City of Rome Postgraduate Course 2021

Text and photos by Noah Cashian.

There were only three of us on the City of Rome course this year (2021) – hardly enough to fill the deserted ruins, galleries, and churches of an empty city. As BSR Director Chris Wickham reminded us, however, Rome hadn’t been seen in this way for generations, and (hopefully) it won’t be seen like this again for many years to come. Our stay at the BSR was extremely special for this reason: we saw Rome’s ancient monuments truly abandoned, with all the new perspectives this entailed. Some of these will be quite obvious. If you’re standing completely alone in the Pantheon or the Lateran, for example, you’ll start to see things which are almost impossible to notice otherwise.

A deserted Palazzo Altemps and a lonely statue

In terms of the bigger picture, though, we also gained a real appreciation for how important these ancient remains are for modern-day Romans and their city. I only realised this when I saw the ruins without their usual crowds: Rome’s monuments became vulnerable objects which had been lost for centuries before, and which could easily be lost again. This would all be very bleak, but the pandemic also granted us remarkable opportunities to see how everyday people from across the city were engaged with Rome’s past and its preservation. Living rooms, gardens, restaurants, palatial courtyards, and government basements were all on our hitlist, and we were extremely fortunate to see just how much the ancient and modern cities (and their peoples) remain connected with one another.

With Robert Coates-Stephens’ expertise we gained much more than perspective. I’d been studying Roman topography for roughly six months before I came to the BSR and had visited Rome several times, but I couldn’t imagine the ancient city as anything more than a jumble of names. Our daily fieldwork quickly fixed this, despite my terrible sense of space. Each day (and every week) was carefully choreographed to build upon what came before: we started with tours of the city walls, and literally worked from the bottom up as we huddled around blocks of tufa. Weeks later, when we reached the forum Romanum, our seemingly innocent sightseeing all came together. Once we got our eye in, previously indistinguishable lumps of marble and stone became indispensable markers of architectural style, period, and culture. The more we learnt, the more we could see – you’d think this is obvious, but you really don’t notice this sort of thing until you look at a wall of spolia and automatically begin to pick out the oddities (see below).

It’s from these smallest details that Robert would always draw out the most interesting questions. Some minutiae would be remarkable for their importance, and how much could hinge upon tiny fragments – think Forma Urbis Romae. Other details had an antiquarian appeal even if they weren’t strictly ‘important’, and these were the ones I always preferred:

What else was catalogued alongside this statue? Who scratched a lighthouse into the walls of the grand Ostian house – one of the owner’s children, or a sailor after the home was abandoned? The cutaway of a human stomach speaks for itself, and I wonder if the patron was a medical expert or if this kind of knowledge was simply a given in educated circles.

I never expected to be so carried away with the city’s material culture – I’ve spent the past five years focusing on texts and ideas – but I can say without a doubt that the three of us felt the same way by the end of the course. Our different topics (the middle republic, late antiquity, and Victorian classical reception) were all given more than comprehensive coverage by Robert, and I’m sure that the City of Rome course will appeal to anyone interested in ancient history, and probably everyone else beyond it; we were regularly joined by the BSR’s artistic and academic residents, and even a few stragglers from around Rome. Our experience can’t be separated from the community and atmosphere of the BSR itself, which we all felt so lucky to have – our daily dinners were always great fun and fittingly Spartan for the ancient historians. It’s quite easy to say that the City of Rome is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and it has greatly encouraged me to apply for doctoral study.

BSR summer summary

As the summer draws to a close, we reflect on the hard work and events that have gone on at the BSR over the summer months, and look forward to the advent of a new academic year ahead.

An exciting new addition to our facilities inaugurated the summer at the BSR – we were delighted to add a new fully-facilitated flat to our residence. As a result, we were able to host three more researchers over the course of the summer. The creation of the new flat coincides with the re-organisation of our office space over the past few months: our finance, communications and administration have recently been relocated in spacious new offices, and we now have new lab facilities for our archaeologists.

