THE ATLAS OF ANCIENT ROME: Biography and Portraits of the City

Edited by Andrea Carandini with Paolo Carafa, tr. by A.C. Calavais

Princeton (2 vols., 2017) h/b 1280pp £148.95 (ISBN 9780691163475)

Look up The Atlas of Ancient Rome (452 colour illustrations, 67 halftones, 13 line illustrations, 9 tables. 97 colour maps) on the publisher’s website, and you’ll find a quotation from the present reviewer’s review of the original (2012) Italian edition: ‘Magnificent . . . an impressive monument of historical outreach’ (T.P. Wiseman, Journal of Roman Studies). As always with publishers’ blurbs, caueat lector! I did indeed call it ‘magnificent’, ‘a marvel of book design’, ‘produced to a very high standard and superbly illustrated’, with plans and diagrams ‘presenting a vast amount of information with remarkable clarity’, in short ‘an object lesson in how to present very complex material intelligibly’. And all that is no less true of the English translation; it is an extraordinary project, and C. and P.C. deserve congratulation for bringing it about.

I also pointed out in my review that much of the material so effectively processed depends on C.’s dogmatic belief that ‘the legend of Rome’—his evasive description of the many mutually inconsistent narratives of the city’s origin—actually preserves historical information about the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries BC. Despite the many additions to the bibliography, of works published since 2012, the reader is still given no indication that C.’s views are, to put it mildly, controversial.

The immediate context of that quotation in the blurb may offer an example. At ill. 3 (after p. 144) there is a reconstruction of ‘the house of Tarquin’, a site excavated by C.’s team in the late 1990s. Just visible inside the door is what looks like a rocking-horse left in the hallway. This is what Pliny (Nat. Hist. 34.29) describes as ‘the equestrian statue of Valeria, daughter of Publicola the consul [in the first year of the republic], which stood opposite the temple of Jupiter Stator in the forecourt of [Tarquinius] Superbus’ house’. C., for his own reasons, wants it to be a statue of Fortuna Equestris, an unattested deity, in a uestibulum that is not a forecourt—the actual meaning of the word—but a mere passage. The complexities of his argument were picked apart in chapter 16 of my book Unwritten Rome (2008), which will not be found in the bibliography of either the 2012 or the 2017 versions of the Atlas. In my review, I merely noted that ‘we are offered a reconstruction for which the supposed evidence has already been refuted. But perhaps that degree of tendentiousness is a small price to pay for such an impressive monument of historical outreach.’ Hence the phrase in the blurb.

Anything in the Atlas that deals with archaic Rome should be treated as, at best, optimistic conjecture. The same applies to the whole treatment of the pre-Neronian Palatine, and in particular to the C. version of the house of Augustus and the adjacent temple and porticos of Apollo. Readers who have the stamina for it may like to consult two review articles in the Journal of Roman Archaeology: 22 (2009) 527-45, on Carandini and D. Bruno, ‘La casa di Augusto’, and 25 (2012) 656-72, on Carandini, Bruno and F. Fraioli, ‘Le case del potere in antica Roma’. In reaction to the first of these, C. announced that such empirical criticism ‘has no reason to exist’; his reaction to the second was simply to omit it from the Atlas’s enormous bibliography.

So there’s a Janus-faced judgement for you! The Atlas of Ancient Rome is profoundly flawed, but (yes) magnificent. Is it worth the big outlay? Certainly it is, if you think of it not as an unreliable work of reference but as what the subtitle calls it, ‘Biography and Portraits of the City’. C. and P.C. love their city, and have produced a wonderfully-illustrated monument to its first thousand years of history. Just don’t believe all the details.

T.P. Wiseman


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