The Pompey Project: Digital Research and Virtual Reconstruction of Rome’s First Theatre

  1. 1. Richard Beacham

    University of Warwick

  2. 2. Hugh Denard

    University of Warwick

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Fig. 1: Computer reconstruction of auditorium of Theatre of Pompey showing Temple of Venus.
In 55 B.C. the triumphal general Pompey the Great dedicated Rome’s first permanent theatre and named it after himself. This was no ordinary theatre—probably the largest ever built—and it has long fascinated and intrigued scholars. Pompey’s sumptuous and grandiose edifice comprised, in addition to the Theatre itself (the stage of which was 300 feet wide), an extensive “leisure-complex” of gardens enclosed within a colonnade, and galleries displaying rare works of art. It also included a curia building available for meetings of the Senate, and it was in this building that Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. As late as the 6th century A.D., the theatre was still sufficiently imposing for Cassiodorus to exclaim, “one would have thought it more likely for mountains to subside, than this strong building be shaken”.

When Vitruvius wrote his influential treatise, De Architectura, his account of how a theatre should be built was based upon Pompey’s recently-completed edifice; indeed, at the time he wrote, it was probably still the only stone theatre in the city of Rome. Thus, through Vitruvius, the Theatre of Pompey thus became the architectural Ur-text for the vast numbers of theatres built throughout the Roman Empire, and left its imprint upon theatre architecture in the Renaissance and beyond.

Now, however, there is little to see above ground; subsumed into post-antique structures, the monument can not be extensively excavated. To date, therefore, there has been no comprehensive analysis of the site. Consequently, in the absence of new studies, questions of major importance remain entirely open, and highly controversial.

Where performance spaces of great historical importance, such as the Theatre of Pompey, no longer exist or have been significantly altered, the attempt to analyse historical performances in all their material and ideological phenomenology is greatly frustrated, leaving significant gaps in our capacity to interrogate past cultures. VR technology can be used to draw together detailed architectural, archaeological, pictorial and textual evidence, to create three-dimensional ‘Virtual Performance Spaces’ which contain both the information-structure and the simulated appearance of the ‘Real’ (but lost) performance spaces. These 3-D spaces immeasurably enhance our ability to analyse sightlines, stage architecture, scenery, the organisation and use of performing and audience space. When allied with other Virtual Technologies, they in turn open up further, previously impossible, avenues of analysis into the ambient qualities of these spaces and performances: lighting, acoustics, and increasingly movement.

In the spring of 1999, therefore, a new chapter opened in the archaeological history of the Theatre of Pompey, when the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Board granted Prof. Richard Beacham (University of Warwick) substantial funds to coordinate, together with Prof. James Packer (Northwestern University), a new archaeological study of the monument, and to create a reconstruction of it using digital, 3-D technologies.

Fig. 2: Theatre of Pompey: site-plan of existing state, including post-antique structures. (Extant remains marked in dark shading.)

The Pompey Project will result in a highly sophisticated and integrated electronic resource, spanning the entire history of the site, from antiquity to the present. It will include 3-D computer models, acoustical renderings, images of artefacts, all known previous textual references to and studies of the site, a comparative history of scholarship on the site based on 3-D models of previous attempts to reconstruct the theatre, and finally a 3-D comparative study of the theatre-architectural antecedents to, and descendents of, the Theatre of Pompey.

The Pompey Project both benefits from, and contributes to, a wider programme of digital-based research being conducted at the University of Warwick in which the application of I.T.—particularly VR—to Humanities research is being explored. Note 1 This paper, however, will attempt to assess the specific significance of the Pompey Project in these terms.

When we began our work, we tended to view Virtual Reality technologies primarily as a means of enhancing essentially traditional research methods. Despite considerable advances in our thinking and our methods since then, these advantages remain valuable, and persuasive reasons for undertaking such research, and are exemplified by the Pompey Project. They include:

