Architecture and the Late Republic
Architecture and the Late Republic
The Basilica. Roman architecture exists in many forms, including domestic, religious, and civic works such as basilicas. Despite their long-lasting achievements as builders, it is generally recognized that nothing distinctively Roman survives before 200 b.c.e. The earliest known basilica was built around 184 b.c.e. by M. Porcius Cato, who dominated political and cultural life in Rome in the first half of the second century b.c.e. The basic design involved a long rectangular hall with the central part of the roof raised higher than for the peripheral aisles. Internal colonnades supported this central section, and often there was an apse at the end of the hall containing a raised platform for tribunes or magistrates to carry out their duties; at the front was usually a portico and shops. The basic design did not significantly change for centuries and many were commissioned by later emperors. For instance, the architect Apollodorus designed the Basilica Ulpia for Trajan’s Forum (112 C.E.) and Constantine completed a basilica begun by Maxentius that was added to the Roman Forum (circa 312 C.E.), which was exceptional in having concrete vaulted roofs.
Domestic Buildings. Domestic architecture also remained consistent over time, although, as is the case today, different social classes dwelt in different styles of buildings. The urban underclasses could expect to live in multistoried apartment blocks, known as insulae, sometimes five levels high, made of concrete and brick, and with shop fronts on the ground level. Patricians, or members of the wealthier classes, sometimes enjoyed rural villas, which could be quite extensive architectural complexes, with gardens, ponds, and terraced landscapes. The urban dwelling for the rich or better off was called a domus, and excavations in Pompeii of the so-called House of the Silver Wedding around the first century B.C.E. have revealed many details of its design. The front wall was usually solid and faced directly onto the street. The entrance led to a rectangular area or atrium, whose open roof was supported by four Corinthian columns; a central pool collected rain-water coming in off the inwardly sloping roof, while around the atrium were living rooms and bedrooms. Beyond the atrium was the dining room, reception hall, and often an enclosed colonnaded garden, with further rooms off this as well.
Temples. Like many aspects of their art, temples built by the Romans combine Greek and Etruscan features. Greek orders of columns were used and developed by the Romans, but so too was the Etruscan habit of setting the temple on a high podium with steps approaching it from the front. This front porch was often quite deep and the only part of the temple that had freestanding columns, whereas typical Greek design involved freestanding columns all around, and steps on all sides. The main interior room, or cella, housed the cult statue of the god or goddess to whom the temple was dedicated. The temple of “Fortuna Virilis,” with its Ionic columns, high podium, frontal entrance, and engaged side columns is a good example of an early Roman temple, dating to the late second century B.C.E. An interesting early variant on this design is the circular, or tholos, shaped temple at Tivoli of the Sibyl, an ancient prophetic woman, from the early first century B.C.E. The Greek-style columns are crowned by a frieze showing garlands of flowers and suspended fruit, and have been placed on a podium 2.59 meters high and 14.25 meters in diameter. The Sanctuary of Fortuna at Praeneste, about 25 miles east of Rome, is another significant instance of Roman architectural ingenuity, this time on a grand scale. Building began around the middle of the second century b.c.e., and involved cutting the entire site in flat terraces, on which were colonnades and an open precinct, into the side of a hill crowned by a small circular temple to the goddess herself behind a larger theater-like semicircular area. The terraces were supported by a series of vaults made of concrete containing a kind of volcanic earth called pozzolana, and the main terrace was fronted by a two-storied colonnaded façade with semicircular recesses. The base of this façade was reached by worshippers approaching from below along two opposing ramps, half-covered with a row of Doric columns to support the roofed section; these
ramps met in the center of the level. The site afforded magnificent views as one ascended, and added to the sense of pilgrimage each worshipper would have felt in moving gradually closer to the shrine. The overall sanctuary represents a fine example of architecture blending in with the landscape, and develops similar principles of design found in the Greek sanctuary to Asklêpios, god of medicine, on the island of Kos, dating from the third century B.C.E.
Nancy and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine, third edition (London: Laurence King, 2000).
John B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Architecture (New York & London: Harry N. Abrams, 1977).