A huge thank you and congratulations to our brilliant Library team, who worked tirelessly over the summer on the annual update of the Library collection. This task saw some 100,000 volumes accounted for, and our ever-growing collection was reordered, ready for the return of our Library members in September.

Library Summer

The super Library team hard at work on the annual summer update

Each summer, the BSR welcomes back into its fold former Fine Arts award-holders to make use of the studio space. In addition this year we hosted three artists on the Mead Rome PhD Studio Residency (in collaboration with University of the Arts London) as well as one David & Mary Forshaw Newcastle Residency. Many of the artists opened up their studios to other residents and staff to take a peak at their work in progress.


The first half of September saw another successful Summer School. Each year, a group of undergraduate students studying Ancient History, Archaeology and Classics join us for an intensive two-week course led by Cary Fellow Robert Coates-Stephens, and Ed Bispham (Rome Scholar Humanities 1994–5). Each day’s visits took on a different theme, preceded by an introductory lecture at the BSR, and covering various elements of the city and its surroundings. The students left Rome with a comprehensive understanding of the city under their belts, after a fantastic fortnight – not even a biblical deluge at Tivoli’s Villa Adriana could dampen their spirits! Thanks to the tireless efforts of Robert, Ed and Stefania Peterlini (Permissions Officer), the group gained privileged access to a vast range of Rome’s most fascinating sites, and many commented that the course will continue to inspire them throughout their studies.

summer school 2017

2017 Summer School group with Robert Coates-Stephens and Ed Bispham (photo by Antonio Palmieri)

Meanwhile in Pompeii BSR Archaeology Officer Stephen Kay and his team and colleagues from the Ilustre Colegio Oficial de Doctores y Licenciados en Letras y Ciencias de Valencia y Castellòn, Departamento de Arqueologia and the Museo de Prehistoria e Historia de La Diputación De Valencia completed the final season of excavation at Porta Nola (Pompeii) — you can find out more about the latest discoveries in our previous blog.

The summer concluded with a visit from a group of members of the Attingham Trust. The Trust offers specialised courses on historic houses, their collections and settings, and on the history and contents of English royal palaces. This year their Study Programme came to Rome for the first time and was organised by former award-holder Dr Andrew Moore (Paul Mellon Rome Fellow  2006-7) in association with the BSR. The participants — curators, architects and art collectors — have visited several palazzi and villas in Rome and Naples as part of their ‘Attingham Grand Tour’. We were  thrilled to welcome back to the BSR, as a participant of this study programme, Allison Goudie (Rome Award 2012-13) who since her BSR award has worked in various roles at the National Gallery and the National Trust.

The group were treated to a lecture by BSR Director Christopher Smith, and a tour of the Library and Archives, including some closed access material relating to the Grand Tour.

Library Tour

The Attingham Study group view rare books in the Library (photo by Antonio Palmieri)



The Attingham Study group (photo by Antonio Palmieri)

The evening concluded with a lively dinner, bringing the BSR dining room back to full capacity after the summer months. This special dinner was also the first in residence for incoming Director Stephen Milner, who formally steps into the position at the beginning of October — benvenuto Stephen! We look forward to the start of the new academic year and the exciting programme of events to come.

BSR Ancient Rome Summer School

Katherine Paines (Communications & Events Assistant) looks back on her time as a student on the BSR Ancient Rome Summer School.


Summer School 2014 group with Robert Coates-Stephens (BSR) and Ed Bispham (Braesnose College, Oxford). Photo by Antonio Palmieri

‘Yes, I have finally arrived to this Capital of the World! I now see all the dreams of my youth coming to life… Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome.’
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Italian Journey

‘I was lucky enough to be one of the 23 students selected to take part in the 2014 Ancient Rome Summer School, and I now see myself once again living behind the Lutyens façade as a member of staff. My decision to apply for a job here was due, in no small part, to the experiences I had in that fortnight in September.

