All roads lead to Rome, even virtual ones.
A museum on Tuesday unveiled a virtual reconstruction of one of the bustling arteries that led into ancient Rome, allowing visitors to wander through rebuilt monuments and interact with the city's political elite.
Using a concept similar to that of online virtual worlds, the project creates characters, or avatars, that roam the ancient Via Flaminia, exploring funerary monuments that lined the road, bridges and arches. They can also roam through the villa belonging to Livia, wife of Rome's first emperor, Augustus.
The avatars also can switch between the splendor of ancient Rome and a virtual tour of the monuments as they look today: fragile ruins on the outskirts of the Italian capital.
In this way, the project gives access to sites that are off the beaten track for tourists, difficult to visit or surrounded by the traffic of the modern-day Via Flaminia, which often overlaps the ancient Roman road, experts said.
"It's a voyage through the past and the present," said Maurizio Forte, who led a team of 20 archaeologists, architects and computer experts working on the project for Italy's National Research Council.
Over two years, the experts used laser scans, satellite imagery and ancient texts to reconstruct frescoed halls, vegetation and roads as they might have looked to a traveler in the first century A.D., Forte said.
The Via Flaminia was built in the third century B.C. to connect Rome to Ariminum, today's Rimini, on the Adriatic sea. Over time, the rich and powerful built villas and funerary monuments for themselves along this and other main arteries that formed the lifeline of the Roman Empire.
The Virtual Museum of the Ancient Via Flaminia reconstructed the initial part of the road, digitalizing 4.45 million acres of terrain. Major stops include Livia's palace, the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber River and a triumphal arch built by the Emperor Constantine.
The virtual reconstruction, which cost more than $1.1 million, is hosted in downtown Rome at the Museum of the Diocletian Baths.
In a darkened room of the museum, four visitors control their avatars using joysticks and computer screens, while an audience wearing 3D glasses follows their progress on a movie screen.
While exploring Livia's palace, the avatars receive explanations from characters — including the empress and the emperor — as well as a gardener who shares the secrets of the decorative plantings of ancient Rome.
For now, the characters only speak Italian but the museum hopes to have the program available in English, too.
In addition to its educational and entertainment value, scientists can access the reconstruction and the data to study the area and its monuments, experts said.
"Besides what you see on the movie screen, which is of interest to the public, we have reams of data, scans and maps that are of help to archaeologists and historians," said Augusto Palombini, an archaeologist who worked on the project.
Forte said the scientific data would be added over the next few months to the project's Web site, which already hosts a presentation of the reconstruction. A section of Livia's villa will also be uploaded in the coming weeks on the Internet-based virtual reality community called Second Life, he said.