BMCR 2006.05.28

Rome from the Ground Up

, Rome from the Ground Up. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. 332. $29.95.

Since Strabo of Amasia introduced a Greek-speaking audience to the grandeur of early imperial Rome, guide books have grappled with the city’s archeological, architectural, and historical topographies.1 Continuously occupied for some three thousand years, Rome presents to the uninitiated and seasoned visitor alike one of the world’s most complex urban sites — culturally heterogeneous, profoundly stratified, differentiated in a multiplicity of temporal and spatial terms. In Rome from the Ground Up, James H. S. McGregor (hereafter, M.) views the Eternal City as an agglomeration of intersecting contiguities and explores its successive chronological phases — from ancient foundation to modern metropolis — in relation to architecture and planning, history and travel. While no single book can ever do justice to such a city, M.’s study provides an illuminating and practical introduction to Rome as ‘a series of generally small cities that grew up here and there along the Tiber at various times to suit various purposes’ (p.2).

For BMCR readers interested in the classical city, it should be noted that only the first four of M.’s eight chapters deal specifically with Rome’s archaic, republican, imperial and late-antique heritage. As such, this review will consider the content of these earlier chapters more fully, touching on material treated in the later sections as it bears on organization, argument and style.

M. begins his survey of Rome with ‘Tiber Island and the Ancient Port’ (Chapter 1: pp. 5-31). He briefly sketches the longue durée of Latium’s geophysical origins before tracing the settlement of what would become the city from the eighth or ninth century BCE on. The focus of this chapter is sharply defined by the Tiber and its modern containment by flood embankments, its many crossings by monumental bridges, and the island of Aesculapius, Ogulnius and the Fatebenefratelli. M. also touches on the uses of the river over time, as a depository for sewage from public latrines (via the Cloaca Maxima), a commercial port associated with marketplaces for cattle and agricultural produce (the fora Boarium and Holitorium), and a conduit for religious and cultural elaboration — ancient temples to Portunus, Hercules Victor, Fortuna, Mater Matuta, Janus, Spes and Juno Sospita; Renaissance churches like San Bartolomeo, Santa Maria in Cosmedin and San Nicola in Carcere; the Via Triumphalis, the Theatre of Marcellus, and the Arches of Janus and the Argentarii.

Chapter 2 (pp. 33-59) attempts to bring order to the bewildering complex of monuments spanning more than a thousand years contained within the Forum Romanum. M. uses Livy’s tale of the finding of the twins Romulus and Remus ( AUC 1.4.1-7) to set the scene, then navigates the site counter-clockwise from the Basilica Paulii to the Temple of Divus Julius. In the process, he draws out something of the significance underpinning the political and symbolic capital invested in the Forum, through a neat interplay of select episodes from Rome’s literary patrimony and concise synthetic explanation. M. then proceeds along the Via Sacra, from the Regia and the Vestal complex of shrine and atrium to the Arch of Titus, addressing representations of power and authority through consideration of construction techniques in brick and concrete and of relations between cultic devotion and civic administration.

M. casts a much broader topographical net in his study of the imperial city (Chapter 3, pp. 61-106), elucidating the political transfer of power and its physical manifestations from the Senate house at the end of the Forum near the Capitoline to the Palatine and beyond. On the Palatine, the reader encounters Augustus, establishing the imperial domus above the Forum and simultaneously staking an explicit claim on Rome’s legendary past, and Domitian, articulating his extraordinary configurations of palatial space for private as well as political purposes. M. then juxtaposes the great fire of 64 CE and Mussolini’s archaeological eviscerations of the 1930s, demonstrating how the imposition of imperial projects in the past (Nero’s Domus Aurea and the fora begun by Julius Caesar and completed by Trajan) and nationalist programmes in the present (Mussolini’s controversial ‘restoration’ of Roman autocracy) have ‘changed both the shape of the city and the conditions of its future growth’ (p. 73). M. also examines imperial monumental building in the Campus Martius — especially the Pantheon — and surviving examples of the art that decorated temples, palaces and fora,notably the collections on display in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme and the Baths of Diocletian.

In Chapter 4 (‘Early Christian Churches’, pp. 107-149), M. contemplates the impact on Rome’s civic and ideological terrains of the minor cult that became part of the imperial order. Drawing a wide chronological ambit — the millennium from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries — M. follows Constantine’s establishment of the first official Christian churches within the annular enclosure of imperial horti, well away from the crowded enclaves close to the Tiber. With the reduction of the city by invasion and disease came another transfer of power from the Forum and Palatine to the circuit of the Aurelian walls. Taking the clerical administration of Gregory (590-604) as a pivotal marker of this change, M. introduces the reader to the architectural typologies and decorative programmes of a selection of monumental basilicas.2 While the repertoire of the basilica type is foremost, M. ensures that the variety of spaces within which both non-Christian and Christian populations gathered (and which survives in relation to the larger monuments) is integrated into his survey of church buildings — private houses, insulae, disused shops, and warehouses.

The remaining sections of Rome from the Ground Up deal with the revival of the Vatican after 1417 as a seat for the papal bureaucracy (Chapter 5, pp. 151-192), the classical idealization of the urban fabric during the Renaissance (Chapter 6, pp. 193-235), the theatrical displays of Baroque Rome (Chapter 7, pp. 237-280), and how so much (or so little, depending on one’s perspective) of these interdependent and competing continguities has survived into the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries (Chapter 8, pp. 281-314).

M. concludes with a brief summary of the book’s itinerary keyed to each chapter, a select register of websites relating to the archaeology, topography and history of the city, and a bibliography of further reading.

Given its ambitious scope, M.’s portrait of Rome provides a lesson in clarity of exposition and maintains an elegant control over the sheer weight of source material. For those lucky enough to find themselves in Rome for the first time, M.’s integrated approach to the architecture, culture and history of the city would be a useful and reliable aid to understanding its manifold complexities. For the informed student of Rome — regardless of academic specialism or individual preference — the book furnishes a cumulative register of valuable artistic, historical, political, religious and social comparanda. 85 colour illustrations and over 50 duotones and black-and-white images are strategically located to supplement M.’s narrative, and the text is notably error-free.

Overall, Rome from the Ground Up fulfils its remit as a coherent exploration of the city in spatial and temporal terms, chronologically sequential and topographically discrete, and as a useful guide for the educated traveler. As someone fortunate to be living in Rome for the present, I would offer two practical considerations for future editions. Firstly, the weight of M.’s volume militates against its on-site use; perusing a pertinent section before setting out is a less restrictive option. Secondly, while Leonardo Bufalino’s exquisite 16th century plan of Rome’s ancient monuments and ruins is an attractive frontispiece, I believe that the interested reader would benefit from the inclusion of a modern map, either as a whole or, better still, in sections following the division of the city by chapter.


1. Apart from book 5 of Strabo’s Geography, we are fortunate to have recourse in folio and translation to a variety of pre-modern accounts — inter alia, Benedict, Gregorius, Leon Battista Alberti, Flavio Biondo, John Capgrave, William Bremyn, Francesco Albertini, Andrea Fulvio, Bartolomeo Marliano, and Andrea Palladio. Most recently, the revised edition of Georgina Masson’s Companion Guide to Rome and Amanda Claridge’s Oxford Archaeological Guide provide visitors with a wealth of useful information for the erudite traveller.

2. In order of presentation: Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Prassede, Santa Pudentiana, Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, Santa Costanza, San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, San Giovanni in Laterano (incl. the Lateran palace and baptistery), Santi Quattro Coronati, San Clemente, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Santa Sabina, and across the Tiber, Sante Maria and Cecilia in Trastevere.