A new study found that Romans were a much more genetically diverse population than previously believed. Researchers at Stanford and several Italian universities discovered that at the height of the Roman Empire, citizens had more in common with people from Greece, Syria and Lebanon than with western Europeans.
The genomes remains of 127 people buried at 29 archaeological sites in and around the city of Rome were collected for this survey. The samples were collected by drawing DNA out of the ear bones of each body. The earliest samples came from the hunter-gatherer populations in the region thousands of years before Rome was first founded. Genomes taken from these specimen are broadly similar with findings from other inhabitants of Europe.
Genetic samples taken from bodies dating to Rome’s early years between 900 BCE and 200 BCE show the beginnings of a genetic divergence from other European populations. Researchers suggest the divergence could be linked to an influx of new immigrants from what is today Turkey. Rome’s genetic diversity appears to have peaked between 27 BCE and 300 CE, when the Roman Empire encompassed around 70 million residents across Britain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Approximately 48 samples were analyzed from this period and only two showed strong genetic links to Europe.
People from certain parts of the empire were far more likely to move to the capital. The study suggests the vast majority of immigrants to Rome came from the East. Of 48 individuals sampled from this period, only two showed strong genetic ties to Europe. Another two had strong North African ancestry. The rest had ancestry connecting them to Greece, Syria, Lebanon, and other places in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
‘Rome was like New York City … a concentration of people of different origins joining together,’ researcher Guido Barnujani told Science.org. ‘The genetic information parallels what we know from historical and archaeological records’ researcher Kristina Killgrove, from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said. These records include ancient texts and wall carvings that show a wide mix of different immigrant groups living side by side in Rome. Signs of genetic diversity began to diminish again once the Roman Empire declared a second capital in Constantinople.
“People perhaps imagine that the amount of migration we see nowadays is a new thing,” Pritchard says. “But it’s clear from ancient DNA that populations have been mixing at really high rates for a long time.”