Caging the She-Wolf: Power, Place, and Digital Humanities in Ancient Rome

tanta vis admonitionis inest in locis; ut non sine causa ex iis memoriae ducta sit disciplina.

“Places have so great a power of suggestion that the technical art of memory is with good reason based upon them.” — Cicero, De Finibus, 5.2.

“The ‘living wolf’ inside her enclosure on the Campidogli[o] from (above) L’Illustrazione Italiana no. 49 December 1902; (below) postcard (ca. 1910)” (Caption and Image via the Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi).

Eleven years after the Risorgimento that reunited Italy in 1861, Rome ensconced a living she-wolf in a small cage on the Capitoline hill in Rome. Cristina Mazzoni (2012: 80-81), in her work on the myths and receptions of Rome’s lupa (she-wolf), states that this practice lasted about a century, until the 1970s. And yet even after her removal, guide books looked back fondly (and often in the present tense) on the rather exploitative practice. This journey from the bottom to the top of the Campidoglio connected tourists physically, intimately, emotionally with the famed bronze Capitoline she-wolf that would greet them at the top of the steps. As they were ushered from a living wolf to see the sculptural symbol of Rome with Romulus and Remus, the myths of the founding of Rome became manifest.

The living she-wolf in her cage on the Campidoglio. La Domenica del corriere (37.19), May 12, 1935 (Image via the Corriere della Sera archive).

Of course, Mussolini desired to add his own spin and go one louder on the Capitoline Hill. Near the she-wolf, he put a (quite separate) cage with a live eagle (an aquila) near to the wolf. This happened sometime before 1930, as the Ludovisi Archive notes. These memory zoos, as we might call them, depended on the symbol—that is the living and the bronze—but also depended on the sacred topography of Rome. It is this topography that created a kind of elaborate memory house for all who visited Rome. As Cicero would remark on in De Finibus, places have so great a power that we often use them to organize, to rewrite, to provoke memory. The live she-wolf is just one example of how Rome kept her mythic identity alive.

Having students engage with the topography of ancient Rome in order to learn her history spatially is the theme of a history methods seminar I am currently teaching for undergraduate history majors. In the first weeks of class, we have begun to dig into a number of primary sources for Rome both literary and archaeological, and then to explore digital projects that take what we call “the spatial turn” to heart. In the coming weeks, they will be learning the basics of GIS and practicing mapping their readings of Suetonius, Plutarch, and many other documents.

Screenshot of the entry map at “Temples of the Classical World” by John Muccigrosso.

How do we make an emotion or an idea into a physical structure? One thing students always hit upon is how faith is made manifest in the city of Rome through temple buildings. And one project that helps them understand Roman religion as well as political competition through temple construction during the Roman Republic is the project called “Temples of the Classical World.” We were lucky enough to have John D. Muccigrosso zoom in from Rome to explain the aims of the project, but students could see layer-by-layer how the temple topography of Rome expanded in the midst of imperial expansion across the Mediterranean.

Screenshot of a zoom in on the map of temples in the city of Rome from the “Temples of the Classical World” project by John D. Muccigrosso.

Other GIS projects focused on Rome have similarly helped students to take spatial notations from a text and to geolocate them on a map. As I have spoken about before, the Digital Augustan Rome project is the gold standard for aesthetics; however, they do not make their data linked or open access. Linked open data allows people to share, to cite, and to build digital projects on secure data. It also fosters a sentiment of generosity among digital humanists rather than competition, because we are all in this together, sharing our knowledge as teachers.

Another digital project I have students explore is the relatively new Digitales Forum Romanum. I like that there are basic 3D models of each of the buildings in the Roman Forum and that students can go from the Republic into the Empire—although many time periods are still in development. It is a nice tool for having students explore how the Forum changed over time to reflect social and political changes, although it would be nice to have more epigraphic remains, statues, and people embedded within their map. That is why the Last Statues of Antiquity database remains so important, even if an interactive map for epigraphic or artistic evidence is always something difficult to offer with confidence. Oftentimes we just don’t know exactly where a certain inscription or statue was in antiquity if not found in situ or with a supporting literary source.

Screenshot of the Digitales Forum Romanum project from the Winckelmann-Institut of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

As I move into the more methodological portion of the course, I am excited to have students engage with a sourcebook that is invaluable for those those teaching how Rome was written: Rome Alive: Volumes I-II. The book geolocates all the ancient sources for a certain sector of Rome (regio-by-regio) and allows me to have students read and then practice citing these sources directly on a map by hand. Then we will transfer these geotags texts into a real digital map by the end of the course. The disconnect between text and topography is surmountable.

Teaching our students about the significance of place and historical memory could use any city as a case study. Rome is truly one of the most richly cited and explored, and so useful for ancient historians. I am looking forward to reawakening the metaphoric she-wolf this semester, and having students map everything from the alleged Roman triumphal routes of triumphatores to the Justinianic siege of the city in the sixth century CE through reading Procopius. As writers from Ovid to Ammianus engage with, the city of Rome was and is an organism. Reconstructing her ancient history means marrying text, image, archaeology, art, and topography through the memory palace supplied by digital maps.

Screenshot of the “Interactive Nolli Map Website 2.0” by James Tice (PI) and his team at the University of Oregon with help from the Neukom Institute at Dartmouth College, Stanford University, Studium Urbis in Rome and the Department of Architecture at the University of Oregon.

Abbreviated Bibliography

Peter J. Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source-Guide to the Ancient City (Bolchazy-Carducci, Wauconda, Ill., 2004).

Catherine Edwards, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Cristina Mazzoni, She-wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Rabun Taylor, Katherine W. Rinne, Spiro Kostof, Rome: An Urban History from Antiquity to the Present (New York; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

New from 1928: the Vatican gifts a live Capitoline wolf to Mussolini’s Rome,” Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi (June 12, 2020). Accessed on September 1, 2022.

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