Review of the Imperial Forums

About this document the Imperial Forums

This is an Internet resource that I would recommend for anyone interested in the history and archaeology of the Imperial fora in Rome. Its purpose is to utilize internet technology to disseminate information about the excavation of the forum area, put in context with historical background about Imperial Rome. The project is part of Rome's Jubilee Year 2000 Program, which also calls for the creation of an archaeological park that will extend from the Colosseum to the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills. is a well-organized web site, with readable text and attractive illustrations. The layout was created by Fabbi Studio, an Italian firm specializing in interactive web design and multimedia communication. There is substantial technological support for the project as well, provided through collaboration with Microsoft Italia and Canon Italia.

On the first page of the web site, the visitor is given the option of whether to proceed in English or Italian, immediately showing the international nature of the intended audience. Both versions contain clear, well-written prose, and there is a clear effort throughout the site to appeal to a diverse audience by providing information for tourists and academics alike. Choosing and clicking on either of the languages leads to a page where the mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, welcomes the visitor. This statement describes the purpose and extent of the web site and how it fits into the overall project on the Imperial fora.

Progress through is controlled by a menu that is displayed on the right side of the screen. On the left is a double arrow that looks like it should mean "back" and return the viewer to the previous page, but this is actually a "home" icon that links to the first page. The site's informational "chapters" include the following: Age of the Emperors, Recovering the Forums, Virtual Tour, and Ludi. Each contains a series of sub-divisions, which can be reached either through links that appear on the menu bar or through those located within the text itself. The first chapter, Age of the Emperors, provides useful historical background in five different categories: "From village to metropolis: a brief history of Rome," "Rome Caput Mundi: chronological table of historical events and map of the Empire," "Panem and Circenses: entertainment, fundamental element for politics," "Rome and the development of the Christian Catholic religion," and "Index of the Emperors."

To learn about the areas covered by the Capitolium web site, visitors should look to the second chapter, Recovering the Forums. This includes the following sub-divisions: "Presentation of the operation," "Imperial Forum area," "Methodology of the archaeological excavation," "News from the Forum workshop," and "The staff engaged in recovery." The first category, "Presentation," leads back to the introductory statement by Mayor Rutelli; this link could easily be omitted, since all visitors would have already seen the welcome page. The second, more useful option, "Imperial Forums area," defines the work areas within the Forum project: the Forum of Augustus, the Forum of Caesar, the Forum of Nerva, the Temple of Peace (Forum of Vespasian), the Forum of Trajan, and Trajan's Market.

The most current archaeological information appears under the sub-heading "News from the Forum workshop." This includes a description of the excavations completed between April 1998 and April 1999, along with photographs of the Forum area; it states that new reports will be published "periodically." Other sections of this chapter contain a detailed summary of the project and a description of current work being undertaken in each area. Links for individual work areas within the Imperial Forum complex lead to pages providing relevant historical dates, dimensions, and detailed descriptions of the buildings, their construction, and their functions. A large amount of information is given here, combining historical context and archaeological research. It is also well-organized and easy to navigate. Archaeologists, therefore, can look at detailed excavation reports, while casual tourists can choose to skip this information in favor of more general information about the area.

The Virtual Tour link contains three sub-sections. One, "Life in antique Rome," provides more historical/cultural information about the roles of men and women in Rome as well as a section on Roman cuisine (including recipes from Apicius and Gargilio Marziale!). Another link, "How Rome was," leads to a series of photographs showing areas of the Imperial fora as they look today. Clicking on one of the photos causes an enlargement of it to appear in a new window; clicking on this replaces it with a computer-generated reconstruction showing the same view as it would have looked in antiquity. The most ambitious section of the entire site is the Virtual Tour itself, a live "webView" filmed by a camera installed on the terrace of the Palazzo Senatorio. Instructions for use of this feature are given, along with an e-mail address to contact in the event of problems. Another link provides detailed information about the camera itself. Through the Internet technology, this camera can be controlled remotely by visitors to the web site, and up to ten people can access the view simultaneously (one at a time controls the camera while the others watch). The site also allows still pictures from the tour to be saved and used without any copyright violation.

The fourth chapter, entitled Ludi (games), provides light-hearted lessons about Roman numerals, Roman holidays, common sayings and proverbs, Rome in modern films, and a quiz about the Imperial fora. Educators could easily use this feature of the web site as a way to introduce students to ancient Rome in a multi-media format likely to captivate them, although a potential problem with the quiz is that feedback is given only in Italian. Even seasoned academics are likely to enjoy the sections on familiar proverbs and the Roman calendar.

