honour that only three other Italian towns could boast.
As a result of these discoveries, Interamna has begun to acquire a rather different profile. We now know that it featured a dense urban settlement and a well-developed monumental character, including a fashionably-designed theatre. It was also variously linked with very powerful political networks, all at a time when it was supposed to have been on the decline. But what made it possible for this small Italian town to thrive?
The answer to this question can be found via a systematic study of those humble potsherds to which we referred above. Pottery not only provides evidence of its own trade, but of broader patterns more generally: thanks to its very high resilience in terms of preservation, it is our best surviving indicator of other goods which may have moved along with it along trade routes. As it happens, the near entirety of the goods consumed at Interamna throughout its history appear to have been local or regional in origin. If the relatively scant presence of overseas imports can be taken as a sign of the relatively marginal place the town occupied in relation to the vast Mediterranean trade network that centred on Rome (in which pottery and other goods moved over great distances), it also highlights the town’s own long-term vitality within its regional milieu. After all, in a pre-industrial world, it is fair to expect most of the commercial demand to be met with goods produced and distributed locally and regionally.
The fact that the political unification brought about by the Roman empire may have also driven an increased economic (and cultural!) integration across the entire Mediterranean region (and beyond) should not represent the only benchmark against which to evaluate the performance of people and communities in the Roman period. Local networks – and not just economic ones – may have proved strong and resilient in the face of the structural transformations taking place within such a highly inter-connected world.
In short, the strategic position Interamna occupied as a bulwark of Roman expansion in the early phases of its history also placed it ideally in relation to regional trade networks within Central Italy. This scenario seems confirmed by two inscriptions (1st century AD), listing towns which were part of two separate networks of periodical markets (nundinae) in that part of the world: Interamna is the only one to appear in both these lists, indicating its role as a regional commercial hub. Although these trade networks may not have extended much into the vast expanse of the Mediterranean world, they still presented the inhabitants of Interamna with a very great wealth of opportunities, whose existence preceded and (often) survived the rise and fall of the Roman empire.
What is the lesson one can learn from Interamna Lirenas? First and foremost, that our perspectives on the Roman world are all too often framed through the lens of Rome and focussed on the ‘global’ transformations it triggered. By doing so we run the risk of missing out on other important developments which were taking place outside the spotlight. It is in those dimly-illuminated margins that we might discover signs of unexpected civic and economic vitality, the expression of local historical trajectories whose relevance was clearly appreciated in the centre too. Furthermore, we are forcefully reminded not to be fooled by the vague descriptions and unassuming remains of many other small Roman towns, as there might be far more buried there than actually meets the eye, just waiting to be revealed.
Alessandro Launaro is a Classicist working on the archaeology and history of Roman Italy and has been directing the Interamna Lirenas Project (with Martin Millett) since its inception in 2010. He is an Associate Professor in Classics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. Being an unrepentant nerd, he tends to cultivate far more interests than time allows.
G.R. Bellini, A. Launaro, and M. Millett, “Roman colonial landscapes: Interamna Lirenas and its territory through Antiquity,” in J. Pelgrom and T. Stek (eds.), Roman Republican Colonisation: New Perspectives from Archaeology and Ancient History (Palombi, Rome, 2014) 255–75.
A. Launaro, M. Millett, L. Verdonck, and N. Leone, Beneath the Surface of Roman Republican Cities (AHRC Research Project) (Cambridge, 2017).
A. Launaro, “Interamna Lirenas – a history of ‘success’? Long-term trajectories across town and countryside (4th c. BC to 5th c. AD),” in A.U. De Giorgi (ed.), Cosa and the Colonial Landscape of Republican Italy (Third and Second Century BC) (Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MA) 119–38.
A. Launaro, and N. Leone, “A view from the margin? Roman commonwares and patterns of distribution and consumption at Interamna Lirenas (Lazio),” Journal of Roman Archaeology 31 (2019) 323–38.
A. Launaro and J. Patterson, “New epigraphic evidence from the Roman town of Interamna Lirenas (Central Italy),” Epigraphica 82 (2020) 213–41.
The Interamna Lirenas Project is jointly pursued by the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge (A. Launaro, M. Millett), the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Frosinone e Latina e Rieti and the Comune di Pignataro Interamna, in collaboration with the British School at Rome and the Department of Archaeology of Ghent University (L. Verdonck, F. Vermeulen).