When Archaeologists Excavated A Roman Toilet, They Uncovered A Haul Of Eye-Opening Treasure

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It’s the summer of 2019, and a team of volunteer archaeologists are digging at a ruined Roman settlement in the U.K. At the site, the group focus their efforts on an ancient latrine, working around the area to see what they can uncover. Then, as the archaeologists excavate around the drain of the centuries-old toilet, they hit paydirt. In a most unexpected place, they find a clutch of incredible artifacts that may yet shed new light on Roman history.

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Perhaps, then, the team’s discoveries lend credence to the old English saying “Where’s there’s muck, there’s brass.” The “brass” in question is a reference to money – or, in this case, archaeological gold. And, in fact, the latrine itself could be of great historical interest, as specialists have written at length on the construction and cultural significance of Roman toilets.

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The toilet excavated in 2019, meanwhile, was located inside a remote military community at what was once the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. The artifacts recovered from its drain promise therefore to provide fresh insights into the leisure activities of Roman troops.

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And to be more precise, the toilet can be found within a castrum, or fortified settlement, in the Roman province of Britannia. Known as Vindolanda, the fort once guarded parts of Hadrian’s Wall in what is today northern England. Hadrian’s Wall was constructed during the rule of the emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century and ran east-west across the province. The barrier served to keep out querulous tribes such as the Picts, who refused to submit to Roman dominion.

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Located in the present-day county of Northumberland, Vindolanda was inhabited by the Romans during the first four centuries AD. And prior to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, the fort was crucial in helping keep watch over the Stanegate. This was a critical Roman transport route that connected a couple of riverside forts: Luguvalium on the River Eden and Corstopitum on the River Tyne.

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After Vindolanda’s abandonment in the 4th century, though, historians overlooked the location for more than a thousand years. In fact, the earliest post-Roman reference to Vindolanda, which was made by William Camden in his book Britannia, didn’t come until 1586. Then, in the early 1800s, a priest named Anthony Hedley attempted the first detailed surveys of the site – although unfortunately he would pass away without ever having published his findings.

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And it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that archaeologists completed any serious studies of Vindolanda. Professor Eric Birley – the man who set up Durham University’s Department of Archaeology – began investigating the site during the 1930s and subsequently passed on the work to his children Anthony and Robin. The start of the 1970s also saw the establishment of the Vindolanda Charitable Trust, which today is responsible for coordinating further digs that typically involve hundreds of volunteers.

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The trust’s current CEO is in fact a third-generation Birley: Dr. Andrew Birley, Robin’s son and Eric’s grandchild. Born in 1974, Birley has devoted almost two decades to studying Vindolanda. In that time, he’s produced multiple works about the Roman site and served as a consultant to both the History network and National Geographic.

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And while speaking to the regional news site ChronicleLive in 2019, Dr. Birley described how his predecessors had transformed Vinolanda into a popular tourist attraction. “They had about £5 [equivalent to $6] in the bank, a small wooden shed, no toilet, no museum, no [parking lot and] no electricity or water. They started excavating in the snow at the bathhouse in 1970. From there, 49 years later, over 100,000 visitors have been to the site.”

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Those years of excavations and research have paid off, too, as we now have a detailed picture of what life was like at Vindolanda. First and foremost, the site was home to a garrison of infantry and cavalry units known as the Cohors quarta Gallorum equitata – or “fourth part-mounted Cohort of Gauls.” These troops began occupying Vindolanda early in the 3rd century.

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The Gauls hailed from mainland Europe, although for years it was thought that the cohort at Vindolanda was in fact comprised of locally recruited Britons. In 2006, however, archaeologists discovered an inscription at the site that suggested a more complex social arrangement. This message proclaimed, “The troops from Gaul dedicate this statue to the goddess Gallia with the full support of the British-born troops.”

