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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The changing urban landscape of Roman Sicily

  • Author(s): Pfuntner, Laura
  • Advisor(s): Noreña, Carlos F.
  • et al.

This dissertation analyzes the settlement landscape of Sicily in its seven centuries under Roman hegemony, with the aim of understanding the effects of large- and small-scale economic and political changes on patterns of urban settlement across the island and within its regions. Sicily's long history of urbanization and its early and enduring incorporation into the Roman Empire make it a valuable case study for examining the relationship between imperialism and urban development, allowing a "long view" of the impact of imperial power on local, regional, and supra-regional economic, political, and social structures.

I begin with an overview of the historiography of Roman Sicily, followed by a summary and justification of my own methodology. I argue against the once dominant strand of scholarship that framed Sicily's history under Rome as one of decline and obsolescence. Instead, based on the recent proliferation of archaeological research in Sicily, my approach to the island's urban history in the longue durée rejects the dichotomy between urban and rural settlement. In its place I adopt a flexible definition of settlement that takes into account the wide range of roles that cities could exercise for their inhabitants, and the potential for these roles (and their manifestations in urban space) to change over time.

I follow this introductory section with the empirical core of the dissertation: a quantitative overview of the development of Sicily's urban landscape across its seven centuries as part of the Roman Empire, based on a database containing archaeological and historical data on urban settlements occupied within this period. I identify two main transformative periods. First, the establishment of Roman hegemony after the First Punic War led to the sharp decline in the number of secondary urban centers (mostly hilltop settlements fulfilling a primarily defensive function) in the western interior. Second, the shift of commercial currents towards Rome after the sack of Carthage in 146 BC brought about a contraction in urban settlement on the southern coast that climaxed in the mid- and late first century BC (and was institutionalized in Augustus' new urban hierarchy), and that later affected urban settlement in the interior. Outside these periods, however, the urban system as a whole was relatively stable.

This overview of urbanization across the island is followed by an examination of the history and material culture of several archaeologically and historically well attested urban settlements, focusing on their individual development in the first two centuries AD. In these case studies, I argue for the "transformation" rather than the "decline" of urban life in Sicily. Many older cities, especially along the southern coast and in the interior, gradually lost their roles as centers of political authority and of elite residence and investment, though some remained centers of economic activity, sometimes following movement to more economically integrated sites. Political activity was instead concentrated in a few large coastal cities that had been made colonies by Augustus or that later gained colonial status. These cities were centers of diverse populations and a wide range of economic activities, and they maintained strong connections with other regions of the Mediterranean. In the final chapter, I examine the new forms of settlement that arose in the imperial period, whose emergence and development, as I suggest, reflected the evolving political and economic position of Sicily within the Roman Empire as a whole. These semi-urban centers tended to be located close to maritime and land transportation routes and they show evidence of intense economic activity, but few signs of political autonomy. Some lay in the hinterland of primary urban centers and served as economic satellites; others served as population and service centers in areas otherwise devoid of urban settlement.

A key finding of the dissertation - and one that is not necessarily paralleled in other parts of the Roman Empire - is that within Sicilian cities, economic activity and political authority were only loosely related variables. Though only a small number of urban centers were loci of political authority, economic activity was diffuse: towns that lost their political roles could remain centers of economic activity, while new settlements were largely geared towards the processing and distribution of agricultural products. I conclude, therefore, by suggesting ways in which Sicily's urban history can be understood more broadly, in the context of the urbanization of the Roman Mediterranean, and especially in comparison to North Africa and southern Italy, regions with strong historical ties to Sicily, but with different histories of political, economic, social, and cultural relations with Rome.

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