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Mapping Ancient Rome

In response to:

Reading the Ruins of Rome from the July 13, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Andrea Carandini stands out from other scholars who have studied ancient Rome over the last forty years in his enthusiasm for creating visual reconstructions of the early city and in his fascination with Romulus as a figure in history. Mary Beard had her hands full in reviewing The Atlas of Ancient Rome [NYR, July 13], and, on the whole, she ably rose to the challenge. I would like to offer two brief comments that may help to round out the story.

The first concerns the many attempts that have been made at reconstructing the ancient city of Rome since the time of the Renaissance. A reconstruction of a city is nothing if it does not take risks. And yet it must not go too far: otherwise it becomes simply an imaginary city or an architectural caprice. There is a delicate balance in taking just a few steps beyond the bounds of knowledge at the time and in completing the unknown according to culturally accepted rules (again at the time), so that the reconstruction will be seen as convincing.

Over the years, reconstructions of ancient Rome have taken many different forms: maps, paintings, prints, gardens, theater scenery, scale models, and now an atlas. In 1561, Pirro Ligorio, an architect, was the first to produce a bird’s-eye-view map of the entire ancient city. Stefano Du Perac (1574) and Mario Cartaro (1579) then followed in his footsteps—each claiming, of course, that his reconstruction was better than the previous ones. Michel de Montaigne formed his initial ideas about ancient Rome by studying such “pictures,” as he called them. When he made his first visit to Rome in 1581, he walked around the city and soon realized that all of the reconstructions had their limitations.

What Carandini and his coauthors are doing is more than just reading the ruins of Rome. They are returning to a time-honored endeavor and giving us the most recent edition of Montaigne’s “pictures.” It will be the task of the next generation of scholars to probe the strengths and the weaknesses of their reconstructions.

The second comment involves the parallels in the lives of Carandini and Giacomo Boni (1859–1925), who have made major contributions to the archaeology of early Rome. They both had charismatic personalities, a passion for digging well and deeply at sites in the center of ancient Rome, and an enthusiasm for seeing Romulus as a figure in history. Today most archaeologists and ancient historians view the first king of Rome as a legendary figure. And this was the case in Boni’s time as well.

In 1899, Boni made two important discoveries at the Comitium in the Forum: the first was the Lapis Niger (the shrine where he thought Romulus was buried) and the second was the famous early inscription written in archaic letters with the word rex (king) in it, which dates to the sixth century BC. Boni’s belief in the historical Romulus led him to draw connections with what he was finding in his excavations that have not survived the test of time. In retrospect, it would have been better for him to follow the advice of Domenico Comparetti, a leading scholar at the time, and take a more cautious approach to reading the ancient sources on Romulus.

In the case of Carandini, there are leading scholars today who tried to wave him off this quixotic course but to no avail. Instead, he forged ahead and bet the whole house on Romulus. Whether or not this was such a good decision on his part, only time will tell.

Albert J. Ammerman
Department of Classics
Colgate University
Hamilton, New York