Category Archives: Roman Empire

Mapping the Presence of Rome’s Pasts

We now map mega-regions that extend along highways far beyond the former boundaries of cities, along roads and through suburbs increasingly lack clear bounds.  The extent of such cities seem oddly appropriate for forms of mapping that seem to lack respect for physical markers of bounds.  These maps reflect the experience of their environments as networks more than sites, to be sure.  But place is increasingly important,and indeed perhaps especially to render, given the dramatically increased mobility of the world.  In tracing the extension of extra-urban areas along distended networks of often uninhabited paved space, the form of such cities seem removed from historical time or erase the familiar palimpsestic relation to space of the well-worn streets and built structures of older cities, or the city as a space for walking, rather than driving or moving on mass transit lines.

We may be compelled to apply the same data driven images to ancient Rome, driven due to our own continuing and increased disorientation on the proliferating data maps.  Despite the limitations of their coverage of space, and the limited benefits of imagining the ability to measure times of travel or distances to monuments as a record of ancient space or Roman life, it is tempting to be satisfied with placing it in a network.  To do so offers a way of envisioning ancient Rome as a mega city and hub of transit.  But the erasure that this brings in humanistic experience of the map is striking.  The risk is to lose a sense of the presence of the map of the city, visualizing the distances of travel, costs of economic transit, and time of travel in a web of commercial exchange we both project back our own sense of disorientation.  In doing so, we may be trying to find mooring in the mapping of the past.  We avoid the problem of mapping the presence of the ancient form of the city so long returned to be mapped, as a key to presence of the ancient city in the city, in ways that Rome was so long understood.

When we use modern notions such as that of the urban mobility fingerprint as Moovel labs did in concretely visualizing the medieval saying that “all roads lead to Rome” in its  project of mapping distances from the ancient city, we run the risk of insisting on the transparency of data, reducing maps and the patttern of mapping to a substrate of spatial relations sufficient in an almost ahistorical sense, and risk asserting the authority of an app over material processes of building and mapping Rome across time.  The reipscription of the authority of Rome in the map–or the mobility fingerprint–takes the city as fons et origo in almost encomiastic terms, not reading its space, or its location, but asserting its pride of place in a network that is presumed to exist, and celebrating the construction of its almost vegetal organic network of modernized roads in order to bring it closer to the viewer.


mobility fingerprint ROme


While we do want to illustrate or understand flows from the city–


Flow from Rome

–the dataset performs a trick of topographic rendering that also flattens the complex human patterns of the past, and does so by obscuring the deeply humanistic layered nature of the map and of the past.

The alternative might be to consider an enhanced topographic rendering, able to call attention to the intense interest that the mapping of the city’s place has held, to the extent that it became understood as a vessel of memory, and such an approach might begin from the broad symbolic authority with which it was encoded in maps.  In ways that are erased by a data map, or an app that sizes vector files to suggest flow in an organic or unobstructed fashion, the distinctive material practices of mapping Rome have their own history, and material presence,neglected in data visualizations’ relatively flat space,–not to mention the sense of a space removed from history that they create.

The deep history of the material practices of mapping Rome constitute something of a deep source of meaning and a source of fascination; mapping of the city the remained in the city, negotiating the presence of the antique in the city.  Rather than disembody the routes of motion as defining the city, the images that embodied the material presence of the antique city was the dominant presence in a long history of mapping the city, whose ancient traces were preserved and excavated in the many maps of Rome made since before the Renaissance.  Such maps, viewed in their historical context and continuity, preserve a sense of the form of the antique that provided a form as an actor for visitors to Rome, and a lure for the site of the continued presence of traces of the space of a historical Rome that exists among the modern city’s space.  Indeed, maps may themselves offer the best ways to familiarize oneself to the material traces of orienting oneself to the presence of the antique that continue to inhabit its present.

