Despite extensive records of the history of Rome, little is known about the city’s population over time. A new genetic history of the Eternal City reveals a dynamic population shaped in part by political and historical events.
By Nathan Collins
Scholars have been studying Rome for hundreds of years, but it still holds some secrets – for instance, relatively little is known about the ancestral origins of the city’s denizens. Now, an international team led by researchers from Stanford University, the University of Vienna and Sapienza University of Rome is filling in the gaps with a genetic history that shows just how much the Eternal City’s populace mirrored its sometimes tumultuous history.
The study, published Nov. 8 in Science, focuses on the ancient DNA of individuals from Rome and adjacent regions in Italy. Those genetic data reveal at least two major migrations into Rome, as well as several smaller but significant population shifts over just the last few thousand years, according to Jonathan Pritchard, a professor of genetics and biology and one of the paper’s senior authors.
Notably, DNA analysis revealed that as the Roman Empire expanded around the Mediterranean Sea, immigrants from the Near East, Europe and North Africa pulled up their roots and moved to Rome. This significantly changed the face of one of the ancient world’s first great cities, said Pritchard, who is also a member of Stanford Bio-X.
“This study shows how dynamic the past really is,” said Hannah Moots, a graduate student in anthropology and co-lead author on the new study. “In Rome we’re seeing people come from all over, in ways that correspond with historical political events.”