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Bill Thayer

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A Web-enhanced edition of
Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

by Rodolfo Lanciani

first published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company
Boston and New York, 1888
This Web edition from the 12th print edition, 1898

Text, maps and black & white illustrationsº are in the public domain.
Any color photos are © William P. Thayer.

A Basic Overview of the City of Rome
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.

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.

I cannot resist pointing out that 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.

Here then is Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries. The table of contents below merely points out the salient points of interest; there are many others. It is followed by a few technical notes on proofreading and the like. Enjoy.

Table of Contents

Technical Details


For citation purposes, the pagination of the original is indicated in the sourcecode as local links.


This Web edition has not yet been proofread.

Further Annotation, Links, Conversions

Most of my annotation is perforce confined to relatively minor notes or links. I occasionally comment the text in a footnote, or when I manage to express myself succinctly, as Javascript annotations that you can read by placing your cursor over the little bullets,º or sometimes over the images. (You don't need to click.)

If you do click on those bullets:

• Blue: relax. Blue bullets stay on the page (notes, unit conversions, etc.).

• Green: go. Green bullets go somewhere, in another window. Lanciani's text will stay open in its own window.

• Red: stop and think! Red bullets open another page in the same window. If you don't want to lose your page and have to reload it later, you should do a "New Window with this Link".

Conversions have been supplied for all non-metric measurements. There is some inaccuracy in doing this, since Lanciani had converted them from metric in the first place; and sometimes some ambiguity as well, since the text gives no clue whether feet are Roman or English, for example. Usually, this doesn't matter much; where it does, I've provided both conversions.

You should also bear in mind that "feet", "pounds" and so forth are not necessarily modern English units or even ancient Roman units: they may be mediaeval or 18c Italian, for example.


Lanciani's engravings, maps and plans, and photos are all black & white. This being the Web, I've colorized almost all of them, usually a gentle pastel touch-up which makes them easier on the eye; sometimes the colorization is functional. I'm putting my colorized images in the public domain.

All images have been compressed to save loading time: many are surprisingly small. Some few images were either inadequate by modern standards, or are very useful, like Lanciani's map of St. Peter's overlying the Circus of Nero, and best seen at greater magnification: they're represented by a placeholder with a link to another page in another window, for those who need to get a closer look.

I've inserted a few of my own photographs. Often, just a thumbnail, linking to the full image in another window. (5/01/08: This is still a draft, so the work of attaching Lanciani's images and my own photographs is not finished.)

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Site updated: 25 Dec 19