If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’re likely familiar with the simulation hypothesis, the idea that conscious experience is nothing more than a computer program. This concept has many sci-fi implications, from Matrix-like scenarios to the radical idea that everything in the universe is software, run by incomprehensible beings who might as well be gods. One of the more plausible versions suggests that we are living in an “ancestor simulation,” designed by future human societies to recreate their past.
Presumably, simulated ancestors would create their own ancestor simulations and so on, ad infinitum. There’s no way to know where on the continuum we fall, but wherever it is, ancestor simulations are on the way… maybe. They’re rudimentary at the moment, consisting of immersive video games and VR recreations of ancient cities.
Each iteration, however, is better than the last, as we have seen in the case of Rome Reborn (or Rome Reborn®), a 3D digital modeling project designed to recreate the city’s architecture as it was in 320 CE, through expert renderings informed by architectural historians and "virtual archaeologists" like Dr. Bernard Frischer, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.
Back in a 2012 Open Culture post, Matthias Rascher explained the significance of this year, “when Rome’s population had reached its peak (about one million) and the first Christian churches were being built.” Historians will also recognize 320 as following directly on the heels of the Donation of Constantine that gave the city to the Pope. We can tour the virtual streets of this rapidly changing ancient city, though the burgeoning population is nowhere in evidence. Nothing moves, grows, or changes in Rome Reborn. In that sense it is still like so many previous representations of antiquity.
Now in version 3.0, Rome Reborn began as a 3D model in 2007, and was first owned by the Regents of the University of California. It now operates, under the auspices of the University of Virginia, as a private company called Flyover Zone. They have other such digital recreations in their product line, including “Athens Reborn®, Hadrian's Villa Reborn®, Baalbek Reborn®, Egypt Reborn®, and Historical Games®.” Rome Reborn’s designer, Danila Loginov, has released increasingly detailed promos of the project over the years, and you can see these many videos here.
To fully experience this simulated Rome, you’ll need a Virtual Reality headset. The third version of the 3D model has been made publicly available. “You can immerse yourself in the ancient city and even enter into some of its most famous buildings while listening to the commentary of highly qualified experts,” the Rome Reborn site promises. Famous buildings one might explore include the Roman forum and the Basilica of Maxentius. It is not an experience based in realism. In some of the simulations “you can opt for a whirlwind flyover tour of the city,” notes Meilan Solly at Smithsonian.
This roughly two-hour tour is like nothing any ancient Roman ever experienced. “Comparatively, the two site visits place users in the driver’s seat,” Solly writes, “affording them freedom to roam through reconstructed streets and halls.” It’s not quite the stuff of a simulated universe just yet, but it may not be too far in the future before Rome Reborn® fully lives up to its name. Learn more about ancient Rome, circa 320 CE, in the videos here, and learn more about Rome Reborn at their official site.