If practices of mapping demand to be placed in their distinct media, the media of mapping Rome has a particular sensitivity, as preserving access to the past, and of orienting viewers to a presence no longer present in the present, as most all maps of Rome effectively do.  By considering the mapping of Rome in relation to datamaps, and the sense of presence that they encode, one almost seems obligated to begin from what may be the primary image–if not primal image–of the way that all roads lead to Rome, or were described to.    If all roads lead to Rome in a deeply ahistorical sense in the middle ages, when the statement seems to have first appeared, the possibly medieval rendering of the ancient “Peutinger Map” or Tabula Peutingerianawhich presents Rome at the center of an acient road network–across the empire–and was suggested to be  copied from the form of a large frieze on a building, but survives in a paper copy of distinctively distorted elongated form, reduced oceans to strips to foreground its road network.  The trick of topographic rendering of privileging the disposition of roads and their distances–measured in local units, but spanning the Empire–do not radiate, but extend laterally across mapped space.  The form of the antique led to the eager the recovery of the prized Peutinger map of the peninsula, surviving in the copy of the Tabula Peutingeriana, that preserved, showing east-west routes at greater scale than north-south in dimensions of a marble frieze, more than a sheet of paper; its collapsing of a collection of routes inscribed into a peninsula as a seat of empire, placing the enthroned figure of Rome holding a globe at the head of a cursus publicus–as if to demonstrate how all roads lead Rome-ward or, more accurately, from Rome, emphasizing its legibility by replicating the left-to-right reading of space .



Duvuded ubti Grurds.png


–as if in a comprehensive representation the cursus, where continuity is less present than the network, but the network visualized by making present criteria of measurement embedded in the map itself.

Rather than orienting readers by showing Rome as the center of a web of transit, that has its own life and coherence, the map’s oddly compressed format seems to have the imprint of the material place that it held, fittingly, as a record of the cursus publicus, on a frieze, if so probably etched in marble, showing the prominence of Rome and its port of Ostia not at the center of the peninsula, but in the enthroned figure.  Rome occupies a place at the start and head of its cursus publicus, perhaps as a remnant of a global map prepared in Augustan Rome, which in the surviving thirteenth century copy digests data that may derive from the Agrippa map, but embodies it in the form of a marble frieze.

Transferred and kept on a sheet of paper since when the humanist Conrad Celtis discovered in in France, and presented humanist Konrad Peutinger with the treasured cartographic image in a surviving copy, the map was thought to be a fragment of a global map organized by Roman roads.  It has been attempted to be returned to its material context in many alternative historical settings–hypotheses including Carolingian origins or, a marble frieze, to historicize the audiences it addressed–but in ways that preserve the centrality of its physical medium.  The problem of seeing the along map of the world, and the curiously elongated image of Italy, have only recently been revised, as ways that re-examine the humanist status of the map as an argument about space.  But if the material form of the map has provoked repeated reflection, as much as the transparent reflection of spatial data by which our own data-driven world is increasingly obsessed, it reminds us of the material basis of the maxim of all roads leading to Rome, which the depiction of the cursus publicus so clearly embodied.




But the image of all roads leading to–or from–Rome is not, perhaps, the map that best expresses the place that the city has held in the humanist imagination.  If the Tabula Peutingeriana offers an interrupted record of all roads leading to Rome continues to captivate, the presence of the ancient in Rome suggested a deeper problem of temporal mapping that data cannot capture, in part because it so relentlessly adopts and employs a present-day form of mapping to chart an elusive past.  The history with which the presence of maps that continued to process the antique in Rome certainly led to the fascination of uncovering the road network of the city.  The presence of the elusive but ever-present antique in the city laid a basis for curiosity of times of travel in mapping the Empire, the maps of travel times on its system of roads is only one level of the building of Rome.  Although the city’s status at the center of the empire provided a source of fascination, and a promise of classical recovery, to the humanist collector, the presence of ancient roadworks in the Tabula mirror the continued fascination with mapping presence of the antique in Rome, that have been a longstanding subject of fascination.  While Rome remained the center of the Tabula, on the far left of the three strip maps of the peninsula compressed to a single sheet, the rendering of the peninsula’s network of roads omits the deep presence of the city’s ruins–the “city within the city”–in Rome, and the extent to which the mapping of that presence contributed to how Rome was seen.

Is deeper excavation of the spatial perception of those roads, and indeed of the inhabitation of the twelve via that radiate from Rome’s walls in such a symmetrical manner–the via Salaria, via Nomentana, via Tyburtina, via Latina, via Appia–even an adequate record of one’s attachment to its pasts?





