Roman Architecture

views updated May 18 2018

Roman Architecture


Roman architecture is essentially a hybrid composed of elements inherited from the Etruscans combined with the outside influences of the Greeks. As an example, the native Etruscan building traditions can be recognized in the early substructures of the Capitoline Temple in Rome. With archaeological evidence of this kind supplemented by ancient descriptions this temple can be identified as the type described by Vitruvius as typically Etruscan, consisting basically of a wide structure with a deep porch supported by columns. By contrast, the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii, probably built in the late second century b.c.e., is a typical example of a temple that exhibits Greek influence in its plan. Etruscan and early Roman art and architecture were very much influenced by the advances made by the Greeks, particularly by the structures built in the Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. However, the contributions made by Rome to the development of architectural design were eventually of a different character. The development of new materials and techniques made possible revolutionary advances in the creation of monumental structures and especially in the treatment of interior architectural spaces. Greek building, whether in wood or stone, relied heavily on the post and lintel system—uprights supporting a cross bar—resulting in a style that created a strong horizontal sense of stability and solidity. The exterior of a Greek temple generally presented a carefully planned and orderly arrangement of its parts as seen from all views but the interior space was a less important consideration. With the development of concrete as a building material from the second century b.c.e. Roman architects and engineers were free to experiment with building on a colossal scale, enclosing large interior spaces and creating an architectural style that was basically new and extremely inventive.

Planning Was Not Invented Only by the Greeks

It seems that there was an almost universal need among peoples throughout history to impose some order on their communities by the use of an overall plan where the local terrain allowed. This orderly design of towns and cities can be seen in many parts of the ancient world in cultures as distinct as ancient China and Egypt. Leopold Arnaud, a distinguished professor of architecture, in an essay titled "Social Organization and the City Plan" explained that it would be wrong to credit only the Greeks with the invention of city planning. He said that the idea of a rectangular pattern for town planning is very ancient. The origins of the system might have developed from the method of plowing a field or laying out a military camp but it was a practical arrangement and the idea could have developed independently in many different places.

In Egypt, during the Old Kingdom (2175–2134 b.c.e.), the streets of the City of the Dead at the foot of the Great Pyramid at Giza were laid out on a grid pattern with streets intersecting at right angles. This probably imitated and resembled the arrangement used in cities for the living. There are other examples of city planning in Egypt recovered by archaeological excavation that show this pattern to have continued throughout Egyptian history.

The plan attributed to the Greeks did not develop until late in their history during the time of Alexander the Great and his successors in the Hellenistic Period (Late fourth through late first centuries b.c.e.). This does not mean to suggest that the Greeks learned city planning from the Egyptians but simply that the same kind of organization was seen to be practical in both cultures.

The Roman town plan was similar to that developed by the Greeks and may owe some debt to them. In a Roman community the two main thoroughfares were called the cardo, which ran north and south, and the decumanus, east and west. Other streets ran parallel to the cardo and decumanus creating a regular system of city blocks.

Large cities like Rome and Athens, however, were not planned according to any organized scheme. They had simply grown and expanded from small settlements over a long history. Attempts were made at various times in both cities to bring some order to their plans but without overall success in either case.

Roman Building Techniques.

Building in stone as practiced by the Greeks required skilled stonecutters and masons, the help of engineers and riggers to carry out the actual construction, and little more. Some carpentry was necessary for the wood beams to carry the roof, and tile setters were needed to finish its covering. By contrast, the newly developed techniques of the Romans required a larger range of specialists for the greatly expanded building program. Since concrete is initially a liquid, its use requires the cooperation of skilled carpenters to build scaffolds and forms, in addition to masons for some of the stone elements such as foundations and door frames, brick and tile layers for parts of the construction and the roof, plumbers for drainage systems, plasterers and painters for finished work, and artists/decorators for wall paintings and mosaic floors. In ancient Rome the need for this variety of skills resulted in the development of specialized working groups or guilds that could provide the necessary training and the continuity of experience. The initial use of concrete by the Romans may have grown out of a type of packed mud construction, but it more probably developed from the use of clay to bond courses of brick or stone. Once the discovery was made that rubble fragments of stone could be bonded together by pouring a liquid mortar over them, the natural next step was to build forms of wood that would retain the mortar until it hardened. Basically, Roman mortar was comprised of lime, and the best lime mortar used volcanic ash as an aggregate. Casting structural elements from concrete rather than carving them out of stone gave Roman architects the freedom to create more complex shapes, achieve greater heights, and span wider spaces. Although the arch, vault, and dome were known in other ancient cultures, it was not until the Romans developed the use of cast concrete that their full potential was realized and exploited.