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And it appears that the first structures at Vindolanda were a succession of rudimentary fortifications – hewn from mud and wood and initially created in around 85 AD. Then, towards the end of the 1st century, a 1,000-strong cavalry and infantry battalion known as the 9th Cohort of Batavians constructed a bigger fort. An even larger citadel was put up a decade later by the 1st Cohort of Tungarians, with these soldiers staying at the site until the creation of Hadrian’s Wall.

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Then, following the completion of the wall, a stone castle was constructed in the area. This building would meet an undignified end in the early 3rd century, after the Britons staged a revolt against the Empire that required the intervention of Emperor Septimus Severus himself. During this period, you see, the castle was torn down and replaced by military quarters. Following the emperor’s death not long afterward, though, his sons reached a financial settlement with the insurgents. After that, another stone citadel was constructed to be occupied by the 4th Cohort of Gauls, who would create the inscription we heard about earlier.

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A vicus, or autonomous settlement, subsequently sprang up on lands near to the citadel. Except for one area that may have served as a butchery, these buildings didn’t have any drainage facilities. A separate bathing center known as a thermae was also constructed on lands close to the castle.

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And those decades of excavation work at Vindolanda have certainly yielded a trove of intriguing artifacts. Among them are the so-called Vindolanda tablets, which were Britain’s oldest-known examples of handwriting at the time when they were unearthed. Found in the 1970s by a student, these wood sheets feature inked details of army dispatches as well as some private written correspondence.

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Other notable relics to have been unearthed at the site include a cache of more than 400 items of footwear. Somewhat intriguingly, this hoard was found to include a child’s shoe that bears a remarkable likeness to modern-day sportswear – even though it was created prior to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. And as an item of fine quality, the shoe raises questions about the social composition of the settlement.

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In 2014, meanwhile, the rare discovery of a wooden toilet seat at Vindolanda made international news. Speaking to ChronicleLive in 2019, Birley joked about some of the media inquiries into the object, saying, “Someone rang me up to ask if the toilet lid was up or down when we found it!”

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Another find made at the site is a little more disturbing, however. In 2010 diggers recovered the skeleton of a child who looked to have been female, with subsequent tests suggesting that she had passed away in the 3rd century. And, alarmingly, it seemed that ritual sacrifice could have played a part in her demise.

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Then, during a 2017 volunteer dig, the team unexpectedly stumbled upon cavalry quarters dating to the early 2nd century. And military equipment, textiles and, most impressively, an unbroken sword in its casing were all uncovered at the location. “[That wasn’t] a moment we ever expected to happen, and it was found by volunteer,” Birley has since recalled of the remarkably well-preserved weapon.

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In the same year, diggers also found the world’s oldest boxing gloves. Fashioned from leather, they were made in around 120 AD and, according to Birley, “should not have survived.” The gloves – which aren’t matching – are thought to have been worn in sporting contests or training fights.

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And in 2018 the team discovered something even more intriguing: a life-size sculpture of a hand. This may have been a ritual object associated with the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus – a secretive sect that flourished during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. “[The hand] was found only 20 meters away from the temple wall in a muddy pond [and] is so symbolic of the cult,” Birley has explained on the Vinolandia website. “[It was] probably discarded as a part of the temple’s commissioning ceremony into its watery grave.”

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That same year, an investigation into a ditch that pre-dates Hadrian’s Wall yielded the remnants of a hairy dog. And Birley has since revealed that the remains are remarkably intact. “To have this level of preservation, even at Vindolanda, is incredible,” he said on the trust’s website. “This artifact is important, as it shows what might survive from the deepest ditches at the site.”

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Other 2018 discoveries included a silver brooch depicting a duck. According to Birley, this was “found in a ditch from a time of war in the early 3rd century [and is] full of symbolism and hope.” The piece of jewelry is so attractive, in fact, that the trust has since manufactured imitations to sell online.

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Even more remarkably, though, the 2019 dig around the toilet drain of the Vindolanda bathhouse yielded pieces of precious carnelian and red jasper. Images of Roman gods and goddesses had been carved into the stones, which looked to have once been set in rings. The specific deities depicted probably had personal significance to the wearer, too.

