‘Coloniae’: An Historical Overview of Ancient Roman Colonization
Although the first experiences with the founding of colonies were bad, the Romans continued the practice.
By Jona Lendering
Historian and Founder
The First Coloniae
If we ignore Fidenae, a legendary foundation by the equally legendary king Romulus, the first Roman colonies date back to the end of the sixth century BCE, to the reign of king Tarquin the Proud. In those days, Latium (the country southeast of Rome) was increasingly infiltrated by mountain tribes, the Volsci and the Aequi. To defend the region, several colonies were founded: Signia in the east, Circeii in the extreme southeast, Cora halfway between Rome and Circeii, and Pometia on the central plain.
However, the mountain tribes broke through in the confused years after the fall of the Roman monarchy. Republican leaders like Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius Publicola were unable to turn the tide. In the first years of the fifth century, a final attempt was made to cope with the situation: Signia was reinforced, Velitrae was founded, followed by Norba a couple of years later. These towns were built in the hills to the east of Latium, as a line of defense. It turned out to be insufficient: in the first quarter of the fifth century, southern Latium was lost to capable Volscian generals like Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus. All colonies were captured.
Although the first experiences with the founding of colonies were bad, the Romans continued this practice. When they conquered Antium (in 467 according to the Varronian chronology), they refounded the town as a colonia. Many similar foundations were to follow.
Republican Coloniae, 500-133 BCE
During the Republic, there were two types of colonia.
- Roman colonies (coloniae civium Romanorum or coloniae maritimae). These small towns were often built near the sea. Examples are Ostia (350 VC) and Rimini (268). Typically, there were about 300 colonist families, which received only two iughera of land (½ hectare). This is not enough to support a family, and it is therefore probable that the new citizens were merchants or artisans as well. After 183, this changed. Modena and Parma were not situated near the sea, and were bigger than the earlier colonies. The citizens of the Roman colonies had full Roman citizen rights, and had a Senate of their own.
- Latin colonies (coloniae Latinae) were considerably larger than Roman colonies. They were military strongholds near (or in) enemy territory, and the new inhabitants owned large estates, perhaps 12½-35 hectares. Colonists who settled in these towns became citizens of an independent state. (If they were Roman citizens, they lost their citizen rights, but if they decided to return to Rome, they would receive them again.) An example of this category is Brindisi (246).
When the Senate and the consuls wanted to found a colony, three magistrates were elected who were to oversee the project. These triumviri selected the new citizens – Romans and others could apply – and led them, as if they were an army, to the place where they were to begin a new life. (Usually, the colonists were volunteers, but forced recruitment is not completely unheard of.) If the city was a real new foundation, the triumviri first performed certain rituals, which the Romans believed were originally Etruscan. The second stage was the construction of the walls and state-buildings; the houses were built later. During the final stage, the triumviri gave a new law to the citizens of the colony.
Not all colonies were new foundations. Often, the Roman government decided to settle people in a newly-conquered city. An early example is Antium, but younger settlements like Paestum (273) and Pyrgi (191) are no less representative. The native population was sometimes expelled, but could also remain where they were.
Late Republican Coloniae, after 133 BCE
After 133 BCE, the nature of colonization started to change. Until then, colonies had been military instruments. Now, tribunes started to propose reform bills, the aim of which was to support the urban proletariat. These poor daily wagers had to go back to the country and become farmers again. The new colonies were agricultural settlements. Tarentum was refounded in 122, and one year later tribune Gaius Tiberius Gracchus founded the first colony outside Italy: Colonia Iunonia – a refoundation of Carthage. In 118, Narbo Martius (modern Narbonne) was the first colony in Gaul.
In the final decades of the second century, Roman politics were dominated by the populares and optimates, i.e. by politicians who preferred to propose bills in the People’s Assembly and by politicians who preferred the Senate. If the members of the first group wanted to be successful, they had to propose reforms, but it was not easy to enforce the new laws. In the last years of the second century, tribune Lucius Appuleius Saturninus concluded that he needed an army to overcome this difficulty.
Of course, this was illegal, but Appuleius proposed a bill that gave land in certain colonies to the veterans of the army of Rome’s leading general, Gaius Marius. In case Appuleius’ opponents obstructed his reform bills, the tribune could easily request the assistance of the veterans. The Senate opposed this idea, because Appuleius would create a state within the state. As consul, Marius had to intervene, and Appuleius was killed (100 BCE).
Nevertheless, later military leaders like Sulla and Julius Caesar often founded colonies for their veterans. An example is Pompeii, which was resettled with veterans of Sulla in 80 and was henceforth known as Colonia Veneria Cornelia Pompeianorum. Faesulae (immediately north of Florence) is also representative for the colonies of this age.
Julius Caesar founded many Roman colonies: partly to offer the urban proletariat of Rome a new life, partly to create a military power base. Examples are Capua in Italy, Metellinum in Spain, Hippo and Thapsus in Tunisia, and Sinope on the shores of the Black Sea. After his death, his successors Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus continued this policy, which was also continued when Octavian had become sole ruler of the Roman world. The new colonies were usually situated in the provinces of the empire: Lyon in France, Augst in Switzerland, Barcelona in Spain, Syracuse on Sicily, Dürres in Albania, Patras in Greece, Cnossus on Crete, Berytus in Lebanon. And so on.
Later emperors are also known to have founded colonies, and several have become really famous. The name of Cologne in Germania Inferior still reminds one of its ancient name Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, “Claudius’ Colony near the Altar of the Agrippinenses” . However, this was an existing city, and the colonization was in fact nothing but a renaming and an increase in status. A comparable case is Lepcis Magna, officially called Colonia Ulpia Traiana Lepcitaniorum after it had received the colonial status from Trajan.
This was not uncommon during the empire. Another example is Nisibis. One of the latest cities to become a Roman colony was Nicomedia (modern Izmit), which received this honorific title from the emperor Diocletian (r.284-305). About 400 towns are known to have possessed the rank of colonia.
During the empire, colonies were showcases of Roman culture and examples of the Roman way of life. The native population of the provinces could see how they were expected to live. Because of this function, the promotion of a town to the status of colonia civium Romanorum implied that all citizens received full citizen rights and dedicated a temple to the Capitoline triad: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, the deities venerated in the temple of Jupiter Best and Biggest on the Capitol in Rome.
Originally published by Livius, 10.04.2020, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.