Rather than viewing Rome as a center of transit, a humanist mapping of the city might entail map the sense of presence of the antique by which the city has long been appreciated and understood.  The mapping of the presence of the past in Rome runs against the grain of data-driven visualizations, but might bring us to define the compelling presence of the antique in the city, challenging the notion of its primacy in a network of communication, to trace the place of the antique in the imagination of the city, as much as treating its sense of its place being impermanent.  Indeed, the presence of the city on any map must begin from the presence of the antique in the city, and the manner that maps of Rome shape our experience of the city–and serve to shape our sense of the distinction of Rome as a site within our imagination, and our sense of space. If the conceit that all roads lead to Rome has long and continues to occupy a significant space in our mental imaginary, as well as the European highway system–


roads-to-romeRoads to Rome


–traveling or journeying to Rome offers a limited orientation to the rich humanist history of the mapping of its space, or even of the space of the Roman Empire, if the mapping of Rome omits any traces of its historical inhabitation, or the palpable presence of its ruins.  These ruins, and their surviving remnants, drew many to Rome since the Renaissance, and has provided one of the most basic–if primal–forms of mapping the historical past, and of seeing evidence of the living presence of the concrete.  Attracted by the multiple presences that seem to coexist within Rome’s space, in ways an archeological map cannot do complete justice, as knows any visitor challenged to grasp and orient themselves to the abundance of its underlying pasts present in its ruins.  Was the close tie that Sigmund Freud has described to Rome–a site whose attraction he was tempted to see as a site of attraction to death–indeed informed not by his visits to the city, but rather his own close attraction to the maps of the ancient city’s archeological ruins?  Such maps would have provided the very horizon of expectations through which he oriented himself to the modern city, even before he had visited it for the first time.  While Freud famously had repeatedly deferred personally visiting Rome in his life,–when he was left explaining its disappointment “as all such fulfillments are when one has waited for them too long,” even though, in his previous writings on dreams and on the dream-life, he recorded five dreams of visiting Rome.  If he held the city as a seat of Christendom, however, he must have experience its historical wealth primarily in maps.


1.  The complex question about Freud’s relation to Rome is not only rhetorical.  For it gets at the presence of the past that are left on maps, and the traces of place that maps preserve, but that data maps omit in failing to preserve as humanly rich or intellectual rich a relation to space.  When Freud famously described how the “historical past is preserved in historical sites like Rome” that contain within its presence copious testimonies of the past, alongside and parallel to its actual human habitation, he seems to have been referring to the “unity” of the city not only in the present, but on a map.  As a psychical entity with a “long and copious past” as much as a physical entity or plant, Freud allowed himself a “flight of imagination” in treating it as a metaphor for the human unconscious in one of the most expansively literary passages of Civilization and its Discontents, as a site where one might imagine that “nothing that has come into existence will have [ever] passed away, and all earlier phases of development continue to survive and coexist [simultaneously] alongside the most recent.”  Writing these words shortly after his first visit to Rome, the passage reveals the huge impression that visits to the city made to his theory of mind, and was made at the culmination of Freud’s thoughts of memory processes and their location in the mind, the concrete metaphor is an echo not only of the personal fascination he felt when visiting the city and the famous “flight of fancy” that he asked readers of Civilization to indulge.

By imagining the city as a physical illustration of the continuity of memories in the human mind, Freud seems to have exploited the public imaginary of Rome, and the mapping of ancient Rome by which his own relation to the city had been deeply affected.  The travel to Italy–or tour of Italy–was long seen as a process of cultivation and civilization, albeit it was a visit that Freud had long resisted, not undertaking a visit until 1901, despite visiting Italy often, and even staying in the Roman Campagna before seeing the city.  It was perhaps no coincidence that Sigmund Freud seized on the city of Rome–and the plan of its archeological figures–as evidence of the ability to “bring to light” the past through what he termed “memory-traces,” which long survive, and which he imagines–while noting the insufficiency of such a visual image to represent the mind or mental states–to express how a visitor “equipped with the most complete historical and topographical knowledge,” can grasp even in the present the form of the Rome of earlier times, which retain its integrity–as does the individual–but which can be  mapped as it existed across different historical periods at the same time, despite “all the transformations during the periods of the Republic and the early Caesars.”

The identification of the collation of mental periods with the city’s actual topography was impressive, as was the sense of a city that held multiple cities within itself.  If the problem of mastering the historical discontinuity of the political epochs of Roman civilization were a problem of gymnasium education that would be very well known to the readers Freud sought to address.  Indeed, Freud’s arrival in Rome–which he seems to have deferred, in part due to historical circumstance, until he was in his mid-forties, may have been due to how Rome had provided a model to understand human history from the work of the German classical historian Barthold Neibuhr, if not the procedures of historical verification by scientific methods of historical investigation set forth in the work Leopold von Ranke.  For Ranke, the very project and prospect of visiting Rome transcended the mastery of the past based on archival written sources; Freud no doubt internalized and felt the centrality of any visit to Rome in ways that led him to postpone it until 1901, perhaps until his preparation for the task.  When Freud noted that he had dreamed of Rome at least five times between 1900-01, he registered deep imaginary ties he had developed to the city, undoubtedly through the engraved images he had studied from youth, and perhaps through the story of the archeologist who travelled to Rome to he must have seen as deeply other than his Jewish-Austrian identity, and even psychically dangerous.  He openly described his attachment to Rome as akin to a neurosis by 1897, and a longing that he actively willed to contain.  In describing himself as tragically “fated not to see Rome” in 1900, as if it were an affliction, Hannibal, but neglected to add he often indulged a penchant for Italian tourism.

