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ROME (Reuters) - Tourists puzzled by the jumble of buildings in classical and modern Rome can now find their bearings by visiting a virtual model of the imperial capital in what is being billed as the world's biggest computer simulation of an ancient city.
"Rome Reborn" was unveiled on Monday in a first release showing the city at its peak in 320 AD, under the Emperor Constantine when it had grown to a million inhabitants.
Brainchild of the University of Virginia's Bernard Frischer, Rome Reborn (www.romereborn.virginia.edu) will eventually show its evolution from Bronze Age hut settlements to the Sack of Rome in the 5th century AD and the devastating Gothic Wars.
Reproduced for tourists on satellite-guided handsets and 3-D orientation movies in a theatre to be opened near the Colosseum, Frischer says his model "will prepare them for their visit to the Colosseum, the Forum, the imperial palaces on the Palatine, so that they can understand the ruins a lot better".
"We can take people under the Colosseum and show them how the elevators worked to bring the animals up from underground chambers for the animal hunts they held," he said, referring to the great Roman amphitheatre inaugurated by Titus in 80 AD.
Frischer's model is sourced from ancient maps and building catalogues detailing "apartment buildings, private houses, inns, storage facilities, bakeries and even brothels", plus digital images of the vast "Plastico di Roma Antica" model built from plaster of Paris in 1936-74, which measures 16 by 17 meters.
The "reverse modeling" by Frischer and the Politecnico di Milano and University of Florence enables scholars to populate ancient monuments with virtual reality figures for experiments on practical details like ventilation, capacity or acoustics.
"For example, in scholarly literature the Colosseum has a great reputation for being a great people mover where people could find their seats very quickly. But estimates of the carrying capacity vary wildly from 35,000 to 78,000," he said.
Engineers have populated his model with virtual spectators to narrow down that estimate to 48,000-50,000 people.
The model can also show how the Romans, who worshipped the sun and moon, aligned their buildings with the summer solstice.