June 1, 2015

The Upside-Down World Of The Roman Empire


The world has profoundly changed since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Cars, airplanes, computers, skyscrapers, internet would certainly shock any ancient Rome dweller who would experience modern day life, if travel through time would have been possible. But it’s probably a much more subtle change that marks the end of the era that once seemed to be lasting forever.

Via dei Fori Imperiali — You can see the Roman Forum on the left


Rome was the first city ever to reach 1 million in population, followed only much later by 19th century London. To get an idea of the million-strong ancient city, you just need to look at the famous Forma Urbis, a city map carved on marble tablets. The map was once displayed in the Templum Pacis [Temple of Peace] in the Roman Forum, the center of the public life in Ancient Rome. You can visit the old town on one of the many walking tours available in Rome, but you can also see the wall were the marble slabs were hung, right next to the entrance of the Basilica of SS Cosma e Damiano, just by walking on Via dei Fori Imperiali. When you visit Rome, you can see the temple wall, where the dozens of bolt holes show where the marble slabs were affixed.


It was Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211), a man born and raised in the thriving North African city of Leptis Magna (now, Libya), who had this enormous map carved. Created with a scale of approximately 1 to 240, the map was detailed enough to show the floor plans of nearly every temple, bath, and private building in the city. Unfortunately, as with many ancient wonders, only a small portion of it survives.  Today, only 10-15%, of this gargantuan city map still exist. Yet, these small remains are enough to reveal to us a secret that a very few know: the Roman world was literally turned upside-down with respect to ours!

A fragment of the Forma Urbis

In ancient Roman cartography, Africa was drawn at the top of a map, and Britain at its bottom. So, we should try to visualize Caesar aiming downwards to the Alps in his campaign to conquer Gaul (now, France) and Scipio sailing up to Africa to defeat Hannibal. It was only during the Middle Ages that someone decided to turn things upside-down, and to give the world the shape we know today. Italy became a “boot” and the few Romans who survived the Barbarians fell “down” to what was once the ceiling that covered their beliefs, leaving them shattered, confused, and lost.

To boil it down, one can say that nothing more than the intangible way of drawing the world signals the end of it… and the birth of a new one.

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