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Forma Urbis - The Ancient Marble Map of Rome

In the basement of the Museum of Roman Civilisation in Rome is a pile of crates containing 1163 fragments of marble. These make up about ten or fifteen percent of a whole – the Forma Urbis, an ancient map of Rome, inscribed on marble slabs, which were then fixed to a handy wall in the Forum of Peace in the centre of Rome. Bronze clamps kept it up there: the wall has survived, built into the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, and you can see the holes for the clamps still:

Supplied by Fiona Forsyth

The emperor Septimius Severus was responsible for putting up the Forma Urbis, when he renovated the Forum of Peace – it was damaged by fire in 191 CE. The marble plan measured about 22 metres by 15, and north was at the bottom, not the top. It is inscribed in great detail: staircases are marked by the small “v” symbols, dots forming squares or rectangles represent colonnades, and important buildings are labelled.

Drawing of a selection of fragments, by Piranesi
Drawing of a selection of fragments, by Piranesi

The question remains as to the purpose of the Forma Urbis. it must have been out of date before the builders finished putting it up in the Forum of Peace. Marble is an expensive material so was it just another bit of imperial boasting? Perhaps it was fun to be a Roman strolling past and observing the goggling wonder of the out-of-towners as they saw the whole of the city laid out above their heads. But what if the Forma Urbis was also an attempt to link the emperor Septimius Severus to his predecessors?

There is plenty of evidence for earlier Roman maps. We know from Pliny the Elder that a map of the Roman world was put up on the Campus in the first century BCE. This map was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, right-hand man of the very first Emperor, Augustus. Four Greek craftsmen had already been hired by Julius Caesar, before he was killed, to draw up a map of the Roman world - why shouldn't Agrippa put their work to good use? And maybe Severus was inspired by this to put up his own marble map, but this time of the city.

All of this leads up to a confession of my secret hope regarding the marble plan, and it arises from the lay-out of the Forum of Peace. The Forma Urbis was fixed to the wall of a building in the Forum: but there were two such buildings, one on either side of a large temple. I find it hard to believe that, in a structure as symmetrical as this, something did not balance the Forma Urbis. Perhaps a marble map of the world, a Forma Orbis, still lies waiting to be discovered? I suspect most archaeologists would laugh politely but I can dream!

You can find out more about the Forma Urbis and the work being done to record it at:

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