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Main content

Visualizing Imperial Rome

Ever wish you could travel back in time to see ancient Rome? Thanks to Rome Reborn® you can!
Learn more about the architecture seen in this video visit:

Arch of Constantine 

Arch of Titus 

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine

Roman Forum

Imperial Fora

Forum and column of Trajan



To learn more about Rome Reborn, visit

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] I'm with Dr. Bernie Frischer, the creator of Rome Reborn. It's a beautiful day, and we're flying low over the Tiber River. - [Bernie] This is Rome in the year 320 C.E. You see this big plaza, that's the so-called Circus Flaminius, beyond which is a theater, the Theatre of Marcellus, and to the left is the Capitoline Hill. - [Steven] And now we're approaching a large stadium, a place for sporting events. - [Bernie] This is the Circus Maximus used for the chariot races among other things, it also was used for parades, for example The Triumphal Parade. It could seat up to, we think, 250,000 people. It was quite a big complex. - [Steven] And there's an island in the middle, around which the chariots would race. You can see right in the middle of that, the large obelisk. - [Bernie] This is one of the first two very tall obelisks brought from Egypt to Rome by the first Emperor Augustus. It symbolized to the Egyptians, and the Romans knew this, a sunbeam, and the Romans thought this was appropriate for the Circus because the Circus itself had a temple of the sun god. - [Steven] And this temple to the sun is placed directly across from the imperial box and just to the left of the stadium is the palace. - [Bernie] The Great Imperial Palace. At the end of the Circus Maximus is a triumphal arch. We know that was dedicated to the Emperor Titus and celebrated his victory over the province of Judea. The reason that there's a triumphal arch of Titus here is that the parade known as the triumphal procession went through the Circus Maximus and all along the triumphal procession there were temples, triumphal arches and other monuments. - [Steven] And aligned with the Arch of Titus, we can see in the distance one of the great Bath complexes of ancient Rome. - [Bernie] That's the Baths of Caracalla. Now we're looking at the Caelian Hill, you can see the Claudian Aqueduct in the valley between the Caelian hill and to our left the Palatine Hill, you see a plume of smoke going up from the imperial bath complex on the Palatine hill. To our right we're passing by a great complex, a garden in the middle of which is a temple, and that's the temple of the Divine Claudius. Claudius was made a god after his death and Nero incorporated this piece of land into the Golden House, which covered 120 acres. - [Steven] What I find so fascinating is that so much of the ancient architecture that I associate with Rome in the Colosseum District is really a reaction against Nero, as a reaction against his excesses. - [Bernie] Everywhere you look, the selfishly expropriated public land under Nero is given back to the public, and the public was very happy. These are all public facilities, so think of the Colosseum, beyond that where you have some smoke coming out, those are baths, the Baths of Trajan. It's open to the public. In front of that is the smaller bath complex, the Baths of Titus. - [Steven] We're now flying just over the Arch of Constantine which is another landmark that survives into the modern era. - [Bernie] Yeah so another triumphal arch. In front of that you see that cone, that's the Meta Sudans, the Great Fountain, and to the right is the Flavian Amphitheater, also known as the Colosseum. But you can see why it was called the Colosseum in the Middle ages, not in antiquity. Because of that enormous 100 foot tall bronze statue, which is a statue of the sun god. Now that was originally a statue of Nero. After his death, the Vespasian had the head taken off and had it converted to a statue of the sun god. We see just beyond the second arch of Titus in the city. - [Steven] And just to the right of that the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. - [Bernie] Yes. - [Steven] And these are all structures that remain. And now we're just veering off to the left, and at the top of the hill is the palace, we're seeing it from the other side. - [Bernie] Yeah this is the palace at the top of the Palatine. Because the emperors lived up there, the word palace became synonymous with where a leader would live. We're turning now away from the palace and looking over toward the Roman Forum. - [Steven] In the ancient era the Forum was a place for oratory, it was a place for government. - [Bernie] In the republic, yes. It was a place for meetings of the Assembly, as well as the Senate. The Senate had its own building, but the people would assemble in front of the speaker's roster or platform to listen to their leaders explain policy, propose laws, and debate each other when they were running for public office. - [Steven] We seem to be flying through the smoke of the Temple of Vesta. - [Bernie] The Temple of Vesta, famous for its eternal flame, and beyond that is the triple arch of Augustus, it celebrates the restoration by the Parthians in modern day Iran of military standards. Interestingly, if we're looking now at a rostra, a speaker's platform right ahead of us, that's a late antique rostra, dating to the end of the third century AD. - [Steven] But we can see the original just a little further on. - [Bernie] Yes, bookending the Forum Plaza at the other end is another rostra, the Augustan Rostra originally built by Julius Caesar. - [Steven] And in between the rostra, there's this beautiful equestrian sculpture. - [Bernie] This was actually the early third century AD emperor Septimius Sevverus, and we know about the statue being there both archaeologically from the remains of the base, but also from coins that illustrate it. - [Steven] We're surrounded by public buildings and by temples. - [Bernie] We can see over the right the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Straight ahead is the Temple of the Divine Julius Caesar. If you look closely, you can see the colt statue inside. We know about that from a coin that illustrates it. Caesar was shown as an augur, a priest. Up in the pediment of the temple you see a star. It illustrates the comet that was seen in the sky over Rome in the summer after Caesar's assassination. - [Steven] We're surrounded by columns, and these were honorary columns. - [Bernie] Yes, in front of the law court known as the Basilica Julia. And we know from Pliny that to portray a human on top of a column was in