How were the first Roman cities organized morphologically?

Updated: Sep 19

#semiotics, #signification, #architecture, #urbanism


In my last post about the primitive voids that structured the territory, was mentioned that throughout history, the first step in the strategy of domination of each conquering people began with the occupation of "structuring voids", as a strategy for controlling the movements of the populations who inhabited them. Controlling the “structuring voids” meant controlling its population movements in space.


In this line of thought, I will use the examples of Lutèce (Paris) and Olisipo (Lisbon) during roman times to show how these establishments were organized morphologically.


The central urban poles of "The Isle of the City", in Paris, and "São Jorge Hill", in Lisbon, remained stable during the Roman presence. These urban poles are invested by the priestly, military, administrative, productive and commercial classes, with a fairly visible link between the oppidum, a fortified city in Roman times, and the symbolic places, such as Paris’ "Pleine du Landit" and the Lisbon’s "Sintra Mountains”.


The opposition of life / death values becomes spatialized. We have, on one side, the activities connected to the active life of the community, which take place in the centre of the urban pole, and on the other side, we have the space of the dead, which takes shape on the outskirts of the human settlement.


If we think of Paris, the space of death materialises in two large cemeteries. The “Cemetery of the Innocents”, on the right bank of the river Seine, and "Clos Bruneau", on the left bank of the river, which emphasise the North / South axis of the city. In the case of Lisbon, the “Santos Cemetery”, on the West side, and the "Chelas Cemetery", on the East side, emphasise the West / East axis of the city.


The formation of peripheral collars, appropriated by ecclesiastics, whose activities led to the origin of abbey villages. These villages became very important during the barbarian invasions, once these were places where common people would seek protection.


These three main features of the morphological organization of the Roman cities of Lutetia and Olisipo give them legislative privileges within the Roman Empire. Their cities had a certain autonomy vis-à-vis the Roman Empire.


In my perspective, observing the morphological organization of cities during the Roman period shows us how important values were, such as life / death; nature / culture; up / down; or sacred / profane.


What I would like to retain as an anchor of urban morphogenesis, is the importance of the symbolic dimension in the act of building urban sites, independently of these sites being villages, towns or cities. But I also want to enhance the importance of the link that the first men established to fundamental values. If we think of the values of life / death over the centuries, for example, we observe that cemeteries, places of death, are many times far from the city, place of life. But we can also find examples where the values of life / death merge in the same space, as in the cult of martyrs. In one of his books, Michel Serres affirms "No city can be named community if it does not immerse its feet in its necropolis".




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