The Shape of the Roman Order: The Republic and Its Spaces 
by Daniel J. Gargola.
North Carolina, 320 pp., £47.95, March 2017, 978 1 4696 3182 0
Show More
The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City 
edited by Andrea Carandini, translated by Andrew Campbell Halavais.
Princeton, 1280 pp., £148.95, February 2017, 978 0 691 16347 5
Show More
Show More

The Romans​ were formidably good at organising space. Anyone who has flown into Venice from the west will have noticed the unusually rectilinear field systems (Google Earth will show you too), a legacy of Roman surveyors two millennia ago, and far from unique: Roman conquerors and colonists left this type of centuriation behind wherever they went. Roman milestones and boundary markers are staples of dusty epigraphic collections everywhere, while in the Musée d’Orange (Orange was Roman Arausio) there is something even more impressive: a land register in stone, the fragments of which were found in 1949, recording all the plots of land (rectilinear, naturally) between Orange and Nice. It was engraved on the orders of the Emperor Vespasian, who wanted to reclaim public lands lost to private encroachment since the colony’s foundation by Julius Caesar. The density and detail of Roman land administration was unlike anything else in antiquity, or in the premodern world as a whole.

How they managed it is clear enough at the technical level. Roman agrimensores (‘land measurers’, also known as gromatici after their key tool, the groma) were highly skilled surveyors. Wherever the republican state planted colonies of discharged soldiers – as at Orange – a survey was needed so that the town could be planned and the countryside parcelled out, indigenous inhabitants having been summarily dispossessed in favour of their Roman masters. But the Roman habit of rectilinear survey was much more ingrained than that: enlisted gromatici laid out the marching camps that armies constructed every evening while on campaign, each one the model of a miniature city, with the commander’s tent or praetorium the fixed point from which the camp’s four quadrants would be traced. It’s worth noting that while the vast bulk of Latin literature has disappeared without a trace, the corpus of the agrimensores survived and runs to more than five hundred pages in the standard edition. Romans excelled in both theory and praxis at the topographic level, as could be seen with Caesar’s amazing siegeworks at Alesia in France. But however great their technical and tactical know-how, they weren’t so good at conceptualising space at the strategic or geographic level. Romans could measure long distances fairly accurately, but not large areas, let alone represent them on a map. The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, now the gold standard for historical cartography, shows us an ancient geography that the ancients couldn’t have conceived of themselves. The one Roman world map to survive (in a medieval copy known as the Peutinger Table) doesn’t even look like a map. A series of itineraries stitched together in a roll 22 feet long but only a foot wide, it not only muddles the cardinal directions, but compresses north-south distances while elongating east-west like a funhouse mirror. It shows us routes (and sometimes distances) from point to point, and it illustrates Rome’s sense of its world-bestriding dominance. Its practical cartographic value, however, is nil.

And yet the Roman Empire did bestride the world (or a fair chunk of it). Long before the republic died in an orgy of civil war, Roman armies had conquered territory on an unprecedented scale, and you don’t move armies from one end of the earth to the other without some sense of how far away the ends of the earth might be. How did they do it? Late republican authors like Livy and Cicero, and the Greek Polybius slightly earlier, tried to make sense of Rome’s acquisition and maintenance of empire through the prism of Greek political theory about the ideal constitution of a city-state, but such reductionist analysis didn’t help much. Even the somewhat earlier authors now preserved in fragments wrote after Rome had already acquired an empire and when the republic’s oligarchic consensus was beginning to fail. Roman concepts of space and how to shape it must go back much further than that, to the time before written records. Scholarly consensus is impossible in such circumstances, and so a minor academic industry thrives.

Few would now endorse Theodor Mommsen’s 19th-century vision of a coherent Roman constitution with an orderly development from monarchy through republic to empire, but plenty of scholars think we can discern an evolution in Roman thought: first, a vague sense of rulership over peoples, when the word provincia meant a magistrate’s sphere of operation and had no territorial implications; later, a territorial sense of imperial rule that was solidified under Augustus, after whose reign the empire was kept to geographically defined boundaries within which Roman administration functioned. Others, however, see something much vaguer, and accuse the evolutionists of a teleological approach that the evidence can’t confirm. Daniel Gargola fits into this latter category: the mountain of details he accumulates, in a series of allusive, loosely thematic chapters, makes a pretty compelling case that Roman concepts of space and its control were primarily shaped by religion – specifically, by the need to ensure that certain rites were performed correctly.