the ability to process and manipulate huge datasets of several information-types in 3-D, leads to better analysis and hypotheses; for example in calculating and documenting degrees of probability in architectural reconstructions.
3-D models share certain properties, demands and advantages of CAD drawings: both rely on precise sets of co-ordinates, and require an absolute degree of exactitude – they are unforgiving in this respect. Since 3-D models require the spatial relationship between objects to be calculated in 3-D, problems of relation, proportion, measurement, and design, which are difficult or impossible to identify during the creation of 2-D representations, become immediately apparent. The problems encountered when attempting to construct a coherent model based on existing data and hypotheses therefore lead to constant re-examination and re-interpretation of data, and advances in ways previously difficult or labour-intensive to the point of impossibility.
unlike manual drawings or solid models, virtual models can easily and quickly be altered to incorporate new data, or to represent alternative hypotheses. The consequences of such modification for other elements in the model can instantly be seen. Through assessing knock-on effects, or by analysing comparative data visually, rival hypotheses can quickly be evaluated, and/or multiple hypotheses disseminated as part of the final model.
3-D modelling enables different forms of model to be produced according to different modes of enquiry: e.g. CAD drawings for the calculation of volumes and measurements of a building, or cut-away models to enable the reader to investigate architectonic data and hypotheses, light, acoustics, levels of probability in the reconstruction, and the historical developments of space.
models of other cognate sites greatly facilitate detailed analysis of possible architectural antecedents and descendents of the building: an architectural genealogy.
research advances brought about by 3-D modelling, enable archaeologists more precisely to determine the locations in which excavation could take place, and assess its probable value. This reduces the amount of invasive archaeology required.

The Project also exemplifies the considerable benefits of being able to disseminate the outcomes of scholarly research in digital form, such as:

relatively low dissemination costs
presentation of the complete data produced by and for the project incorporating a wide range of media. Through incorporating comprehensive databases, both free-standing and linked to models, such a publication is thus a potent combination of scholarly monograph, excavation notes, documentation, photographic record etc.
greatly-enhanced modes of interrogation, facilitating varied, sophisticated and efficient uses of the published data by researchers
the possibility of interactive modes of reception. This more fully liberates the “reader” of the multi-media electronic text from the critical perspectives and agendas of the producers of the resource; readers can interpret and exploit the resource according to their own needs, agendas and contexts (educational, research, museum…)
capacity to zoom in indefinitely on 3-D models, yielding great analytical and presentational advantages
the capacity to update the Project web site in response to advances in scholarship and the contributions of researchers. It can thus become a prime locus of scholarship, leading to fresh conceptualisations of the relationship between research and publication
the dissemination of content-dense, interactive, moving pictures. These are vastly superior to still pictures for educational/display purposes, engaging the imagination of readers by enabling them to interrogate the object and associated data according to their own interests. In a museum/educational context it could enable users to take a virtual walk-around – particularly when enhanced by digital audio and lighting technologies – providing an engaging, immersive, interactive experience. Note 2

Fig 3: Computer Reconstruction of Theatre of Pompey orchestra and stage facade.

As our work has progressed, however, we have developed new ways of conceptualising and implementing our research. Note 3 One of the most complex phenomena that we have encountered is the degree to which the production of different forms of textuality, whether real or Virtual, dictates correspondingly different epistemological imperatives. In the above outline of the Project’s work, for instance, Virtual Reality appears as a tool that can enable, augment, and enhance traditionally-conceived processes of research and dissemination. However, Virtual Reality technologies have been bringing about a quiet, but profound, revolution in the ways in which knowledge is produced and experienced.

Firstly, the technology both enables and requires the Project to be inherently interdisciplinary. It thus draws upon expertise across a wide range of disciplines and skills, combining VR modellers, archaeologists, database experts, theatre and art historians, archaeological surveyors and urban historians; all united in the aim to produce a single, coherent, digital resource. In contrast to purely archaeological, or historical, or archival projects, the organic nature of this collaboration, together with its scope and scale, gives the Project a distinctive character (and lends it a certain significance).

For the collaborators, the need to understand and respond cooperatively to the working methods of such a range of colleagues has been intellectually and imaginatively stimulating, opening up new modes of perception and ways of thinking. Only a few years ago, these people would have had little opportunity or reason even to discuss their work with one another, much less engage in a process of intensely creative collaboration. Moreover, as each collaborator’s work is integrated into the resource, traditional boundaries between data and interpretation, evidence and argument, researcher and technician, are undergoing rapid transformations.

The very fact that this work is driven by the aim of creating a three-dimensional reconstruction of the theatre has, itself, far-reaching implications. The extrapolation of a complete, three-dimensional form from fragmentary evidence, assorted comparanda and documentary evidence is quite different in character to the project of only documenting the existing remains of a structure; it profoundly affects the ways in which knowledge about the remains is created, documented, archived, and deployed. Archaeologists and surveyors, for instance, work to exacting standards of evidence to enable their data to be recreated in millimetrically-accurate, three-dimensional form, and continually interpret evidence in the light of their ever-evolving attempt to relate each element to their current understanding of the "ideal" structure. Scholars employing these technologies must therefore attempt to understand the epistemological shift produced by “Virtual research” and the unique textuality of the medium.

