Architecture: Early Imperial Age

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Architecture: Early Imperial Age



The Birth of Empire. The accession of Augustus in 27 b.c.e. traditionally marks the end of the Roman republic and a transition to the era ofimperial dynasties who present themselves as protectors of the Roman peopleand true masters of the civilized world. marks the end of the Roman republic and a transition to the era ofimperial dynasties who present themselves as protectors of the Roman peopleand true masters of the civilized world. A century of bloody civil wars hadonly just ended, and Augustus sought to legitimate his claim to power with a series of monuments, as


Suetonius(Nero 31) outlines the extravagance of Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea) and suggests that the emperor, for all his megalomania, could display a touch of irony at times:

It had a vestibule, in which stood a colossal statue of Nero himself, 120 feet high; the area it covered was so great that it had a mile-long portico with colonnades. It also had a pool which resembled the sea and was surrounded by buildings which were to give the impression of cities; besides this there were rural areas varied with ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures, and woodlands, and filled with all types of domestic animals and wild beasts. All the structures in other parts of the palace were overlaid with gold and were highlighted with gems and mother-of-pearl. There were dining rooms whose ceilings were equipped with rotating ivory panels and with pipes so that flowers could be strewn and unguents sprayed on those below. The foremost of the dining rooms was a rotunda, which rotated everyday and night like the heavens. There were baths through which flowed sea water and medicinal spring water. When the palace was completed… he dedicated it and expressed his approval only by noting that he was “at last beginning to be housed like a human being”

Source: Suetonius, edited and translated by John C. Rolfe, 2 volumes, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1913–1914).

well as calling on the services of poets such as Vergil to write his epic Aeneid, write his epic Aeneid, ostensibly as a panegyric to the new regime. An important consequence of this policy for architecture and visual arts generally is the idea of art in the service of the state—in effect, art as state propaganda. Augustus built his own forum, as well as theaters, arches, aqueducts, and temples, and was said to have boasted that he found Rome made of brick and left it made of marble. At the rear of his forum was a temple to Mars Ultor (the Avenger), which contained a statue to the war god, as well as to Venus, the mother of Aeneas. An image of Julius Caesar, Augustus’s adoptive father, was also housed there, as were other statues of former great men of Rome, including Aeneas and Romulus. Pompey had built the first stone theater in Rome in 55 B.C.E., as a way of cultivating popularity with the masses, and Augustus followed suit when he built around 12 B.C.E. the theater of Marcellus, named after his son-in-law. This semicircular building had a more substantial stage building than was usual for Greek theaters and combined on its façade a different order of Greek columns attached to the outer wall for each level, thus setting a major architectural precedent. Beyond Rome, impressive engineering work was also carried out, such as in the famous aqueduct in southern France known as the Pont du Gard, built possibly by Agrippa late in the first century B.C.E. Functional and superbly proportioned with its great rhythm of arches, this construction also suggests the idea of imperial beneficence in providing the provinces with an

adequate supply of water. Mindful of his own posthumous reputation, Augustus had a circular mausoleum built for himself, just outside the city limits, in keeping with the practice of burying eminent republicans. It was eighty-seven meters in diameter with a colonnade on the upper level and earth atop the lower level, and anticipated later imperial mausoleums such as Hadrian’s.

The Julio-Claudians. The successors of Augustus down to 68 c.e. were known as the Julio-Claudians, who continued aspects of public building with aqueducts in Rome and the provinces. Tiberius gave a generous amount of money toward the rebuilding of parts of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), which had been hit by an earthquake in 17 c.e. During Claudius’s reign two great aqueducts were built: at Segovia in Spain, and the Aqua Claudia, which leads into Rome and whose gate, known as the Porta Maggiore, stands impressively today with its double arches and rusticated (deliberately unfinished) stonework. Near this is an underground basilica, dating from circa 50 c.e. Its function remains a mystery today, but it is notable for its barrel-vaulted stucco ceiling with elegant figures and scenes of abduction and rescue. The fire that hit Rome in 64 c.e., under the reign of Nero, led to attempts to make tenement blocks safer, but the overcrowding and noise seemed to continue as ever. Yet, in the space left in the wake of the fire Nero commissioned his “Golden House,” which only survives in sections today. However, we can see innovations in the use of concrete for the dome of a large octagonal room with a central opening to let in light, which anticipates the great interior of the Pantheon (circa 125–128 c.e.). Suetonius, writing for a later age that had come to despise the Julio-Claudians, gives a fuller account of Nero’s “pleasure dome” and of the emperor’s self-indulgence.

The Flavians. The Flavian dynasty (69–96 c.e.) was ushered in by Vespasian after Nero’s suicide in 68 c.e., and the year of four emperors that followed—Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian himself. Under the Flavians two of Rome’s most famous monuments were built: the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus. As a soldier of plebeian stock who had worked his to the top through military success, Vespasian was held to be a contrast to Nero. He emphasized the point by building the Colosseum, the grandest amphitheater in the ancient world, for popular spectacles on the site of the former emperor’s Golden House. Its dimensions for the oval arena were 188 by 156 meters, and it could hold more than fifty thousand spectators. Below the arena were passages and cages for the lions and other animals brought in to fight with gladiators or kill criminals. The building was made from concrete and travertine stone and its interior was structured by a series of groin vaults and arches on each story; engaged Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns on separate levels appeared on the exterior, recalling the theater of Marcellus, built under Augustus.

