Review: The Atlas of Ancient Rome

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The Atlas of Ancient Rome
Andrea Carandini (ed.)
Princeton University Press, £149
ISBN 978-0691163475
Review by: Lucia Marchini

One of the great pleasures of a walk around the Eternal City is coming across the abundance of Roman remains that await around practically every corner, whether a seemingly out-of-place bucranium outside a church or a larger-than-life foot at the entrance to an alleyway. These are not out of place, though, and the impressive Atlas of Ancient Rome brings together a vast amount of archaeological data that puts the entire ancient city into context.

First published in Italian in 2012, the two-volume Atlas has now been translated into English and updated to reflect developments from excavation and survey of certain sites (such as the temple of Jupiter Stator and the nymphaeum on the Pincian Hill) in the intervening years. The first volume (Text and Images) begins with the urban environment as a whole, and considers broad themes such as topography, trade, and infrastructure. The work is remarkable in its scope and scale, shifting its focus from the whole city to specific regions, and within each region to specific monuments.

Augustus divided Rome into 14 regiones (administrative regions), and the bulk of the first volume draws from physical remains as well as ancient texts to explain their history and development from sometimes mythical beginnings through to the medieval period, and their presentation today. The Circus Maximus, a well-known archaeological attraction, is a prominent part of the Augustan Regio XI, the second smallest of Rome’s regions, which has legendary links to both Heracles and Aeneas. Although there had been activity at the site for centuries, the first circus building proper appeared at the end of the Republican period, ordered by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Few structures survive from Caesar’s circus, but in the following centuries it became the model for circus designs across the Empire. The afterlives of Roman ruins often hold some surprises, and in the case of the Circus Maximus we learn that the area was illegally occupied by industrial plants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from the well-researched and thorough text, but the second volume (Tables and Indexes) is an impressive and worthwhile tome in its own right. It carries an array of wonderful, intricate plans of areas of the city and their buildings, featuring important associated mosaics, frescoes, and statues. In places, the extant remains of structures are minimal, so reconstruction work (based, for example, on coins or the Forma Urbis) helps fill in the gaps left by what we cannot see today to bring a remarkable mass of Roman material to life.

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