“At roof-top level, Rome may seem a city of spires and steeples and towers that reach up towards eternal truths,” said Anthony Burgess of the great city in which he lived in the mid-70s. “But this city is not built in the sky. It is built on dirt, earth, dung, copulation, death, humanity.” For all the city’s ancient grandeur, the real Rome is to be found in its brothels, bathhouses, and catacombs, a sentiment widely shared by writers in Rome since Lucilius, often credited as Rome’s first satirist, a genre invented to bring the lofty down to earth.
“The Romans … proudly declared that satire was ‘totally ours,’ ” writes Robert Cowan, senior lecturer in classics at the University of Sydney. “Instead of heroes, noble deeds, and city-foundations recounted in elevated language,” ancient Romans constructed their literature from “a hodgepodge of scumbags, orgies, and the breakdown of urban society, spat out in words as filthy as the vices they describe.” Little wonder, perhaps, that the author of A Clockwork Orange found Rome so much to his liking. For all the Christianity overlaid atop the ruins, “the Romans are not a holy people; they are pagans.”
In the video above, see an 8‑minute rooftop-level flight above the ancient imperial city, “the most extensive, detailed and accurate virtual 3D reconstruction of Ancient Rome,” its creators, History in 3D, write. They are about halfway through the project, which currently includes such areas as the Forum, the Colosseum, Imperial Forums, “famous baths, theaters, temples and palaces” and the Trastevere, where Burgess made his home millennia after the period represented in the CGI reconstruction above and where, he wrote in the 1970s, antiquity had been preserved: “Trasteverini… regard themselves as the true Romans.”
The language of this Rome, like that of Juvenal, the ancient city’s greatest satirist, offers “a ground-level view of a Rome we could barely guess at from the heroism of the Aeneid,” writes Cowan. “The language of the Trasteverini is rough,” writes Burgess, “scurrilous, blasphemous, obscene, the tongue of the gutter. Many of them are leaders of intensity, rebels agains the government. They have had two thousand years of bad government and they must look forward to two thousand more.”
As we drift over the city’s rooftops in the impressively rendered animation above, we might imagine its streets below teeming with profane, disgruntled Romans of all kinds. It may be impossible to recreate Ancient Rome at street level, with all of its many sights, smells, and sounds. But if we’ve been to Rome, or ever get the chance to visit, we may marvel, along with Burgess, at its “continuity of culture.… Probably Rome has changed less in two thousand years than Manhattan has in twenty years.” The Empire may have been fated to collapse under its own weight, but Rome, the Eternal City, may indeed endure forever.