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Fall 2011 (October 17, 2011)

When in Rome

By Kayla McGrady Berger '05

A faculty-student summer research project recreates the Roman Forum for an upcoming humanities course.

Roman Forum 

Imagine that you are standing in the middle of an agitated crowd in the Roman Forum, listening to statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero deliver a forceful oration. The year is 52 BCE and Cicero is defending his friend Titus Annius Milo during the final day of Milo’s trial for the murder of his rival Publius Clodius Pulcher. The crowd is gathered in front of the Senate House, which only days earlier burned when an angry mob built Clodius’s funeral pyre there. You look over at the charred building as Clodius’s supporters protest Cicero’s impassioned speech.

Students in Kathryn Steed’s spring 2012 humanities course on the Roman Republic will be able to witness this politically charged scene thanks to Google SketchUp, a 3-D modeling program. Steed, an assistant professor of classical languages, and student research assistant Caitlin Staab ’12 (Apple Valley, Minn.) spent the summer creating a virtual Roman Forum using SketchUp.

“It’s impossible to understand what was going on in the texts that we’re reading in class without knowing the context,” says Steed. “Public space was interwoven with public discourse. The Forum was filled with statues—sometimes there were even statues on the speaker’s platform and the speakers would interact with them. At one point, there was a pile of severed human heads in the Forum. Those sorts of things create an immediate impression that the texts don’t really convey.”

Together Steed and Staab have created five virtual Forums reflecting different times. “Whoever was wealthy enough could put up a statue in the Forum, and occasionally the officials would decide it was getting too crowded and clear everything out,” says Steed. “The students can go into the virtual Forum during different time periods and see how the Romans used public space to promote themselves.”

Staab, a classical languages major, was eager to embark on this project after returning from the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome last fall. There she studied the history of the Roman Empire and visited the Forum nearly every week, each time studying buildings from different eras. “I already knew a little about each one of these buildings because I’d studied and visited them many times,” says Staab, “but as I created the models in SketchUp, I became more familiar with their dimensions and details, and I could look at them from all angles. The Forum feels familiar to me now.”

Steed gathered a variety of sources to develop the plan for the five virtual Forums, including Italian topological studies, archaeological guides, and primary texts that describe the Roman Forum through history. Although Steed and Staab gleaned a great deal of information from their research, they also had to rely on what Steed calls “responsible creativity.”

“We know the dimensions and locations of the buildings, but we don’t always have detailed descriptions of the statues and monuments,” says Steed. “We don’t know for sure where particular inscriptions that are mentioned in speeches are located, or where exactly a monument was set up or torn down. We have to strike a balance by making sure that our virtual Forum isn’t a complete fantasy while making it detailed enough that the students will feel like they’re in a real space when they use it.”

In addition to creating elements of the virtual Forums themselves, Steed and Staab imported the terrain from Google Earth and borrowed buildings, columns, people, vegetation, and other elements from an online SketchUp warehouse of 3-D models created by other users.

“Working with SketchUp has taught me how important it is to have a detailed plan at the beginning of a project,” says Staab. “I usually like to plow through my projects, but in SketchUp a small error in the beginning turns into a big problem later on. I’m learning to be careful in the foundation and planning process, and that’s a good skill to develop as a student.”

The project was sponsored by the Visualizing the Liberal Arts (VIZ) initiative, which paid Staab’s summer stipend and covered the purchase of SketchUp. “It’s exciting that there’s support at Carleton for humanities projects like this,” says Staab, “especially since travel is so expensive and programs to study abroad in Rome are competitive. This project will help students sense what it’s like to study at a historic site like I did.”

“Rome is far away—both temporally and spatially—but this computer re-creation can give the students a sense of actually being there,” says Steed. Thus, students who enter the virtual Forum won’t have to wonder what it was like to witness Cicero delivering a legendary speech. They will see it themselves. 

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