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Dr Matthew Nicholls: Virtual Rome – University of Reading

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  • Recreating the past

    Walk through Ancient Rome and discover its secrets with Dr Matthew Nicholls

Dr Matthew Nicholls: Virtual Rome

Matthew's love affair with the Roman Empire began aged 8, whilst colouring in pictures of Romans in Latin class. Today he is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Reading and is renowned for creating an award-winning digital model of Ancient Rome.

"My doctoral research was on books, libraries and intellectual culture in the Roman Empire. My research into libraries kept bringing me back to the physical buildings themselves, and I realised the buildings of the ancient world were important to me."

"One of my passions is explaining and understanding the ruins, trying to imagine how they once were and communicating that to others."


Matthew's desire to communicate the ancient world to the public led him to try new and imaginative ways of doing so:

"I decided 3D construction would be the best way to illustrate the past - a digital model would allow one to move around, to take a roof off a building, to spin the camera around, and make changes as new evidence comes to light."

"I began by recreating the libraries of ancient Rome, and then had the mad idea to reconstruct the whole city of Rome! But my idea paid off after 10 years of hard work."

"My model of Rome is dated c. AD 315 and is rooted in evidence, ensuring as much accuracy as possible. The model contains thousands of buildings, including reconstructions of all the major monuments (such as the Colosseum, Palatine hill, and the Forum) as well as the many square miles of ordinary housing, tombs, and commercial buildings. The model aims to give a view of the entire city, from any angle, at any time of day."

"The research potential of the Virtual Rome model is enormous - it can be used, for example, to investigate questions of sight lines, illumination, and routes through the ancient city. It is also proving an invaluable teaching tool, and I use it on my undergraduate and postgraduate courses at Reading, as well as on field trips to Rome. I was thrilled when my model won the Guardian and Higher Education Academy National Teaching Excellence Award in 2014."


Matthew worked with the University of Reading and FutureLearn to create a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with the aim of making Ancient Rome accessible to as many people as possible:

"The MOOC runs as a five week free public online course, designed to introduce people to Ancient Rome. Each week we look at a different category of building, and explore questions such as why was the city built here, and where did Romans worship their gods?"

"The course combines views of the 3D digital model with real-life film footage of contemporary Rome. I guide people through the ancient city and consider what evidence we can use to build up the picture of what we know. The course is designed to be informative, educational, but also fun and friendly."

"The course first ran in March 2017, with 13,000 participants from different countries around the world. This tremendous success has encouraged us to plan to run it 2-3 times a year. You can register your interest for the course now."


Matthew uses his research into the ancient world and digital technology to enhance his teaching:

"I am now creating a model of the local Roman town of Silchester with third-year undergraduate students. I teach my students how to use the 3D modelling software SketchUp, as well as critical approaches to the art of reconstruction, and the responsibility to the source material. Beginning the reconstruction of a city, based on historical fragments, is quite daunting - but it's also artistic, creative and a fun process."

"Working with students on this project is fascinating. I'm learning from their insights and thought processes, which in turn feeds into my own research and teaching."

"I don't compartmentalise my research and teaching - they are two sides of the same coin and it's exciting to see these two aspects of my work complementing each other."


Matthew's work on the Virtual Rome project has inspired him to go even further with his research:

"I'd like to extend my model of Rome to move through different eras, or create a model of another city such as Athens. But it's important to remember that Virtual Rome will never be finished - it constantly evolves as new evidence is discovered."

"I'm really delighted to have got this model to a stage where it's so useful to so many people, and I'm grateful to the University of Reading for their support."

"The work we do here makes a huge contribution to people's knowledge and understanding of the past, and I'm so glad the world can now join us on this journey of discovery."


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