The BSR Summer School consists of an intensive two-week programme of visits to sites, museums and monuments organised into daily themes and supplemented by evening lectures. It is open to students studying classics, ancient history, classical archaeology or a related subject. As a student on the course, you live within the BSR itself, giving you access to the fantastic library and archive resources as well as the course material provided.

The programme is definitely not for the faint hearted! With an 8.30 a.m. start every morning and not returning to the BSR until after 3 p.m. you do find yourself on your feet for most of the day. However, what really keeps the enthusiasm levels high is the variety of sites that Stefania Peterlini (BSR Permissions Officer) organises entry for. From one day at the Roman Forum, to the next walking the length of the route of the triumphs to the next visiting the remains of Imperial bathhouses, all with the incredible combined knowledge of Robert Coates-Stephens (BSR Cary Fellow) and Ed Bispham (Braesnose College, Oxford) narrating as you go. It really was a course that changed, corrected and expanded my perceptions of the ancient city.


Group with Ed Bispham and Robert Coates-Stephens (right). Photo by Robert Muscat


Group walking down Monte Testaccio. Photo by Robert Muscat

It’s hard to pick exactly what my favourite bits of the course were – there were just too many! – but if I had to it would probably come down to a three-way tie.

Firstly, the House of the Griffins on the Palatine hill, it is not normally open to the public and so we had a private tour to view the absolutely exquisite late second-century wall painting. As a site I had studied since my GCSEs it was such a special experience to finally get to see it in real life!

house of the griffins

House of the Griffins. Photo by Brontë Bowen

Secondly, the Baths of Caracalla complex. I was writing my dissertation on Roman bath water, so felt like I knew this site fairly well, however visiting it accompanied by all-round Roman topography authority Robert Coates-Stephens allowed me to see it in a completely different way than I had previously from books and lectures, and helped develop my skills of reading monuments on the ground. We even got taken to see the Mithraeum contained within the complex – something that I had never previously had the chance to visit.


Baths of Caracalla. Photos by Bronte Bowen

Finally it would have to be Ostia. The trip to Ostia was fortuitous for two reasons: firstly it was a blissfully sunny day (we had had a couple of really rainy ones earlier in the week!), and secondly we were accompanied by Costas Panayotakis (University of Glasgow; BSR Balsdon Fellow 2011-12), an expert on Roman theatre, who gave us a mini-lecture in the theatre there. My acting career began and ended on that stage when I was used to demonstrate the acoustics of the site!


Katherine Paines on the remains of the stage, Costas Panayotakis below. Photo by Robert Muscat

These two weeks were not only a fantastic intellectual experience, but I also got to know like-minded students from other universities, who still remember their BSR days fondly:

The summer school provided a valuable insight into the ancient city, and in much greater depth than I had studied before. It helped me to decide my path for my modules in my final undergraduate year. It even encouraged me to apply for a masters degree, and I am now so excited to be back at the BSR on the postgraduate City of Rome course‘. (Brontë Bowen, Masters in History and Archaeology of the Greek and Roman World, University of Cardiff)

The course was the highlight of my summer, and it really helped when I was writing my dissertation. The site visits helped me change my perspective on how I viewed material evidence, which led me to create a more innovative argument when doing the final write up‘. (Elle Reynolds, Graduate in Classics and Archaeology, University of Cardiff)

It made me feel connected to a wider range of scholars outside of my own university, and it encouraged me to apply for a masters degree‘. (Lucy Harris, Masters in Classical Archaeology, University of Oxford)’


Left to right: Lucy Harris, Brontë Bowen, Katherine Paines and Elle Reynolds. Photo by Sky Emery

Director Christopher Smith added, ‘We are proud of the fact that the taught courses we offer inspire students to take a journey towards creative research. Just as many summer school-ers go on to taught masters, so many of our City of Rome students will go on to research, as we saw at the recent international Roman Archaeology Conference here at Rome. It has always been a key part of our mission to bring the city of Rome alive for as many people, and at as many different levels, as we possibly can.’

