Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Andrea Carandini, Paolo Carafa (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City (2 vols.). Translated by Andrew Campbell Halavais. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. 1,280. ISBN 9780691163475. $199.50.

Reviewed by R. Scott Smith, University of New Hampshire (

Version at BMCR home site


This attractive two-volume set, consisting of over 600 pages of text and over 400 elegant maps, illustrations, floor plans and reconstructions, is an updated and translated version of the original Italian edition, Atlante di Roma Antica (Milan 2012). Leaving aside Gismondi's somewhat idiosyncratic plastic model in the Museo della Civiltà Romana, it is the first sustained attempt to offer a comprehensive overview of the ancient city since Lanciani's Forma Urbis Romae, which culminated in 1901.1 Yet, whereas Lanciani's work was an individual achievement, the Atlas of Ancient Rome highlights the power of collaborative work. Over forty individual contributors, many young scholars under the guidance of Carandini and Carafa, contributed to this book (p. 45), to which number one should add the members of the technological team responsible for georeferencing all of the monuments, curating the autoCAD-based database of the ancient city, and providing the base data for the behind-the-scenes work. Necessary, too, was the cooperation of numerous agencies, political entities, and archaeologists. The result, even taking into account the flights of fancy and creative reinterpretation for which Carandini is known, is a marvelous and ultimately responsible vision of the ancient city in graphic and textual form.

Scholars of Roman architecture and topography, teachers of Roman history and culture, and the interested layperson will want a copy of this book—at least until the whole project becomes available online, which is the ultimate goal (p. 30). To a large extent, this English edition is but another iteration in the evolution of the whole project. While the essays forming the "Biography of the City" portion of the book (vol. 1) have not, as far as I can tell, been updated except for the bibliography (updated to 2015), the plans and maps in the second volume have undergone extensive updates based on better archaeological data, recent discoveries, and new reinterpretations of existing data. In well over half of the Augustan regions (III–X, XIV, described on pp. 9–14) substantial updates have been made. In the words of Carandini himself (p. 6), "our results are in continual development and always deserving of correction." This book, then, is a snapshot of the project at a specific moment in time, and thus had already become obsolete even before it was sent to the printers.

The original Italian edition of the Atlas has been thoroughly reviewed elsewhere,2 and this reviewer holds similar concerns about the overly optimistic views of early Rome and some of the imaginative reconstructions of certain monuments. Even so, the research team is to be commended for their industry. They had to identify and then georeference 13,190 individual monuments in Rome, for which "each piece of information ha[d] to be critically weighed" (27). Collating and digitizing archeological reports and images, the Severan Forma Urbis, ancient iconography from coins, evidence from Renaissance and later drawings, the maps of Nolli (18th c.) and others, the project—now 12 years in the making—provides us with a conscientious and coherent, even if necessarily flawed, view of the ancient city. This holds true both for the numerous reconstructions of individual monuments, as well as the regional maps and the 37 additional tables that, collectively, offer a complete snapshot of the Roman city in the fourth century CE. Once the project is online, the map will be visible as a whole, hopefully as user friendly as that in the first note below.

The authors of each of the 284 "Tables" are at pains to responsibly indicate what is based on existing or comparative evidence and what is imaginatively reconstructed. Each monument is color-coded to alert the reader to what ancient material survives, where a reconstruction is based on ancient or modern evidence, and where it is mere speculation. Take, for instance the Neronian Magnum Macellum (Tab. 138), for which there are scant archaeological remains. Basing their plan on an original piece of the Severan Forma Urbis (fr. 157b–c, blue) and a Renaissance drawing of a lost fragment (fr. 157a, purple), as well as comparing it with the mostly extant macellum in Pozzuoli (green; we are told this explicitly in the English edition, unlike in the Italian original), the author, G. Fatucci, offers a complete reconstruction of the rest (in black ink). For the three-dimensional view and a construction of the facade, a bronze dupondius of the late Neronian period provides basis for the details. Because the coin and the fragments of the Forma Urbis are pictured beside the reconstruction, readers can determine for themselves the accuracy of certain reconstructed portions of the lost monument. Similarly, the Ludus Magnus (Table 115) is reconstructed using the substantial archaeological remains to the east of the Colosseum (in red) and a substantial fragment of the Forma Urbis (blue).

To be sure, several reconstructions could be challenged on any number of factors, but the alternative, as Carandini somewhat defensively puts it (p. 20), is to remain inert or myopic, looking only at the most minute part of an ancient monument. Perfection, to use the old saw, is the enemy not only of the good, but also of any possibility of seeing the ancient city as a whole. We cannot be those scholars or archaeologists who "jejunely worship perfection with no regard to the limits of time, that is, those who never actually complete any worthwhile projects" (p. 19).