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And while speaking to the BBC in 2019, Birley explained that the stones had most likely fallen down the toilet by accident. “Although [the stones were] carefully made by skilled artisans and prized by their owners, the glue that secured them in rings had a nasty habit of failing,” he said. “Their owners either did not initially notice that their gemstones had fallen out… or they could not face climbing into the toilet to try to recover them.”

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In addition to the gemstones, the diggers discovered the remains of a cracked board game that may have been played inside the bathhouse until it had become damaged. Thereafter, it had been relegated to a nearby building where it served a more practical function as floor tiling.

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In his interview with the BBC, Birley revealed that board games were a vital part of life in the military camps. “The Romans played a very tactical game which looked a little like draughts,” he stated. “Gaming boards and counters are particularly prevalent on Roman military sites and shows that it was not all work in Roman times. Like today, gaming was an important part of life for many people 2,000 years ago.”

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Indeed, people from all walks of Roman life liked games – many of which resemble their popular modern-day equivalents. The Romans enjoyed playing with dice, for instance, although we don’t know of any particular rules they followed while doing so. Backgammon, too, is likely descended from a range of ancient games called Duodecim Scripta.

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The board found near the bathhouse, however, is thought to have been intended for ludus latrunculorum, which was played with counters. The item – which is inscribed with a matrix – even has a crack in its surface that could have resulted from a dispute between players.

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Numerous versions of ludus latrunculorum have been found at many sites across the world, in fact, meaning archaeologists are relatively certain about the game’s layout and pieces. We know, for example, that ludus latrunculorum had clear military themes and may have involved wagers; at present, though, no one is entirely sure how to play it.

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When it comes to investigating and interpreting such ancient games, then, scholars consult sources such as the works of Suetonius, who wrote that even Emperor Claudius enjoyed games. Such documentary evidence is then compared to the physical remnants of boards and pieces to try to deduce the rules.

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And it appears that ludus latrunculorum has a long history. The earliest written reference to the game seems to date to the 2nd century B.C., when the author Varro described it as involving a matrix. Then, in the first century A.D., an unidentified writer stated that the game involves participants moving back and forth on the board while trying to take pieces from their opponent. The poet Ovid also explained the intricacies of capturing a counter.

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As such, ludus latrunculorum appears to have been a complex form of checkers. And while the exact rules of the game remain hazy, that hasn’t stopped some manufacturers from producing working replicas. Masters Traditional Games, for example, sells handmade leather boards complete with pieces. On its Amazon page, the company describes ludus latrunculorum as “a straightforward strategic wargame – easy to learn but with some depth.”

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Naturally, the games that people play can tell us a great deal about how they live, think, relax and work. And because of this, the 2019 bathhouse discovery is set to influence further investigations at the site. In a post on its blog, the Vindolanda Charitable Trust has revealed, “Our future research will look at these social aspects of gaming. And, in doing so, we hope to cast new light on the everyday life of the Vindolanda community.”

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So far, 16 ludus latrunculorum boards have been discovered at Vindolanda – a record unmatched by any other site in the U.K. It appears, then, that the community was home to a devoted gaming culture. So, what was it about ludus latrunculorum that so resonated with its inhabitants?

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Well, the game’s military themes would probably have had great appeal to the troops stationed in Vindolanda. For example, it’s been said that the winners were bestowed with the prestigious title of imperator, or general. Equally, the game’s popularity may simply have been a matter of utility, as its components were simple to construct.

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Yet ludus latrunculorum boards have been recovered from a wide variety of formerly Roman-occupied locations across Britain, including both civilian and military sites. Clearly, then, it was a popular game. And it appears to have been enjoyed by all kinds of people, too – not merely troops or aspiring imperators.

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This pattern appears to have been replicated at Vindolanda itself, as ludus latrunculorum boards have been recovered not only from the citadel, but also the sleeping quarters and the house of a commander. The discovery of a board close to the bathhouse – a site utilized by the whole community – also points to the game’s wide-ranging appeal.

