Five ways science conquered our beliefs about the Roman Empire in the year MMXXIII

More than 1000 years since its fall, researchers continue to uncover new knowledge about the Roman Empire by deploying a legion of modern tools.

This year, ancient DNA analysis, spectroscopy, satellite imagery and ground-penetrating radar revolutionised our understanding of the ancient civilisation, which dominated Europe and beyond from BC into the common era.

Here’s how science conquered our understanding of the Roman Empire in the year MMXXIII.

I. Surprise discovery about Roman Empire found in ancient DNA

Ancient DNA from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire revealed Italian ancestry had little detectable influence on Balkan Peninsula populations, despite the Empire’s cultural supremacy in the region.

Research drawing on the triumvirate of genetics, archaeology and history uncovered new insights into the social and demographic history of the Balkan Peninsula.

Roman aqueduct
Roman aqueduct in Viminacium, a large Roman city / Credit: Carles Lalueza-Foz

II. Roman Empire forts in Cold War imagery topple north-south axis theory

Analysis of declassified Cold War satellite imagery revealed 396 previously undocumented Roman forts in the Middle East. The discovery of hundreds of Roman forts constructed east to west between Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq overturns previous theories that forts aligned north-south along the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire. 

Map showing locations of roman forts
Distribution of Roman forts found on satellite imagery / Credit: by J.Casana et al., created using ArcGIS Pro version 3.0

III. 2000-year-old Roman engineering could solve colossal climate problem

As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome. And as the construction industry grapples with concrete’s climate problem, some engineers think a technology dating back to Roman times might hold the answer. 

Durability engineer Miles Dacre says switching to ‘calcined clay’ a type of concrete used by the Romans might reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional concrete. He says the switch needs to be made urgently.

IV. New analysis traces origin of gems from Cleopatra’s mines and Roman times

Researchers from Egypt and Saudi Arabia used three modern spectroscopy techniques, to unveil unique characteristics of gemstones originally mined from the Middle East.

Using analytical chemistry technologies, researchers were able to uncover ancient mines and trade routes for peridot, emerald, amazonite and amethyst.

V. ‘Unpromising’ archaeological site rewrites Roman history

A 13-year archaeological investigation of an “unpromising” site has revealed a bustling Roman town which continued to thrive into the 3rd Century AD, a period in Roman Italy usually associated with a state of stagnation and decline.

Researchers used pottery analysis, magnetic and ground-penetrating radar surveys and targeted excavations to uncover evidence of river port, a roofed theatre, impressive bath complexes and hundreds of densely built houses lying beneath the surface of a nondescript field. The findings are published in a new book, Roman Urbanism in Italy.

View of the excavation and the se sector of the site sep23 credit alessandro launaro
View of the excavation / Credit: Alessandro Launaro

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.” 

Attributed to Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius

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