Figure 1: Virtual Rome (view of the entire city)
Virtual Rome and Rome Reborn®: The Latest Developments in the Architectural Documentation of Rome
By Lily Nesvold
Have you ever wished you could walk around Rome during ancient times? Well, now you can. Recent technological developments—new software that allows for more accurate recording of ancient structures—have enabled architectural documentation of the Roman Forum to reach new levels with virtual three-dimensional reconstruction.
Virtual Rome is a digital model developed by Dr. Matthew Nicholls, a professor of classics at the University of Reading (fig. 1). On Virtual Rome’s website, one can interact with three-dimensional models of the Colosseum and Basilica Julia. Visitors can either take a “tour,” which displays different angles of each building along with explanatory captions, or use the “walk” feature, which allows users to play with the model themselves, using their computer’s trackpad to zoom in and out. The default viewing mode is in color, but there is also an option to convert the buildings into “clay.” The user also has the option to use augmented reality (AR) by scanning a QR code with an app called Kubity for a more immersive experience.
The Virtual Rome reconstruction is both an educational and a research tool—it brings monuments to life for students, and the ability to consider sight lines, illumination, and routes through the city helps researchers. Models like these can make classics more accessible to everyone, as Virtual Rome is part of a free online course, “Rome: a Virtual Tour of the Ancient City.”
The model itself was created using SketchUp, a simple 3D modeling software, but the output is quite impressive, given it represents only one scholar’s work. In a 2016 interview with World History Encyclopedia, Dr. Nicholls stated that he had been working on the model for seven years (not as his full-time job, though). He also mentioned that “[the model] will never be finished” and he “will always have more to do.” Nevertheless, perhaps this “solo” approach is to the project’s detriment—Roman topography cannot (and should not) be approached by one individual.
The Rome Reborn® series is a more developed example of virtual three-dimensional reconstruction (fig. 2). Rome Reborn® currently offers three tours: a Flight Over Ancient Rome, Pantheon, and Roman Forum (with over forty monuments). Focused on the reign of Constantine the Great, this model aims to portray Rome in 320 AD, when the city had a population of roughly a million people and 7,000 buildings in which they worked and lived. Rome Reborn® started in 1997 with the mission of building the entire ancient city using digital technology, and since then, there have been three generations of the model as technology advances. The Rome Reborn® team has partnered with Flyover Zone, a virtual tourism company, to produce its most recent innovations. While the series started with Rome, it has expanded to other significant places in classical antiquity, such as Athens, Egypt, and Hadrian’s Villa, as well as Mesoamerica.
Figure 2: Rome Reborn® (Arch of Septimius Severus on the top, Temple of Castor and Pollux on the bottom)
The Reborn® series offers two methods of viewing its reconstructions. First, all the locations offer “virtual tours” with voiceovers—for the Roman Forum, it has a three-hour tour with Bernard Frischer, the director of Rome Reborn®. Visitors can tour the Forum in the selected order or skip around to features they find interesting. The tour provides contextualizing information, such as explanations of what a ‘forum’ or a ‘victory monument’ is. It also offers expert commentary on a variety of political leaders, including Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Caligula.
Only three locations, including the Roman Forum, offer a ‘free roam’ mode. As someone who is familiar with the topography of the Roman Forum, both first-hand and through classes at Penn, I particularly appreciate the opportunity to roam the area freely. While this option proves valuable for those familiar with the sites, the guided tour might be a better option for someone who is unfamiliar with Rome or the Forum. When players enter the ‘free roam’ mode, they spawn in front of the Column of Phocas on the western side of the Roman Forum, facing the Curia. To move around the area, visitors use the arrow keys or the “WASD” keys (where W is up, A is left, S is down, and D is right), and they use their mouse to look around the area. There might be a bit of a learning curve for some users, but those who play computer games will likely find ease in navigating the ‘free roam’ mode.
The reconstructed monuments have exceptional attention to detail and magnificent polychromy. On the Arch of Septimius Severus, for instance, one can read the inscription and see the depictions of the Parthians — even their Phrygian caps. The images are slightly blurry up close to the monument (fig. 3), but the ability to see colors at all, especially in a dynamic setting as opposed to a singular picture, is extraordinary.
Figure 3: up-close, blurry view of the images on the Arch of Septimius Severus
There are, however, some gaps (quite literally) in the ‘free roam’ reconstruction of the Forum. Most buildings and monuments can only be observed, not entered (although one can peer inside buildings). The notable exception is the rostra on the western side of the Forum, which allows players to walk up the steps and stand on the platform. Additionally, the roamable area is limited, and visitors cannot closely examine some buildings, such as the Temple of Deified Caesar. The rendering depicts the starburst on the pediment of the temple and a few statues, but not much more (fig. 4).
Figure 4: far-away view of the Temple of Deified Julius Caesar
As is the case with all cartography, physical models, and digital reconstructions of Rome and the Forum, Rome Reborn® is limited because it focuses on one short period in the entirety of the city’s history (Constantine’s rule). The “final aim” of the project is to show a reconstruction of Rome over multiple periods, but it is unclear when we will actually see those different variations, given how long it took to complete the current model.
