Friday, February 12, 2016


Gilbert J. Gorski, James E. Packer, The Roman Forum: a Reconstruction and Architectural Guide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xxii, 437. ISBN 9780521192446. $250.00.

Reviewed by Fred S. Kleiner, Boston University (

Version at BMCR home site


Of the most visited archaeological sites and monuments in the Mediterranean world—the Athenian Acropolis, Pompeii, the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Forum Romanum—the last is by far the most incomprehensible to the typical tourist and, admittedly, also to those holding advanced degrees in the field. The civic center of ancient Rome is, save for the Arches of Titus and Septimius Severus, the rebuilt Curia, and a dozen or so handsome marble columns where once stood complete temples, a vast field of foundation blocks, column bases and stumps, and fragments of fallen entablature. Some of the ancient monuments, most notably the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina the Elder, were long ago transformed into churches. In my experience—confirmed by the authors of this important new monograph—virtually everyone leaves the Forum Romanum dissatisfied and confused. Tourists wonder: Were those stones really integral parts of two great basilicas in which important state business was conducted? Was that spot really once the legendary speakers' platform from which great orators addressed the people against the backdrop of five statue-capped columns?

In The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, Gilbert Gorski and James Packer attempt to bring the ruins of the Forum Romanum back to life by utilizing the latest digital technology—and they succeed admirably. Their 450-plus-page volume, lavishly produced by Cambridge University Press and presented in an unusual horizontal format perfectly suited to the scores of color panoramic photographs and computer reconstructions, is a must-purchase for any university library, but its high (albeit justified) price, hefty weight, and unwieldy format render it useless as a portable "architectural guide" for travelers to Rome. I sincerely hope that the publisher and the authors will prepare an abbreviated paperback version of about one-quarter the present size with a much-reduced number of carefully chosen reconstructions which, if the Italian authorities would agree to place it in the official bookshops of Rome's major archaeological sites and museums, would easily become a best seller well worth the investment of the publisher's dollars and the authors' time.

The organization of this invaluable work is very well conceived. Part I consists of a brief historical overview of the Forum Romanum from the foundation of the Republic until the mid-fourth century CE. (The digital reconstruction presents the state of the forum in 360 CE, comparable to the decision Italo Gismondi made when he constructed his gigantic model of Rome in the Museo della Civiltà Romana. (Curiously, the foldout Gatefold 1 is titled "The Roman Forum in 380 CE." I trust that this is just an unfortunate typographical error.) This introductory chapter also includes a section on building types, materials, and techniques of construction that will be welcomed by the tourists who are a key sub-group of the book's intended audience.

The heart of the volume, some 270 pages, consists of 18 chapters devoted to all the important individual monuments in the Forum Romanum proper plus two significant "outliers," namely the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, the omission of which would have been unwise, especially in view of the secondary purpose of the project as an architectural guide. The discussions also include the post-360 history of the monuments. There, readers learn, for example, why the door to San Lorenzo in Miranda is six meters above the ancient ground level of the remodeled Antonine temple that forms its core. The order of discussion follows the counterclockwise path that a visitor would take by beginning with the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, the ancient building closest to the modern entrance from the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and ending back near that entrance at the Temple of Vesta. (From there, the visitor would normally continue the tour by walking eastward on the Via Sacra to the Arch of Titus and then ascend the Palatine Hill—included in the same admission ticket along with the Colosseum, which is for most tourists the biggest attraction of all.)

The concluding Part III is organized chronologically rather than topographically and is especially valuable because it moves beyond the description and reconstruction of individual buildings to treat the changing appearance and character of the Forum Romanum as a whole through the four centuries from the transformation of the Republican forum by Augustus through the tetrarchy and beyond. This section is crucial for gaining an understanding of the Forum Romanum as an architectural complex and the locus of important state business (as opposed to a random collection of isolated monuments). That was one of the authors' primary aims, and in Part III they have certainly met that challenge.

The state-of-the-art digital reconstructions are, in a word, dazzling, and fully meet Gorski and Packer's goal of enabling visitors to visualize the Forum Romanum as it once was (although not on the spot because of the ungainly size of the volume; see above). The highest possible accuracy of the restored views has been assured by basing them on meticulous measurements and study of excavation reports, old photographs, and 19th- and 20th-century watercolors by members of the French School in Rome, but there is inevitably a lot of "guesswork" involved. One misleading aspect of the reconstructions, which the authors readily acknowledge, is that the monuments are shown as gleaming white marble structures. They were not, but there is too little evidence about the coloration of capitals and other architectural elements to enable an accurate reconstruction, and I believe that Gorski and Packer were correct not to create purely fanciful polychrome digital renditions of the buildings. Pedimental statuary and the reliefs on triumphal arches were surely colored, however. There are also, inevitably, errors in detail. To cite only two: In his triumphal quadriga atop his Parthian arch, Augustus was certainly not "dressed as a soldier" (24). Triumphators were barred from wearing armor in the city and all representations of triumphal processions show the triumphant general dressed in a toga. Moreover, no coin shows soldiers flanking the emperor's chariot, as restored by Gorski and Packer. In the reconstruction of the West Rostra (Fig. 8.16), the statues crowning the five columns of Diocletian's decennial monument do not match the depictions of those statues on the Arch of Constantine (Fig. 8.5). The so-called Anaglypha Traini/Hadriani, now displayed in the Curia and widely thought to have formed a balustrade on the Rostra, are also omitted from the reconstruction, but that is more understandable since the original location of the Anaglypha is uncertain. In general, the reconstructions of the sculpture associated with the monuments in the Forum Romanum are much less reliable than the restored views of the buildings proper, as one might expect in an "architectural guide," but greater care could have been taken with those details. That observation is a mere quibble, however, that does not detract in any significant way from the central achievement of the Gorski-Packer project and of Cambridge's realization of it. The Roman Forum is a feast for the eyes and a gift to both the scholarly and lay communities. Kudos to all involved and especially to Gilbert Gorski and James Packer.

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