introduction: The only Roman technical work on the art and science of ancient architecture was written by Vitruvius Polio, who lived during the reign of the emperor Augustus. In The Ten Books on Architecture, he gives detailed treatments of such subjects as town planning, styles of architecture, building materials, and methods of construction. Since he was a practicing architect in addition to being a learned man, the information he left is especially valuable, not only for the study of Greek and Roman architecture but for the descriptions he provides of the Etruscan architecture that no longer exists. Vitruvius' work has also been described as a practical guide to becoming a Roman architect. In this section he lists what sort of education an architect should have.

  1. The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory. Practice is the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing. Theory, on the other hand, is the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion.
  2. It follows, therefore, that architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.
  3. In all matters, but particularly in architecture, there are these two points:—the thing signified, and that which gives it its significance. That which is signified is the subject of which we may be speaking; and that which gives significance is a demonstration on scientific principles. It appears, then, that one who professes himself an architect should be well versed in both directions. He ought, therefore, to be both naturally gifted and amenable to instruction. Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. Let him be educated, skillful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens.
  4. The reasons for all this are as follows. An architect should be an educated man so as to leave a more lasting remembrance in his treatises. Secondly, he must have a knowledge of drawing so that he can readily make sketches to show the appearance of the work which he proposes. Geometry, also, is of much assistance in architecture, and in particular it teaches us the use of the rule and compasses, by which especially we acquire readiness in making plans for buildings in their grounds, and rightly apply the square, the level, and the plummet. By means of optics, again, the light in buildings can be drawn from fixed quarters of the sky. It is true that it is by arithmetic that the total cost of buildings is calculated and measurements are computed, but difficult questions involving symmetry are solved by means of geometrical theories and methods.
  5. A wide knowledge of history is requisite because, among the ornamental parts of an architect's design for a work, there are many the underlying idea of whose employment he should be able to explain to inquirers.

source: Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture. Trans. Morris Hicky Morgan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914): 5–6.

Early Roman Architecture.

The Romans retained many ideas about building from their Etruscan predecessors, but they also absorbed some of the ideas of the Greeks that were passed on to them by the Etruscans. Houses for the cults of the gods were obviously important in both cultures. The designs of those cult places or temples in Greece and Etruria varied, but the first Roman temples were modeled more on Etruscan prototypes. Unlike the Greek temples that had a noble solidity about them, the Etruscan and early Roman temples suggested an openness as well as a sense of mystery. The early temple to Jupiter in Rome, the Capitolium, of the late sixth century b.c.e. was certainly built in the Etruscan style but on a grand scale, to judge from the foundations and some of the blocks that still survive. In following the Etruscan pattern it rested on a high platform or podium, had a broad porch supported by pillars, and a cella divided into three cult chambers. It was approached only from the front up a broad stairway that suggested the change from ordinary life to the precinct of a god or gods. Later Roman temples would retain these characteristics—the design emphasis on the front porch and the raised podium, reached by an imposing flight of stairs.

Roman Town Planning.

