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Matthew’s virtual tour: Residential areas

Dr Matthew Nicholl's explains more about the residential areas in ancient Rome through a video tour of his virtual model.
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It can be hard to get a sense of the everyday residential and commercial architecture of ancient Rome– the majority of the city. The buildings were less well constructed, so they don’t survive as well. They’ve been overbuilt and obliterated by modern Rome, and until pretty recently archaeologists weren’t that interested in them. They preferred the grander monuments. Pockets survive, but a digital reconstruction can help present a picture of a busy crowded city, and try to reach some sort of understanding of how the monuments were framed by a backdrop of much humbler buildings.
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As we explore bits of residential Rome from the model, we can fly, for example, along major streets lined by tall apartment blocks, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor. In quieter parts of the city, we can see nicer single-storey peristyle villas with their garden spaces. Elsewhere again, we see warehouses, storerooms, part of the equipment for keeping the city fed and watered and supplied. At corners and intersections, we might see street fountains, little urban squares– or piazzas– major roads, and back lanes. We can contrast the density of the inner city with the more spacious and green suburbs on the hilltops, or the outer zones of Rome.
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Or the Markets of Trajan– those multi-storey brick and concrete buildings, terracing back the Quirinal hillside above the Forum of Trajan. And this gives us a good glimpse of the sort of standard architecture that evolved for these buildings in ancient Rome– robust brick buildings, paved streets with drainage, shops opening through shuttered openings with windows above for light. And we can reconstruct other bits of the city too. How do we do this? You’ve heard from me before about the Forma Urbis, or marble map of the city that was created by the Severan Emperors at the start of the 3rd century AD, perhaps as part of a survey or tax project.
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It was carved onto marble slabs and displayed in the city for everybody to see. Only about 10% of this map survives, but the fragments that do give us wonderful clues about the texture and fabric of the ancient city. Here, for example, is a set of fragments we call Fragment 10, collectively. It shows busy intersecting network of city streets, and because parts of the map are labelled we can identify where this fragment belongs. The portico– called the Porticus Liviae– that’s labelled here belongs on the Esquiline Hill. It’s a construction built by Augustus. So we see the monumental square, with its double row of columns, fountains in the corners, a grandiose rectangular symmetry.
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But contrast that to the winding, maze-y streets all around it. Here by contrast, we see angles and turns, doglegs, rows and rows of single room shops opening onto those busy streets. Tucked away behind the street facades of shops, we see private courtyards with their columns, spaces that might be for storage, or maybe little gardens. So a sense of the texture of the city emerging here, and a texture of bustle and business, and winding streets, contrasting very clearly with the symmetry and grandeur of that public portico. So you can see what Augustus was trying to achieve by inserting this lovely calm big space into this winding, busy part of the city. Let’s go look at another fragment.
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Here are Fragments 30, a to f. And there’s a label here too– THEATRVM– so we know we’re looking at a theatre. And we think this is the Theatre of Balbus, another Augustan era complex built by a friend of emperor, called Cornelius Balbus, opened in 13 BC. It stands very near the river, and interestingly at the grand opening event it was flooded, so they had to go in little boats.
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These marble fragments give us another sense of how one of these big public complexes– in this case, an entertainment complex– was jammed into a densely inhabited part of the city, that then lapped up all around it– grew up as close as it could get to it by the time this 3rd century map was made. So you see in the apse, or the semicircular space at the back of the complex– that was later converted into a giant multi-seated latrine, as it happens– you see streets running right up to the back of the complex. Houses, and warehouses, and shops, touching the walls of the complex, making use of every inch of urban space.
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And again, we see rows and rows of single rooms that must have been shops, or little cafes, restaurants, that we know the Romans liked to eat in. Behind those, courtyard space, warehouse space, perhaps private residential courtyards too. So, busy bustling residential and commercial Rome cheek by jowl with Imperial entertainment space.
Whilst the ruins of many grand Roman monuments still remain, very few artefacts survive to give us a sense of the appearance and interconnections between the sprawling, everyday residential and commercial areas within the ancient city. I’ve used evidence such as the Forma Urbis, an ancient marble map of Rome, to reconstruct these areas within the digital model.
Join me in this next guided tour to explore some of these bustling, highly populated, neighbourhoods and see if you can identify different kinds of residential buildings both in the digital footage and the fragments of the Forma Urbis.
Share your thoughts in the comments area, and compare your impressions with what you see in the following Step.
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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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