Did this avoidance of Rome run against the exposure that he must have had to the rich archeological maps of the ancient city in his Vienna library?  Did the map provide a basis for his deferral of a visit to Rome, and investigation of its antiquities in the flesh, so impressed was he by the authority of archeological maps of the city, and the abundance of information that they contained?   It is very striking that Freud had visited multiple Italian cities at a younger age–touring Venice, visiting Pisa, Livorno, Siena, Rapallo, Florence, Gorizia, Verona, and Ravenna, the somewhat nearby site of Byzantine mosaics, as well as Naples; the visit to Rome may well have been intentionally deferred, less as a masochistic deferment, than a postponement of enjoyment of its pleasures.  He often dreamed of Rome.  Freud even once let himself to remain on a train that stopped in Rome, deciding against deboarding the train, but described the sensation as it pulled out of the station, even as he cultivated the image of the city in his head.  While he described his repeated dreams of visiting the city as “based on a longing to visit Rome,” perhaps the refusal to visit the place was based on fear of inadequate preparation of studying its plant, as much as a masochistic urge to deny himself the experience of the city.  Indeed, although his visit to Naples bypassed Rome, as if intentionally, and he visited the nearby Lake Trasimeno in the Campagna, he deferred any visit to Rome, as if intentionally; he wrote his  colleague Fleiss in 1898 that even if he had closely studied Rome’s topography, he deferring his visit, even if “the yearning [for Rome] becomes ever more tormenting.”

Such imposition of a regime of deferral occupied increasing mental energy, and seems oddly tortured, but may be interpreted in terms of his desire for fitting Rome into his sense of bildung, and indeed compels us to ask about his visceral sense of its materiality.  Freud hence described as the subject of recurrent dreams–and listing its appearance in five dreams.  Freud seems continually inspired by the hope of unpacking city of Rome, perhaps cowed by the prospect; the time that serious study of its presence might demand may have led him only to visit the city in 1901.  But even if he visited Rome late in life, it would be wrong to think that he had not encountered it previously multiple times, and even traveled to its ruins in the form of maps recreating the organization of its monuments.  He could have performed the visits by confronting archeological maps of the city’s ruins, as if training himself for his arrival, kept in his libraries.  And when later in life, when he even joked to Stefan Zweig that his avid collection of images of antiquity, he no acknowledge the thought he gave to assembling a substantial collection of objects from antiquity, including statuettes and fragments, as testimonies to partial remains, amply displayed in his office walls and on his desk, including the famous bas relief image of Gradiva–a reproduction of the ancient bas-relief of a young girl, who was taken as a physical embodiment of a past.   The Gravida figure, as imagined in an eponymous novel, was imagined as a trace of the past, was imagined in a contemporary novel as having been a girl killed by the ash erupting from Vesuvius, who presented a solitary archeologist with an elusive subject of desire; after the appearance of the young woman in a dream, the archeologist’s travelled to the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii, where while wandering in its excavated streets he was struck by the uncanny appearance of the living presence of the woman, who he recognized by very gait, and whose encounter offered an occasion of psychic release.  The quite creepy story led Freud to value the image as an emblem of recovering repressed memories, and a talisman of recovering memories, and of the excavation if not overcoming of repressed memories.


2.  The discussion of Rome as a site of antiquities and a site of memory was an image that was dear to Freud and which he cultivated.  The cultivation Freud may have led Freud to confess to the novelist Zweig about having more deeply studied antiquity than psychology; in addition to such studies, archeological maps of the discovery of the city’s strata seem to have provided a formative relation to the historical and personal past.  The city was famously portrayed, long after the appearance of the first guides of Baedecker of Rome in 1867, in a series of historical atlases as a stratigraphy of sedimented layers demanding deciphering–and as such maps were indeed intended to provide a basis through which one finally encountered the city, it is more than likely that Freud’s large library of antiquarian maps provided something of a resource with which he occupied himself before his travel.  As much as serve as a “flight of fancy” or metaphor, the image of the layers of Roman archeology was emblematic of the past, and a challenge of detection, as well as observation; once, while visiting the city, he sought it important to remember that he was deeply affected and “disappointed to find that the scenery was far from being of an urban character,” and at another time visited Rome only to express deep disappointment at seeing German-language posters in the city, rather than the image of the antique that he had privately treasured.  The city seemed far off from the detection of a removed past that lay in the maps of the city’s ancient ruins that remained in his private study.

