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Bill Thayer

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The City of Rome
as Seen by a Master Topographer

Rodolfo Lanciani was an archaeologist who for many years towards the close of the 19c was in charge of all the excavations within the city of Rome, and personally responsible for a number of major discoveries which we now take for granted; for example, the House of the Vestals in the Roman Forum.

It would be presumptuous of me to offer any technical evaluation of Lanciani's work: having neither the knowledge required to critique him, nor even to praise him, I can offer only a personal appreciation hedged with references to the assessments of others, and these are unanimous in considering him one of the seminal figures in the modern scientific study of topography.

For a quick expert view of Lanciani's importance as a topographer, written by one of his best-known successors in this discipline, see Richardson's preface to his own New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

Lanciani's recognized magnum opus is the Forma Urbis Romae, a set of 46 very detailed maps of ancient Rome issued in 1893‑1901, which remains unsurpassed to this day, even if of course there have been many new discoveries since. It has recently been reissued in hardcopy; some idea can be got of it from this experimental Forma Urbis website.

The great archaeologist had another special gift, however, that we can all appreciate; here too, it would be presumptuous of me to offer anything other than a personal appreciation — this time, since each of you may easily form your own.

He writes clearly and seductively, and is not afraid to flesh out the dry facts from an excavation with a full story, often a very interesting one: Rodolfo Lanciani is thus a perfect author for the Web, accessible to all of us at our different levels.

Now there are many entertaining writers in this world, but here you have someone who is technically and temperamentally qualified to tell us the truth as much as anyone can: he should serve as a corrective for much of the nonsense that one reads on the Web, frankly. (If you are writing a high-school term paper, take note: with the increasing availability of good sources online, it's going to get harder and harder to get away with poor research.)

It is a tough juggling act, because above all Lanciani writes as a man impassioned: he is a Roman, in the line of nearly three millennia of citizens of Rome, and conscious of it; so that he will occasionally fall into one principal vice, the worship of power in its typically Roman forms: empire and papacy. But this inside look at Roman triumphalism — interesting in itself — is a small price to pay for the depth and breadth of knowledge he has to share.


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[5/4/02: All the text is online, but unproofed
and only the illustrations to Chapter 1 have been placed. ]

Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries: Lanciani's first foray into writing for the American mass market, an outgrowth of a series of lectures he gave in the United States, the book covers all the basics about the city: its prehistory, sanitary conditions, porticoes and gardens, libraries, police and fire department, the imperial palaces and the House of the Vestals (that he himself unearthed); and a chapter each on Ostia and Portus, the surrounding Campagna Romana, and the loss and subsequent partial rediscovery of ancient remains.


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[ 103 engravings, 16 photos, 4 maps, 7 plans ]

Pagan and Christian Rome is a wonderful book, especially for students of Late Antiquity. About the transformation of Rome from a pagan into a Christian city, it covers in fascinating detail some of the more obscure pagan temples, the earliest paleochristian remains including the great basilicas (in particular S. Peter's and S. Paul's), and the tombs of emperors, popes, and common people: among which the accounts of some rather spectacular discoveries.


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Site updated: 1 May 08