How, and even whether, Romans believed in their gods is an open question, but they believed deeply in the utility of their rites, as can be seen from the oldest stratum of Roman law still partly available to us, the Twelve Tables. To discern the will of the gods correctly, to expiate ill omens, to determine whether a public act was within the bounds of divine law, rites had to be performed with absolute precision. Correct performance was almost always linked to a specific place, prepared for a specific ritual purpose. Sacred spaces, templa, were set aside for the performance of specific ritual acts – for instance the taking of an augury. Auguries or auspices (the terms are interchangeable) depended on the augur’s spatial division of the sky into quadrants within which signs (the flight of birds, for instance) could be interpreted. A templum would be mapped out orthogonally around the fixed point at which the observation was taken. The same principles, Gargola suggests, explain much of the way Romans conceptualised space: spaces necessary for augury lie behind the consistent Roman preference for the anticlockwise over the clockwise, for left over right, and for rectilinear organisation of space into four quadrants, themselves divisible further.

The original, mythical augury of Rome’s foundation was thought to have begun from a point on the Arx (one of two peaks of the Capitoline Hill, along with the Capitolium) and to have looked off south-southeast – the usual augural orientation – down the Via Sacra. When the Roman citizenry was divided into 35 tribes – to organise, among other things, voting in one of the popular assemblies – they were arranged in an anticlockwise series on the roads out of Rome, starting on the left-hand side of someone standing on the Arx and looking south. When, hundreds of years later, Augustus divided the city into 14 numbered districts, precisely the same orientation (anticlockwise, starting from the south-eastern quadrant) applied, and the same organising principles were at work as the Romans conquered lands far and wide. The 11 districts into which Augustus divided Italy followed the pattern too, to the extent that the boot-shaped peninsula permitted. It is as if republican Romans perceived every space from an imagined groma – the name for both the fixed starting point of a survey and the staff, crosspiece and plumb line of the instrument itself – that replicated the original groma of Romulus on the Arx. That is why the colonies Rome planted around the world shared the rectilinear layout of the daily marching camp, and why the empire can be conceived as a series of expanding concentric circles, divided into quadrants, densely administered at the centre and at its furthest edges where the armies fought, less so in the regions in between.

Some may find Gargola’s overall picture overdetermined, but he is broadly persuasive in finding a deep psychosocial basis for what looks like a pragmatic Roman approach to space, and also in locating it in very old ritual practices. One thing he largely ignores, however, is archaeology: what the physical remains of Rome and other cities can tell us. It’s an odd omission for a book that brings us back time and again to the city of Rome, and the religious, political and moral importance of specific sites inside it. But the decision is understandable, because to wrap your head round the physical remnants of the eternal city is difficult, and to turn it into useable analysis still harder. The best understood Roman cities are those like Aphrodisias in Turkey, or Mérida in Spain, where medieval and early modern poverty and depopulation have left the ancient site largely undisturbed by post-Roman construction. But Rome itself is in a different category. To call its landscape a palimpsest is wholly inadequate. Every generation has had to build around and plunder the substance of the massive relicts of the past. How can any moment of its many ancient forms be represented in a knowable way? How can we locate the Romans we study both inside the bustling modern city we know, and also the one we need to imagine, paring away the accretions, resupplying the absences, in what we can presently see?

In 2012, after twenty years of work, a team of Italian archaeologists took on the challenge, making the most ambitious attempt yet to map ancient Rome and describe every facet of it as recorded in the ancient sources, using the visible remains, the best modern excavations and all the various records left by centuries of antiquarian exploration and excavation. The magnificent result was the Atlante di Roma Antica, edited by Andrea Carandini and now translated into English. It did the seemingly impossible, and put between its covers the whole panorama of the ancient city: the stuff anyone can see; the mysteries hidden in private cellars, or destroyed in public works but logged by rescue archaeologists; the images on ancient coins, the clues in medieval records and the confident pronouncements of the humanists; the canny or crazy speculation of antiquaries, the displaced and looted art of Renaissance princes and their modern plutocrat heirs. Two large volumes, one of maps, plans and cross-sections, one of dense text interspersed with images and double-page colour reconstructions of the cityscape, strove to fit in everything we currently know about Rome’s evolution from prehistoric huts on hillsides to the monument-choked Christian city of 400 ad.

Rather than following the numbering of the Augustan regions, the Atlante starts with Region VIII, the Roman Forum and the Imperial Fora, then moves on to the rich residential sectors of the Palatine Hill, through the regions comprising the rest of the ancient Seven Hills, then the two regions of the Campus Martius, and ending with the Tiber Island and what is now Trastevere and the Gianicolo. With both volumes in front of you on a sturdy table, you can drop into any corner of the city and follow its evolving ancient plan with the help of a text that tells you what happened when, and why we know or think it did. Colour-coding on the plans and cross-sections shows you what comes from archaeological data, and what from modern depictions, from comparison, from reconstructions and so on. You can also flip past the more than 250 tables to 37 illustrations that superimpose the surviving (or confidently known) ancient remains onto the street plan of the modern city.

