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Impearls: CotRCS: Municipia et Coloniae

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Earthdate 2007-10-13

Municipia et Coloniae   by G. H. Stevenson

We now come to the communities which occupied the highest place in the hierarchy of provincial towns, the Roman colonies and municipia.  The distinction between them was based rather on their origin than on any great difference of constitution.  In Italy a municipium was an existing city on which the citizenship had been conferred, and which was probably allowed to retain some traces of its original constitution {Footnote:  The chief magistrates of Arpinum were three aediles in the age of Cicero.  […]}, while a colony was a new foundation or a community to which Roman settlers had been added.  In the earlier days of Roman rule the Italian municipia had received the citizenship in a modified form (civitas sine suffragio) but by the end of the Republic the restrictions had been removed.

In the provinces the status of a colonia was undoubtedly regarded as higher than that of a municipium.  The former title suggested a close connection with the imperial city, while the name municipium recalled an alien origin.  Hadrian, we are told, professed to be surprised that the people of his native town of Italica in Spain wished to become a colony.  “He wondered that, when they could employ their own customs and laws, they wished to change their status for that of a colonia.”  This remark implies that municipia still in theory possessed a fuller measure of self-government, but, as Aulus Gellius says, cities preferred to be colonies “because of the dignity and prestige of the Roman people.”  Things had changed since the days when the greatest advantage which a provincial city could possess was to be independent of Rome.

The earliest Roman colonies had been purely military settlements, armed garrisons in districts whose loyalty was doubtful, and traces of this conception survived into the Principate.  Though colonies were most numerous in peaceful provinces, many were planted in districts like Mauretania and Pisidia which were only half civilized.  Good examples of this type of colony are Colonia Agrippinensis (Cologne) on the Lower Rhine and Camalodunum (Colchester) in Britain.  Cologne, the old capital of the Ubii, was given colonial status in a.d. 51, and Tacitus’ account of the German rising against Rome twenty years later shows that it had almost entirely lost its national character and had become a centre of Roman influence.  Many of its citizens were veterans of the Rhine armies who had settled in the region where they had served and had married German women.  Similarly in a.d. 61 Colchester suffered in the rising under Boudicca because it was a “citadel of Roman domination” and contained a temple dedicated to the deified Claudius.

It was, however, in the more civilized parts of the empire that most colonies were to be found.  The disbandment of the armies of Cæsar and Augustus led to the foundation of many provincial cities, some of which retained in their title the name of the legion to which the original settlers had belonged.  This was particularly so in Narbonese Gaul, where Narbo recalled its association with the Tenth Legion, Fréjus with the Eighth and Arles with the Fourth.  When the new military system of the Principate was fully established this mass emigration came to an end, though soldiers continued to be sent to colonies.  Tacitus contrasts the days when “whole legions were settled with their tribunes and centurions and soldiers of every rank to form a society based on unity and affection” with the state of things under Nero, when soldiers of various units and strangers to each other were sent to colonies where they found life dull and from which they drifted away.

The word colonia soon lost its association with the army, and came to designate a status which might be conferred as an honour on communities which had hitherto occupied a lower place in the municipal hierarchy.  In Gaul the name was applied to some towns which lacked the usual municipal organization and were merely the capitals of tribes, e.g., Trèves [Trier] and Langres.  In the whole of the Three Gauls the only colony of the normal type was Lugdunum [Lyon].  Another example of the careless use of technical terms in this region is the strange title of colonia Helvetiorum foederata, which is found in an inscription.

As early as the time of C. Gracchus overseas colonization had been suggested as a means of dealing with the problem of unemployment in Rome and perhaps other Italian cities.  The efforts of Gracchus were thwarted by the objection which was still felt to the foundation of Roman cities outside Italy, but Cæsar, who shared his liberal views, is said to have settled 80,000 citizens in overseas colonies.  Many of these were sent to Corinth and Carthage, which he refounded, and we possess part of the charter of the colony of Urso in the south of Spain, which was certainly not a military settlement, and in which municipal office could be held even by freedmen [ex-slaves].  It is doubtful, however, whether this policy was followed by Cæsar’s successors, under whom emigration from Italy to the provinces was encouraged in other ways.

Much of what has been said about these Roman towns applies primarily to the western provinces.  East of the Aegean, while many cities were granted Libertas, colonies were much rarer than in the west, and the status of municipium was unknown till very late in the Principate.  The leading cities of the province of Asia, for example [located in the east], retained their Greek constitutions, while in such provinces as Hispania Baetica and Gallia Narbonensis [in the west] they received the rank of colonia quite early in the Principate.  Even there, however, the privileged status belonged to a small minority of the cities.  Baetica [in southern Spain] contained only nine colonies among its 175 towns in the reign of Augustus, and it is doubtful whether the number was increased till Hadrian added the city of Italica [his home town].

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