Virtual Rome

A vivid, colourful evocation of the city in AD 315.

Students of ancient Rome as well as the many tourists visiting the Eternal City will benefit from a detailed new digital model, Virtual Rome, that has just won the Guardian’s Teaching Excellence Award in Higher Education. Virtual Rome shows the entire city as it appeared around AD 315.

I began creating models of individual monuments from the Roman world to use in my teaching at Reading University. Based on my experience of lecturing on ancient Roman cities and leading several groups of students and tourists round ancient sites including Rome, I found that a vivid, 3D, colour reconstruction is a tremendously valuable supplement to the black and white ground plans often found in guidebooks. Student feedback was very positive, so with my university’s support I set out to make the entire city this way – it has taken about five years to achieve.

Each building in the model is based on as much evidence as possible, from archaeological digs, ancient literary testimony, inscriptions, and the Forma Urbis – a fascinating marble map of Rome, erected by Rome’s emperors in the early third century AD, that survives today in over a thousand fragments. Piecing this evidence together and using the latest software including SketchUp and Cinema 4D, I created 3D visualisations of Rome’s buildings and assembled them into a master model of the whole city, complete with terrain, roads and several thousand trees, including plenty of Rome’s iconic umbrella pines. The model can be viewed from any direction, or used to make fly-through animations.

As direct evidence for many of ancient Rome’s residential and commercial districts has been lost, a degree of imaginative reconstruction has been necessary. Showing just the well-known, well-documented monuments in isolation is not really enough; to get a sense of Rome as a living, sprawling, busy city of over a million inhabitants – matching what we know from ancient sources – it was necessary to give some suggestion of the miles of ordinary streets filling the city’s hills and valleys, up to and beyond the Aurelian wall circuit. Bits and pieces of this landscape survive well and I have incorporated a 3D model of every placed fragment of the Forma Urbis and various residential and commercial buildings known from excavation. Elsewhere I have used what we know of the city’s road network and comparison to other ancient cities like Ostia to fill in the gaps.

Virtual Rome is, I believe, a vivid, colourful evocation of the city that allows viewers to see how buildings appeared and how they related to one another, although this is an architectural model, not a cinematic Gladiator-style recreation – so there are no people in it and not enough dirt and mess to match the sometimes squalid realities of life in an ancient city. For now, I am more interested in presenting the physical shape and form of the city, without getting too far into vignettes of daily life. But it is always possible to add extra layers containing new detail of that sort, or to adapt what I have in new ways. Last year, for example, the Discovery Channel used the model to illustrate its documentary Strip the City: Rome, with dramatic flyovers and fly-throughs helping to bring the city’s scale to life.

Reaction to Virtual Rome has been positive and encouraging. Professor Christopher Smith, Director of the British School at Rome, says: ‘[This] exemplary computer modelling has given us new ways of imagining and visualising Rome. Matthew Nicholls has a deep knowledge of the city and this will help us others to understand this remarkable example of urban planning and design, which remains fascinating to this day.’

For now, a selection of images from the model can be seen on my website. A detailed visual guide to the city for students and tourists, copiously illustrated with images drawn from the digital model, will be published next year by Cambridge University Press, in paper and ebook formats.

Matthew Nicholls is Associate Professor in Classics at the University of Reading and the developer of Virtual Rome.