Rome’s New Forma Urbis Museum: A Must-See!

You’re asking yourself, “Why am I on a webpage that focuses on Rome’s new Forma Urbis Museum?  I was actually looking for a tour of the Colosseum.  It’s a big-name site.  Everyone goes there.  It must be worth it.”

“Yes,” I reply.  “And the Forma Urbis is worth it too — in its own way, served to you in a fraction of its former glory in this new museum!”

Maybe you’re interested.  So, you ask, “Alright, what was the Forma Urbis?”  Let’s start with its name: it is made-up and conventional, since no ancient author ever mentioned it.  And the conventional name in Latin means “the form of the city” or, less literally, “the city plan.”  Remember, Rome considered itself the City par excellence.  No runners up, no second bests.  So, the Forma Urbis was a city map or town plan of Rome in its heyday.  And while its name is conventional, the map itself is wildly unconventional for several reasons.

First, check out the recreation of the map hanging in a gorgeous hall.  It was roughly 60 feet wide by 40 feet tall.  Second, it was made entirely of marble.  So, you weren’t going to roll it up and use it as a reference on your next road trip.  Third, the buildings carved into it were highlighted in minium, an ancient red dye, and they described the city of Rome in maddeningly minute detail.  And fourth, the Severan Emperors (in circa 200 AD) commissioned artisans to produce this gob-stopping, unique tourist attraction.  So, pay the Severans some respect and admire the map with me!

Forma Urbis recreation cropped

A Little History Regarding Rome’s Forma Urbis

In the Templum Pacis (the Temple of Peace), an awe-inspiring government building not too far from the Roman Forum, artisans created this map using circa 150 sheets of marble.  The wall of the building where the map once hung still exists.  And you can see it here in this ratty picture.  That’s sort of insane…  Even more insane, we can still see the hall, which housed the map in the Templum Pacis, represented in a surviving fragment of the map!  How devastatingly meta-cool is that?  The fragment showing the Templum Pacis is in the photo, and the blue circle surrounds the hall where ancient Roman bureaucrats, locals, and travelers admired the map.

A wall of the Templum Pacis where the Forma Urbis map hung
forma urbis fragment showing the templum pacis

In fact, you too can now admire this and other fragments of imperial Rome, while strolling over them!  You’ll contemplate them from a birds-eye view, thanks to the recently-opened Forma Urbis Museum’s amazing lay-out.  That is, the map that once hung on a wall is now laid out on the floor (under plexiglass) for your perusal.

Sure, the marble map is fragmentary…  We can thank scavengers after the fall of the empire for that!  They removed and recycled the lowest marble sheets from the wall of the abandoned hall of the Templum Pacis.  But even worse (because they should have known better), upper-class twits collected hundreds of the pieces in the 1500s, only to build a garden wall with them in the 1600s!  So, roughly 10% of the map has survived.  Only half of that 10% shows buildings that scholars can recognize and locate in the bigger picture.  Nevertheless, they have done an excellent job of reassembling this exciting ancient Roman Humpty Dumpty and opening it to the public in this new museum!

More Awesome Surprises in the Forma Urbis Museum

Despite the Forma Urbis being so incomplete, many of its fragments show amazing monuments that you know about.  What a thrill!  Big-name sights like the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus have survived partially intact!  And you can stroll over fragments representing the four republican era temples that still stand in the Largo Argentina excavation, aka “the Cat Sanctuary” (which was recently opened to the public).

What so important about that area?  Well, the temples are just northeast of Pompey’s Theater, separated from it by Pompey’s Hecatostylum or “100-column” portico.  And while Time and Human Idiocy have not been kind to the map’s representation of Pompey’s Theater, you will see what’s left of the word Hecatostylum flanking one side of the portico.  Meanwhile, between the portico and the temples is a row of buildings, including the meeting hall where a handful of envious senators extinguished one of the brightest lights of Roman history.  That would be Julius Caesar — a name we should use daily.  Oh, and for the record, I swiped this and several others photos from the official Forma Urbis Museum website.

Pompey's theater and the Largo Argentina Temples on the Forma Urbis

Admit it, You’re Interested in the New Forma Urbis Museum!

And that’s great because I want to take you there!  You’ll love it, if you love maps in general or ancient Roman topography specifically.  We’ll look at how ancient cartographers created the most telegraphic shapes possible to represent the intricacies of luxury homes, garden spaces, shops and stores, apartment buildings, temples, aqueducts, and sports venues.  If those topics leave you cold, the grandeur and budget of imperial Rome will stun you.  And if you’re a history nerd, you’ll connect immediately to the physical places that you’ve read so much about — if you don’t faint first to see the imperial city at your feet!

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