Where it was possible, Roman towns and cities were laid out on a system of streets intersecting at right angles, a type of layout also used for Roman military camps. It is thought that this system may have been inherited from Etruscan town planning, but some Greek cities had also used a grid and it is difficult to prove the exact derivation of the Roman plan. In the Roman system the main north-south street was called the cardo and the main east-west street the decumanus. These two streets were always wider than others and acted as the axes of the plan. Near their crossing in the center of a town were located the forum, the major temples, the main ceremonial and administrative buildings, and other structures central to the life of the community such as the major bathing establishments. In urban town planning some elements were standard and necessary to Roman life. The most obvious necessity was a type of dwelling which in Roman usage could range from a humble structure to a great palace. The provision of clean water for consumption and bathing was probably the next most important consideration—hence the emphasis on developing methods of transporting water over great distances such as the Roman aqueduct. The need for structures devoted to religion and the worship of the gods engendered a large variety of temple designs. The commemoration of military victories or the glorification of emperors and commanders was satisfied by the erection of monuments, columns, and arches, and the entertainment of the people was provided for by a well-developed system of theaters and arenas. The final necessary architectural form was the tomb structures for the burial of the dead.



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The Roman House.

In the nearly 200 years of the Roman Republic—from 200 to 27 b.c.e.—a number of standard architectural forms developed. One of these, most typically associated with Roman architectural style, was the house form. Like its Greek predecessors, the Roman house looked in on itself. The exterior fronting on a street was not decorated and had only the main entrance door and possibly a few windows, although they were not a prominent feature of the design. The ground plan was often symmetrical and balanced. Beyond the entrance vestibule was the atrium: the central court with an opening in the roof, usually with a pool in the center where rainwater would collect. Around the atrium were the living rooms and bedrooms. Passing through the atrium one entered the tablinum, a formal room for entertaining visitors. Next to the tablinum was the triclinium—the dining room. In a more elaborate house there might be a further peristyle or open court and even an interior garden with more rooms leading off from it. This basic plan could be made more complex depending on the wealth, rank, and position of the owner. Country villas of the Republican Period, such as the Villa of the Papyri at Pompeii of the first century b.c.e. were already extremely elaborate and costly. The basic house plan with atrium and peristyle became the basis to which were added subsidiary wings and separate buildings, gardens, and pools, depending on the size of the household and the number of family members, servants, and slaves. By contrast to the standard plans, in commercial centers such as Ostia, the port of Rome, there are still preserved examples of apartment houses. These buildings were four or five stories high and arranged in blocks. The ground floor was regularly occupied by shops, and the individual apartments were often provided with a private staircase. The city of Ostia provides an excellent example of city planning intended to accommodate a large population in a limited space while still furnishing the necessary services for a comfortable existence.

Palaces and Villas.

During the time of the Roman Empire the power and wealth of the emperor was often expressed by the construction of an elaborate palace. After the great fire of 64 c.e. which destroyed a considerable section of central Rome, the emperor Nero had a sumptuous palace—the Domus Aurea or "Golden House"—built for himself modeled on the lines of a sprawling country villa complete with gardens and an artificial lake. Although much of it was later destroyed, there is enough preserved (supplemented by the descriptions left by Roman historians) to give some idea of its design and decoration. One of the surviving parts consists of a large octagonal room with a domed ceiling and smaller rooms radiating from it. The design of the room is radical enough for a villa or a palace but when these remains are taken together with ancient descriptions that describe walls covered with gold and ivory it is possible to imagine the rich impression such a palace would have presented and why it was called the "Golden House." The villa constructed by the emperor Hadrian at Tivoli around 135 c.e. was more a collection of buildings and accessory parts than a country house with a unified plan. It contained two principal living areas, bathing establishments, at least three theaters, and a stadium, reflecting pools, gardens, and other structures, some of which cannot be easily explained. Because Hadrian was a great traveler he named parts of his "villa" after places he had visited such as the "Canopus" after a city in Egypt. Many of the architectural advances that had been made by the Romans in the use of concrete and vaulting were incorporated in parts of Hadrian's villa. A strong contrast to Hadrian's villa, and even to the Golden House of Nero, is the palace plan of the emperor Diocletian at Spalato (Split in the former Yugoslavia), built in the early fourth century c.e. This palace complex was surrounded by a wall with towers and gates. Inside it was laid out like a military camp with two main streets. In addition to residential quarters and rooms for formal audiences, the palace contained a temple (probably dedicated to Jupiter) and a tomb prepared in advance for Diocletian. Piazza Armerina in a valley in central Sicily is the site of another palatial villa that may be contemporary with the palace at Spalato, but the owner has not been conclusively identified. In many ways its plan resembles that of Hadrian's villa because it is a loosely organized assemblage of colonnaded courts, audience halls, and residential areas. Two aspects of the villa make it unusually interesting. It is situated in a remote area in the center of the island, suggesting a retreat or vacation place. The well-preserved floors are covered with decorative mosaics of exceptional appeal. There are hunting scenes with the capture of exotic animals, probably for the arena, scenes of the chariot race in the circus, and even images of lightly clad female athletes at their exercise. A distinguished person, who is probably the owner of the villa, is represented with his attendants. The quality of these mosaic "paintings" has led some to argue that the villa at Pizza Armerina was also an imperial residence.


