Virtual Reconstruction of Lost Structures

(with notes about the folks that made the real ones)

(shortcut to the interior rendering of a full-size Basilica)

Way back in junior high school, I became fascinated by classical civilization.  Near the end of it, their level and use of engineering was unmatched until the the 18th century's developing use of the Industrial Revolution's iron and steel.  For them to later on be run over by illiterate nomads wearing skins for clothing proved too curious to ignore.  Within only 300 years from the sacking of Rome, local peasantry thought all the marble and concrete jutting out the ground, and all the infinite-length roads, were the work of a race of extinct giants.

They built structures with the same desire for ultra-grandeur as a new Las Vegas mega-casino, without the "we need to maximize the long-term productivity to construction and operating costs ratio" approach typical of non-Las Vegas modern structures.  Another difference is that Las Vegas -oriented construction firms know that their buildings won't be kept together for dozens of future generations, but rather comparing them to stage sets lasting maybe 50 years.  Structures like the Basilica Nova were of marble-faced brick, mortar and concrete designed for the ages but with all the ultraworldliness of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

They were built because they could.

General Musings on the possible causes for the Naptime Centuries (Dark Ages)

China is alone is having the only uninterrupted continuation of civilization, including vast amounts of maintained literature, from ancient times.  The main lesson they provide is that great accomplishments in a static civilization, not based on economic competition and democracy, will often go unnoticed for their potential.  They will not just be not developed and improved on, but often completely forgotten five hundred years hence.

The Romans were excellent at developing engineering breakthroughs like the wide-span concrete arch and its many derivations, as well as providing full clean water supplies for any tribute-paying town no matter the distance or mountain ranges to the source, but were still a bronze age culture that relied on slavery.  While piston-based water pumps have been found that were made to automotive-grade precision, their military expansion provided a reliable source of cheap labor in the form of captured foreigners for slave (later servant and paid laborer) duty.  As the Empire became overtaxed (both externally and its own subjects) and the standard of living declined with only greater hard times forseeable in the future, normal folks I suspect started losing active interest in their remaining time alive and gradually sought the protection of the increasingly propertied Roman knights, leading directly to the fiefdoms of the early Middle Ages.  Otherwise, engineering developments would have continued, and they would have come up with at least a wood-burning true steam engine, which itself would have been developed.  Why spend time improving polishing of water pump parts when your mill might be burned down tomorrow, or you and your family dead within a month from either disease or looters?

The Empire sprung from the Roman civil war, with Julius Caesar being the strongman coming to "make the trains run on time" by heading a military junta to invade and conquor his own homeland, "rescuing" it from its troubles despite the determined writings and other efforts of Cicero and other eloquent loyalists to the Republic.  The American Civil War was the first civil war in history that didn't destroy the nation fighting it, with no strongman coming to its "rescue."

Intelligent leadership well dispersed throughout the Empire (a balance against the occasional Neros and Caligulas in Rome) and usually sustainable Empire borders allowed it its long life.  It was brought down by eventually unsustainable, too-far borders with restless folks in Germany and the Middle East, combined with epidemics in the army, overtaxation and accidental government-induced hyperinflation (they tried supporting the overtaxed late-Imperial economy by simply minting more coinage).

There was also the factor of there being no consistent rules for succession from one Emperor to the next; there were no established and consistantly followed rules for deciding who would be the next Emperor.  For an occasional decade or two or three here and there there would be the Julio-Claudian line or somesuch, a family dynasty, but dynasties tend to end in chaos if not outright civil war.  The result of this was increasing resources going towards battles between legions, with the most successful general becoming Emperor, instead of battling the Franks, Visogoths and other such fun intruders.  Constantine replaced Maxentius via a battle along the Tiber apparently - the current site of the Mulvian? Bridge.  Both Constantine and Maxentius were usurpers, without any rightful claim to the throne.  In Constantine's case, assisignation and/or military defeat happened to have been delayed for an extended period of by then- surprising relative stability.

When tribes in northern Germany started beating up the more peaceful tribes to their south, those tribes in turn decided it was time to look within the weakening Roman borders for a new home.  Despite improv efforts like eagerly accepting many German tribesmen into the Legions to help protect the borders, the simple rotting away of Roman authority and credibility (such as citizenship granting being spread from the select few to everyone, for taxation purposes) led to the retreat of the borders and splitting up of the Empire over the three centuries after Trajan's overextention of the borders by 117 A.D.  The western half started a fairly sharp decline after about 350 A.D., and consisted of basically nothing beyond the Roman Catholic Church by 420A.D.

The barbarians did show a tendency to often quickly get swallowed up in the ancient traditions and general Roman ways of doing things after they were done looting and pillaging the physical remains of the Empire.  They were even superstitious of trying to re-invade Rome after the successful 410A.D. seige due to the first invaders' following illness.  Even when they did successfully largely obliterate the physical accomplishments and accumulations of Rome, they could not escape the everlasting aura of Rome.  (This resembles the Roman reaction to their conquoring of the highly evolved Greece of the time of Archimedes, who was killed by a Roman soldier.)  This ever-reaching, ever-lasting grasp of Rome continues to this day, but as a sort of empire of souls, of inspiration to many, rather than an often brutal physical empire based on spreading taxation, hordes of marched-in POWs for cheap labor, works of civil engineering and intelligent often-combined military and diplomatic tactics.  While the President of the United States may be the head of the world's greatest current superpower, it is the Pontifex Maximus than many across the world have in a tastefully-framed photo kept near them throughout their time, from Maranello to Bejing.  (No, I am not trying to make a plug for the Roman Catholic Church.  My personal beliefs are significantly distant from many of the Pope's.)

The eastern half, later known as the Byzantine Empire, continued for another entire millenia after the fall of Rome.  In 1452 it was conquored by Turkey, but many of its ideas and traditions continued in the growing kingdom to its north, in what became Tsarist Russia.  The concept of a strong republic, however, was nowhere to be found.

The United States was founded on the principles of the Roman Republic as described largely by Cicero.  (We both started out with slavery, both to eventually abide by religious and humanitarian principles in eventually abolishing it, although we use machines in the ways wealthier Christian Romans used servants.)  We, however, survived our Civil War with our Republic intact.  Many comparisons can easily be made between modern America and the decaying Roman lands of the late Empire: overtaxation, severe governmental fiscal problems, too many undereducated & poor people, and an often intrusive government are some.  Farm families going for jobs nearer or in cities after being driven to bankruptcy by growing, larger commercial farms are very much another similarity.  We however have ever-improving means of communication (a version of the Pony Express was the best the Romans ever had, and then only used by and for government employees, while ours increasingly travels at the speed of light for a growing fraction of the population).  Instead of having religous fanatics burning down previously popular libraries as feared sources of pagan influence, while our libraries may not be thriving, the vast resources of the Internet are blossoming (you are reading this, after all).  I realize the Internet is full of shouting garbage and can be to some a very addictive waste of infinite time (you are reading this, after all, and I did use up time to type all this  :-), but also has many a jem to be found by any and all.

As long as we don't seriously drift our interests away from the day-to-day interests of getting things done, which both we and the ancient Romans have / had established very strong traditions of, our fanatic interest in sometimes quickly evolving change (which terrifies and confuses many a Russian) combined with increasingly open lines of communication should, hopefully, help us continue on, at least once we overcome the malaise that has settled so deeply into our public high school system and many of the families involved with them.

The legacy of the guerilla war for independance that gave birth to the nation, as well as our unprecedented survival of a civil war, will very likely prevent the rise of any Caracalla, Nero or Domitian to the American Presidency.  Infringement from those on the margin who both loudly and indirectly declare themselves to be the possessors of a "truth" which will supposedly save the county/state/nation from certain degradation, however, must always be vigilantly guarded against.

As Cicero might also have said,

"Those who would sacrifice liberty for freedom deserve neither."      - Benjamin Franklin

Into the Buildings We Go...

The mathematically perfect sharpness Persistence of Vision ratytraces make it ideal for reconstruction attempts for things like the various 120 ft. tall basilicas here and there in old Rome by 350 A.D.  While we have local gyms and malls, in Rome and most cities of the Empire, they had the Thermae (Baths).  They had everything from libraries to gyms to of course the three different temperature baths themselves, and often even whorehouses for other entertainment (not depicted here ;->).

The Basilica of Constantine / Maxentius, and the tepidariums / tepidaria, meaning warm water pools, of the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian were incredible structures.  They were the basis for the cathedrals of the Middle Ages (which construction usually spanned most of the length of, vs. about three to eight years for the largest Roman structures), and in fact the tepidarium of the Baths of Diocletian was converted into the nave of a church and restored by Michelangelo himself (referring to the S. Maria degli Angeli).  He was unsuccessful in fully removing the typical late Imperial-era arrogant, ultraworldly splendor of the thing, but it is a grand old church.  The Baths of Caracalla haven't survived well at all, basically only huge wall sections remain, with the occasional fragment of crossvault still attached above.  Enough does remain though, for it to be used as a full-size (if open air) concert hall.

Here's my attempt, so far, at doing justice to the old basilicas, sort of loose combination of the Basilica Nova (begun by Maxentius, finished by the guy who forced him out named Constantine) and the tepidarium (main warm water pool) of the Thermae (Baths) of Diocletian, with a hint of the Pantheon (and maybe medieval cathedrals) in there as well.  From pictures I've seen of what the Thermae of Caracalla and of Diocletian were thought to have originally looked like, the octagonal coffering wasn't anywhere near as deep as in this, often apparently little more than a few inches deep, if not merely of paint and / or mosaics.  The Basilica Nova did use deeper coffering, but the main cross-over members were seemingly likely thin, delicate-looking things judging from a re-attached crossvault base on the remaining one bay of barrel vaults.  For the coffering to be more structural, as could easily be said that it is in the Pantheon (rectangular there, not octagonal), the external cross-over "seams" have to be much beefier, as in here, hinting at Medieval cathedral design from the thickness.  The Roman crossvaults did all have very thick, strong, structually-minded cross-overs similar to this, based on a photo of a remaining crossvault section, but instead of deeply coffered, minimalist structure between them, there was generally solid brick and course concrete without structural coffering.  Maxentius and Constantine's Basilica Nova was the only considerable exception I know of.

The Basilica Project

The Basilica Project

Thank you, Stone Soup Group, for coming up with such excellent freeware as POV-Ray.

(The above was generated using Persistance of Vision ver. 3.6 for Windows, using both atmospheric media and radiosity to more accurately deal with lighting complexities in shadowed areas.)

Here's the remains and reconstruction sketches of the Basilica Nova, the building my project is based mostly on (along with some other influences):

The Basilica Project

Here's the well-preserved main hall of the Thermae Diocletian, now the nave of St. Maria degli Angeli:

The Basilica Project
The Basilica Project

Medieval cathedrals were more a relatively delicate web of buttresses, columns and latticework with a thin covering over areas that were supposed to see use as a roof compared to the more solid Roman stuctures.  People were surprised to find that the great Notre Dame de Paris cathedral did not all fall to the ground when German ordanance knocked off an upper flying buttress in WWI.

The original Pennsylvania (Railroad) Station in NYC:

It was destroyed in the 1960s in the name of modernity, helping spawn of nationwide moment to not throw away our nation's greatest architecture whenever someone comes up with something more boring to replace it with.


Another structure that I haven't yet done real justice to is the Pantheon, a 142 ft. tall (and wide) single top porthole-lit dome in the center of modern Rome.  Any attempt to duplicate it as a virtual building is simply a simple-minded clown effort due to the giant but subtle perfection throughout and seemingly infinite detail of the profoundly incredible original, still in excellent condition.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

(That's rose pedals floating down from the oculus by the way, and I gather the entire dome has recently been cleaned like that clean square patch.)

Well, here's what I have so far in my attempts to create a duplicate inside my computer, with simple guesses at indirect lighting. While POV-Ray will do radiosity often decently (i.e. the Basilica Project), it doesn't work so well with the Rotunda, so I'm using carefully manually placed area light sources instead. I added a sixth ring of coffering to make it more different from the original than its relative extreme simplicity already makes it, again to try to keep it from attempting to compete in a way with the real Pantheon.

The Pantheon is unique in technically being for all the assorted members of the spirits that make up the classical heavens, with a statue for each in niches in the cylindrical wall, but using only a single hole at the dome's very top for light, and was of course a single, uninterrupted interior space.

From pictures of it, the eye is drawn not to the statues at the sides, but to the single light opening pointing to the heavens.  In a way, that by itself does not suggest a diversity of gods and goddesses, but more a single all-encompassing one perhaps looking over the lesser ones residing in the niches.  Whether it be moonlight or sunlight, just small black and white pictures alone convey something different, and powerful, about the place.  Being inside it on a moonlight night would be an unforgettable event of a lifetime.

Its wall isn't solid marble and brick-faced concrete, but rather a series of hidden inner arches, each sitting on the keystones of the ones below.  Without any metal used anywhere, it has survived intact for 1,860 years, including a massive earthquake in the ninth century that toppled nearly all of the other grand edifices of old Rome.  It is one of the greatest physical creations of humanity.

Thanks for reading this (originally) wee amatuer essay.

Comments?  Email me!Mailbox

Return to Index