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And Birley and his volunteers may yet dig up more boards, as he intends to continue his efforts at the site. Speaking to ChronicleLive about his work, the archaeologist explained, “I’ve served here 24 years. I’ve got one more year left, [and this means that] if I [were] a Roman soldier, I could retire with a piece of land in North Africa. But it doesn’t look quite so good these days, so I think I’ll just carry on instead.”

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“When I was a student at Leicester University many, many years ago, my professor asked me what I want to do,” Birley added. “And I said, ‘I want to be a Roman archaeologist on Hadrian’s Wall.’ [The professor] actually burst out laughing and said, ‘It’s all been done, hasn’t it?’ Twenty-five years later, I’m standing here, and we haven’t even scratched the surface.”

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But investigating ancient artifacts isn’t the only way to find out more about the Romans, as modern technology can also prove useful when digging into the past. And after a team of researchers tested DNA taken from old skeletons in Italy, they made some quite astonishing discoveries.

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No matter what, history always reveals its secrets. Even thoroughly studied periods, such as Ancient Rome, have hidden details that take years to uncover. With modern DNA testing, though, experts realized some truths about the Eternal City’s bygone population. What we thought we knew about them has been upended by the genetic information they left behind.

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Heading up this new look at the Ancient Romans was study senior author Jonathan Pritchard, who also works as a professor of biology and genetics at Stanford University. He and the rest of the team – which included researchers in Italy, Ireland, Austria and France – hoped to learn more about the legendary civilization through the DNA its people had left behind.

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Not only did the team analyze genetic information directly from Rome, but they looked at specimens from areas adjacent to the Eternal City too. The research team hoped to find out more about the Romans’ ancestral origins, and they did that and more. As it turned out, the people’s DNA had an unexpected story to tell.

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The founding of Rome is the stuff of legends – quite literally. Twin brothers, Remus and Romulus – supposedly fathered by Mars, the god of war – washed up on the shores of the Tiber nearly 3,000 years ago. The babies had been sent down the river in a basket to drown, but they survived the journey instead.

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Of course, the helpless babies would need help to survive, whether on land or in the water. The story goes that a she-wolf rescued Remus and Romulus, helping them grow strong enough to exact revenge on the person who had sent them down the Tiber to die: the king of Alba Longa.

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Remus and Romulus did just that, exacting their revenge before staking claim to their own city in 753 B.C. The brothers wouldn’t co-lead that civilization, though. Romulus killed Remus, making him the first king of their city. The place became known as Rome, named for its first leader: Romulus.

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Of course, archaeology paints a slightly different picture than the legend of Rome’s beginnings. Artefacts indicate that villagers from the ancient Italian area of Latium banded together to form the eventual city-state of Rome. They did so in about 625 B.C., joining together to ward off invasions from nearby enemies.

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Either way, the rest of Ancient Roman history is more clear-cut to historians and mythologists alike. The city’s history began with its Period of Kings – as the title indicates, monarchs led Rome from the time of its foundation until about 510 B.C. During this time, Rome’s power grew in multiple ways. Namely, it expanded its military and economic strengths.

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Nevertheless, Roman government wouldn’t remain in the hands of kings. By 510 B.C. the city had established a new style of leadership. Its social elite – knights and senators, mostly – came to rule over Rome. In times of great struggle, they could elect a dictator to oversee the metropolis. This era ushered in Rome’s Twelve Tables: laws that dictated how the public, political and private sectors operated.

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This era in Roman history eventually saw one of its most well-known leaders, Julius Caesar, rise to power. A series of events aligned so that he could ascend to become the city’s highest-ranking leader. First, Rome continued its territorial expansion, growing to encompass the whole of the Italian peninsula in 338 B.C.

