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Ancestors of Faith: Cities in the Ancient World

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The ancient Roman Empire often conjures an image on the strength and power, wielded by rulers over a vast population. While accurate in certain respects—especially towards the Roman army—we often miss sight of the tremendous diversity and even independence that existed within the empire’s boundaries. Not everyone woke up fearing the heavy-hand of Rome. Ancient cities give us a more intriguing picture. Long before the Romans took over the Mediterranean, cities dotted the landscape from Jerusalem and Athens in the East to Carthage in the West. When the Romans conquered these cities, they often allowed—and even encouraged—local government and traditions to continue. As long as citizens maintained order and fulfilled their financial obligations to Rome, they wielded a great deal of flexibility in how things should run. Citizens often elected their own officials and celebrated their own festivals. They even could mint their own coins! Admittedly, uncovering the unique experience of specific cities can be difficult because of the available evidence. The attention paid by ancient authors to the empire’s capital, Rome, and its still-standing (impressive) buildings allow us to listen to senators give speeches in the Curia, haggle for goods in Trajan’s market, present sacrifices at one of the monumental temples, or cheer with the crowds in the Colosseum. The city of Pompeii, by contrast, was too small to warrant similar notice by ancient writers, but here we can recreate a little bit of what civic life was like throughout the empire. Public and private spaces have remarkably been preserved. Thousands of graffiti, ranging from electoral notices to bawdy personal notes, also survive. It is incredibly easy to imagine ordering at one of Pompeii’s many cafes or placing a vote for a favored candidate. Unfortunately, many other cities of the ancient world are not as visible to our modern eye, both because the ancient authors did not write about them and/or recent construction and events limit excavation. For instance, we know from a few written accounts that ancient Antioch in northern Syria was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was a cultural melting pot and an important political, economic, and religious center. The only major excavation of this city occurred in the 1930s, however, and left many areas unexplored. Even out best ancient testimonies about life in this bustling metropolis were written over 400 years after the events they describe. No graffiti like at Pompeii or descriptions like for Rome have survived. Trying to get a glimpse of “life on the ground” in cities like Antioch requires new tools and out-of-the-box thinking to interpret the material we do have. Several projects currently explore the application of modern technology to ancient evidence in order to open new paths of exploration. My own research uses Google Earth to reveal where the coins of particular cities were likely used as currency. This research has the potential to open up new windows onto the diversity of the empire. For although Mediterranean cities were all part of “Rome,” pride in one’s own city and competition with neighboring ones sometimes prohibited the use of anyone else’s coins! Finding the invisible boundaries to the circulation of city coins provides one means of uncovering the influence and independence wielded by the diverse cities of the Roman world. Clearly, there’s a lot more local history still waiting to be told in an empire as big as Rome’s. Clearly, there’s a lot more local history still waiting to be told in an empire as big as Rome’s.