Roma Aeterna: Open-Access Resources for Mapping the City of Rome

I travel a lot in order to do Pleiades workshops and discuss the role of mapping in both research and pedagogy. The #1 question I am asked is: How can I map the city of Rome? This morning, I thought I would give a bit of a run-down on how you can begin to interact with the current resources for mapping the city of Rome, and perhaps use the secure data available for download from Pleiades and elsewhere on the web in order to begin to build you own maps for the classroom, for a future publication, or perhaps for a digital project.

Step 1: Scholarship on the Process: 

First, let us all take a moment to read about the process. Daniele Calisi and Maria Grazia Cianci have a great article titled: “Methods and Principles for the Reading, Analysis and Virtual Reconstruction of Urban Fabrics that have Disappeared” [PDF]. As the abstract notes, “The research proposed in this short article, try to show one of the possible methods to analyze and study some urban fabric, in historic cities in the first place, that have been lost or have been heavily modified over the centuries, dramatically changing their appearance.”

Step 2: Check Out Projects That Map Rome and Note Their Methodology & Resources:

Free Maps from the Ancient World Mapping Center: You can download PDFs of each of the maps used in The Romans: From Village to Empire (2nd edition; 2011). You can also write to the AWMC and request higher resolution images (.jpeg). My favorite map? The one of the churches of Rome in Late Antiquity [PDF]. It is also very easy to geo-reference each when you have the working scale provided.



Screen Shot 2016-11-24 at 10.25.43 AM.png
Map of the churches of Rome in Late Antiquity, provided by the Ancient World Mapping Center as a PDF (2011). 

Digital Augustan Rome: A mapping project that is meant as a digital successor to Mapping Augustan Rome that appeared as Supplement 50 in the Journal of Roman Archaeology Series (2002). This site gives you an accurate, interactive map of Rome to use around the year 14 CE, but it also tells you (step-by-step!) how they made this map. Like many projects, they worked in part from Lanciani’s published base maps. You can download their AutoCad file (.dwg file) and begin to develop your own–though you need to cite the project.

Detail of a 1:6000 map of Augustan Rome. Map via the Digital Augustan Rome Project at the University of Arizona.

Interactive Nolli Map: Over at the University of Oregon, you can interact with the 1748 map of Rome created by Giambattista Nolli. It is heavily copyrighted, but you can download a Nolli map from the UC-Berkeley Map library that is in pieces, but in very high resolution.

Section of Giambattista Nolli’s ‘La nuova topografia di Roma Comasco’ (1748).

Step 3: Begin Learning How to Geo-reference Old Maps And Find the Right One For You:

Harvard WorldMap: Over at Harvard WorldMap Warp, they have a tool for geo-rectifying old maps that may be in the public domain. In order to geo-rectify, you enter in control points for which you already know the longitude and latitude (e.g. the Colosseum is 41.8874314503, 12.4886930452)  in order to create a layer.

David Rumsey Map Collection Geo-Referencer: There are thousands of maps in Stanford’s David Rumsey Map Collection Library, and a number of them are in the process of being geo-referenced through their new Geo-Referencer tool. You can download many of them as a kml file for viewing in Google Earth, where you can then edit them. Such kml files can also be used in other mapping platforms, like Mapbox. Moreover, you can help them out by using your skills to geo-reference one of the over 72,000 other maps in their collection. You can download some stunning images to act as overlays, such as Luiga Canina’s famous 1850 maps of the archaeological remains of Rome. It incorporates the pieces of the Forma Urbis Romae (a database of the ancient city plan pieces is housed at Stanford University).

The Pianta topografica di Roma antica by Luigi Canina (1850) via the David Rumsey Map Collection (Under a CC-Non Commercial License).

There is no shame in learning how to drop pins, draw polygons and lines, and “tracing” through Google Earth. You have to start somewhere, and so using Google Earth map overlays to teach yourself about the basics of layers and geo-referencing before learning ArcGIS or AutoCad can be helpful for beginners.

Step 4: Check Longitude and Latitude for Known Roman Monuments:

You can certainly do this through OpenStreetMap and just download the data for each known monument within the city, but what about the monuments that no longer exist? For that you might need to consult other projects. Remember to begin to keep an organized .csv file that keeps track of each place you want to map and their longitude and latitude, along with other important info, like the date of the structure or perhaps its Pleiades ID#.

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Screenshot from OpenStreetMap of the Flavian Amphitheater, aka the Colosseum. It is easy to find longitude and latitude with the website, and then download the data for use elsewhere.

Rome Reborn: The older version of the Rome Reborn Project has a number of KML files for use in Google Earth in order to help you geo-reference a over-layed map you are geo-rectifying, tracing, or developing. I found the one above cached at the University of Virginia–where Rome Reborn used to be housed. Google Earth is not a great mapping platform (and won’t have accurate coastlines etc. for the ancient world), but you can download this file and then pull up monuments to see their Rome Reborn entry, longitude, and latitude. As it stands, the current version of Rome Reborn is heavily copyrighted and quite divorced from its earlier alliance with Google Earth. I quoth from the new website: “Copyright Notice. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of this website are copyright 2013 by Bernard Frischer. All rights reserved.”

Nota Bene: This is a good time for you to decide if you want to be open access and provide data to everyone. My belief is that we should all be open-access and free with our data, but others in the field do not always share this sentiment. Particularly if you get funding from any publicly funded agency (NEH) or school, I believe you have a duty to make your data open to the public rather than proprietary.

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Screenshot of the KML file for the University of Virginia version of the Rome Reborn project visualized in my Google Earth.


Step 5: Explore the Objects Within the City of Rome (e.g. inscriptions, coins, and artifacts) and the Linked Ancient World Data Tags 

Peripleo: Ladies and gentlemen, Linked Ancient World Data (LAWD) is a beautiful thing. The Pelagios team has a project called Peripleo which connects you to thousands of objects (e.g. from the American Numismatic Society and the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg) that have Pleiades tags for that site. Linked open data means that Peripleo can essentially aggregate all of these tags. For the city of Rome, they currently have 106, 741 objects for you to explore. Consider using these tags when you begin your own project, in order to tap into the extant network of places, people, and objects already on the web.

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Screenshot of the Peripleo Project, created by Pelagios. Note the splendid use of linked open data. 

Step 6: You Can Map That

My partner in mapping crime at the University of Iowa is our GIS librarian, Rob Shepard. We do workshops together and often teach people about making their own maps. Seeking out a geographer or GIS librarian at your institution for help is highly recommended when you begin a mapping project. They can teach you about how to use ArcGIS to make shape files in order to develop your map more intensely and accurately, or perhaps teach you about the open-source QGIS, which can also process AutoCad files and Shape Files–with some modifying. There are also a number of free courses through Coursera or even ESRI.

Remember: You don’t have to start from the ground up for every digital humanities project. Linked open data for the ancient world is about sharing resources and peer-reviewed data, so don’t think you have to remake the wheel.

Other Resource Pages for GIS in Rome and Italy:

American Academy in Rome: The AAR has a great resources page which links to a number of archives and databases with GIS information for Italy and the city of Rome.

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