Ancient Rome was one of the world’s greatest cities. According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 B.C. by Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god Mars. Archaeologists*, however, believe it actually formed when a cluster of villages on the hills near the Tiber River merged to make one town. By 600 B.C., Rome was a major city that dominated the surrounding area. At its height, during the empire, Rome had a population of more than a million people.

Throughout the lands they conquered, the Romans energetically founded new cities and improved existing ones. They took great pride in their cities and provided inhabitants with many services, such as water from aqueducts* and entertainment at theaters.

Planning and Building Roman Cities. Rome and other early Italian towns arose without plans. Towns developed around forts, mines and quarries, religious sites, river crossings, and road junctions. In contrast, many of the Greek colonies in southern Italy were carefully designed. Roman rulers used these Greek cities as models as they constructed new areas of Rome or rebuilt areas that had been destroyed by fire. When founding new cities in conquered territories, the Romans planned these settlements on the Greek models, but incorporated characteristics of the city of Rome as well. These new cities often began as military settlements to provide security in hostile areas. By 338 B.C., more than a dozen colonies had been founded in Italy to protect Rome from unfriendly peoples. Later, the Romans established colonies in western Europe and in North Africa.

Numerous Roman officials and professionals worked on establishing a new city or town. Military surveyors worked on town planning. An augur* performed religious rites to determine the best site for the town. Retired soldiers were often the first settlers in a new town. The typical Roman town was planned as a rectangle. A plowed furrow marked the lines where the city walls would be built. Two main streets crossed the rectangle in the center at right angles. Other streets ran parallel to the main ones, forming a grid pattern, insofar as the features of the land permitted. The forum* and public buildings were constructed in the center.

The governments of new colonies were based on that of Rome. The Romans also took over cities that already existed. These cities, called municipia, received a charter that set forth how they were to be governed. Cities often petitioned the emperor for a charter, which was conferred as a mark of favor. The charter was inscribed on bronze and posted in the city center where everyone could see it. Rulers and other wealthy Romans would construct grand public buildings in cities that they favored.

* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

* aqueduct channel, often including bridges and tunnels, that brings water from a distant source to where it is needed

* augur Roman religious official who read omens and foretold events

* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings

Life in the City. The forum was the center of Roman city life. A public square and marketplace, the forum was surrounded by public buildings and often had a continuous colonnade* that included shops and offices. A forum typically featured an important temple at one end. In the city of Rome, the original forum was located between hills in an area that had once been a marsh. As the city grew, the forum repeatedly had to be expanded.

The public buildings that lined the sides of a forum included the basilica*, the curia*, temples, and the market. The basilica and curia housed the government. Adjoining the curia was an open space for public assemblies, called the comitium. Temples, dedicated to the gods and goddesses, served as places for religious ceremonies. The market, or macella, was originally a meat market, but the term became used for a market building with various shops. The market in Rome built by the emperor Trajan contained over 150 individual shops. Romans honored outstanding citizens with statues, columns, and other monuments in the forum.

Prosperous cities and towns had sidewalks and streets paved with stone. Raised stone walkways over streets helped people cross streets without getting dirty. The walkways had gaps between the stones so vehicles with wheels could pass through them. Reflecting its basically unplanned nature, the city of Rome had many crooked, narrow streets. In the last years of the Roman Republic*, the city became so crowded that a law prohibited most wheeled vehicles from passing through it during the daytime. Until the A.D. 300s, most streets had no lighting and were often unsafe at night. Many streets had no names, and houses had no numbers.

Rome and other major cities provided many public services. The government cleaned the streets and built sewer systems. There was no garbage collection, however, and people sometimes threw their trash out windows, although that was illegal. The emperor Augustus established fire and police forces. He also organized the supply and distribution of grain, which was stored in large warehouses. Grain was sold to bakers or distributed free directly to the people.

Aqueducts delivered water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Aqueducts brought water to Rome from as far away as 60 miles. Although wealthy people had running water in their homes, most others did not, so cities provided public fountains and lavatories. Rome had 600 public fountains. Cities also built public baths. The baths were the cities’ social centers. The largest, such as those built by the emperors Caracalla and Diocletian in Rome, occupied many acres.

People in the cities loved spectacles of all kinds, such as plays, chariot races, and gladiatorial* contests. Roman cities had public theaters for dramatic and musical performances. The Roman senator Pompey built the first permanent theater in Rome in 55 B.C., although other cities may have had theaters earlier. Several different kinds of structures were built for athletic games and competitions. Most of these were basically open-air structures, although the area where the audience sat might have awnings, and theater stages were covered with roofs. Every year, many days were proclaimed as holidays and devoted to public entertainment.

While the emperors lived in luxurious palaces, most people in cities lived in town houses or apartments. The town house, or domus, was a single-family house. The domus was built in several styles, the most common consisting of several rooms arranged around a courtyard, or atrium. Only a door and a few windows opened on the street to ensure security and quiet. Some town houses had more than one story.

* colonnade series of regularly spaced columns, usually supporting a roof

* basilica in Roman times, a large rectangular building used as a court of law or public meeting place

* curia in Rome, the meeting place of the Senate; in other urban areas, the meeting place of the town council

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* gladiatorial refers to the public entertainments in ancient Rome in which slaves or captives fought


Many Roman cities still flourish today. Some still have names similar to their Roman ones, while others have quite different names. Here are a few Roman cities with their modem names:


Tangier, Morocco


Budapest, Hungary


Paris, France


Lyons, France


London, England


York, England

Aquae Solis

Bath, England

Toletum Augusta

Toledo, Spain

Trevirorum Colonia

Trier, Germany


Cologne (Köln], Germany

As the population of Rome and other large cities grew, apartment houses were built. Eventually, by the end of the republic, a majority of Rome’s inhabitants lived in apartments rented from landlords who owned the buildings. Apartment buildings, like town houses, were built around courtyards and had several stories, although Augustus issued a regulation limiting them to five stories. They often had shops in front facing the street. The buildings were generally poorly constructed, and apartments on the upper floors lacked running water and heating facilities. Apartment buildings in Rome’s port of Ostia can still be seen today.

Cities of the Empire. In addition to Rome, many cities flourished in the Roman empire. Alexandria, on the delta of the Nile River in Egypt, was the second largest city, with perhaps 500,000 people. Although renowned as a cultural and religious center, it was also notorious for its high crime rate. Unfortunately, since the modern city has been built over it, little of ancient Alexandria survives today.

Other cities include the North African city of Carthage, destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C. at the end of the Punic Wars. Augustus, however, founded a new city on the site in 29 B.C., and later emperors built a great aqueduct and huge public baths there. Ephesus, a port in Asia Minor, was the leading city of the region and the capital of Rome’s province of Asia. Its public library held about 12,000 books. Augustus founded Trier, the most important city in northeastern Gaul, on the Mosel River in what is now Germany. It became the home of several later emperors.

Pompeii, in Italy, was not a large city, but it has great importance for our knowledge of Roman life. Vesuvius, a nearby volcano, erupted in A.D. 79, killing virtually all the inhabitants of the city. The tons of lava and ash from the volcano, however, preserved the town’s streets and buildings in astonishingly good condition. (See also Aqueducts; Archaeology of Ancient Sites; Architecture, Roman; Baths, Roman; Colonies, Greek; Colonies, Roman; Forum; Houses; Rome, City of.)

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