Imperial Zenith. Under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, whose combined reigns lasted from 98 to 138 C.E., the Roman empire was at its peak, and this is borne out in some of the great monuments constructed at this time. Trajan was a popular and successful general, and on becoming emperor cultivated his image as benefactor by establishing imperial baths in Rome larger than those of Titus. To accommodate the increasing business and commercial needs of the flourishing empire he also had his own markets and forum built. These were designed by Apollodorus and were much admired in antiquity. The markets made of concrete, brick, and travertine were cut into the Quirinal hill on the eastern side of Trajan’s forum behind a high wall. They were set in a vast semicircle of three stories accommodating about 150 shops and offices, supported internally by a series of groin and barrel vaults. The entire complex also comprised Trajan’s Basilica Ulpia, notable for its two apses. It was located immediately to the north of the markets to the rear of his open triumphal forum, which contained an equestrian statue of the emperor. Behind the basilica were separate Greek and Latin libraries between which is the famous column commemorating Trajan’s victories over the Dacians, still visible today. A notable example of provincial town planning under Trajan’s rule is the well-preserved city of Timgad in modern Algeria, originally built to house retired veterans. The plan is a perfect grid system with colonnades, arches, a square forum, and a mostly intact theater, all of which give some idea of the layout of a typical Roman town of the time.

Innovations of Hadrian. Hadrian’s interest in architecture led him to embark on his own personal designs, which were dismissed by Apollodorus as “pumpkins”; Apollodorus, it seems, paid for this and other criticisms with his life. Yet, under Hadrian much further building in Rome and beyond continued in often innovative form. While Hadrian’s name is associated with the famous defensive wall in northern Britain spanning some eighty miles, other notable works in the provinces were completed during his rule. At Tivoli he established a complex of buildings within a landscaped setting that comprised his villa; among these were vaulted baths, private suites, a so-called maritime theater, a colonnaded courtyard, and two long pools, including one called the Canopus after an Egyptian city visited by the emperor. He built his own mausoleum similar to that of Augustus, and outside Rome this philhellene, or Greek-loving, ruler finally completed the great temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens behind the acropolis. This temple had originally been commissioned by Peisistratos, a tyrant of Athens in the sixth century B.C.E., but was abandoned after his death in 527 B.C.E. Antiochus IV (circa 215–164 B.C.E.) resumed the program, employing the Roman architect Cossutius, who changed the original Doric columns to Corinthian, some of which remain today. But the temple had to wait until the second century C.E. for its completion. By far the most spectacular temple built under Hadrian, or arguably any emperor, is the great Pantheon in Rome, reconstructed (circa 125–128 C.E.) over the original version that was dedicated by Agrippa circa 27 B.C.E. Hadrian modestly kept Agrippa’s name on the inscription on the new design. The portico with its pediment is supported by sixteen granite columns; beyond this is not a rectangular cella, but a vast circular interior, surmounted by a dome with an open oculus (eye) of about 9 meters at its center. The rotunda beneath the dome is made of brick-faced concrete externally and has richly colored marble veneer within, as well as niches and columns regularly spaced. The thicker parts of this cylindrical wall act as massive supporting piers for the vast dome, which was constructed of concrete mixed with progressively lighter materials, so that at its base the dome was much heavier and thicker than at the top. The coffered ceiling, once covered with bronze, would also lighten the dome’s weight. The interior is wonderfully symmetrical—indeed, spherical—in being 43.3 meters in diameter and height, adding a sense of cosmic harmony appropriate to this temple to all the gods. A brilliantly innovative technical feat of engineering, the Pantheon affords viewers inside an unparalleled visual experience enhanced yet further by the open oculus, and has justly become one of the most influential buildings of all time. It seems that Hadrian, undeterred by Apollodorus’s slight, had the last word after all.


Ammianus Marcellinus (16.10.15) writes of the impact of the Forum of Trajan on the emperor Constantius who visited Rome in 357 C.E., and conveys something of its grandeur:

But when he came to the Forum of Trajan, a structure which, in my opinion, is unique under the heavens, and a marvel which even wins the acceptance of the divine powers, he stopped in his tracks, astonished, while his mind tried to grasp the gigantic complex, which cannot be described by words and could never again be attempted by mortal men. He abandoned all hope of constructing anything of this sort but said that he only wanted to copy, as he was able to do so, Trajan’s horse which was situated in the middle of the open court of the forum, and which carried the emperor himself.

Source: Ammianus Marcellinus, translated by John Rolfe, 3 volumes, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935–1940).


William L. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire I: An Introductory Study, second edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire II: An Urban Appraisal, second edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

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).

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Architecture: Early Imperial Age

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