Barren fields? Landscapes and settlements in late Roman and post-Roman Italy
The late Roman period in Italy, as almost anywhere in the Roman world, is generally seen as one of general decay of urban and rural life in the face of the break-up of the state at the hands of hordes of barbarian invaders. Settlement is thought to have returned almost to a murky repetition of pre-Roman modes of upland nucle ation, with the classical town-country relationship almost wholly displaced. But how valid is this picture nowadays, in the wake of new archaeological excavations, field surveys, and revised assess ments of the documentary sources and of the material impact of the so-called ‘barbarians’? For example, was there continuity in ‘classical’ settlement activity and in rural exploitation beyond Rome’s fall? And how far did human control over nature decline as control over society and the economy faltered? This chapter seeks to offer a guide through the somewhat
restricted documentary and archaeological sources for the period from c. a d 350 to 650. In the case of the documentary sources, it is valuable to determine the degree to which the late Roman and post-classical authors were aware of changes in settlement, in economy, and in nature, and of steps that needed to be made to counteract such changes - if counteraction was even thought neces sary. Through this it should be possible to pinpoint at least some of the mechanisms behind these changes. Against these data can
be set the results of archaeology and the level to which field work corroborates what the texts say. Can a population decline be identified physically? Was there a transition to new settlement forms, and a concomitant decline in human manipulation of the environment?