Katherine Paines (Communications and Events Assistant)

The support of the Cambridge Classics Faculty, the Craven Committee of the Faculty of Classics, Oxford University, the Gladstone Memorial Trust and the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies is gratefully acknowledged.

Applications are now open for the 2016 BSR Ancient Rome Summer School:

Deadline for applications: Monday 2 May 2016.

20 years of the City of Rome Postgraduate Course

2015 marks the twentieth year of the BSR’s City of Rome Postgraduate Course. The two-month course, aimed at students at Masters or early doctoral level, is led by the BSR’s indefatigable Cary Fellow Robert Coates-Stephens, and gives students from UK universities the most thorough treatment of the ancient city. The course is enjoyable, but at the same time intellectually challenging and rigorous, with at least five contact hours a day including site visits (often led by experts who have been instrumental in the site’s excavation or interpretation), seminars and individual presentations. There are also weekly lectures by leading experts — Amanda Claridge and Filippo Coarelli were among those who shared their knowledge and expertise with students this year. At the end of the course all students submit an assessed essay.

Thanks to the tenacity of our Permissions Officer Stefania Peterlini in 2015 permessi were secured to see the fountain of Anna Perenna, the Villa of Livia, and the Altar of the Fire of Nero. Students were also lucky enough to visit the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Domus Aurea, the Basilica Julia and the House of Augustus, all of which have only recently re-opened.

Here’s what some of the 2015 City of Rome course students had to say:-

The lectures were excellent, giving an otherwise unknown insight into the current scholarship surrounding the study of Rome and current debates’

— Will Rigby, Classics and Ancient History MA, University of Manchester

Robert’s tutelage was incredible, especially in the way he was able to tailor the course to our individual needs. The course was the highlight of my Masters and no doubt will prove invaluable’

— Andrew Lee, MA (Res) City of Rome, University of Reading

[The course] made me think about Rome in a completely new light’

— Mollie Millward-Nicholls, Visual Culture of Classical Antiquity MA, University of Nottingham

Alumnus profile: Dr Carlos Machado (University of St Andrews)

This year we were delighted to welcome back as guest lecturer the familiar face of Carlos Machado, a former City of Rome student himself (2002), who returned to the BSR in 2005-6 as Rome Scholar, and has recently been appointed as a lecturer in Ancient History at the University of St Andrews. Carlos told us about his memories of the course:


Carlos Machado, City of Rome student 2002, Rome Scholar 2005-6.

‘Participating in the City of Rome course was one of the most important experiences in my academic life. Being at the BSR was an amazing opportunity for experimenting with new ideas, talking to great specialists in the field, and experiencing a truly international academic environment (not to mention the food and the weather!). The site visits offered a wealth of information and new insights on famous monuments as well as on those you don’t usually see in books. I will never forget entering through a tiny doorway to find a splendid early Imperial nymphaeum on via degli Annibaldi under the eyes of surprised tourists and passers-by. It was during the course that I finally managed to define the topic of my doctoral dissertation, as each visit gave me more confidence to deal with the material that I wanted to analyse. I also met many colleagues and friends while at the School, forming a network that has helped me in different stages of my career. I returned to the School many times after my course, and I even managed to live in Rome for a few years, but nothing compares to the excitement and the feeling of continuous discovery that I experienced during those two fantastic months’.

It is no exaggeration that this is the most in-depth course on the topography of Rome offered by any of the foreign academies and no surprise, therefore, that many course participants go on to doctorates. The BSR is proud of a course which for many students has continued to be a fundamental part of their own intellectual development. Alumni have gone on to work at the universities of Durham, Exeter, Nottingham, Oxford, Reading, St Andrews, Warwick, Augsburg, Leiden, Santiago de Chile and Sydney, as well as the British Museum, the Museum of London, the Estorick Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the BSR itself.

City of Rome students at Ostia Antica. Photo: Ali Hightower.

City of Rome students at Via Latina. Photo: Ali Hightower.

 See our website for further information about the course: 

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies