This article looks at how technology was used to help shape ancient and medieval Italian cities.
The city of Rome and most cities in the Roman Empire were similar to modern cities today; they operated in a global economy. Rome itself was no exception, with a population estimated at around a million at its height in the 1st century AD. The inhabitants of Rome and most other Italian cities at this period were cosmopolitan urban centres, attracting people from all over the Roman Empire. People flocked to these cities, with similar ideas to those people who flock to our modern cities, ideas of rich pickings, employment and wealth.
With this large influx of people moving into the cities meant that a large building program was required. The densely packed areas of Rome were susceptible to building collapsing because of poor construction. In Rome most of these people were housed in Insulas (flats), by AD 14 there were an estimated 50,000, compared to a measly 2000 houses. Insulas were cheaply built using concrete; on the ground floor were either more luxurious flats or commercial outlets. The higher up floors went the poorer the tenants tended to be. These were slum dwellings, which were cheaply built with high rents, built privately by local developers to exploit the growing population of unskilled workforce.
At Rome’s height building land became scarce which led to more multi-storey insula being built. During this population rise the ground floors of these buildings were made into industrial and commercial outlets. Even in today’s modern cities we see a similar development, the more our modern cities expand, then more of the buildings tend to be built upwards rather than outwards to save floor space.
Other large-scale building programs were in the form of public buildings such as forums, baths and amphitheatres. These were structures were built by the ruling elite; emperors built large public works to celebrate great victories. After the Dacian campaign Trajan built the column (known as Trajan’s column), which depicts the campaign in great detail.
With a million people living in the city, the water supply needed eleven aqueducts, with over 300 miles delivering at least between 150-200 gallons of water person per day. This gave the city the ability to keep expanding, water supply is one of the main ingredients for any settlement, without this aqueduct system, Rome and many other Italian cities may never have expanded to the population size they did.
The skilled labour force for these building projects was provided by the guilds. Once born into a guild, the trade was taught and practised throughout the person’s lifetime. The guilds were almost similar to the caste systems of India, placing people in to distinct social classes. The guilds helped to socially shape the city and its inhabitants, people had a place and knew that place. The construction of the city labour force was controlled and manoeuvred by the guilds.
“Aside from employment of soldiers from the legion and government slaves, which were common in the ancient states, the minor construction force behind the building of large projects, excluding the many military roads, bridges and fortifications, were contractors….in fact they possessed the same basic function of our modern contractors” (David Moore- The Roman Pantheon- The Triumph of Concrete).
What made all of the building possible was the technology of concrete, the ability to build fast was what made concrete the prime building material in Rome and other Italian cities. “Dusty ancient history books taught us that Roman concrete consisted of just three parts: a pasty, hydrate lime; pozzolan ash from a nearby volcano; and a few pieces of fist-sized rock.” (David Moore-www.romanconcrete.com).
This ability to erect buildings on a large, faster and more economical way would have been one of the prime technologies that helped to shape Rome and other cities and towns all over Italy and the Roman Empire. Building with concrete would have meant that a larger part of the workforce could be unskilled, which meant that contractors would only require minimal stone masons, which in turn would make the labour costs cheaper. This technology would have shaped the expansion of most Italian cities at a greater rate and to the size of our modern cities. After the Roman Empire fell concrete wasn’t used again until Joseph Aspdin discovered it in 1824. This may have been one of the reasons why European cities didn’t reach a similar population density of 1 million plus again until the late 18th and early 19th century.
In the early part of the medieval period, great many factors led to people living outside of the towns and cities. This included a displacement of people from all over Europe, mass migration, also we know from recent archaeological evidence that there was a probable change in climate; there is also written and archaeological evidence to point towards the possibility of plagues during this turbulent period of history.
These factors would have help to shape the way people were living and where they dwelt. The reduction in population within the cities would have been radically reduced. The cities of the Roman period were tightly packed and densely populated, were no longer the case. The mass migration of people from all over Europe would have meant new cultures and new ways of doing things were forced onto those living within the former Roman Empire.