This is a particularly pressing concern for us, since it is not difficult to see how the task of translating survey data so exactly into visual form makes the lure of a positivist paradigm of reconstruction perilously attractive. Such positivist tendencies can lead to an occlusion both of the distinctive positionality of methodology and interpretation, and of the provisionality of knowledge—an occlusion that, when embedded in the disseminated text, may be resisted only by the most self-conscious of readers, and even then, only belatedly. The importance can scarcely be overstated, therefore, of the collaborators inducting themselves into the epistemological implications of VR-directed research.

Furthermore, for the knowledgeable interpreter, these 3-D texts are a source as much of anxiety as of information. In bringing together both the information structures of the original building and a simulation of its decorative elements, the 3-D models acquire a ‘persuasiveness’ which can easily render invisible to the viewer crucial distinctions between known fact, scholarly deduction, and creative (albeit educated) guesswork. As suggestive indices to a possible architectural past they function very well, but unless they can in some way display to us the state of knowledge (and ignorance) that they truly represent, their value as an instrument of scholarly communication is ultimately dubious. Among the central concerns of our various VR-based research projects, therefore, has been simultaneously to tap the extraordinary possibilities offered by the Virtual realm, and to explore how VR technologies can provide an adequate antidote to the unearned persuasiveness that such reconstructions can appear to claim. Fortunately, it has quickly become apparent that VR technology can be harnessed just as persuasively to address, as to give rise to, such concerns.

While our work to date has, of necessity, concentrated on producing models of the main research hypotheses in order to facilitate the research process, as we bring the Project closer to publication we are increasingly generating models which represent multiple hypotheses, or varying levels of probability.

The very inclusion of interdisciplinary scholarship within the project implies a heterogeneity of critical perspectives, and this multi-focal approach visibly militates against the formation of an methodological or interpretative orthodoxy, thus serving to undermine the apparent claim of any single text within the resource—whether literary or graphic—to the status of ‘definitive text.’

More importantly, at every stage of the project, we are deploying a range of technologies to assert the interrogative, analytical and interpretative nature of the work—to demonstrate that every on-screen image is neither more, nor less, than an informed and closely-argued interpretation and/or hypothesis. For this reason, the Pompey Project incorporates comprehensive documentation in which are set out the investigative, methodological and interpretative processes which have led to the creation of each element of each model.

Thinking towards dissemination, a further strategy is to incorporate, at an equal level within the information-hierarchy of the resource, variant reconstructive possibilities of sections or aspects of the complex for which the archaeological evidence is insufficient to reach firm conclusions, and where comparanda suggest a number of equally plausible options. Looking even beyond the initial point of dissemination, these models will respond, in time, to post-publication feedback from users and experts, creating graphic representations of alternative interpretations of the data; they may in time even permit users to apply different textures and patterns—perhaps even proportions—depending on their preferred interpretation of the data produced and published by the Project.

Finally, we constantly assert the provisionality of our ‘virtual’ hypotheses by locating them within a history of reconstructions of the site. Not only are we modelling the Theatre of Pompey according to the new knowledges arising from our work, we are also creating three-dimensional models of all previous significant attempts to reconstruct the theatre, and digitising a considerable collection of scholarship about, and documentation of the site. While such a teleological narrative might, at this proximity, seem to be a strategy designed to aggrandize our work as the final culmination of a tradition of scholarship, we trust that scholarly and technological developments will quite quickly enable our work to be read in a longer perspective, namely: as the most recent, detailed and comprehensive study of the site to date, and a resource for future such research, but also necessarily—and ineluctably—provisional.

Fig 4: Computer reconstruction of external facade of Theatre of Pompey.

In conclusion, our engagement with Virtuality has impacted upon every conceivable aspect of the Project’s work. It has demonstrably enhanced the research process in both efficiency and efficacy, and will certainly enhance the dissemination process. It may, perhaps, contribute to the creation of a more ‘open’ conceptualisation of publication as feedback from users is incorporated, and as the models migrate from generation to generation. VR technology has also been a hard taskmaster, requiring of the collaborators exacting co-ordination of technical specifications across a diverse group of disciplinary practices, and exhaustive strategic planning and communication to ensure that the dictates and implications of Virtuality-orientated research are fully recognised and taken into consideration by each of the partners.

Looking to the future, we are now investigating the possibility of making such virtual spaces the sites of virtual performances. All of this enables us to reflect upon the compelling synergies between the media and methodologies of theatre and Virtuality. How will these performances negotiate between artistic and scholarly endeavour, real and virtual, 2-D and 3-D, persuasiveness and provisionality? That is yet to be seen. What is clear, however, is that as more and more scholarship either takes place in, or results in, Virtuality, we must face the challenge of developing ways of both creating and reading such texts with a keen attentiveness to the complexity of their unique textuality.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC