Architecture: Late Imperial Period

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Architecture: Late Imperial Period

Sources

More Innovations. The period after Hadrian’s death in 138 c.e. does not mark a decisive break with the past, but under the Antonines (138–93 c.e.) and Severans (193–235 c.e.) certain differences emerge in Roman art and architecture. Innovations often appear in the provinces, such as in the Market Gate of Miletus (circa 160 c.e.) with its rhythm of recesses and projections that “break” the central pediment, and develop the façades of theatrical backdrops. There is also an increase in plebeian imagery, and generally more schematic, less illusionistic techniques in frieze sculpture that anticipate Christian and Byzantine styles. The Severan period produced more impressive architectural achievements than did the Antonine both within Rome and the provinces. Among these are the arches to Septimius Severus (emperor 193–211 c.e.) and Baths of Caracalla (emperor 211–217 c.e.) in Rome, as well as Severus’s arch, forum and basilica at Leptis (or Lepcis) Magna in North Africa, and temple of Venus at Baalbek in Phoenicia. As a native of Leptis Magna who married a Syrian wife (Julia Domna) it is perhaps not surprising that Septimius sponsored many notable buildings in the provinces of

North Africa and the Middle East. Large gateways, gymnasia, amphitheaters, fora, multistoried theaters and innovative temple designs were constructed in places such as Sardis, Palmyra, and Sabratha. At Baalbek in Syria an interesting marble temple to Venus was built, comprised of a circular cella, like a Greek tholos, surrounded by an ornate concave entablature that was formed by a series of deep niches and supported by Corinthian columns on a high podium that had niches of its own to echo the entablature above; such a design has been labelled an instance of Severan “baroque”. The Baths of Caracalla were a vast rectangular and symmetrical complex (220 by 114 meters), characterized by great vaulted ceilings that housed gymnasia, an open air swimming pool, as well as the three standard kinds of bathing rooms: frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium. The baths were probably another imperial exercise in public relations. For in most aspects of his life Caracalla (whose real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) displayed a brutality and cruelty associated with the most despotic of Roman emperors, beginning with the murder in 211 c.e. of his younger brother, Geta, whose image and name were erased from public monuments (a process known as damnatio memoriae).

Violent Times. Caracalla’s early death at age twenty-nine in 217 c.e. was in keeping with the fates of many of Rome’s bloodiest rulers, but the Severan dynasty lasted until 235 c.e. when it was violently ended. For nearly half a century after this termination Rome was ruled by a series of short-lived imperial regimes under men, often from the frontiers of the empire, who had come to power through one military coup after another. An indication of the violence and insecurity of the times can be gauged in the huge wall built under Aurelian, emperor from 270–275 c.e., designed to keep out the northern hordes. This brick and concrete construction was originally 7.5 meters high, and 12 miles long with towers every 30 meters along its face. It is the main architectural building of its time, and was the first defensive wall to be built in Rome since the fourth century b.c.e. The accession of Diocletian in 284 c.e. brought great political changes to the empire to prevent its disintegration. In 293 c.e. he instigated the Tetrarchs— four rulers who shared the empire among themselves, operating from different locations. This organization is likely to have been designed to create the impression of imperial presence throughout the empire and to forestall yet another attempted coup.

A Powerful Regime. Much art and architecture would now serve to emphasize the power and legitimacy of this regime. Notable examples were the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, which follow the designs of Caracalla’s baths, and Diocletian’s palace in Spalato (in modern Croatia) around 300 c.e. This palace complex (200 by 170 meters) seems to have been like a huge fortress with high surrounding walls and towers on each corner as well as smaller ones between them. The remains of a colonnaded courtyard reveal interesting architectural features such as the series of arches atop the columns, instead of a horizontal entablature. As well, the arch “breaking” the entablature recalls the Miletus Market Gate and echoes the grand doorway that itself carries connotations of a triumphal arch. Under Maxentius, a “second generation” Tetrarch, a grand basilica in the forum (100 by 65 meters) was undertaken from 306–313 c.e., which involved innovations on earlier basilica designs. These included a series of vaults over the central area and three bays on each side whose vaults were lower; of these the bay in the central north wall contained an apse. Constantine took over the construction of this building, where at the west end fragments of the colossal statue to the first Christian emperor were found. Architecture under Constantine, emperor from 307–337 c.e. employs traditional, non-Christian basilica designs for many large churches, such as Old St. Peter’s in Rome (circa 330 c.e.). In the mid-fourth century c.e. the mausoleum to his daughter, Constantia, was built in Rome, and later converted into a church. Again it echoes earlier, non-Christian forms in interesting ways with its circular design and arches between the supporting Corinthian pillars, now grouped in pairs.

Sources

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).