Rome Reborn

My wife and I frequently engage in a strange kind of “culture war.” She thinks ancient Rome is the more interesting civilization, and I’m partial to ancient Greece. In these debates, I always tell her that I prefer philosophers to politicians. Still, I was excited when I first encountered Rome Reborn, a joint project between UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, a few other schools, and Google (who allows access to the project through Google Earth). The goal of Rome Reborn is to create a 3D digital model of ancient Rome in the year 320. There are plans to extend the project over time, so that you will be able to track the development and growth of the city over time. The buildings have all been reconstructed by computer modeling, and mapped onto Rome’s actual terrain. What a cool project.

I should say, before continuing, that if you want to check out Rome Reborn for yourself, you might have some trouble getting to it. First, you need to download Google Earth. Then, you need to turn on the “Ancient Rome 3D” layer, which listed under the “Gallery” layers. Next, get to Rome, zoom into the ancient city and click on a yellow building, which brings a popup window to add the ancient terrain, landmarks, and buildings. Then, you are finally ready to enjoy the model. (But be warned, if you don’t have a good computer with a fast processor and a hefty bit of RAM, you’ll only send yourself into conniptions rather than enjoy the grandeur of this ancient civilization.)

My first impression, in wandering through the reconstructed forum on Google Earth, was of how chock-a-block the buildings are. You realize how many of the buildings are right on top of one another. You do get this feeling in person, walking around the ruins, but the 3D model captures the hustle and bustle of a true big city that is not conveyed adequately by pictures alone. This project will help scholars puzzle over details of the architecture itself, but having it available to such a wide audience on Google will also help those just learning about Rome. It has the potential to spark students’ interest in learning—for me, this is well worth the effort.

Former Scholars' Lab desk consultant and current Director of Educational Ministries at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. Fitz is completing his Ph.D. at U.Va., studying the history of the Early Church. He likes talking about how early church leaders read and interpreted their Bible.


  1. I worked on this project for about eight months from September 2007-May 2008 doing some aspects of the 3d modeling, metadata collection and georeferencing in Google Earth, but mostly topographical research to make sure it was as accurate as possible before its official release. The Rome Reborn that you see in Google Earth represents a sort of static display and teaching tool. The more dynamic and evolving version of the model is appropriately named Rome Reborn 2.0. This model is much higher quality, with many of the simple buildings replaced by procedurally created ones. There are screenshots of the model rendered with mental ray on the Rome Reborn website.

    Rome Reborn 2.0 is designed to evolve based on the most contemporary archaeological data. While there are about two-dozen manually created 3d structures based on scientific data in the model, there is anticipation that more will be added eventually to replace some of the more generic structures in the model. For example, the Forum Romanum contains almost exclusively models developed by technicians at UCLA and vetted scientifically by architectural historians and topographers. Most of the Campus Martius, however, was derived from a simplification of the model created from laser scanning the Plastico die Roma Antica, a plaster model developed from the 1930’s to the 1970’s which can be seen in Rome. That is to say, the Pantheon and other monuments in that area are not fleshed out to the level of detail as say, the Temple of Concordia, Colosseum, or Basilica of Maxentius/Constantine. Hopefully one day, higher quality models will replace the lower quality ones, but that takes a lot of time…and money.