Where Romulus Stood

Michael Kulikowski

  • The Shape of the Roman Order: The Republic and Its Spaces by Daniel J. Gargola
    North Carolina, 320 pp, £47.95, March 2017, ISBN 978 1 4696 3182 0
  • The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City edited by Andrea Carandini, translated by Andrew Campbell Halavais
    Princeton, 1280 pp, £148.95, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 691 16347 5

The Romans were formidably good at organising space. Anyone who has flown into Venice from the west will have noticed the unusually rectilinear field systems (Google Earth will show you too), a legacy of Roman surveyors two millennia ago, and far from unique: Roman conquerors and colonists left this type of centuriation behind wherever they went. Roman milestones and boundary markers are staples of dusty epigraphic collections everywhere, while in the Musée d’Orange (Orange was Roman Arausio) there is something even more impressive: a land register in stone, the fragments of which were found in 1949, recording all the plots of land (rectilinear, naturally) between Orange and Nice. It was engraved on the orders of the Emperor Vespasian, who wanted to reclaim public lands lost to private encroachment since the colony’s foundation by Julius Caesar. The density and detail of Roman land administration was unlike anything else in antiquity, or in the premodern world as a whole.

How they managed it is clear enough at the technical level. Roman agrimensores (‘land measurers’, also known as gromatici after their key tool, the groma) were highly skilled surveyors. Wherever the republican state planted colonies of discharged soldiers – as at Orange – a survey was needed so that the town could be planned and the countryside parcelled out, indigenous inhabitants having been summarily dispossessed in favour of their Roman masters. But the Roman habit of rectilinear survey was much more ingrained than that: enlisted gromatici laid out the marching camps that armies constructed every evening while on campaign, each one the model of a miniature city, with the commander’s tent or praetorium the fixed point from which the camp’s four quadrants would be traced. It’s worth noting that while the vast bulk of Latin literature has disappeared without a trace, the corpus of the agrimensores survived and runs to more than five hundred pages in the standard edition. Romans excelled in both theory and praxis at the topographic level, as could be seen with Caesar’s amazing siegeworks at Alesia in France. But however great their technical and tactical know-how, they weren’t so good at conceptualising space at the strategic or geographic level. Romans could measure long distances fairly accurately, but not large areas, let alone represent them on a map. The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, now the gold standard for historical cartography, shows us an ancient geography that the ancients couldn’t have conceived of themselves. The one Roman world map to survive (in a medieval copy known as the Peutinger Table) doesn’t even look like a map. A series of itineraries stitched together in a roll 22 feet long but only a foot wide, it not only muddles the cardinal directions, but compresses north-south distances while elongating east-west like a funhouse mirror. It shows us routes (and sometimes distances) from point to point, and it illustrates Rome’s sense of its world-bestriding dominance. Its practical cartographic value, however, is nil.

And yet the Roman Empire did bestride the world (or a fair chunk of it). Long before the republic died in an orgy of civil war, Roman armies had conquered territory on an unprecedented scale, and you don’t move armies from one end of the earth to the other without some sense of how far away the ends of the earth might be. How did they do it? Late republican authors like Livy and Cicero, and the Greek Polybius slightly earlier, tried to make sense of Rome’s acquisition and maintenance of empire through the prism of Greek political theory about the ideal constitution of a city-state, but such reductionist analysis didn’t help much. Even the somewhat earlier authors now preserved in fragments wrote after Rome had already acquired an empire and when the republic’s oligarchic consensus was beginning to fail. Roman concepts of space and how to shape it must go back much further than that, to the time before written records. Scholarly consensus is impossible in such circumstances, and so a minor academic industry thrives.

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