The genetic profile of the ancient Romans

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An extensive genetic study has reconstructed the genetic ancestry of the inhabitants of the area of Rome from prehistory to the Middle Ages: since ancient times the city has been a pole of attraction for populations of the Mediterranean and then of Europe.

The genetic profile of the ancient Romans Weird Italy

Related articles: Roman Emperors by Place of Birth, Cities built by the Romans

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The DNA of the Romans has changed over time following the evolution of the historical phases that have marked the life and growth of the city.

Italy, in the course of its history, has been crossed by many peoples, invaders, conquerors, traders who have settled in the peninsula leaving their genetic trace in the DNA of the Italian population.

Genetics applied to historical research allows us to reconstruct fragments of stories far away in time, even from skeletons and bones of unknown people.

The research conducted by the Department of Animal and Human Biology of the University La Sapienza of Rome, the University of Vienna, and the University of Stanford in the United States, has analyzed human DNA samples from 29 archaeological sites in the area around Rome and covering a period ranging from the Paleolithic to the Modern Era (in all, a period of about 12 thousand years) belonging to 127 individuals. The scholars have analyzed finds starting from the Neolithic Age, passing through the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, Imperial Rome, Late Antique Rome up to Medieval Rome.

The study performs extraction of samples derived from bone dust. The samples are sent to the genetics laboratory at the University of Vienna, where DNA analysis is performed. This involves extracting DNA from ancient artifacts and sequencing them completely and then comparing them to DNA from other populations in other parts of the world, possibly living in the same era. By comparing small segments of the genetic sequences, we can figure out if these people were from another country, or if they had one of their parents who was born far from where they lived, or where they were buried. This science is called Population Genetics, and it allows you to gain valuable information about the history of these populations. Rome has long been a melting pot of different ethnicities and peoples, people who settled in the region by choice, to trade, or because they had become prisoners. Thanks to these analyses, it has been possible to reveal that these exchanges took place long before Rome became a military and commercial power.

The results collected have thus allowed us to understand the variation of the genetic mix present in the individuals who lived in Rome and its immediate surroundings with the evolution of the urban organization of the territory and, after the foundation of Rome, also with the variation of its function, first regional, then Italic, imperial and global, up to the crisis of the Empire and the following Middle Ages.

With each mutation in these arrangements, corresponding mutations in the mix of descendants characterize the genetic profile of the ancient Romans.

The data from the analysis surprised scholars, who did not expect to find such wide genetic diversity as early as the time of Rome’s origins. About 8,000 years ago, the area where the city was born was already populated by hunter-gatherers and shortly thereafter was enriched by the presence of Middle Eastern, Anatolian, and Iranian farmers; later, between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, the DNA tells of the arrival of populations from the Ukrainian steppe.

With the birth of Rome and the establishment of the Roman Empire, the genetic variability was further enriched by the arrival of individuals from the different territories of the empire, especially from the eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern areas. These people, according to Alfredo Coppa, Professor of Physical Anthropology at Sapienza University, settled in Rome after arriving primarily by trade in goods.

DNA analysis revealed that as the Roman Empire expanded into the Mediterranean Sea, immigrants from the near East, Europe, and North Africa settled in Rome.

With the division of the Empire between East and West, in the late antique period, a wave of new inhabitants arrived, mainly coming from Gaul, Spain, and Germany.

The number of samples analyzed is still small, and there are many traces to follow. For example, the republican period has still been marginally studied, between the fall of the last king Tarquinio and the rise of Augustus. These investigations also allow obtaining more information about the role of other peoples of central Italy in the development of ancient Rome and what were the relationships between the city and the countryside.

“We did not expect to detect such an extensive genetic diversity already at the time of the origins of Rome, with individuals with ancestries from North Africa, the Near East, and the European Mediterranean regions,” points out Ron Pinhasi, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Vienna as well as one of the senior authors of the study, along with Jonathan Pritchard, Professor of Genetics and Biology at Stanford University and Alfredo Coppa.

Featured image: Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla, and Geta, portrait

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