It used to be unquestioned that the Roman empire in the West fell to violent and bloody invasion that resulted in the death of a civilization, and the start of a ‘dark age’, from which it would take Europe centuries to recover. Recent scholarship, however, has tended to downplay the violence, and to challenge a concept of post-Roman cultural decline. New orthodoxies are emerging: that the barbarians were peacefully ‘accommodated’ into the empire to serve as its defenders; and that Roman culture was quietly ‘transformed’ into a new guise.
In the late 1970s I worked with a team of archaeologists on the site of Luna, a Roman city in northern Italy, on the coast about halfway between Pisa and Genoa. Ancient Luna, like hundreds of other towns across the empire, enjoyed the full range of Roman urban amenities: bath-buildings with piped water; paved roads with a drainage and sewerage system beneath them; a theatre and amphitheatre; a number of imposing temples; a full complement of civic buildings including a marble-paved forum square and a basilica for commercial and political transactions; and some splendid private houses, decorated in fresco, mosaic and marble. In the searing heat of July, one of the Roman houses was particularly attractive – its main reception rooms had floors of cool marble, and opened out onto a shaded courtyard, with raised flower beds and a fountain playing at its centre. The prosperity of the city was also attested by a remarkable range of high-quality and eminently functional domestic articles. For instance, third- and fourth-century citizens were eating off glossy plates and bowls from North Africa, and even cooking in casseroles from the same region. These vessels are found in large quantities, and were clearly very widely available. Like other Roman towns, Luna’s prosperity depended partly on a flourishing local agriculture, and partly on more specialized production and trade, in its case the extraction and export of the white marble now known as Carrara marble – much of imperial Rome was built in this stone.
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