The powerful image of actively discerning and unpacking layers of the presence of the antique was not only speculative.  They were archeological concerns by the time that he visited, and topics of sustained archeological study evident in how archeological maps by Tuebner and others were designed, and sought to allow viewers to orient themselves to the city’s historical layers in its actual buildings by imagining the assembly of its ruins.  For while for all his allowance of the inadequacy of any visual analogy for the human unconscious; his rhetoric and formulation was deeply cartographical in its visual layering of pasts in both the historical, antiquarian, and tourist maps of late-nineteenth and early twentieth- century Rome.  Indeed, the unique form of map literacy seemed to propose a powerful project of mapping a cognitive relation to the past as much as a metaphor.  When Freud  boasted to the author Stefan Zweig that he devoted more attention to “read[ing] archeology than psychology” to assemble antique fragments, as the Gradiva, even as he wondered if he were able to see Rome, was he implicitly modelling himself, as the historian David Lowenthal acutely noted, his own mental activities on the literary figure of the archeologist described by Wilhelm Jensen in his 1903 novel, desiring that “the environment [of Pompeii] rose before his imagination like an actuality,” seeking to escape a “lifeless, archeological view” in finding the woman he knew as Gradiva?  Freud seems attracted and tantalized by the possibility of recovering a palpable sense of the past through undertaking a similar mental exercize.  He analyzed  Gradiva as a story of trauma–and recovered memories–in 1907, exploring the uncanny emergence of an Italian girl possessing the very gait of the relief of the lost woman in Pompeii’s ruins as an encounter in the ruins expressing the model of a therapeutic cure.

Can one find in maps a similar sense of release in uncovering traces of ancient Rome?   Freud’s encounter with the city surely began from and was lodged in his reading of maps.  What would such maps look like, and could one describe a history of readers’ attachments to them, the better to appreciate the mapping of Rome’s pasts?  We are today far less concerned with streets or walking since we’re less concerned with such maps as guides of habitation, and hope to trace guides to the spatial futures of metropoles:  such maps’ scope capture the order of lived space, but obscure the individual neighborhoods that once occupied space, or lent them coherence.  Maps of ancient Rome, in contrast, excavate a formerly inhabited space, providing images of study to come to terms with the past habitation of the ancient world–an idealized urban space, removed from the present.  Indeed, coherence is less a quality of the visual accuracy of the “maps” of Rome from glorious mosaics of cloud-free satellite images, which, while providing a level of spatial comprehensiveness, but beg questions of their coherence or presence, since they offer viewers few cognitive guides, so much as they trumpet their own documentary abilities.  Yet they recall the older use of city maps of questions  as objects of study, and the value of the map as sites of observation.  In the new views of modern cities as Rome, the image of the metropole is super-imposed over the image of the ancient city.


Cloud Free Rome Centro Storico.pngPlanet Labs 


It’s all the more jarring when the ancient city of Rome is mapped as lying at the center of a spatial web of roads, that privileges motion across an undifferentiated uniform space–at a scale that seems to ignore the material presence of the city that has so compulsively been mapped, to reduce it to knowledge, and to excavate its presence.  For rather than map the city as a network of monumental arches, public squares, civic buildings, temples and arenas, the presence of what has always been taken as public spaces are evident in a network of roads that seem to lead, as if organically, to the city that is situated mid-way down the peninsula, marked “Italy,” as if to place it at the center of the space of Europe.


roads-to-rome.jpgRoads to Rome


Such a network-based envisioning of Rome at the center of European web runs in a sense against our conceptions of what a map of Rome does.  It seems a retrograde version of the world wide web, indeed, foregrounding the conceit of mapping Europe as a brachiated network based in a geolocated Rome familiar from a format of Google Maps rather than a map of the ancient city’s space.  But it is in ways quite a contemporary translation of the measure of roads by a milestone located in Rome erected in ancient times by the Roman Emperor Augustus, whose measure of the milestone of the Milliarium Aureum provided a a reference point to travel through the Empire, to which it was believed all roads led:  and so when moovel Labs undertook to link the streets of Europe to confirm all roads truly lead to Rome today, the image of the  50,000 miles of highways that were constructed in the Roman empire by slave labor gain new form in the Google Maps template that seems curiously removed from work, and from the material presence of the ancient monuments that have lead cartographic imaginations to return to the ancient city to reconstruct from its ruins a palpable record of its past.  Such a record makes fewer demands of study on viewers, since we are not assembling an image so that we can possess or own it, but as they present something like a resource that we can consult.

