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Roman Europe

Ancient Roman Puzzle

Edited from BBC Radio 4's Rebuilding Rome by Vanessa Collingridge, 26 July 2005

For more than five hundred years scholars have been wrestling with an ancient Roman puzzle which would test even the most cunning of quiz-masters.

How do you put together a giant stone jigsaw when eighty percent of the pieces are missing and you have even lost the lid? In 2005, with a joint Italian-US team on the case and using a hi-tech approach, it was felt that the answer might finally be within reach.

The Forma Urbis, or Severan Marble Plan, is a giant map of the city of Rome which was produced around AD 200 by the Emperor Septimus Severus. It was affixed to the wall of the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace) in the heart of the city - a massive display which symbolised both the greatness of the city, and the emperor's power to know its every nook and cranny.

But with the decline of the empire from the fourth century AD onwards, the vast marble map which measures eighteen metres by thirteen metres and which was intricately carved onto 250 separate slabs, was prised off the wall.

The building stones were stolen, crushed into cement or merely slid down off the wall to lie buried in the gardens below for the next millennium.

Historical challenge

The rediscovery of some of the pieces during the Renaissance ignited an interest in reconstructing the map, but it is that interest which has bewitched scholars ever since.

In 2005, scientists at America's Stanford University joined Italian archaeologists in the capital's Museum of Roman Civilisation, with a multi-disciplinary and hi-tech approach on display when it came to attempting to solve the ancient riddle.

The Stanford team digitally scanned all 1,186 surviving pieces of the plan before constructing a range of computer programmes to try to fit together the pieces. Helping them in their detective work were a set of clues which were embedded within the pieces - the shape of the broken edges, the colour and veining of the marble, the carvings of the map itself, and also a series of holes on the reverse of the pieces, where the slabs were affixed to the wall by evenly-spaced metal pins.

It was an intriguing cocktail of three-dimensional clues - but the rewards were equally intoxicating: 'We used all the clues to no success for the first two or three years, but then we started to get the first computer matches,' said Stanford's Professor Marc Levoy. 'But when we verified them in Rome it was just amazing to physically touch the real pieces.'

Hi-tech success

In a year of work, the project found as many matches as scholars had found in the past twenty years. In the last few weeks prior to going public with the results, they completed 3D models for all of the existing fragments: a monumental achievement and a major leap forward in terms of reconstructing the forgotten landscape of ancient Rome.

Rich and poor, traders and bureaucrats, slaves and the free often lived cheek-by-jowl in the most multicultural and vibrant city of its age. Its reconstruction after almost two thousand years was a possibility which excited Professor Andrew Wallis Hadrill, director of the British School in Rome.

'Rome has always been a very cosmopolitan place, and you can see this in the detail of the Forma Urbis: there's simply nowhere else like it. It was the first duty of the emperor to know who was in his city, where they lived, and how on earth to feed them to keep them from rioting. So this map is a symbolical statement in both size and magnificence. It says: "we know you in detail, we know every street, every doorway". What a wonderful way to display knowledge! It's saying, "This is our city - look at it!" Wow!'

The map will also be invaluable for revealing the hidden side of Rome which never stood the test of time - the commonplace houses and shops in which ordinary Romans lived their lives.

Although frustratingly it only provides details of the ground floors for a city which would have had the New York skyline of its day, it is still the most important topographical work to have survived into modern times. The veil was being drawn back from the real story of Rome - a buzzing, noisy, often smelly and crowded but living city, beautifully captured in stone.



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