Unstable Territory: Roman-Era Elites And The Production Of The Italian Countryside

Bryn Eames Ford, University of Pennsylvania


The Italian peninsula has always been a complex and divided environment, broken by mountains and rivers into compact regions possessing a range of ecologies and productive models. After Rome united these varied regions into a single polity for the first time, however, a new cultural narrative began to emerge that stressed the geographic consistency of the Italian rural landscape, grounding the political unity of the peninsula in an imagined ecological unity. This dissertation explores how this idea was produced at the level of the Italian regions, where literary images of uniform agrarianism and productivity ran up against the realities of ecological and economic difference. It argues that the elites of individual regions, as they integrated themselves into the emerging pan-Italian aristocracy at the end of the republic and the beginning of the principate, found new ways of looking upon their distinct home landscapes that emphasized generically Italian features and overlooked elements that could highlight geographic and historic difference. After an introduction setting out a theoretical approach to ‘selective attention’ in historic landscapes, this process is illustrated through case studies of the central Apennines, the Cisalpine plains, and northern Campania. In each case study, a detailed reconstruction of the ancient physical landscape serves as a backdrop to a literary study that considers how particular environmental features were emphasized or overlooked in elite portrayals of the region, examining authors including Ovid, Virgil, Livy, and Catullus. It is concluded that the elites of each region developed different, and sometimes even mutually contradictory, ways of valuing and gazing upon their landscapes, in response to the particular threats that their geographic and historic circumstances posed to their participation in the pan-Italian cosmos. The dissertation contributes to our understanding of local agency in the Roman-era unification of Italy, highlighting in particular the cultural and imaginative side of this process. More broadly, it demonstrates how new landscape images are generated from the raw material of the physical environment in periods of historic transition.