Roman Ruins: How to Imagine the Unimaginable

Rome: Past & Present book

I have a terrible time visualizing things that aren’t there. I can’t figure out where furniture goes in a room until I’ve moved it into three different arrangements. And when I first saw the ruins of the Roman Forum, I couldn’t see beyond the rubble.

I couldn’t imagine the city that wasn’t there.

Thankfully, at the time, I’d been advised to pick up a copy of “Rome: Past and Present” just before visiting the Forum. These little spiral-bound books were sold at kiosks around Rome, in several different languages. It’s a brilliant concept – photographs of present-day Rome, with a clear plastic overlay of what used to be there. You can stand in front of a pile of stones, look at the picture in your book, and flip back and forth between the overlay and the modern scene. The overlay allows your brain to transform that pile of rocks into something grander, at least in part.

I still have my copy of that book, 15 years later. Of course, now you can find copies online before you even leave home (mostly used – here’s an affiliate link to the book on, if you don’t want to try to pick one up on site.

Here are a couple of with/without overlay images from my copy of the book:

Rome: Past & Present book

Rome: Past & Present book

And now technology has advanced even more, to give us gorgeous animations of ancient worlds.

So, if you’re headed to Rome – or simply interested in getting a better idea of what ancient Rome looked like when it wasn’t so, y’know, ancient – grab your own copy of Rome: Past and Present and, while you’re waiting for that to arrive, settle in to watch these fantastic animations.

Tip: Expand them to full screen if you’re on your computer.

Rome in 320 C.E.

This is an excellent animation of Rome in about 320 C.E., with fly-over views of the Roman Forum, the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, the Colosseum, the Baths of Trajan, the Pantheon and more. Plus, there are interior renderings of some buildings that give a much different impression of what they once looked like – did you know the curved ceiling of the Pantheon was once painted?

h/t Gloria of Casina di Rosa

Pompeii on Eruption Day

Pompeii is one of the best places in Italy to get a sense of what an ancient Roman city was like when it wasn’t a ruin, but even there the rubble can be distracting. (In my opinion, the better-preserved Herculaneum nearby surpasses Pompeii in this department, but that’s a topic for another time.) This incredible animation of Pompeii on the day Mt. Vesuvius erupted gives you a sense of what the devastation looked like. It’s a single vantage-point animation, but it shows a little of what an ancient Roman city looked like – plus what the volcanic eruption did to it. Amazing to think that it was so quickly forgotten, too.

h/t Kate of Driving Like a Maniac

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