ROME — Imagine strolling through the Forum like Emperor Constantine, or climbing the marble steps of the Senate amid the splendor that was ancient Rome, the caput mundi, the capital of the world.
Such flights of fancy have long been the dream of many a scholar, tourist and ordinary modern Roman. A new $2-million, 3-D computer project by a team of international experts may make the dream a reality -- a virtual reality.
Designers of Rome Reborn claim it is the largest and most complete digital simulation of a historic city ever created.
Ten years in the making, the project was launched at UCLA, is based now at the University of Virginia and was unveiled to the public this week in Rome's City Hall.
It re-creates the Eternal City in AD 320, the time of Constantine, when Rome was at its peak with more than 1 million inhabitants.
Using historic maps, laser scans of Roman structures as they are today and the expertise of archeologists, artists and architects from Europe and the U.S., the creators of Rome Reborn have simulated 7,000 buildings and 31 monuments, including the Colosseum and others that are in ruins, such as the Temple of Venus and the Roman Senate.
The model shows almost the entire city within its original 13-mile Aurelian Walls as it appeared 1,700 years ago.
Bernard Frischer, director of the project, said Rome Reborn was the "first step in the creation of a virtual time machine" that will give scholars -- from young students to experienced classicists -- a new way to examine the past.
"You find yourself inside ancient Rome," said Frischer, who is also director of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
Users can enter this virtual Rome and move about at will, soaring above Constantine's Arch, gliding along marble pathways or descending into the dungeons underneath the Colosseum, where lions and other beasts were housed before being unleashed into gory battle as entertainment for Roman crowds.
This allows the virtual visitors to get a better sense of what ancient Rome really looked like and how it functioned, and to more closely study frescoes, inscriptions and architecture that today is in ruins or covered by the muck of air pollution.
Currently, portions of Rome Reborn are available at www.romereborn.virginia.edu, but only for limited viewing.
Frischer said he hoped the entire program could be posted for the general public within a year.
In addition, he said, negotiations have begun with Linden Lab of San Francisco to make the simulation available through its virtual Second Life.
A separate commercial venture, with the participation of theme park designers from Southern California, will use the Rome Reborn model to produce a movie for tourists near the Colosseum, starting next year.
Frischer said commercialization would not sacrifice the scholarly quality of the project.
"The value is precisely our historical validity," he said.
And study of ancient Rome has already been enhanced, Frischer said.
Using the model, experts at the University of Zaragoza in Spain were able to place virtual spectators inside the Colosseum and determine what is believed to be a more accurate estimate of how many people could fit: between 48,000 to 50,000.
Previously, estimates varied wildly, Frischer said.
"It gives you new data to work with and think about," he said. "And this is only 320 AD. We've got hundreds of years to talk about. It's a never-ending project."