Forma Urbis: Rome’s Giant Marble Map


In the Roman Forum in the center of Rome once stood a grand monument called the Temple of Peace, which was built by the Emperor Vespasian to show off his power and reinforce his strong public image. The temple was destroyed when the Goths captured Rome in the early 5th century. Only the fire-damaged interior wall remains. This wall later became the exterior of the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian.

At that time, a huge map of ancient Rome carved from marble measuring 60 feet by 43 feet adorned this wall. Holes in the wall reveal where individual marble slabs were attached with metal clamps. This map, known as the Forma Urbis Romae, or Severan Marble Plan of Rome, shows Rome's urban sites in incredible detail, spanning five square miles, from large public monuments to small shops, rooms, every feature of the ancient city. Ground plans of architectural features are shown. And even pillars and stairs. Each structure was carefully labelled. It was one of the most extraordinary maps ever produced in ancient times.

Although the temple was built by the emperor Vespasian, the map was created about 150 years later, by the emperor Septimius Severus between 203 and 211. Presented at a scale of approximately 1 to 240, the Severn Marble Plan was carved on 150 marbles. The slab and top were oddly oriented towards the south. After the fall of Rome and the destruction of the Temple of Peace, the map was broken into thousands of pieces and scattered throughout the city.

For centuries scholars have been attempting to piece together the lost map like a giant puzzle, but only 10 to 15 percent of the map remains, about twelve hundred pieces ranging in size from a few inches to several feet.

Even though the marble plan has only been partially reconstructed, it provides scholars with new and unique information regarding the layout and organization of ancient Rome. "The plan itself is extremely important because it is our only source for the urban structure of Rome," says Stanford University professor Jennifer Trimble. “The ruins and keyhole excavations of major monuments throughout the city have given us varying details, but the modern city is based on ancient remains and makes it impossible to see how different types of spaces and buildings worked together, or What specific streets and neighborhoods were like.”

Map of Ancient Rome and the Forma Urbis, circa 1835-1839.

A fragment of the Severan marble plan showing the Porticus of Octavia. Photo credit: Sailko/Wikimedia

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