While we may object to Carandini's dismissal of a certain type of scholarly activity, the Atlas is indeed a worthwhile project. As attractive as the plans and maps are, the essays written by the research team are of great importance (even if vitiated by the awkward translation: see below). After four unnumbered articles articulating the rationale for the Atlas, the personnel that made it possible, and the geomatic methodologies of creating the underlying georeferenced database, there are thirteen introductory essays on various aspects of the urban fabric: the natural and historical landscapes (parts 1 and 2); infrastructure, which treats the walls, roads, and aqueducts (pt. 3); the necropoleis (pt. 4); goods in Rome (pt. 5, an important contribution); the end of the ancient city, based on a new synthesis of the archaeological data (pt. 6); an article on the ancient Romans' conception of ruins (pt. 7); and two appendices on building techniques and the orders of architecture. Following these essays, each Augustan region, written by a different scholar, receives a thorough study (region VIII, the heart of the city, gets over 60 dense pages). Each essay starts with an overview of the region from remote antiquity to the present day, continues with a review of the ancient region according to the regionary catalogs, and ends with an overview of the important developments for each chronological period (pre- and proto-urban, early kingdom, late kingdom, early republic, etc.). These studies, based on up-to-date information contained in the extensive digital database, will doubtlessly be the starting point for future syntheses of the archaeological record.

Since the contents in their original form have been thoroughly addressed in other places, the remainder of this review will concern the updates to and the translation of the Italian edition. In addition to checking the changes announced in the introduction, I randomly spot-checked several other monuments to see what, if any, updates were made. There are several differences. In general, there are more labels, helping the reader discern the plans and maps; the images tend to be larger, allowing for easier viewing; and more images have been added where there was blank space in the Italian version. Some of the Tables take into consideration new excavations. For instance, those around the Curiae Veteres led by Clementina Panella, has led to a clearer understanding of the area (Tab. 61–62, 64, 70, 74), even if we may marvel at the confidence with which both the excavator and D. Bruno (the author of most of the tables) have identified the domus to the east of the Curiae as belonging to C. Octavius and the location of the Emperor Augustus' birth. In addition to more extensive reconstructions of monuments (such as the Horti Luculliani [Tab. 200] and the Templum and Basilica of Matidia [Tab. 241, based on others' work]), there are also more subtle, unannounced changes to the English version. For the temple of Saturn (Table 25), the author (D. Nocera) has correctly reconsidered Macrobius, Sat. 1.8.4 (Tritonas cum bucinis fastigio Saturni aedis superimpositas), and now the reconstructed Tritons (faithfully marked in orange to denote reconstruction based on literary texts) reside not in the pediment but are represented as acroteria. The cella of the Templum Divi Hadriani (Tab. 244) has been redrawn with an apse and stairs based on one of Palladio's drawings (pictured next to plan).

The translation of over 800 pages, a Herculean task to be sure due to the length and the technical nature of the contributions, is workmanlike, but unfortunately often leaves much to be desired, whether in accuracy or idiom. The translator, Andrew Campbell Halavais, is a professional translator but does not have an extensive background in classical studies or archaeology, leading to outright errors (rare) or unwieldy or obscure language (more frequent). In addition to strange expressions such as "archaeologically credited streets" (p. 51; the Italian is "strade attestate"), there are several inscrutable expressions. For example, on p. 113 the Italian "per introdurre nel corso dal tempo nel suo repertorio forme chiuse normalmente assenti tra il vasellame africano esportato" has become "and then [they] introduced new, closed shapes that were usually not germane to the exported African wares." On p. 37 we find, "Drastic transformations (like that...of the Domus Aurea) may occur by way of blackouts or ambitious urban projects, but these upheavals are rare..." for "le quali implicano oscuramenti improvvisi e un progetto urbano"—the loss of "unexpected" and the obscure "blackouts" (surely "sudden eradication" here given the reference to the Domus Aurea) makes it difficult to understand what is meant here unless one can divine the Italian original. The most egregious error that I spotted was the surprising statement that (p. 123) "Cicero recalls that as a young man in Corinth in AD 20 he was more moved by the locals...". It hard to understand how the translator got this from "nel primo ventennio del I secolo a.C," or worse, how it slipped past the editorial staff, unless those who proofread the copy likewise did not have a background in classical studies. In several places the Latin, too, has been corrupted, and on occasion citations of tables in the narrative are mistaken.3 The rationale for an English edition must have been primarily to bring the essays and maps to an English-speaking audience, but scholars will probably be best served to have the original Italian edition at their fingertips.

All told, this is an important and beautiful book, one worthy of the immense labor that has gone into collating and georeferencing all of the data from ancient sources, from the topographical work of earlier scholars, and from past and ongoing archaeological excavations. We greatly anticipate the release of the online version of the map and plans, which will at last fulfill Carandini's vision of allowing us to see the entirety of the ancient city. In the meantime, we should be thankful for the immense work that has gone into this book, a book that by its very nature opens itself up to criticism. That the editors are willing to receive feedback—we are invited to send feedback to them at on p. 52—is a welcome sign that the ongoing project will continue to seek out the most accurate possible view of ancient Rome.


1.   A clear and scalable map can be viewed at the collaborative work of MappingRome.
2.   For reviews in English see T. P. Wiseman, "The Palatine, from Evander to Elegabalus," JRS 103 (2013) 234–68, J. E. Packer, "The Atlante: Roma antica revealed," JRA 26 (2013) 553–61.
3.   Some examples from the first 20o pages: p. 71 evocentur has become evocetur; p. 117 casas seu tuguria has become casas sue...; p. 126 villarumque has become villrumque; p. 136 "table XVII 16" should read "table XVII 15;" p. 169 tribunal pretoris (see also the loss of the diphthongs in Table 200); p. 171 augurium maximus. I also encountered other surprises such as dolii instead of dolia (110), apis gabinus for lapis gabinus (132), Caelium hill for Caelian hill (137), aruspices and Vejovis (165).

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