Putting Augustan Rome on the map

Lothar Haselberger

Lothar Haselberger

Photo by Mark Stehle

Lothar Haselberger was often asked, “Are you crazy?” when people learned of his effort to map the known structure of Augustan Rome. “This is Rome,” they said. “With so many [structures], and you want to [map them] in a short period of time.”

After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

During the past four years, Haselberger, the Williams Associate Professor in the Art History Department, along with 11 graduate students and one undergraduate, have compiled information on structures that were known to have existed during Augustan period of Rome. For the first time in the hundreds of years of scholarship in Rome, a map of a specific time period has been constructed.

The map covers an area of approximately 18 square kilometers and, in addition to the structures, also indicates retaining walls, gardens, temples and streets. To give an impression of where the excavated structures are currently located in Rome, the Augustan map is superimposed over a light gray map of contemporary Rome. To obtain a feel for the layout of the city and its topography, Charles Williams funded a 10-day trip to Rome for Haselberger and his students, as well as aided in the costs of the maps’ production.

The project officially began in January 1999 with a seminar, “Mapping Augustan Rome,” which was geared towards publishing the results. Haselberger had already garnered interest from the publisher of the Journal of Roman Archaeology. However, it was known from the beginning that this was not going to be accomplished in the standard three months a seminar is normally allotted.

Two published dictionaries on Roman architecture, both with lengthy entries about everything that has been found in Rome during its existence, gave the first indication of the amount of information that needed to be sifted through. The problem for the group was to come up with a visualization of what was known to have existed from scholarship on this period. Collaboration with the computer lab of David G. Romano, a senior investigator of the Mediterranean section in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, was vital for collecting and processing all visual data.

“We had to apply strict and rigid methods to what is essentially a big mess,” Haselberger said. “We had to bring rhyme and reason to several hundred years’ worth of scholarship and to determine if it qualified for being visualized.”

A book, “Mapping Augustan Rome” (Portsmourth, 2002), is a companion to the map. The book contains about 400 entries that correspond to the information printed on the map.

“Research on Rome goes on,” he said. “In the field of archaeology, never is everything known, it’s always fragmentary. We tried to visualize something that brings us further in scholarship and focuses new questions and spawns new ideas for what one hopes in another enterprise.

“This is why we called the project not a map of Augustan Rome, we simply don’t know enough; it’s “Mapping Augustan Rome”—the process.”

Originally published on February 27, 2003