ESSAY- Virtual feast: Go beyond Thanksgiving dinner... in Rome

Picture this as you gather around your holiday feast: In the olden days, there were people who ate dinner while reclining on a horseshoe arrangement of wide, deep couches arrayed around the dining table, three guests to a couch. 

Propped up on their left elbows, they helped themselves to bite-sized finger foods such as ram's testicles, snails, or flower bulbs. 

I try to imagine my family tucking into turkey and mashed potatoes in such a dining room, and it makes my left shoulder ache just thinking about it. And with everyone lolling around like that, it would feel more like pizza time at a pajama party than a proper dinner.  

But what do I know? This is how the upper-crust Romans did it, way back in the day– and, by all accounts, these were people who knew how to have a good time.

While visiting Italy last year, I developed an appetite for ancient history. Ever since, I've been finding out how the ancient Romans lived, what they wore, and what they ate. 

I want to know what it was like to walk around among all those columned marble temples, the bathhouses, the low brick homes of the wealthy, and the wooden tenements that were home to the majority of Romans: the poor people.

One of the reasons the Romans were big on feasting is because many of the guests didn't know where their next meal would be coming from. The rich folks were the ones with fancy dining rooms, and they had dinner parties nearly every day.  

Roman hosts prided themselves on having a mix of rich and poor at these gatherings, and the less-than-rich had the routine challenge of snagging a dinner invitation at some point during the day– every day. 

Particularly fruitful, for such social networking, were the elaborate bathhouses, which comprised libraries, gyms, and ball fields. For many people in this ancient trickle-down economy, no dinner invitation meant no dinner. 

So, when they did get a place at the table, they stuffed themselves, and brought home leftovers for the wife and kids.

  As a 21st century tourist in Rome, you look around at all those marble columns strewn around like lumber, and you want to know what the place looked like during its heyday. 

You wish you could take a stroll through those ancient streets, before they were ancient, and peek inside the still-intact buildings. (And, oh, to be a guest at one of those decadent dinner parties! Who knows? Maybe ram's testicles are fabulous.)

Luckily, for those of us who've been hankering for virtual time-travel, we now have a portal to the past that's as close as our computers.  

Archaeologists and high tech wizards – most notably, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia – have put their heads together and recreated Ancient Rome.

The recently-unveiled "Rome Reborn" is a 3D digital recreation of that ancient city, and you can play with it (or should I say "in it") for free on Google Earth, where it exists as a layer floating above modern Rome. (You'll find "Ancient Rome 3D" in the layers pane, under "gallery.")

This international team has virtually reconstructed 32 buildings complete with detailed architectural features. 

You can zoom in, pass through walls like a ghost, and cruise around in this 320 AD version of Ancient Rome– even enter the tunnel that connected the Coliseum with the gladiators' bullpen. 

The 3D recreation also includes several thousand additional buildings, rendered in less detail. 

Playing with "Rome Reborn" is a great way to narrow the nearly 17-century gap between 320 AD and today. 

But what I'd really like to see is a "Rome Reborn, Refurnished and Repopulated." 

I want to smell the sow's udder roasting in the oven, taste the "garum" sauce made from rotting fish– which was sort of like ketchup for ancient Romans. 

If I had my way, I would watch the Romans in action, lolling around on those couches, looking and acting so much like the people around my own dinner table that the distance between us would fall away.