A final section, set slightly apart from the other chapters on the main menu, is called Map of the area. This leads to a colorful, guidebook-quality map of the Imperial fora (including Metro stations). Buildings are labeled with numbered buttons; dragging the cursor over one of these buttons opens a small pop-up window that contains an identification and brief description of that particular structure (Example: (1) "Arch of Titus: Emperor Domitian erected the arch in 81 A.D. for his brother Titus in victory of the war against the Judeans. Covered in Greek marble, the single arch is supported by four semi-columns with capitals and surmounted by a high attic above the trabeation.").

There are several aspects to this web site that make it a potentially valuable resource for a wide range of audiences. Most important for scholars and archaeologists is the access to recent, unpublished excavation reports from the Imperial Fora in Rome, not yet available in any other medium. With the exception of the Forum of Nerva, archaeological research in this area is a recent undertaking, and this site provides a comprehensive resource concerning its ongoing investigation. Another particularly impressive feature of the site is the series of photographs that can be compared with elaborate computer-generated reconstructions of the ancient buildings ("How Rome was," in the Virtual Tour chapter). Another elegant feature is the Map of the area, with its numerous informative pop-up windows. The overall quality of the site's images is extremely high for web purposes, likely due to the backing of Canon technology. It is also very useful that each chapter includes a paragraph at the bottom of the screen describing what can be found in each of the other chapters. Navigation around the site is further facilitated by having links on the main menu as well as embedded in the text of each section.

Despite the many positive elements of the Capitolium site, several problems need addressing. First of all, there is no author cited for most of the information provided. It is essential to know whether this material was compiled by an archaeologist, a public relations specialist, or a webmaster. Second, there is a real need for more images in a site whose primary focus is Rome's art, architecture, and archaeology. The section on the excavation is accompanied by small photographs, many of which are unpublished. Some of these can be enlarged for closer observation, but those that cannot are too small to be of much use for scholars. Also, the text itself contains occasional inconsistencies. In the chapter called Age of the Emperors, for instance, the map of the Roman Empire is said to show it "through various centuries," but in fact it shows only the greatest extent of the Empire, in the second century A.C. Although the Map of the area is one of the best pages of the site, the link leading to it does not always appear on the menu. Some of these links, moreover, take the viewer to the English version of the map, while others (even when navigating through the English version of the site overall) lead to the Italian. There are also some major problems in the programming of this feature; the link for number 36 (Column of Trajan) is miscoded and produces an error message. Even more significantly, the pop-up windows will not open at all if the page is situated in such a way that the window overlaps the location of the cursor. Web design problems such as this occur elsewhere as well. In the main menu, for example, the "hot spots" for the links are not always precisely aligned with the text, so that the cursor sometimes does not activate the intended link. Finally, the most ambitious part of the site, the Live WebView, allows access for no more than ten viewers at a time. I tried unsuccessfully over several days to activate the camera, presumably because ten people were already logged on. (Note: I sent an e-mail to Fabbi Studios about this problem, and I never did receive a response.) When I did get access to the camera, it was after dark in Italy; the shades of black and gray that appeared in the view-screen were not particularly interesting. Another suggestion for future web site development would be to expand it to include other languages, notably German; this would significantly broaden the audience for whom it would be a useful resource.

In conclusion, is a well-organized, well-produced Internet resource that many visitors will find useful and interesting. It contains a tremendous amount of material that is thoroughly researched and clearly presented. Few of the inconsistencies or errors really interfere with the successful dissemination of information. The true test of the site's long-term value is yet to come, for it necessarily depends on the regular updating and addition of current reports from the excavation team of the Imperial fora. For scholarly use, it should also make the authorship and date explicit for each section of the site. Right now, it does provide quite recent news of the excavation (from April 1999), but it is too soon to judge whether this high standard will be maintained. Only in a few other areas, such as those containing the recipes and the proverbs, do comments indicate that additions and updates are forthcoming. is likely to appeal to a wide range of audiences. People who have no background in Classical archaeology and/or have never been to Rome will enjoy this site as an introduction to the monuments of the High Empire. Classical archaeologists and scholars will be able to use it as a means of staying up-to-date on the latest finds from the on-going excavations in the center of the ancient city, an area of sacred and civic significance for Imperial Rome. It could also be very useful as a teaching resource, for classroom demonstrations as well as for take-home assignments. The organization of the site is such that each of these audiences can navigate efficiently through the pages to find the material of greatest personal interest and use. Overall, contains far more positive features than negative ones; it is a valuable addition to the many Classics-related resources found on the world-wide web.

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