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.

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.

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:

www.bsr.ac.uk/welcome-to-Rome/taught-courses/city-of-rome-pg 

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