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Roman imperial age

Empire (first-third century AD)

During the Augustan age, the historical process known as Romanisation, which had started well over a century earlier, came to fulfilment. Between 8 and 12 BC, Veneto fell under the administrative competence of the Regio X (later called Venetia et Histria). Since this time and for a long time afterwards political stability and socio-economic vitality dominated in Veneto, largely because of the exploitation of agrarian resources on the one hand and sheep raising on the other hand (connected with the production of wool). Pastoralism was also celebrated in literary sources: see Strabo, Geography, V, 1, 7, 12; Columella, De re rustica, VII, 2, 3; Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, II, 11, 25; Martial, Epigrammata, XIV, 152. The main theme of this period is the mercantile business, related to the production of raw materials. Surveys of archaeological evidence (especially amphorae) show that mercantile business was practised beyond the regional boundaries.

The protagonists of this economic activity were the old local aristocratic families, who had now become the rich middle class and who ran large-scale businesses and exchanges, who started new artisan enterprises and ruled the cities in which they placed large sums of money in the form of public donations. This process of positive socio-economic growth can be clearly observed in the city of Patavium, which is documented in two crucial passages by Strabo: “Therefore these [cities] were located very much further beyond the marshes, whereas Padova is very close, outstanding among all the cities of this territory, of which it is said that in the recent census it numbered five hundred members in the equestrian order; in the ancient times though, it set up an army of 120,000 soldiers. Also the quantity of the provisions sent to the market of Rome, mostly every sort of clothing, is a proof of the demographic prosperity and the high industrial level of the city” (Strabo, Geography, V, 1, 7); “Indeed I heard that in one of the censuses carried out in our times five hundred Gaditan citizens belonging to the equestrian order were numbered, as many as no city in Italy has, except for Padova” (Strabo, Geography, III, 5, 3). In addition to the literary sources we can rely on the archaeological evidence which gives us a more detailed picture of this period of prosperity. In the cities there are different kinds of public buildings (forum and theatres for instance), begun in the second half of the first century AD. At the same time a gradual increase in population is recorded in the countryside, where new farms and villae were built. For the purposes of a market economy intensive agriculture was the most used system.

The era of peace established during the reign of Augustus also involved Veneto. After the conquest of the eastern and northern regions (Pannonia, Illyricum, Noricum, Raetia et Vindelicia) Veneto was now no longer marginal land, but rather an inner area of the Empire. There is a lack of literary sources for the reconstruction of the history in this period. Nonetheless, we can once again rely on the archaeological evidence, on the basis of which it is possible to argue in favour of economic growth (see public and private buildings for instance). The economic power of the Venetian communities was occasionally increased by donations from the imperial family (see for example Tiberius at Altino and Claudius in Verona). In 69 Veneto became the centre of the fighting for the control of the imperial power among Otho’s, Vitellius’ and Vespasian’s supporters (Tacitus, Historiae, III, 1-35). Two battles occurred in the centre of Bedriacum (today Calvatone), on the south-western border. In fact, diplomatic and military operations took place in most of the urban centres. Military units led by Antonius Primus, representative of the Flavians, were settled at Oderzo, Altino, Padova and Este. Legionary camps supporting the Vitellians were established in the southern area of the region, nearby Forum Alieni, usually identified with Montagnana. The Flavians first took over this fort, then conquered Vicenza, the city of modicae vires, and Verona. The latter actually became the centre of the civil war, base of the operations against Cecina, general of Vitellius, who had fortified his camp between Ostiglia and the Tartaro. After Cecina’s betrayal, the camp on the Tartaro was abandoned and the two opponent armies moved first to Bedriacum, where the second battle took place, then to Cremona, where Vespasian’s army gained the final victory. Literary sources for the century after 69 in Veneto are lacking. The reconstruction of the history of this region in the second century AD is therefore mainly based on the archaeological evidence. What we see is that by the end of the first century AD both urban and rural centres started suffering a slow and irreversible crisis, which affected the mercantile and economic system. To sum up, it seems that from the end of the first century AD, after the centre of economic activity moved to the southern and eastern areas of the Mediterranean (particularly Africa), many cities gradually show the first signs of financial collapse.

This situation of economic difficulties remained static for most of the second century. Then in 167 there was an invasion by the Germanic tribes of Quadi and Marcomanni. According to Ammianus Marcellinus and other literary sources (Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, XXIX, 6, 1; Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Antoninus Pius, XIV, 1-2; Cassius Dio, Historia Romana, LXXI, 3, 2; Lucianus, Alexander, 48) the barbarians invaded Italy between 167 and 170, after assaulting and destroying Oderzo, then attacking also Aquileia. The invaders were pushed away by the Roman legions under the command of the Praetorian Prefect T. Furius Vittorinus and the two Augusti Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Lucius died during his journey back from Aquileia to Rome because of a plague brought by the returning Roman troops.

