Without a doubt Rome is the city with the highest concentration of historical and architectural riches in the world. With over 16% of the world’s cultural treasures located in its historical centre, outlined by the enclosing Aurelian Walls, Rome bears testimony to almost three thousand years of history. Rome’s ruins and monuments may be crowded with tourists nowadays, but in its glory days Rome was the largest metropolis the world had ever seen. Imperial Rome was designed to impress. It was under the first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.- 14 A.D.) that Rome began to look like a world capital. With the completion of the Colosseum in 80 A.D. and Emperor Trajan’s massive Forum in 113 A.D. the Rome we know today comes very close.
Pliny the Elder wrote in 70 A.D. that Rome was constructed of “the most beautiful buildings the world has ever seen”, followed by the Greek Aelius Aristides who commented that Rome’s buildings with their marble structures “covered the horizon like snow.” With more than one million inhabitants, Rome had become the greatest marvel of antiquity according to many, including Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as the poet Martial whose epigrams are a valuable source of information on life and customs in ancient Rome. Martial witnessed the transformation of Rome from the conqueror of the world to its capital and eloquently wrote “Goddess of continents and peoples, Oh Rome, whom nothing can equal or even approach!”
“The most important technical advances in architecture during the Roman period emerged from the combination of concrete (opus caementicium) as a building material and vaulted forms of construction”. The arch enables wide spaces to be crossed by the use of the minimum of materials, thus relieving weight which would otherwise put an heavy burden on the structure. The consequence was a style best exemplified by the palaces or large Imperial baths of Rome. At the time of their inauguration, on the 22nd of June 109 A.D., the Baths of Trajan were the biggest thermal complex in Rome. Built for Trajan by the Greek architect Apollodorus the baths were certainly massive, 340 metres in width and 330 in depth, and probably used only by women in Trajan’s time.
The Pantheon is still one of the best preserved of the ancient buildings in Rome. First built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC, it was rebuilt twice after fires in 80 and 110 AD and completed by Hadrian in 126 AD. The Pantheon, with its marble porch, hemispherical dome and central oculus, represents the culmination of both the classic and adventurous style in antique Roman architecture aiming at shapes that dramatise the interior space.
If you wonder what Rome looked like all those years ago you can now watch a 3-D simulation showing Rome in 320 A.D. in a fly-through video of the entire city, street by street, monument by monument. The University of Virginia began the project ‘Rome Reborn’ digitally recreating and reconstructing nearly 7,000 buildings in Rome, at the time the emperor Constantine. Advice from a panel of archaeologists allowed experts to recreate buildings that are now almost completely in ruins, such as the temple dedicated to the goddesses Venus and Roma and the Meta Sudans, a fountain that stood near the Colosseum. “This is the first step in the creation of a virtual time machine”, Bernard Frischer, a leading scholar in the application of digital technologies to archaeological research and education, said about the project ‘Rome Reborn.’ “Archaeologists can add or change buildings or monuments as new evidence is unearthed, architects can explore the city’s sight lines and traffic flows and art historians can add details and information to buildings that have been scanned by other teams.”
The simulation starts over the Tiber River, proceeds past the Circus Maximus, turns north toward the Colosseum and nearby Baths of Trajan. From there we see the Temple of Venus and Rome, Basilica of Maxentius, the Theater of Pompey, and the Pantheon to return via the Capitoline hill and finish by descending into the Roman Forum.
I end with the words of Martial the poet: “For you, O affectionate Rome, your people, and the nations subject to your empire, I utter this prayer: May such a ruler be ever yours, and may this one especially long reign over you! Blessings be upon your spirit, which is such as few have, and upon your character (…).For even under a severe prince and in bad times, you had the courage to be good”. His words don’t need to travel back in time, they still stand today, don’t they?