GIS in Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome operated a sophisticated land registration system.  They did not determine land ownership by deeds (such as in the uk) but by registration – such as in a Torrens style registration system invented again in the 19th Century.

Roman land was surveyed and divided by stone markers called limites. In some places the land was divided into regular squares called centuriae. In those cases the owner of each square was recorded. Other times, the land was in irregular bounds, in which case it was individually recorded.

There were two main types of records: the subseciva (land owned by the empire/government) and beneficia (land owned by individuals). In well-established places these lists were recorded on bronze plaques, and in more temporary situations they were recorded on wood or other less permanent materials.

We know the city of Rome itself held a particularly sophisticated system because of evidence of the Forma Urbis Romae – a marble model of the City at exactly 1:240th scale., recording even floor plans and columns.  This was reputedly collated from land registration records, however there is also some evidence of earlier models dating back to before Augustinian.   It is likely that the official offices for the government of the city of Rome during the imperial period occupied rooms next to the wall where the marble plan was hung, suggesting that it may have had an official, administrative function.

My belief is that the Forma was the 3D representation of the registration system derived from original bronze plaques and acting as an index to those records.  Its huge three storey size and location next to city offices can have been no coincidence.  There was a great incentive to do so as Rome relied on a 1%  (later rising) tax on land  and inherited wealth (though in theory Italian land owners were exempt), the main purpose of the Forma therefore may have been to record publicly owned land. to avoid conflicts between the emperor and senior members of the senate.

The most sophiticated surveying and registration systems were in Eygypt where all mortgaes and conveyances were registered – a fully fledged GIS system.

There is an ancient document called the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum which describes Roman surveying and recording practices in detail.


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