Stéphane Martin

Shaping the Provinces: Anchoring innovation in environmental planning in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire

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Shaping the Provinces: Anchoring innovation in environmental planning in the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire

In the first century BC and the beginning of the first century AD the territory of the Roman state was extended on an unprecedented scale. The transformation of the vast new acquisitions into provinciae – the building blocks of Roman rule – posed enormous challenges. These were especially manifest in the Northwest, where climate, landscape, society and culture differed considerably from those of the Mediterranean. Central places and large agglomerations were lacking in many areas and large-scale agriculture and intensive farming did not exist, in contrast with the Mediterranean. Therefore, new approaches and technical solutions had to be developed in order to create the infrastructure necessary to manage the north-western territories and to feed and pay the armies deployed in the frontier zone.

Shaping the Provinces

Although Gallia Comata had been conquered around the middle of the first century BC it took several decades before its ‘provincialization’ was taken up. Augustus personally spent three years in this area, which he divided in the three provinces of Lugdunensis, Aquitania and Belgica. Their spatial planning and administrative organization was facilitated by the creation of a basic network of long-distance land roads by his lieutenant Agrippa. Augustus further attempted to conquer parts of the Germanic territories east of the Rhine and initiated their conversion into the province of Germania. It is therefore obvious that his reign was crucial for the environmental planning of the Northwest.

The road network rolled out by Agrippa became the infrastructural backbone of the conquered territories. New cities were created along the roads, and minor settlements soon followed. While these new elements in the landscape of the Northwest display many characteristics of the Mediterranean ‘blueprints’, they also reveal deviations. The latter may be the result of innovations in design and technology necessitated by the natural environment and available resources, or of the adoption of already existing local know-how and traditions. In the countryside the introduction of Roman building technology and design was slower and more restricted, but eventually they penetrated even the most peripheral areas.

In the proposed postdoc project the environmental impact of the Roman invasion on the landscape of the north-western Roman provinces will be investigated, focusing in particular on the relationship between the technical solutions adopted and the way in which these were anchored in existing infrastructure or local customs. The focus will be on Gallia Belgica, including the part which was later set apart as Germania inferior. The technical challenges posed by the different landscapes and the impact of environmental changes in terms of cultural transformation will be an important field of study. Questions to be addressed include whether the environmental changes were a result of a carefully planned operation or of a series of ad hoc decisions made by Roman authorities and to what extent the original population was involved or resisted. Was the already existing indigenous infrastructure used as a starting point, and, if so, which were the consequences for the existing settlements and the new ones? On a technological level it should be questioned whether, and if so, to what extent, the Romans adopted already existing local solutions for technical problems regarding infrastructure.

The project will shed light on the technical innovations in the field of building and construction which resulted from the conquest and organization of the north-western provinces. The balance between Mediterranean and indigenous traditions on the one hand and the built landscape which resulted from their confrontation on the other hand will certainly contribute to our understanding of the processes by which the new was anchored in the old in the Roman world.