The decline in population would have meant that some of the skills and crafts used in the Roman Empire would have been lost. We have to assume that one of the infrastructures that would have been lost would have been the guild system. This would have possibly meant that there was no longer a constant supply of young members learning the trades. This would have had a great effect of the industry of the cities; no longer would goods be produced on a mass production process. Trades would have been reduced to a smaller production scale.
Also the cultures that were introduced at this time would have passed on skills and crafts in a different way to the Roman Empire. They would have been passed down within the family, where as previously it was done through the guilds. Products were now being produced on a piecemeal approach and no longer in the factory mass production of the Roman Empire, reducing the amount of employment within the city walls. With the decline in employment would have led to people moving out of the city back to the countryside to work the land. At the same time some of those who would have left, would have been skilled craftsmen seeking to ply their trades in the villages, where the population was and where the new ruling elite were.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, saw a decline in existing Roman buildings. With the fall of the empire, the infrastructure collapsed. This meant there was no structured approach to building construction and maintenance of public buildings, as there was under the previous Roman governments. There was no longer a structured and regular repair work being carried out on those buildings.
This lack of regular maintenance meant that aspects of Roman life which would have been taken for granted, such as water supply, was no longer being delivered through the aqueduct system. One reason for this would have been that regular maintenance would have been difficult and expensive to maintain, without the imperial help.
The new invaders during the early medieval period preferred to dwell outside of the cities, out in the countryside, which meant that the ruling elite were no longer living in the cities, so money wouldn’t have been spent on the up keep of towns and cities.
With the ruling no longer dwelling in the cities “the power vacuum was filled by the bishops who by canon law were compelled to live in the towns” (Chant pg 121, 2003)
The secular ruling elite had a great effect on the shaping of medieval towns and cities in Italy and the rest of Europe. “The Roman need for public bathing fell into decline under Cannon law. The Roman passion for bathing was seen by the church as reprehensible indulgence, although the early popes seem to have enjoyed their own luxurious bath in the palace” (Chant 2003). The ecclesiastical elite saw water as an important part of their religion in the form of ritual washing; this led to the decline of water being used for public bathing. The Roman way of life was disappearing to be influenced socially by the new people and cultures from northern Europe, as well as the growing ecclesiastical elite.
Cities were able to expand to the population size they did in ancient times because of the technologies such as concrete, this enabled large-scale building projects such as the aqueducts, which were needed to supply water to the inhabitants of urban settlements. The technologies played a large part in the social shaping of the cities. It helped to provide much-needed employment to the vast population of unskilled labour attracted to the cities.
At the same time other groups within the cities such as the ruling elite and the guilds also helped to shape the built environment and the population socially as well.
The expansion and large-scale building projects may also have helped to shape its downfall. These projects would have been put into action not just in Italy, but all over the Roman Empire. Emperors built large public works on a whim, costing vast sums of money, to continue this scale of building production is not viable economically. It’s possible that some of the larger cities within the Empire expanded beyond its economic capability, which may have helped to influence the fall of Rome and her empire.
At the end of the Roman period there was a great upheaval caused by a variety of factors, which included war, famine, new cultures and migrating people from Northern Europe, disease and climate change. What would happen now if our current civilisation was to collapse, would we return to a rural way of life, self-reliant local base economy, like they did during the early medieval period or would we try to cling onto our way of life dwelling in cities? We yet may experience this possible scenario, as we are currently in the grip of climate change, will this shape they way we live in the future. Will our modern cities as we know today become a thing of the past like they did at the end of the Roman Empire.
Chant. C & Goodman. D (edited) – Pre-industrial Cities & Technology (2003 Routledge)
Gates. C – Ancient Cities (The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece and Rome)- (2003 Routledge)
Chant. C (edited) -The Pre-industrial Cities and Technology Reader (1999 Open University)
Moore. D – The Roman Pantheon- the Triumph of Concrete (2004)
Pescarin. S – Rome (2003, White Star Publishers)