For the material presence of the past in Rome was celebrated and foregrounded in maps by a different iconography that situate viewers not only in relation to a place, but present a space able to be internalized.  For maps of Rome not only situated its mythic monuments, and the built space of the ancient city, effectively immersing viewers in multiple layers of its past.  Such maps enticingly invite viewers to grasp an elusive physical present of the past, rendered tangible, and carry the promise ability to investigate its space, and navigate the ancient organization of the city’s space and monumental public fora or squares as if they existed.

The tools of surveying provided tools to access ancient Rome in maps, manufacturing a pleasure in presence as maps.  The city also existed in one’s head, and could be poured over in a map, as if to order the temporal layers and perspectives on architecture which Isaac Babel, visiting Rome with Gorky in May of 1933, confessed himself both “dizzy with al these Coliseums, Forums, Sistine Chapels, Raphaels, Pantheons” from which at the same time “I can’t tear myself away” without knowing “when I’ll get to come back here” to “see all the things about which I’ve read hundreds of books since my childhood”:  if Rome existed in the minds of visitors who suddenly became able to access its buildings–and did so more concretely than other cities–maps were turned to to order these impressions in a coherent form.  Much as the translation of many of the operative terms in Sigmund Freud’s work were argued in the 1980’s to have been diminished by their latinate rendering, the power of Freud’s use of a language of mapping and of archeological recovery of the past might be better grasped by situating and rooting them in his experience of Rome’s pasts.


3. The sense of the monumentality of that past was communicated in maps.  For maps of Rome recreated the scope and compass of maps and their pleasure as images that excavated the elegance of its ancient architecture–and iconic images of the past–to capture as well as pose the challenge of comprehending that relation to an only partly lost monumental past.  The maps did double or triple duty:  for the traces that they preserved of the ancient past became a guide to its present structure, and the place of the ancient city retained within the present city of Rome or Roman cities, and in the pasts of its multiple visitors..  And it in such a sense that Sigmund Freud, remembering his travels to Rome, returned to the figure of an imaginary map of the physical stratigraphy of Rome to describe the formation of memory in the human mind.

Despite the value of creating an immersive relation to that presence–which so famously makes cognitive demands on most of its visitors–we depend on maps not only to do orient us to space, but to do unique cognitive work of discriminating its different pasts and the material encrustation of its different layers.  Only in the process of discriminating relations between these layers, and the different levels of places of worship, inhabitation, and monumentality within the city can we crate a personal relation to place.  Rome’s construction has been long commemorated its civic order–first as a capital of the ancient world, later rebuilt and designed repeatedly as a new site of triumphalism and power–whose mapping posed unique problems of mapping both its spatial organization, and proposing new ways of commemorating, celebrating, and orienting viewers to its built space, in ways that created a unique pleasure in post-Renaissance maps of celebrating its order–of “re-membering” the city–and placing past patterns of habitation on view.

As much as trace spatial relations, maps of the buildings of Rome are powerful sites of memory that most urban maps of place balance qualitative content with schematic design. They offer their viewers amateur archeological searches of identification, and even spatial excavation of the layers of how space was occupied in the city, each map including echoes of the past habitation of the city’s physical plant, as if in a game of memory or amateur archeology, staking out both how a monumental urban space was built and how it revised the historical space on which it was configured.  Despite the prominence of the ancient plan of the city in its Republican and Imperial identity, efforts to create a persuasive record of ordered space in maps amp up their cognitive work, as it were, to organize the multiple temporal layers of the city’s occupation of built space–from the walls that once contained urban areas to changing footprints of the city over time.  And it is in many senses not surprising that as Freud was searching for a new metaphor to express his theory of the mind, increasingly uncomfortable with rooting psychic processes entirely specific material processes, by locating memory in a neural network capable of storing the impact of external stimuli, he turned to the mapping of sedimented historical pasts in Rome to describe the mind’s organization and map memories.  In a sense, rather than retain the model of the conservation of neural energy to describe memory, he sought a common touchstone of organizing the past’s temporal succession in how maps offered an objective means to encode and organize multiple pasts, which echo the objective record of synchronous coexistence of multiple pasts that existed in archeological maps of Rome, which clarified past physical plants of Rome for their readers in ways that magically gave material existence to imagined buildings in the modern landscape.