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Rome had also overtaken both Carthage – located in modern-day Tunisia – and Corinth: an ancient Grecian city. These Mediterranean-based locales gave the Roman Empire a naval stronghold over the sea. Yet things went south for the Roman Empire soon after it had made all these territorial gains.

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A dictator, L. Cornelius Sulla, briefly took over Rome to help settle things, but turmoil continued to rumble throughout the republic. This unrest pushed the city in a new governmental direction: emperors would soon reign over the region, including one of Rome’s most well-known leaders.

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Julius Caesar became Rome’s leader in 60 B.C., leading the charge for even further territorial expansion. He oversaw the capture of Celtic Gaul, which once covered France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and parts of Germany. But his success in expanding Rome beyond the Mediterranean did little to solidify his place as the republic’s leader.

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Instead, Caesar’s reign – and life – ended with his 44 B.C. assassination. His heir, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, became Rome’s first emperor: Octavian. The city’s imperial period would last from Octavian’s installation as leader until the fall of the Empire in A.D. 471. During its final stretch, Ancient Rome saw its greatest period of prosperity.

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The Romans reached their peak around A.D. 171, although much of the Imperial Period saw peace, as well as expansion. Eventually, though, the empire became too large to oversee from Rome alone. Two Emperors would have to reign over the expansive territory’s eastern and western halves.

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Once Rome divided, though, its enemies found it easier to conquer. The western empire faced invasions from the Goths and the Vandals, two groups of early Germanic people – the latter ousted the Romans from power in this half. It would take until the 15th century for the empire, which came to be known as the Byzantine, to fall. In 1453 the Turks won the capital city of the empire: Constantinople.

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Although the last stronghold of the Roman Empire fell more than 500 years ago, the ancient civilization’s culture had a major influence that we can still feel and see today. Some of its effects remain pretty straightforward. For instance, it built the columns of the Colosseum in Rome with its version of cement, which has allowed the structure to endure for thousands of years.

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But other Roman practices have stood the test of time too. One of the Romans’ biggest achievements was the implementation of a roadway system to connect their vast territory – it’s why the saying “all roads lead to Rome” exists. The Romans’ agricultural techniques endure today too. The empire’s ancient farmers discovered crop rotation, seed selection, manuring and pruning, among others.

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Beyond that, Roman literature – such as Metamorphoses by poet Ovid – has inspired the future greats, including Shakespeare. Indeed, the famous English writer drew endless inspiration from ancient Rome. He wrote Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra by drawing on the Eternal City’s history.

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Even more importantly, the Roman language has had an indelible impact on the modern world, in the west specifically. The ancient city’s population spoke Latin, which, of course, spread throughout the empire. Eventually, Latin served as the foundation for what are known today as the Romance languages. Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and French have their roots in Ancient Roman Latin.

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Clearly, experts have studied Rome extensively and they know much about the former empire. However, some facets of the ancient civilization do confound even those best versed in the subject. For instance, historians didn’t have much genetic information for the people who once populated Rome. Therefore, they didn’t know where they came from in the first place.

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However, in recent years, DNA samples have been pulled from surprising sources. Namely, experts have begun to mine for genetic information from ancient skeletons. The same could be done with the remains of ancient Romans. So, once experts performed similar genetic testing, they could finally figure out where the city’s bygone inhabitants had their roots.

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The results of the study appeared in a November 2019 issue of Science and revealed the research’s surprising findings. The team, which comprised of experts from Stanford University, the University of Vienna and Sapienza University of Rome, realized from their research that Roman populations often mirrored the highs and lows that the city faced.

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Namely, Rome experienced two major migrations, during which people moved to the Eternal City. Study co-author Hannah Moots explained to the Science Daily website, “This study shows how dynamic the past really is. In Rome we’re seeing people come from all over, in ways that correspond with historical political events.”

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Indeed, remaining records had already supplied some of this information, but study senior author Pritchard pointed out that there were still gaps. He said, “The historical and archaeological records tell us a great deal about political history and contacts of different kinds with different places – trade and slavery, for example – but those records provide limited information about the genetic makeup of the population.”