An area that could be improved is the nature of the ‘tour’ itself; at any given stop, viewers can use their mouse to rotate the screen for a 360-degree view but cannot move around. In between each stop, the platform shows a basic screen with the website’s logo while the content loads. Now, imagine if this virtual tour were more like a physical walking tour so that online visitors could move from place to place to get a sense of where the monuments lie in relation to one another. In this way, the informational aspects of the tour would be bolstered by the added element of spatial awareness, which only the ‘free roam’ version provides. One could argue that after taking the tour and learning about the Roman Forum, visitors could ‘free roam’ the area on their own time. However, as mentioned above, the ‘free roam’ option lacks access to some of the monuments that the tour covers, and the realness of the digital excursion would be strengthened by rendering it in motion.
Rome Reborn® increases the number of people who have access to the ancient ruins. Whereas one would previously need to book a costly trip to Rome to see these sites (and they might not even understand what exactly they are looking at, especially if just a few columns of a ruin are left), now the city can be viewed for free and in its former glory from any computer with a Wi-Fi connection. Though not everyone may have access to a laptop, students can use their school’s computer lab and adults a device at their local public library. While architectural documentation is generally intended for research purposes, this project allows people outside of the field of classical studies to enjoy and learn from archaeologists’ work as well. Personally, the experience of Rome Reborn® was invaluable for me as it amplified my knowledge; whereas I used to memorize in what part of the Forum the monuments and buildings were located, I now literally visualize where they stood.
The creation of these renderings hinges on a long history of archaeological documentation of the Forum. For example, the Rome Reborn® project may have relied on Gismonid’s Plastico di Roma Imperiale (fig. 5) for the “vernacular architecture”—meaning the “small ‘filler’ buildings”—about which not many sources exist. Before that, the Plastico di Roma Imperiale (fig. 6) was dependent on Lanciani’s Forma Urbis Romanae map. Though these older works may be seen as obsolete, given the progress made in virtual three-dimensional reconstruction, they laid the foundations to make this kind of documentation possible; today’s scholars are indebted to these early topographers and archaeologists.
Figure 5: Plastico di Roma Imperiale
Figure 6: Sheet 29 of Forma Urbis Romae (1893-1901) showing the Roman forum (upper left)
What does the future hold for three-dimensional reconstructions of the Roman Forum? The Rome Reborn® series will continue to develop successive updates to enrich the user experience, and researchers will continue to create higher-quality software and technology that will streamline virtual three-dimensional reconstruction. Hopefully, teachers will utilize these digital models as a resource in their curricula, whether in an upper-level Roman topography class or an introductory course in Roman history.
One day, perhaps instead of traversing the Forum through the constrained screen of a laptop, we will be able to step into a fully immersive, augmented reality version of the site. Ideally, it would provide the option of seeing the space at various stages of its evolution, and we could feel as though we were present in ancient times. The ruins of the Forum are evidently at risk over the next several centuries; even with preservation tactics, no structures are permanent. When the Roman Forum is entirely gone, professors will only have these reconstructions on which they can rely, and these models will become infinitely more important.
It is also worth considering the impact architectural documentation continues to have on classical studies. Though many consider archaeology to be outdated, these three-dimensional reconstructions highlight the cutting-edge nature of the discipline. Furthermore, perhaps these models will rekindle excitement and passion for the field, which is currently waning. Even though it has been ongoing for 200 years, architectural documentation of the Roman Forum and Rome more broadly has yet to reach its pinnacle.
Lily Nesvold (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and minoring in Economics.
“3D Reconstructions: A Critical Reflection Starting from the Roman Forum.” Classical Archaeology in the Digital Age – the AIAC Presidential Panel, Panel 12.1, Archaeology and Economy in the Ancient World 51 (December 2021). https://doi.org/10.11588/propylaeum.708.c10608. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
“About Us – Flyover Zone,” n.d. https://www.flyoverzone.com/about/. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
Guidi, Gabriele, Bernard Frischer, and Ignazio Lucenti. “ROME REBORN – VIRTUALIZING THE ANCIENT IMPERIAL ROME,” n.d. https://www.isprs.org/proceedings/xxxvi/5-W47/pdf/guidi_etal.pdf. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
“Virtual Tours – Flyover Zone,” n.d. https://www.flyoverzone.com/virtual-tours-2/. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
Virtual Rome. “About,” September 16, 2021. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022. https://research.reading.ac.uk/virtualrome/about/.
World History Encyclopedia. “Virtual Rome: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Nicholls,” February 25, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVBG4axOJDI.
“Yorescape,” n.d. https://yorescape.com/. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
 “3D Reconstructions: A Critical Reflection Starting from the Roman Forum,” Classical Archaeology in the Digital Age – the AIAC Presidential Panel, Panel 12.1, Archaeology and Economy in the Ancient World 51 (December 2021), https://doi.org/10.11588/propylaeum.708.c10608. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.
 World History Encyclopedia. “Virtual Rome: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Nicholls,” February 25, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVBG4axOJDI.
 “Virtual Tours – Flyover Zone.”
 “3D Reconstructions: A Critical Reflection Starting from the Roman Forum.”
 Gabriele Guidi, Bernard Frischer, and Ignazio Lucenti, “ROME REBORN – VIRTUALIZING THE ANCIENT IMPERIAL ROME,” n.d., https://www.isprs.org/proceedings/xxxvi/5-W47/pdf/guidi_etal.pdf. Accessed 14 Dec. 2022.