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Ecological Diversity and Italian Unity: Imagining Tota Italia in the Central Apennines

Bryn E Ford

University of Pennsylvania

The Roman unification of the Italian peninsula was more than just a military process. The integration of its fractious nations and disconnected regions into a common polity required an imaginative shift as well as political transformation. Recently, scholars have connected this process to the explosion of literary interest in the Italian countryside during the first century B.C. Roman literature promoted integration by creating a sense of “ecological unity” (Ando 2016), the idea that the entire peninsula was characterized by shared environmental characteristics (Dench 2005, Roth 2007, Spencer 2010). Separately, scholars have emphasized local agency in the integration process, arguing that regional elites actively began to think of themselves as part of a unified tota Italia (Bradley 2000, Carlà-Uhink 2017). This paper connects these two strands of scholarship by examining how elites in one region reimagined their heterogeneous countryside to fit the emerging pan-Italian discourse. It argues that the degree of agency enjoyed by regional elites prompted a multiplicity of cultural responses to this overarching ideology.

The area of the central Apennines inhabited by the Paeligni presented a challenge to the idea of ecological unity. It was a patchwork of upland environments: wide basins suitable for cool-climate farming, high plateaus used for seasonal pasturing, and montane forests used for foraging, hunting, and timber. This diversity contrasted with the developing literary image of the Italian countryside, which was closely focused on low-elevation agricultural products like vines and olives. Paelignian elites, increasingly enmeshed with the Roman aristocracy in the wake of the Social War, sought to resolve this sense of dissonance and developed a variety of strategies to do so.

Ovid, who promoted himself as a Paelignian entirely at home in Roman high society, adopted one strategy to match his homeland to the literary ideal. His poetic descriptions of the region (particularly Am. 2.16) highlight features like wheat fields and olive groves, but noticeably omit the sheep and cattle that were arguably more characteristic of the region. His work is not, however, simply a genre whitewashing of local reality. More subtly, Ovid picks out distinctive technological elements of the local landscape, like its unusually substantial irrigation systems, and presents them as evidence of Roman hegemony. The Paelignian region, he suggests, was Italian not just by virtue of its appearance and economy but also by its subjection to Roman engineering power.

Ovid’s approach was not, however, that of all elite Paelignians. Another strategy is evident in an early imperial relief from Sulmona, which depicts a shepherd’s flock alongside a scene of viticultural production. The commissioner of this relief, likely the proprietor of a mixed agricultural-pastoral operation, does not suppress the distinctively montane practice of large-scale pastoralism. Instead, he builds the region’s characteristic economic mix into a more capacious understanding of the Italian countryside, defined not by particular crops but by the general trait of immense productivity. The different approaches taken by these two Paelignian figures therefore show that there could be significant variegation in the process of elite assent to Roman cultural power.

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Roman History

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