It’s hard work, but also revelatory, though parts of Rome’s extant cityscape will still be inscrutable to anyone who hasn’t been inside their foundations with trowel and callipers, no matter how well you’ve trained your eye. The Roman Forum and the palatial residences of the Palatine are an uncurated jumble that defies imaginative reconstruction even when you’re standing on the spot with a working knowledge of Roman history and a good plan in hand. It’s here that the three-dimensional graphic reconstructions in the Atlante bring the ancient landscape to life. But it’s just as interesting to see the way the Atlante can open up bits of the ancient city that are already easier to take in at casual glance. The so-called Market of Trajan, for example, has been brilliantly musealised so that its ancient shape is readily legible, but it’s harder to visualise how it fitted into Trajan’s now lost forum. Carandini’s text, plans and illustrations make sense of it. Better still, the Crypta Balbi on the Via delle Botteghe Oscure, where the son of Caesar’s Spanish friend Lucius Cornelius Balbus put up a theatre and a shopping portico in 19 bc: the still young branch of the Museo Nazionale that now occupies the site is unique in devoting most of its attention to the early medieval development of Rome, when the grandeur of Balbus’ days was long gone. Because it tries to musealise generations of Roman history that are usually ignored, the remains you see around the vitrines are difficult to understand, let alone re-create mentally, even with excellent curation. Here, too, the Atlante will send you back with new eyes.

The Italian version also provides a magical way to while away hours figuring out how plans and cross-sections fit into the maps, which in turn make sense of the 3D reconstructions, and for that purpose you don’t need any more Italian than you can pick up reading menus and bus timetables. That said, the text’s academic Italian can be difficult, at a time when fewer and fewer Anglophone scholars are learning the language (the impenetrable politics and the hyperactive and often otiose publishing of Italian academia don’t help with that). A proper English edition would surely serve a purpose – and spin money for its publisher – in a decaying library market that has given up on monographs but still buys reference works. Better still, the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs would surely pay for the translation, and how hard can it be to translate a reference work that no one’s going to read cover to cover? Farm out the translation to the usual freelancer, commission a new introduction, update a few pages in light of new excavations and voilà, reasonable rate of return.

If only it were so easy. Take Carandini’s introduction, which in the Italian is grandiose, lyrical, mystagogic even, but also an inspiring invocation of collaborative research. In Princeton’s translation – apparently generated by a deranged computer programme – it becomes a parody of the worst excesses of Italian scholarly writing. One can’t call the whole edition a travesty – the huge quantity of unspoilable graphics is alone a priceless resource – but ‘missed opportunity’ doesn’t go quite far enough either. The carelessness is amazing. Singulars and plurals frequently make no sense, non-Italian surnames are often but inconsistently mangled, translation with faux amis is frequent (often funny, often misleading), bc and ad are too often flipped (presumably because BC in Italian is aC). And I defy anyone to work out that the River Alba is not a stream in Italy but rather what we and the Germans call the Elbe. Worse, though, are the cross-referencing errors. Sometimes digits or whole numerals are transposed, tables are cross-referenced but off by one or two digits, illustrations are misnumbered, or we are directed to a table that bears no relationship to the monument being discussed. Though I imagine that some of these flaws are faithfully imported from the Italian original, where I’ve checked, they seem to have been introduced in translation. Carandini and his colleagues’ achievement, now out of print in Italian, is too good to be destroyed by botched translation and sloppy production, and perhaps there’s a backstory we don’t know: maybe Princeton were given Einaudi’s completed files and just slapped their name on the spine. But if so, the £150 price tag ought to have justified a copy editor and proofreader of their own. As it stands, the maps and images do their own work, and if you’re prepared to hunt and peck for references, and can tolerate periodic puzzlement, the text remains informative, if no pleasure to read. Amends would be made were Princeton to digitise the maps, and especially the additional tables, for use on a tablet or e-reader, where they could replace an ageing Blue Guide in my tote bag and help me imagine Gargola’s Romans standing in their original cityscape.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 39 No. 24 · 14 December 2017

Michael Kulikowski writes that the ‘spaces necessary for augury lie behind the consistent Roman preference for the anticlockwise over the clockwise’, and that Rome’s foundation was thought to have begun from a point on the Arx (one of two peaks of the Capitoline Hill) and to have looked off south-southeast – the usual augural orientation (LRB, 16 November). Even when Augustus later divided the city into 14 numbered districts, the same orientation applied. But when in May 1928 the major consular roads radiating from Rome (whose milestones are still measured from the Arx) were classified and given strada statale (SS) numbers, someone neglected to follow the rules. Taking Rome’s GRA ring-road as a clock-face for reference, SS1 exits the city at 8 o’clock, SS2 at 11, SS3 at 12, SS4 (along which I live) at 1, SS5 at 3, SS6 at 4, SS7 at 5 and SS8 at 7 o’clock – clockwise and beginning from south-west. No doubt this reckless disregard for the rules of augury infuriated the gods and explains the downfall of the Fascist regime less than twenty years later.

Geoffrey Watson

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences