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Reverse Archaeology: Constructing Ancient Roman Spaces on Screen

Stacie Raucci

Union College

This paper will address the (re)creation of “third places” such as streets, markets, latrines, and bars in the depiction of ancient Rome in film and television in the last two decades. “Third places” is a term established by sociologist Ray Oldenburg (1989) to describe spaces that bring together people outside of home and work. The paper will examine these in-between spaces with an eye towards better understanding how onscreen space gets built and what are the subsequent effects on audiences.

The first part of the presentation will discuss the work of production designers, set decorators, and graphic artists and their approaches to ancient spaces. It will examine the processes and challenges that are particular to the recreation of historical space in general (on this topic, see Stubbs 2013; Fischer 2015; Barnwell 2017) and of ancient spaces specifically (Arciniega 2014; Morcillo, Hanesworth, and Marchena 2015; Cyrino 2018; Llewellyn-Jones 2018). Through a focus on these practitioners, it will examine how ancient spaces get (re)constructed and (re)imagined.

Michel de Certeau (1984: 117) states that “space is a practiced place.” In this vein, recent approaches to ancient spaces have focused on the experience of their inhabitants (e.g. Dyson 2010; Laurence and Newsome 2011; Dolansky and Raucci 2018; Holleran and Claridge 2018), rather than just on the architectural elements. But given that cinematic designers must build the architectural elements from the ground up, and given that they are working in reverse from classicists, how should they create their ancient spaces and appropriately make them signifiers of time as well as space? I argue that the cinematic artisans are performing what I refer to here as reverse archaeology. Instead of analyzing artifacts that provide evidence of Roman lives, they are creating spaces from an already established narrative and building the artifacts themselves. It is now well established that the goal of these creations is not necessarily historical accuracy, but often a combination of goals, including but not limited to showing the audience a version of ancient Rome that is already part of their imagination. There is always the question of whose and what Rome an audience sees on screen. An examination of the very construction of new ancient space should help in answering these questions.

The second part of the presentation considers the ideas mentioned above through the onscreen representation of the Roman streets, markets, latrines, and bars. In such an examination, one could start with the well-known and monumental spaces of the city, such as the near ubiquitous images of gladiatorial or chariot racing arenas. Instead, in order to better understand how daily life gets represented on screen and how a community of the audience gets formed, the paper will analyze the image of “third places.” As urban designers (e.g. Larice and Macdonald 2007) discuss how these “third places” contribute to building community, here I will discuss them as the means through which a more nuanced “Roman” identity gets constructed on screen. The set designers and other artisans act as new urban builders in the creation of a new old Rome. The construction provides the conditions of possibility for audience identification with what they are seeing on screen. Case studies will come from cinematic and TV works, such as Gladiator (2000), HBO-BBC Rome (2005-7), and Plebs (2013-).

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Screening Topographies of Classical Reception

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