On books: The Atlas of Ancient Rome

Editorial Staff Books

The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City, edited by Andrea Carandini and Paolo Carafa, translated from the Italian by Andrew Campbell Halavais (Princeton University Press, 2017), two volumes, 1,280 pp., color and b/w illus.

A typically lavish and intricate illustration from the Atlas of Ancient Rome is this aerial rendering of the Campus Martius, including the Theater of Balbus, at top.

It seems to be, or should be, a law of intellectual life that the more obscure a discipline, the better the scholarship that it inspires. Its very obscurity, like a dragon guarding a valued horde, repels all but the most valiant and serious scholars. Compare a Wikipedia article on Khloé Kardashian with one on Pius IX and you will get the idea.

And so it is that, in recent years, the recondite field of ancient Roman topography has brought forth admirable fruits. This is notwithstanding the poor state of preservation of most of the surviving monuments, which either sit atop one another or lie concealed beneath more recent buildings. Few of the monuments readily reveal themselves to the naked eye, and those that appear to do so, the Arch of Titus, for instance, are largely modern reconstructions. Of the books devoted to these inscrutable remains, none is more admirable, perhaps, than the brand new Atlas of Ancient Rome, under the general editorship of Andrea Carandini, one of the most eminent scholars in the field. This two-volume, slip-cased behemoth is a translation of the original Italian version that appeared in 2012. With only minor interventions to correct typos or to account for more recent scholarship, the English edition, splendidly published by Princeton University Press, looks identical to the original, to the point of preserving almost all of the original pagination.

A cross section of this Roman palatium (palace) reveals the atrium (reception room) and peristylium (a formal, colonnaded garden).

The field of Roman topography has been blessed, over the past century, by such works as Platner and Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome from 1929 (which can now be found free online) as well as A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, completed by L. Richardson Jr. in 1992. But nothing, perhaps, can surpass the monumental six-volume Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae (1993–2000), edited by the learned Finn Eva Margareta Steinby. As worthy as Signor Carandini’s effort may be, can it really hope to compete with this earlier rival?

A rendering of the Circus Maximus, a stadium that dates to the earliest days of Rome. It was rebuilt in the form shown here during the reign of Trajan. Inset is a close up of the starting gates for chariot races, or carceres.

Indeed it can, because it has complementary rather than competing aspirations. For one thing, it costs a manageable $150 on Amazon, rather than several thousand dollars for each of the six volumes, assuming you can find anyone who wants to sell them. Furthermore, it requires a reading knowledge of English alone, rather than the English, Italian, German, or French in which the Lexicon’s entries are written.

An example of the incredible scope of The Atlas of Ancient Rome: a single page of illustrations of the Augustan Forum, 2 BC, includes a floor plan, elevation, and numerous architectural details.

But although its scholarship is of the most exacting standards, this latest Princeton venture seems to have been conceived with general readers in mind, although readers with greater than ordinary stamina and interest in ancient archaeology. The large-format, double-columned first volume contains more than six hundred pages of essays and profiles of the fourteen regiones into which the Emperor Augustus divided his capital. These include the Aventine, the Circus Maximus, and the Roman Forum. Each profile explores each of the monuments in its assigned terrain in chronological order. The amount of information thus conferred is not as extensive as in Steinby’s Lexicon, but it is integrated into a continuous narrative and little of importance has been left out. Also, the first volume is splendidly illustrated, both with inset photographs of important monuments and sculptures and with beguiling computer-generated renderings of the imperial palace on the Palatine,the Temple of Peace, and the Forum of Nerva.

A cross section of a typical Roman domus, or private home.

Princeton University Press seems to be pushing its Atlas more energetically than one might expect for a scholarly work on such an obscure subject. It has taken out full page ads in the New York Times Book Review and placed on YouTube a professionally produced interview with Signor Carandini. One can only guess at the marketing strategy, but it seems to have something to do with volume two, which contains nearly five hundred pages of tables corresponding to the text in volume one. If a picture is worth a thousand words, each of these pages is worth ten to twenty thousand. Crammed full of color-coded diagrams, captions, ground plans, and cross sections, this work, however improbably, generates a graphic loveliness that is so distinctive and so seductive that consumers may well wish to buy it even if they have no previous acquaintance with or interest in its stated subject.