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A fragment of the Forma Urbis Romae map

New Piece of a 2,200-Year-Old Roman Puzzle Emerges, Bringing Together Ancient Map of Rome

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Maps are a useful modern tool, telling us how to get places, showing us where borders lie, and illustrating the distance between two places.  While modern technology has made the creation of and access to maps something we don’t think twice about, the creation of maps during ancient times was far more complicated.  Without the availability of GPS, air travel, and computers, ancient civilizations had to rely on other means for the difficult task of creating maps.  One ancient map – the Forma Urbis Romae – has been a mystery for years, serving as a complex jigsaw as researchers continue to uncover various pieces of the puzzle, including a recently discovered fragment that has just been reunited with the other existing pieces.

Pieces of the Forma Urbis Romae map. Researchers have spent years piecing together over a thousand fragments

Pieces of the Forma Urbis Romae map. Researchers have spent years piecing together over a thousand fragments ( Sebastia Gibralt / Flickr )

Sometime between 203 and 211 AD a marble map of Rome was created. According to History of Information , the map was originally composed of 150 marble slabs, and it was 18.10 meters (60ft) high by 13 meters (43ft) wide.  “Created at a scale of approximately 1 to 240, the map was detailed enough to show the floor plans of nearly every temple, bath, and insula in the central Roman city. The boundaries of the plan were decided based on the available space on the marble, instead of by geographical or political borders as modern maps usually are.” 

The map shows the topography of Rome as it existed at the time, including structures such as temples, houses, shops, warehouses, and apartment buildings.  According to Discovery News , the map was created under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus.  Severus served as emperor from 193 to 211 and was a strong leader, known for converting the Roman government into a military monarchy.   

The Imperial Forum: the Forma Urbis Romae was detailed enough to show the floor plans of nearly every temple, bath, and insula in the central Roman city

The Imperial Forum: the Forma Urbis Romae was detailed enough to show the floor plans of nearly every temple, bath, and insula in the central Roman city ( public domain )

The Forma Urbis Romae map has only been recovered in relatively small pieces.  The fragments that have been found are currently held at the Capitoline museum in Italy.  Researchers have recovered only approximately ten percent of the map, in 1200 pieces.  They have been attempting to piece it together for hundreds of years, since the first pieces were found in 1562.  According to History of Information, a team of researchers from Stanford University, led by Marc Levoy, began using digital technology in an effort to solve the puzzle.  Of the 1200 pieces collected, only about 200 have been identified.  The map was originally constructed on a wall within the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace).  The wall still remains, but the map was partially torn down hundreds of years ago, with the remaining pieces eventually fell, shattering into hundreds of pieces.

Some fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae in an engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756

Some fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae in an engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756 ( public domain )

In 2014, a new piece of the map was discovered while workers were working at a Vatican-owned building called Palazzo Maffei Marescotti.  It is believed that the pieces ended up in that location during construction of a 16 th century palace, as building materials were being recycled.  According to museum officials, “[t]he fragment relates to plate 31 of the map, which is the present-day area of the Ghetto, one of the monumental areas of the ancient city, dominated by the Circus Flaminius, built in 220 BC to host the Plebeian games, and where a number of important public monuments stood.”  The new piece not only brought forth new information, but after recently being reunited with the rest of the pieces, it also allowed researchers to identify where three other existing pieces to the map belong.  This affords researchers a new outlook on the map as a whole.

The new piece of the Forma Urbis Romae puzzle.

The new piece of the Forma Urbis Romae puzzle. Credit: Sovrintendenza Capitolina Al Beni Culturali.

The Forma Urbis Romae has been called a giant jigsaw puzzle.  Unlike other puzzles, it did not come with a box showing the final product, or uniform pieces.  In fact, it did not even come with all of the pieces, and researchers may never know where the remaining pieces are located.  The discovery of the new piece allowed for more than just the placement of a single piece, but for a more holistic view of the map as a whole.  As researchers continue to find pieces of the map they will better be able to piece together another impossible jigsaw puzzle – Roman history as a whole.

Featured image: A fragment of the Forma Urbis Romae map ( Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project ).

By M R Reese

Comments

Article says: the wall still remains but the map was Partially torn down. If so ordered there would have been nothing left of it. But i suspect a few pieces would be used for recycled constructions, but then why not many more ? like all of it. Rome was not so known for keeping old construction Unrestored. It was found where it was because, someone back then still cared, perhaps, its maker ? so pieces were hidden, ended up buried. Great survivors though :) there are more out there.

If this map was (ordered) taken down, I guess it's possible that they were reclaimed. Does anyone know if any pieces found so far were used as building material or other incorporated elements?

So cool ! This map, romans had it standing upright vertical. Like in a mall today, showing people where they are and how to get where they wanted to go. For so many visitors/citizens rome had. If map is made complete, piece needed to be found would be the one with inscription, (you are here) !

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