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So Pritchard and his Stanford team joined forces with Sapienza University anthropology professor Alfredo Coppa and Ron Pinhasi, a University of Vienna associate professor of evolutionary anthropology. The researchers visited a total of 29 sites in Rome, some of which dated back as far as the Stone Age, while the most recent samples came from the medieval era.

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From more than two dozen Roman landmarks, the research team gathered 127 samples of human DNA. And, at first, it seemed the lingering genetic information would only confirm what historians already knew. For instance, the DNA showed that a number of farmers – particularly Turkish and Iranian agriculturalists – moved to Rome in about 6000 B.C.

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A similar migratory shift happened in the rest of Europe. To that end, the Rome-derived samples also showed that Ukrainian people had begun to flood into the city between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago too. These major migrations gave Rome a diverse population long before its official founding in 753 B.C.

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In fact, by the time Rome became a city, it had a population as diverse as modern Mediterraneans and Europeans. This confirmation that the Eternal City had such migratory patterns was interesting enough. However, the team analyzing the ancient genetic information found other discoveries to be more stunning than that.

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The researchers found more compelling truths about Rome after its foundation. When it became a sprawling empire was when things got interesting. As a reminder, the Roman Empire once stretched as far as Great Britain in the west and Syria in the east. The borders even dipped into northern Africa too.

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Although the empire’s territory stretched so far from its center, Rome had strong ties to other strongholds thanks to its road-building endeavors, as well as military pursuits, trade and slavery. Looking at the 127 ancient DNA samples, researchers confirmed this, which historians have hypothesized for quite some time.

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Still, the DNA also revealed that the story wasn’t as clear-cut as that. As Rome expanded, the genetic makeup of its people did, too. Specifically, most Roman residents could trace their roots back to either the Eastern Mediterranean region or into the Near East. Fewer of its people came from western European or African locales.

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Experts have an explanation for the lack of European and African DNA in ancient Romans. They say that these areas probably had less concentrated populations than those in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean. Yet all that would change in a few years – western European DNA would come to dominate Rome.

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Indeed, the Roman Empire wouldn’t remain at the top of the world forever. Instead, the sprawling territory split in half under the tutelage of two leaders. Diseases made their way in and started thinning out the population. And outsiders wanted a piece of the pie – invasions wreaked havoc on Rome too.

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As these major changes befell Rome, the population’s genetic code started to shift away from the Near East and Mediterranean and into western Europe. That change would give way to yet another one traceable in ancient DNA. Central and northern Europeans started moving in too, amid the rise of the Holy Roman Empire.

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Indeed, the DNA changes show just how much and how often Rome has changed throughout the course of history. Pritchard said, “It was surprising to us how rapidly the population ancestry shifted, over timescales of just a few centuries, reflecting Rome’s shifting political alliances over time.”

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Nevertheless, Pritchard said, much of the Rome that remained today had been there centuries ago. He went on, “Another striking aspect was how cosmopolitan the population of Rome was, starting more than 2,000 years ago and continuing through the rise and dissolution of the empire. Even in antiquity, Rome was a melting pot of different cultures.”

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Of course, there’s still much more to discern about the Ancient Romans who left behind a story for the ages. Although researchers are limited in the amount of DNA they’ll be able to find and collect, they can hold out hope for deeper analysis into these samples. That will come with enhanced technology, they think.

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The team behind this particular study want to add to the geographic range that they can pinpoint with DNA. Sampling with more countries under their umbrella will only increase the certainty of their findings. In analyzing ancient genetic information, such data would clarify how people back then had moved around and mingled with one another.

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Plus, the future could reveal even more than just the ancient Romans’ migration patterns and ancestry. The researchers on this particular study hope to look at their DNA samples to see how common modern traits have metamorphosed and passed down. Everything from a person’s height to disease-resistance abilities to their lactose tolerance could be more easily understood thanks to an ancient DNA analysis.

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