Forma Urbis: the ancient Roman’s cyclopean map

Photo 25 Jan 2013 10_56 pm
Forma Urbis

Everything about Rome – the Eternal City – was grand and majestic, including the Pantheon, Roman Coliseum, Library of Celsus and Pont du Guard, all of which represented the magnificence and loftiness of the Empire stretching from the West to the East, from the North to the South that meant to last for eternity. And the size did matter to the ancient Romans; the bigger the artifacts were, the better they got to be. Proud champions of Bigness, the ancient Romans developed a cartographic masterpiece called “Forma Urbis,” meaning a city map, only on a bigger-than-life scale like you had never seen before had you been a Roman citizen at the time.

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During the reign of Emperor Septinus Severus (193-211 AD), this behemoth map delineating a street plan of Rome mostly with symbols came into being as a cartographic statement of grandeur and power, practicality and divinity of the Empire. The map took up an entire wall of Temple of Peace measuring 60 feet wide and 43 feet high. It also depicted Rome’s urban landmarks across 5 square miles from grand temples of various warehouses of the city. This majestic map of the Eternal City bestriding the wall of the temple, however, lacked tax collection information and other bells and whistles of administrative functions. Hence, its manifest function was believed to be no more than an august ornament, a source of civic pride and awe to the spectator.

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Does this giant map still exist? The question is very much similar to whether or not a megalodon, a supposedly extinct species of shark that lived about 23 to 2.6 million years ago, is still alive as there are frequent veritable accounts of witnesses of the creature elsewhere in the world. Although the existence of Forma Urbis is verifiable based on historical contexts, the actual form of the map exists as 200 fragments to this date because throughout the succession of ages, the bits and pieces were purloined by treasure hunters, especially during the Renaissance period. Nevertheless, for what’s all worth, the ancient Roman’s intention to preserve the artifact succeeded in the legacy of the grandeur of the Empire that wasn’t built a day, and to which all roads led from the four corners of the world. This vignette about Forma Urbis from an anthropological vantage point also reveals a picture of the society that tells of the standard of beauty and the glory of the Empire as contextualized into this fragment but still perennial legacy of the Eternal City.

P.S. This miscellany is based on my reading of an article about the eponymous subject from the recent issue of National Geography History; I find the magazine an excellent source of acquainting myself with many an interesting historical fact covering from the time immemorial to this date across the Atlas, leaving no one, no country, no culture behind, all of which are finely written by erudite writers whose academically impartial viewpoints of their subjects are worthy of applause. You can never be bored with new knowledge, and your mind will never be the same ever.

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