The invasion by Quadi and Marcomanni proved Veneto to be geographically strategic as a passageway towards the eastern regions of the Empire. Indeed, it was in order to beat off invasions by Pannoni and Illyciri that from the end of the second century onwards Roman legions and emperors often settled their troops on the Adriatic coast (see for example Commodus after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180). We have also evidence of emperors who preferred not to offer resistance to the invaders, like Settimius Severus in 193 (Herodianus, Historia, II, 11, 6). A particularly celebrated route is the one that connected Altino to Ravenna; in 238 this very route was passed through by Maximinus Thrax’s troops, who were bringing their emperor’s severed head to Rome. (Herodianus, Historia, VIII, 2-6). Ten years later, in 249, the centre of the conflict moved to Verona where Philip the Arabian and Decius fought for imperial power (Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, XXVIII, 10; Pseudo Aurelius Victor, Epitoma, XXVIII, 1-2; Eutropius, Breviarum ab Urbe condita, IX, 3).

In the third century all the Venetian urban centres, easily exposed to barbarian attacks, began to be fortified. We remember here Gallienus’ activity in Verona (CIL, V, 3329 = ILS, 544). Gallienus was the emperor who faced the Goths and Alamanni in Milan in 258. He enhanced the defences with towers (between April and December 265) and surrounded the amphitheatre with an additional stretch of defence. Between the third and fourth century the city walls around Oderzo were rebuilt; the defence nearby Vicenza was enhanced with a tower. Soon afterwards Verona was once again the theatre of the fighting between the corrector Sabinus Giulianus and the emperor Carinus. The latter turned out victor in campis Veronensibus (Pseudo Aurelius Victor, Epitoma, XXVIII, 6).

The central position of Veneto can also be seen from a military point of view in the establishment of a fort of comitatenses at Concordia towards the end of the third century. This choice was probably connected with the creation of an imperial arrow factory arrows (Notitia Dignitatum, pars occidentalis, IX, 24-29). As far as Verona is concerned, a factory specialising in the production of shields and arms is attested to (Notitia Dignitatum, pars occidentalis, XLII, 54). Among the administrative reforms carried out by Diocletian in 297, the administrative organization of Veneto also changed. It became part of the Venetia et Histria province (Aquileia being capital), and it was ruled first by correctores, then, from 365, by consulares.

Owing to the crisis that spread almost everywhere between the second and the fourth century, a significant change in the socio-economic structures affected Veneto, as with many regions of ancient Italy. The crisis of the Italic markets, taken over by the Mediterranean and Eastern markets, caused a gradual loss in their financial autonomy. The economic difficulties of the region are revealed on the one hand by the archaeological evidence, on the other hand by the presence of extraordinary magistrates (curatores rei publicae and correctores) in charge of re-establishing a normal financial order in almost all the centres (Verona, Asolo, Adria, Vicenza, Padova, Oderzo, Concordia) between the second and the third century. Several urban centres still managed to keep considerable economic power, some of them being very close to the important city of Aquileia. The enthusiastic activity of Eastern merchants is indeed attested to at Concordia up to the fifth century.

Changes in the economic activities of the region can be observed in the study of the cities. From the third century building-trade activity became less intense. The Severian Age was the last to provide examples of refurbishment in the forensic areas of relatively small centres, such as Verona and Oderzo. Indeed, from that moment onwards, significant building activity took place only in big urban centres outside the region, such as Aquileia, Milan and Ravenna. The “minor centres” were now exclusively concerned with safeguarding what they already had. As a result many urban areas were abandoned. One of the most significant consequences of these changes was the re-use of building material, which indicates not only the need for saving, but also the intention of abandoning urban buildings that were no longer useful. Signs of crisis are also evident in a survey of the necropoleis attested to in the third and fourth centuries. A general numerical decrease in this kind of grave confirms a general decrease in population, even though a certain continuity in the use of particular necropoleis can still be recorded for a small group of rich families. A social crisis is attested to not only in the cities. Highly suggestive is the fact that towards the end of the second century several extra-urban sanctuaries ceased to be visited (Este for example). At the same time the countryside began to be gradually abandoned, whereas people tended to concentrate in the cities. This trend was typical for the following millennium until late medieval re-colonization.

Il testo e le immagini (con referenze fotografiche) sono tratti da:
J. Bonetto, I. Venturini, L. Zaghetto, Veneto, Archeologia delle Regioni d’Italia, Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, Roma 2009.