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The digital model

Dr Matthew Nicholls shares an overview of the digital model of Ancient Rome. Watch this video to find out more.
In this course, we’ll be using my large digital model of ancient Rome as a tool for understanding how the city may have appeared. This model covers pretty much the whole of the ancient city in quite a lot of detail, so we can view it as here from up above. And we can also get right down to street level and walk among the buildings to see how they appeared to visitors on the ground. I use this model quite a lot for teaching my students at Reading. And because they find it interesting and valuable, I also teach them how to make their own models, their own digital reconstructions.
And this way of approaching the past, as long as we ground it in available evidence and thought about what the ancient city was like, can be a vivid way of imagining and presenting a lost world. As you look at this general overview of the city, you can see how the landscape interacts with the buildings– the hills, the winding River Tiber cutting through the middle of town, the flat plain of the Campus Martius. And over on the far bank of the river, you can see the suburb, Trans Tiberim, or Trastevere as it is now, Rome’s other city across the river.
Around the built up core of the city, we see the great arterial roads leading to and from the centre of town. Those roads in the suburbs lined sometimes with tombs, jostling for position to catch the eye of the passing by. We see the aqueducts, farmland, garden space surrounding the core of the town providing fresh vegetables and fruit for the table, and we see the great band of the city walls– the Aurelianic walls of the late third century AD, which we’ll encounter in more detail later in the course. Thinking about these walls that cut across and sometimes, englobe earlier structures within them because they were built in a hurry.
We raise a question that I’m often asked about– what is the date of this model? When is it set? The approximate date is about AD 315, the early fourth century AD, measured by the latest buildings in the model. But, in fact, everything in it appears simultaneously brand new because I want to be able to pull individual buildings out. So the more complex answer is that is not really showing one historical period. It’s a portfolio of buildings from different ages giving an architectural impression of the city, rather than a snapshot of daily life. And that’s why there are no people in it, for example. No dirt. How do I make this?
Well the 3D drawing is done primarily in a free piece of software called SketchUp. I import plans and sections of buildings, and draw them in 3D inside that piece of software. And then, more complex pieces of software called Cinema 4D and Lumion. Software really built for filmmakers, architects– can take those pictures and cast artificial light on them, shadows, reflections– process we call rendering– to make the fly-throughs and animations that you see in this course. The important thing for a model like this is basing it as closely as possible on source material, so archaeological remains, of course, and coins and literary descriptions, as we’re seeing right across this whole course.
If I had to pick my favourite source, I think I’d say it was the Forma Urbis, which is actually an ancient marble map dating from the early third century AD. It’s a map of the whole city. About 10% of it survives. It has captions. It has labels for things like staircases and columns. You can tell where the streets are and where the individual buildings are. It was probably based on some sort of property survey, maybe for tax purposes that the emperors had done. And it was engraved on marble slabs and put up on display, which we’ll see later in the course.
We can take bits of this marble map and use it to reconstruct some of the vanished cityscape of ancient Rome. You’ll see images and animations from the model throughout the course. And each week you’ll have the chance to explore a section of the digital model for yourself in real-time on the screen or you can sit back and listen to narrated tours around parts of the city relevant to each week’s topics.

A digital model is editable, flexible, navigable, transmissible and sharable. It can be a useful new way of presenting the past alongside more traditional methods. It’s an effective tool to show how vast this ancient city was, but also allows us to zoom down into the finer details such as the textures and decorations on individual buildings.

In this video I share an overview of my digital model of ancient Rome and in the next Step you’ll have your first opportunity to navigate a small section of the model.

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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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