Gnomen, Romans and Groma

Over time my interest in things roman has become increasingly conceptual. As a child during history, geography and religious education lessons I was asked to draw maps of the roman world but could only ever think about a pictorial empire, in terms that is , of Christians and exotic quadrupeds mid slaughter , aqueduct’s being built with fine bricks, tooled metal breast plates and broad stabbing swords reflecting the sun and at the time, most worrying of all, decimation. Today however I’m more interested in Rome’s conceptual side and how a shadow or a really straight line might cut through nature and trigger our wondering.

I suspect that when it is at its very best drawing is preoccupied by a desire to first simplify, then after that provided an elegant two dimensional route through multi dimensional environments. If this is true, then I suspect that every roman road started life as a near perfect example of conceptual drawing. Not on a map or sheet of velum as a hand drawn line, but as an idea turned into a line in real time and space.

The Romans measured they didn’t estimate, and when they could they cut through terrain rather than work with it. They used the Gnomon to measure time and the Groma to make their lines straight. The Groma was an arrangement of plumb lines that could be lined up by a surveyor to first plot then draw the line that would become either a road, the footings of a villa or the parameter of a piazza. The Gnomon was the stylus that cast the shadow that plotted the curve that visually marked the passing of time. Together the Groma and Gnomen worked in an uncompromising way to regiment the time and space that Romans, wherever they were, occupied.

As the Groma guides the line that is the shortest viable two dimensional connector of the multidimensional problems inherent in connecting two cities, the Gnomen traces the line that is the record of the multi dimensional event that is the earths rotation around the sun.

If drawing is all about engineering elegant two dimensional routes through complex multi dimensional environments I suspect that every roman road started life just like the image cast by the sun on the sundials face, as a near perfect drawing.

Stephen Farthing, Rootstein Hopkins Professor of Drawing, UAL London ,Monday, May 21, 2012