Roma Erklärung.pngHistory Blog, G. Droysens Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas (1886)/ Wikimedia Commons


The powerful clarification of coexistent ancient structures in the layered city that Freud frequently visited provided a powerful means for navigating the past, which could be analytically and empirically experienced, and indeed represented with a fitting objectivity:  in the map, one might say, the past becomes a coherent territory.

The encompassing of such a burgeoning spectrum of spatial inhabitation is both the promise and daunting topic of maps of Rome from the Renaissance, and from the mid-eighteenth century–a proliferation of maps whose increasingly plastic design expanded the cognitive work maps did as tools to refine viewers’ relation to its pasts, in ways that reflected the mechanical possibilities to create a material record to the past.


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Alberto Uderzo’s Maps

“All Gaul Was Divided into Three Parts . . . “

The cynicism of the Republican party’s attempt to redraw the electoral map of the United States certainly withdraws from reality:  when you’ve lost a big election, just take a few steps back, breathe deeply . . . and re-write the map.  It’s hard to take seriously the attempt–as if gerrymandering wasn’t recent history.  If votes didn’t materialize the first time, just change the rules of the game:  these are only conventions; why not protect the economic homogeneity of the electoral district to get more votes?  We’ve recently obsessed as a nation with questions of boundaries and drawing firm lines in maps, a pursuit which hasn’t got us that far in international affairs, or anywhere worth being.

If drawing boundary lines in the sand or in Ohio are powerful exercises in power, my favorite case of delineating boundaries for readers is from the popular comic, drawn by Uderzo from 1959, each issue of which began from the stark boundaries of an imagined ancient world:  even without consulting Ferdinand Lot’s Les invasions Germaniques:  La pénétration mutuelle du monde barbare et du monde Romain (1945), the identity of Gaul/France was the recurrent theme of Goscinny and Uderzo’s rendering of the adventures of the blond Gaul Asterix and his band of fellow-villagers as they continue to resist Roman invaders to their lands.  Indeed, the Gaulist conceit of the cartoon series plays with the idea of national and linguistic diversity in the ancient Roman world, imagining a past of fixed territories, clear borders, and national aggression that mirrors our own, or mirrored what would be a clearly defined region of Gaul–as if by a modern boundary line–from which a magic potion allows them to undertake the against-all-odds deviance of one city, not yet fallen to the Roman troops, and to preserve their identity even if they are within the Roman empire.


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The potent image of Gallic resistance that the comic strip has inspired has spawned theme-parks, stuffed animals, live-action films, and legions–sorry–of admirers, as well as probably having directed the imaginations of more kids to antiquity than any other media.  (So powerful were the connotations of resistance that when Uderzo’s daughter wrote a column for Le Monde in 2009, protesting the sale of the series to the French publisher Hachette Livre, she wrote that it was “as if the gates of the Gaulish village had been thrown open to the Roman Empire,” to give voice to fears that the resourceful cartoon characters discovered in 1959 would be exploited by marketing, as if they would be Disneyfied–a fear Uderzo himself counter-charged was only motivate by greed.




Uderzo’s now-iconic “Map of Gaul” introduces every one of Asterix’s adventures.  But the map becomes a them of a relatively early book in the multi-volume collections that is un-coincidentally entitled Asterix and the Goths.  On the comic book’s cover, the imaginary boundary line that bound Gaul/France was concretized for readers of the strip, as the boundary line between became the stage for action:  Uderzo marked a dashed line (familiar from road maps or national atlases) on the ground, to essentialize differences between France and Germany, if not intentionally to mask how the historical determination was actually more fluid than Uderzo rendered the boundary line between Gaul and Germania for readers, but which the wily Francs were about to invade, even if that meant leaving the flagstones that Roman conquerors had used to pave roads in Gaul.



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Border to Germania


Historical accuracy or verisimilitude wasn’t exactly the point for the authors or readers of Asterix.  But celebrating a mythistory very much was:  much as our hero stands for the defense of Gaul against the invading Roman Empire, the looming shadows of the helmeted Goths in this image echo the Bismarck-style helmet that date from World War I, and cause our hero to turn his attention from the Roman legions that Obelix stands posed to clobber, reaching for the sword to face a new enemy.  After all, the colors of the map are evident in the land that he defends:  Gaul is green; Germania yellow.  The border marking is clear, and the border sign notes the different fonts used in each land just as the Germans speak in Gothic letters in the speech bubbles in this comic book.