effect, to make him a god, or make him god-like. What we see now in front of us is one of the two Trajanic reliefs, that interestingly enough, in their backgrounds illustrates the Roman Forum as it appeared in the time of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. A lot of people are surprised to see to see that set up here on the Forum Plaza. That's actually where they were found at the end of the 19th century. - [Steven] But now they're in the Senate. - [Bernie] They were moved there in the 20th century to protect them from the elements. - [Steven] When you go into the Senate to see them, you don't see these blues, you don't see those yellows, you don't see these greens. Almost all Roman sculpture was painted. - [Bernie] This is one of the great breakthroughs of the last 10 years or so, development of a number of noninvasive techniques to detect color, even little traces of pigment left on the surface of white marble. Now we're seeing the so-called Statue of Phocas. It's called the Statue of Phocas because it was excavated at the beginning if the 19th century and they found an inscription to the Byzantine emperor Phocas. But we think that Phocas' inscription was added on top of an older inscription to the Tetrarch Diocletian. And he is therefore the figure shown on top of the column. - [Steven] We're now looking up the hill that leads to the capital line. - [Bernie] Masking the hill is the Tabularium or the state record office in the background. In front of it are three temples. To the left the Temple of Saturn, in the center the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, worshiped as gods after their deaths, and to the right, the Temple of Concordia that celebrated the harmony between the social classes of Rome, and then during the Empire it symbolizes the harmony between the Imperial family and the Roman Senate. We're passing over the Augustan rostra now, and just to the right is the Arch Septimius Severus. He left a very big mark in the Forum. - [Steven] And his arch even today overshadows so much of the Forum. - [Bernie] Yes, it's very well preserved. - [Steven] Let's move now to the Imperial Fora. As opposed to the Roman Forum, these are fora that individual emperors built to honor their own rule. - [Bernie] Fora is the plural of forum, so the Roman Forum and the Imperial Fora. Starting from the time of Julius Caesar, it was recognized that the old Roman Forum was too crowded. If you were an emperor and you wanted to honor your favorite god, or eventually after you died have a temple to yourself, you needed to build a new public space. Where better to do that than adjacent to the old Roman Forum? So Julius Caesar's Forum which we're now over, uses the backside of the Senate as a part and parcel of this new Forum Julium, the Forum of Julius Caesar, which is dominated at the end of its main axis by the Temple of Venus Genetrix, his favorite goddess. The other emperors followed suit, so across the way is the Forum of Augustus, dominated by the temple of his favorite god, the god Mars, the war god. - [Steven] The temple is actually flanked by two hemicycles. - [Bernie] Yes, and in those hemicycles were niches with some of Rome's leading historic figures, and also the Julian ancestors of Augustus going all the way back to Aeneas. - [Steven] You can see other imperial fora that are squeezed in, especially the Transitorium. - [Bernie] Yeah the Transitorium is also called the Forum of Nerva. It's basically just a monumentalization of the argulatum the street that runs next to the Senate house into the Roman Forum and then going into the other direction to the east into the subura, the slummy part of Rome filled with tenements where lots of people lived. - [Steven] But if the Transitorium is squeezed in, you would never say that about the Forum of Trajan. - [Bernie] No, the last one of these imperial fora is the Forum of Trajan it's the biggest by far, it's fairly well preserved at the end of it is a Temple of the Divine Trajan which was built after Trajan died but he actually started building this while he was still alive so in front of the temple is the Column of Trajan that celebrates his two victories over the Dajians, the people in modern day Romania. In flanking the column are two libraries. In front of the libraries in the column is a bigger building the Basilica Ulpia which probably served as a law court and had some other functions. It was a big multipurpose space. - [Steven] Just coming into view is one of the most famous extant Roman monuments, the Pantheon. - [Bernie] Now we're flying to the northern Campus Martius which was filled with funiary monuments, temples, ustrinai, places where emperor's bodies were cremated. The columns like the column of Marcus Orelius. - [Steven] And the first Roman emperor built his own mausoleum, the Mausoleum of Augustus. - [Bernie] We can see this round structure in the northern most part of the Campus Martius. - [Steven] Now we've just swung around so we have a great view of the Pantheon. - [Bernie] We can really see the Pantheon we have this hypothetical arch that a lot of people think was in front of the Pantheon and to its left was the most prestigious shopping center of Rome the Saepta Julia and next to that is this great Egyptian Temple of the Goddess Isis, you can see two obelisks. - [Steven] So what we're seeing is a city that is filled with monuments to Roman rulers. Monuments that celebrate their achievements, their military victory, the wealth that they brought to the city. - [Bernie] Yes, but now as we turn and go back to the south and southern part of the Campus Martius we see that these emperors were not only selfish but they created a lot of public facilities and built up their popularity that way so we've just been flying through the entertainment part of the city of Rome. - [Steven] When you walk through Rome now, this city that is so layered with history it's sometimes difficult to reconstruct in your mind how these ancient monuments fit together. This recreation provides such rich detail it allows us to see the city literally as if we had traveled back to the fourth century. - [Bernie] The idea is to take all of the monographs and studies of the individual monuments and weave them together into something that gives us a synthetic view of the whole city. In the past we've been able to study just the Pantheon or just the Roman Forum again it could take decades of your life. Now thanks to this new 3D technology within a very short amount of time even just a day I would really say the average person can know more about the ancient city than even a PhD in the field of Roman Archeology did five or 10 short years ago. (piano music)