Online Review: Book

Imaging Ancient Rome: Documentation, Visualization, Imagination


Edited by Lothar Haselberger and John Humphrey. Pp. 337, figs. 213. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2006. $125. ISBN 1-887829-61-X (paper).

Graphic representations, or “images,” of ancient Rome have become more visually powerful in the late 20th and early 21st centuries with the innovations afforded by digital technologies. The use value of these images, as well as traditional ones, is the primary subject of the book under review, the proceedings of an international symposium held in Rome in 2004 at the German Archaeological Institute, the British School, and the American Academy, which was attended by this reviewer. The following review treats the book as a whole and does not attempt to summarize or discuss its individual offerings.

The book’s diverse contributors include an impressive array of archaeologists, architects, cartographers, computational scientists, and historians. It is significant—kudos to the editors—that most of the authors developed their essays considerably beyond the length of their conference papers. The essays are well illustrated, but an additional CD-ROM or DVD with more of the images shown at the conference would have been useful and appropriate—as such, this is a missed opportunity.

With noteworthy strengths and few weaknesses, the book accomplishes the main goal set out in the preface: to assess the current state of Rome’s urban image(s) and to offer a forum for critical discussion. More than 20 of the authors use digital means to document and reconstruct Rome’s ancient topography and monuments, and to create images with varying degrees of immediacy (i.e., maps, plans, two-dimensional building elevations) and immersive dimensionality (i.e., three-dimensional computer modeling, virtual reality, even holography). More than a few, however, also incorporate some of the best traditional methods (i.e., working from Roman wall paintings, inscriptions, literary sources, representations of monuments on coins). This is appropriate, since the traditional methods of imaging Rome are still viable, and it is obviously part of the agenda of the authors using these methods to remind us of their enduring relevance.

Another asset of the book is the attention its authors pay to the ethics (if it can be called that) of imaging ancient Rome. It seems to be a universal principle that, while digital technology allows for greater special effects, imaging Rome should be based in “reality”—that is, not uprooted from archaeological evidence. Regarding this, Wiseman quips, “the output is only as good as the input.” An important recommendation calls for clearly distinguishing between archaeological evidence and reconstruction. This can be done by using abstract colors (Viscogliosi, Wulf, Riedel) or by alternating between solid and dashed lines, but agreed-upon standards are not made explicit. These and other guidelines, summarized in the epilogue, are well taken, although most have been accepted as virtual mantras in the field since at least the late 1990s and can be found in the published proceedings of other international symposia, especially those sponsored by CAA (Computer Applications in Archaeology) and VAST (Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage).

The authors of the essays at the end of the book (Wallace-Hadrill, Ammerman, Packer, Favro, and the book’s editors) take critical lines of inquiry and provide historical perspectives on the subject of imaging ancient Rome, such as the observation that (historically) Rome’s urban image has changed in step with the invention of new ways of interpretation, new technologies, and shifts in cultural (and academic) points of view. It is not surprising then that one finds in this book plenty of digital images of Rome created with state-of-the-art software developed by the architecture and video-gaming industries, which are well suited for creating multilayered maps and colorized larger-than-life architectural representations.

There are, of course, dimensions to ancient Rome other than the monumental. One might ask, Is the tail wagging the dog? Incorporating other effects of human presence and the changes brought by time (as suggested by Ammerman, among others) into reconstructed images of ancient Rome, especially three-dimensional ones, would make for more holistic vedute. This approach would bring new challenges, such as the need for more collaboration between historians and archaeologists, but it would constitute a fertile, nearly uncharted territory for innovation in the field of imaging ancient Rome. At the very least, we might start to focus less on the power of our images and more on the potential for a greater diversity and richness of meaning in them for both specialists as well as various kinds of general audiences.

In conclusion, surely another of the book’s strengths is its collection, perhaps coincidental, of results from current archaeological excavations and topographical studies going on in Rome’s area centrale. These essays aim at sharpening some still frustratingly blurry details of Rome’s ancient topography, especially on the Capitoline and Palatine hills and in the area of the imperial forums. Anglophone readers in particular will benefit from having these results of the utmost importance inside one book.

Philip Stinson
Department of Classics
University of Kansas
1445 Jayhawk Boulevard
Lawrence, Kansas 66045

Book Review of Imaging Ancient Rome: Documentation, Visualization, Imagination, edited by Lothar Haselberger and John Humphrey
Reviewed by Philip Stinson
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 112, Number 1 (January 2008), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1121.Stinson

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