Architecture of Power

Sueddeutsche Zeitung, June 29, 2015

Architecture of power

Archeologists in Berlin are reconstructing the Forum Romanum as a digital 3D-model. They show how antique politicians converted the square to consolidate their positions. It changed from a market to the stage of tribunes and emporers

„Does anyone know a good dream reader“, Cesar asks in his last facebook post. “My dear wife Calpurnia had nightmares of daggers all night long.” The date is the Ides of March of the year 710 of the Roman calendar. By today’s count it is March 15, 44 BC – Cesar’s date of death. The dictator is stabbed by a group of conspirators before the beginning of a senate session. Cleopatra tries to warn him, on facebook as well, asks him to beware of Brutus, but Cesar replies: “Never fear, he is almost like a son to me.”

Beg your pardon? Cesar communicating on the social media of our time? Indeed he can now be found on facebook. It is the latest idea of a project to link ancient history to the present. The central part of the plan hatched by the archeologists team of Susanne Muth of Humboldt-University in Berlin, however, is a digital version of the Forum Romanum – reconstructed using research results and contemporary architecture software. It is based not just the field of ruins found in Rome today which shows the forum of the late antique era. At that time the Roman empire was no longer ruled from the city. These remains were dug up in the 19th and 20th centuries on a forgotten space the locals called “campo vaccino” – the cow meadow.

In contrast to earlier reconstructions, however, the “Digital Forum Romanum” in Berlin shows the power center of antique Europe at seven stages from 200 BCE to 310 years CE. “Diachronic change” is the relevant scientific term Muth uses. Eleven more stages are to follow so the finished digital model will span 14 centuries from the marketplace of an early Rome ruled by kings, to the quarry of the early middle ages later plundered for marble blocks to erect St. Peter’s Basilica. “If I had known what an awful amount of work this project would turn into, I would have kept away from it”, Susanne Muth says with played exasperation. In reality she is quite proud of the results so far.

And rightly so, says Martin Zimmermann, professor of ancient history at the University of Munich. “This is great work. The models really reflect the current state of knowledge.” With a wink of the eye he adds the forum was never as clean and aesthetic as shown, however, but always colorful, dirty and crowded. “Augustus himself never saw the buildings on the forum now attributed to the year of his death, because there was construction with high scaffolds all the time.”

The work of the team from Berlin can be viewed online since last fall ( But now there is the opportunity to study it the real world as well: Muth’s team has been allocated two newly renovated rooms in the university’s main building to present its work. This space had been promised to the head of the institute back in 1912, but two world wars and the socialist German Democratic Republic (Humboldt university is in Eastern Berlin) held up the dedication of the rooms for more than 100 years.

One of rooms now contains a show mainly designed by Muth’s students. It is supposed to trigger “a dialogue between virtuality and reality”, the archeologist says grandly. One way to achieve that in the exhibition are tangible models of Rome’s most important square as reconstructed by the project for two important points in history: the late republic at 100 BCE and the early Imperial era. This latter model, however, is itself still a construction site when the show opens. Some of the buildings had been ordered as 3D-prints from specialized companies for a just-in-time delivery but then the postal service inconveniently went on strike. The students helped themselves by placing figures of construction workers on the empty spaces; they are toys usually employed to decorate model railroad landscapes.

The young academics have also programmed the facebook pages of the Roman personalities. They highlight the life and times of Cato the elder, Cicero, Cesar and Augustus. The men sometimes sound rather cheeky in their posts for example when Cesar writes: “Do people know that all of Gaul is divided in three parts? An exciting topic! Somebody ought to write a book about it!” The posts are based on original quotes, even Calpurnia’s nightmares are vouched for in ancient texts. The four politicians present themselves and their relationship with the forum just the way they would have communicated with the modern smart phones of today. They describe their speeches, pacts, intrigues. Their careers from quaestor to consul are marked as status changes.

“Technically the entries are pages like today’s politicians have”, says the graduate student Jessica Sum, who destilled Cicero’s posts on the social network from his copious work. “Facebook doesn’t allow the creation of real profiles for fictional or historical characters”, she explains, “and we didn’t want to risk our work being deleted.” This means no user can befriend the Roman politicians but the posts can be liked and commented. Cesar for instance has 146 thumps-up by the latest count. When he invites the people of Rome to attend his triumphal march celebrating his victories in Spain an external user from Berlin writes she’d gladly come to the party. The Humboldt-team has Cesar answer: “Nobody should miss a triumphal procession of Cesar. There cannot be anything more magnificent.”

