A Data Visualization of Every Italian City & Town Founded in the BC Era

Ancient peo­ple did not think about his­to­ry the way most of us do. It made no dif­fer­ence to con­tem­po­rary read­ers of the pop­u­lar Roman his­to­ri­an, Livy (the “JK Rowl­ing of his day”), that “most of the flesh and blood of [his] nar­ra­tive is fic­ti­tious,” and “many of the sto­ries are not real­ly Roman but Greek sto­ries reclothed in Roman dress,” his­to­ri­an Robert Ogilvie writes in an intro­duc­tion to Livy’s Ear­ly His­to­ry of Rome. Ancient his­to­ri­ans did not write to doc­u­ment facts, but to illus­trate moral, philo­soph­i­cal, and polit­i­cal truths about what they saw as immutable human nature.

Much of what we know about Roman antiq­ui­ty comes not from ancient Roman his­to­ry but from mod­ern arche­ol­o­gy (which is still mak­ing “amaz­ing” new dis­cov­er­ies about Roman cities). The remains of Rome at its apogee date from the time of Livy, who was like­ly born in 59 BC and died cir­ca 12 AD. A con­tem­po­rary, and pos­si­bly a friend, of Augus­tus, the his­to­ri­an lived through a peri­od of immense growth in which the new empire spread across the con­ti­nent, found­ing, build­ing, and con­quer­ing towns and cities as it went — a time, he wrote, when “the might of an impe­r­i­al peo­ple is begin­ning to work its own ruin.”

Livy pre­ferred to look back — “turn my eyes from the trou­bles,” he said — “more than sev­en hun­dred years,” to the date long giv­en for the found­ing of Rome, 753 BC, which seemed ancient enough to him. Mod­ern arche­ol­o­gists have found, how­ev­er, that the city prob­a­bly arose hun­dreds of years ear­li­er, hav­ing been con­tin­u­ous­ly inhab­it­ed since around 1000 BC. Livy’s own pros­per­ous but provin­cial city of Pad­ua only became incor­po­rat­ed into the Roman empire a few decades before his birth. Accord­ing to Livy him­self, Pad­ua was first found­ed in 1183 BC by the Tro­jan prince Antenor…  if you believe the sto­ries….

The point is that ancient Roman dates are sus­pect when they come from lit­er­ary sources (or “his­to­ries”) rather than arti­facts and archae­o­log­i­cal dat­ing meth­ods. What is the dis­tri­b­u­tion of such dates across arti­cles about ancient Rome on Wikipedia? Who could say. But the sheer num­ber of doc­u­ments and arti­facts left behind by the Romans and the peo­ple they con­quered and sub­dued make it easy to recon­struct the his­tor­i­cal stra­ta of Euro­pean cities — though we should allow for more than a lit­tle exag­ger­a­tion, dis­tor­tion, and even fic­tion in the data.

The maps you see here use Wikipedia data to visu­al­ize towns and cities in mod­ern-day Italy found­ed before the first cen­tu­ry — that is, every Ital­ian set­tle­ment of any kind with a “BC” cit­ed in its asso­ci­at­ed arti­cle. Many of these were found­ed by the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd cen­tu­ry BC. Many cities, like Pom­peii, Milan, and Livy’s own Pad­ua, were con­quered or slow­ly tak­en over from ear­li­er peo­ples. Anoth­er ver­sion of the visu­al­iza­tion, above, shows a dis­tri­b­u­tion by col­or of the dates from 10,000 BC to 10 BC. It makes for an equal­ly strik­ing way to illus­trate the his­to­ry, and pre­his­to­ry, of Italy up to Livy’s time — that is, accord­ing to Wikipedia.

The cre­ator of the visu­al­iza­tions obtained the data by scrap­ing 8000 Ital­ian Wikipedia arti­cles for men­tions of “BC” (or “AC” in Ital­ian). Even if we all agreed the open online ency­clo­pe­dia is an author­i­ta­tive source (and we cer­tain­ly do not), we’d still be left with the prob­lem of ancient dat­ing in cre­at­ing an accu­rate map of ancient Roman and Ital­ian his­to­ry. Unre­li­able data does not improve in pic­ture form. But data visu­al­iza­tions can, when com­bined with care­ful schol­ar­ship and good research, make dry lists of num­bers come alive, as Livy’s sto­ries made Roman his­to­ry, as he knew it, live for his read­ers.

See the creator’s dataset below and learn more here.

count 1152

mean 929.47

std 1221.89

min 2

25% 196

50% 342.5

75% 1529.5

max 10000

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Roads of Ancient Rome Visu­al­ized in the Style of Mod­ern Sub­way Maps

Rome’s Colos­se­um Will Get a New Retractable Floor by 2023 — Just as It Had in Ancient Times

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 CE: Explore Stun­ning Recre­ations of The Forum, Colos­se­um and Oth­er Mon­u­ments

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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