When Experts Studied Roman DNA, They Discovered Secrets That Rewrite History

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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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