Even though a few years later death didn’t find Cesar on the forum, his violent demise had a firm presence there. His adoptive son Augustus erected a temple for the deified politician on the eastern edge of the square. Today only parts of the base of the building can be seen in Rome. Another exhibit explains how the team from Berlin reconstructed the temple’s former design. Susanne Muth points to a table consciously littered with laminated copies of documents. There are pictures of broken pieces of the pillar capitals, drawings, measurements and written notes. “Vitruv remarked for instance that the intercolumniation, that is the space between the pillars, was rather tight in that temple”, the archeologist says. “So it is rather probable that it had six and not four columns along the front.”

On that same façade and below the pillars Augustus later installed the rams of captured enemy ships. They came from the victory of his fleet over Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra at Actium, that much is historically proven. But if his helpers fixed the real wooden weapons to the wall, which were also called “Schiffschnäbel” (ships’s beaks), they must have projected brutally into the square, the archeologists in Berlin realized guided by similar finds in Actium itself. The rams would then have held the audience at a distance when speeches were given from the temple. This detail was brought up by one of her co-workers, Erika Holter, during the reconstruction of the building, Muth reports. Before that science had not realized there was a research question here to be answered.

To present trophies on the forum was a Roman tradition long before Augustus’s times. A military commander had first fixed ships’s rams to a podium some 300 years earlier. They quickly became part of Roman political culture because the orator’s stand came to be called rostra – the plural of the Latin word for beak. According to the digital reconstruction of the forum the first of these podiums lay in the northwestern corner of the square in front of the senate’s meeting hall, the curia, which projected diagonally into the square. The rostra was a rounded platform with a few steps towards the senate and balustrade towards the rest of the square. But it cannot have been built as a full circle like in other antique cities, the work of the Muth-team shows, because the ground rises up towards the senate building.

“Originally the speakers here addressed the crowd gathered between the platform and the curia”, Muth says. “The first ones to turn around, away from the senate and towards a larger crowd on the forum proper were plebeian tribunes.” Her project shows the prerequisites and consequences of that political maneuver. First the wastewater canal, the cloaca maxima, in the middle of the forum had to covered for the square to work as a single gathering space. This had been accomplished by the second century BCE.

Now the era of the great orators could begin. “Rhetoric skill was trained and increasingly decided about careers, sometimes even lives”, Muth recounts. But architecture still made the orator’s task hard. The archeologist has made acoustic measurements in her digital model. They show the sound dissipating when politicians shout obliquely from a corner over the elongate square.

For this reason Cesar had already begun moving the rostra. Its new position was on the western border of the forum; speakers now had the Concordia temple and the state archives in the tabularium in their back and their audience right in front of them; it spread out along to axis of the forum. In Cesar’s lifetime the long halls on both sides were also being replaced – he built one of those basilicae himself and named it after his family, the gens of Julia. That meant the voices of orators reached the gathered citizens much better. Cesar had also planned to move the curia which had burned down and place it further from the new rostra. “Up to that time there had been two competing concepts how to use the square, now one of them prevailed”, Muth says. One reading of all these changes speaks of a deep political change: The senate, the dignified congregation of the patricians, had finally lost its central role as Rome’s decisive body which had to hear and vote on political initiatives.

When Augustus, the first undisputed emporer, finally came to power, he changed the architecture of the forum radically. As the model by the Humboldt-team shows nearly all of the buildings from rostra and Saturn temple to the basilicae and the senate hall were rebuild much higher than before. In the exhibition a visitor can now follow the path of a Roman politican about to deliver a speech on the new rostra. He comes from the Parther arch in the east and walks west looking up at the buildings framing the forum. “It was important for us to show the massive architecture as it would have been seen from below, from the perspective of a contemporary passerby”, Susanne Muth says. The lines of construction in imperial Rome were calculated to awe and to proclaim the city’s luster and glory, to present it as the center of the world. The center of Rome for a thousand years was the forum.