Demarcating regional boundaries was of course not so much a reality for the ancient world, or migratory Goths, as they are in historical reconstructions.  But the comic essentialized France by the gallantry and derring-do of its Gallic ancestors–as the counter-weight and barbaric other of the Goths to the east.  In each adventure, Gallic wiles defied the formal boundaries displayed in the frontispiece in Uderzo’s map of Gaul’s division into three parts in they year 50 BC, where all of Gual is indeed divided, . . . save one town that holds out to the north in Caesar’s time . . .


Gaul 50 BC.png

The regional divisions of Gaul are pseudo-scholarly, if not antiquarian, and the joke of the towns that are revealed, surrounded by Roman camps, by the magnifying glass, is matched nicely by the cracks of the earth caused by the cracks in the Gallic landscape, as if by an earthquake, caused by the aggressive planting of the Roman standard in the south of France, casting more than a shadow over the region’s fertile plains.

There was a something of a tradition of an imagined creation of boundary-lines in Renaissance editions of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, to be sure, that is echoed in Uderzo’s clever cartographical cartoon.  The insertion of such boundary lines into the landscape is  reflected the increased national segregation of regions in Renaissance maps and national atlases.  They paralleled, to be sure, the fantasy among Germans that the region Tacitus described to the Romans in his Germania revealed the antiquity of the Germanic people.  National maps were popular in France from regional maps from 1550, or the national atlases of Bougereau and others, and commissioned by the monarchy–even if they were far less colorful than Uderzo’s cartoons.




The notion of the invasions of Goths in a later date was rendered as a cartographical violation of French territory in the great medieval philologist and demographer Ferdinand Lot’s 1935 Les invasions germaniques, an erudite study republished in two years as Les invasions barbares, a work whose cover oriented the work around its central subject–France, in the guise of Francs–despite Lot’s positivistic evaluation of historical evidence.





A subsequent edition of the map was noticeably far more reticent:



But let’s go back to the comic books.  Uderzo’s boundary line in the two-color Asterix map is an actual sequence of dashes, thick dashes, beside a marker which seems to have been drawn in the Gaulish/Roman side–Gaul is predominantly indicated in the sign, and, betraying the question of who wrote/drew it, the presence of Gaul in the Roman Empire is noted as something of a parenthetical afterthought. This is a boundary line for twentieth-century observers of the map, in ways unavoidable when the first comic was printed in 1959:  Asterix is a national hero who brilliantly and craftily defended, after all, occupied Gaul with ingenuity and help from a magic potion. The region’s bounding is totally unlike the tribal distributions that characterized Europe’s peninsula:




And so it’s not a surprise that maps are always coyly present as a conceit in Asterix, as well as national identities that the Gallic hero visits with or without his local bard, including not only Spain, England, and Rome itself, but even America.  This fantasy of mapping was part of the fun, as well as part of the creative anachronism.  Why were maps such a recurrent part of the comic, save as guides to narrate the Gaul’s worldly adventures?

Asterix was only something of a semi-serious hero who defended the cultural boundaries of occupied Gaul.  But the defense of occupied Gaul was of course a powerful motif in the twentieth century, and the recurrence of maps in the entire series–from the brilliant  frontispiece that begins each book, and is included below, by way of summation–repeatedly employed maps as the perfect stage for Gallic ingenuity and wit.  The man from Gaul had a certain international fame recognized on the covers of later volumes:




Well, that combines a map and aerial view, but seems straight out of a classroom map, if not a Michelin touring guide.  But Asterix and Obelix encountered plenty of signs like that of Paris carefully marked on their travels and itineraries across the ancient landscape that looked suspiciously modern in the iconography of their design:




But the line between Gaul and Germania, or the land of the Goths, is the on-the-ground view of the clear demarcation that existed in the minds of all the Gauls at that time, runs the conceit of the comic book, or, er . . . all except in one town.



Such is the beauty of maps, and their power as iconic images.  It’s not surprising that such resistance was shown when  Uderzo, who had worked so lovingly and hard to create these characters got slammed in the national press in 2009 by his own daughter for planning to sell the franchise after his own death as betraying a national hero to “the modern-day Romans–the men of finance and industry.”  Uderzo eventually appointed his own assistants to continue Asterix’s adventures.


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