As the power of Rome increased and urban centers grew in size, one of the most important general considerations for the public good was the importance of a supply of fresh water. Roman engineers became especially adept at constructing the stone conduits, often many miles in length, which brought water from springs high in hilly terrain into the cities. Since they were exceptionally well built, remains of these remarkable structures can still be found, not only in the vicinity of Rome itself, but also in locations that were once a part of the widespread empire, as at Segovia in Spain or in Tunisia in North Africa. One Tunisian aqueduct ran from Zaghouan, the site of an important spring in the south of the country, for 45 miles to reach ancient Carthage on the seacoast. It was constructed so well that many sections of it still stand. The more familiar and probably more typical example of aqueduct construction is the one represented by a section called the Pont du Gard that bridges the Gardon river at Nîmes in France. Constructed between 20 and 16 b.c.e., the complete aqueduct ran for 31 miles with a downward grade calculated at 1 in 3000. The part that bridged the river is one of the most visible examples of Roman aqueduct building—standing almost 300 yards long and 160 feet high. The structure is in three levels with arches of smaller size in the top course to carry the water conduit. One of the chief ancient sources on the construction and maintenance of Roman aqueducts is a work by Sextus Julius Frontinus, an administrator and tactician, who wrote a treatise on the water supply of Rome in the first century c.e.



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The typical Roman temple, mainly derived from an Etruscan prototype, is well exemplified by the so-called temple of Fortuna Virilis on the Tiber in Rome. Built in the latter half of the second century b.c.e., it has a façade of four Ionic columns in Greek style plus two on each side of the porch, known as the prodomus. The columns on the sides of the cella—the main hall or sanctuary—are not free standing but are "engaged"—they appear to project from the wall and are actually parts of it. This use of engaged columns is a characteristic that can be seen in many Roman temples. A good comparison is the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, one of the best preserved examples of temple architecture from the time of the emperor Augustus in the late first century b.c.e. It is larger than the temple of Fortuna Virilis, with six columns at the front and back and eleven on a side, eight of which are engaged. The capitals are of a more elaborate Corinthian style—fluted columns with flowered capitals—but otherwise a comparison of these two temples shows that it is really only the size of the building that is different. The basic elements of raised podium, steps, and deep porch are the same. By contrast, near the temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome is a round temple that is much more Greek in spirit. The podium is stepped all round and not just in front. The twenty Corinthian columns make a circular colonnade surrounding a circular cella. This building is difficult to date but it demonstrates the fact that temples in Greek style could coexist with those in a more Italian tradition and that temples with a special purpose could assume special shapes. A further example of the variety possible in Roman temple plans is the Pantheon in Rome, one of the best-preserved buildings from classical antiquity. The translation of the name signifies that this structure was meant as a temple to all the gods. Its preservation is due to the fact that it was converted into a Christian church by the seventh century c.e. The Pantheon is unusual because it has rectangular porch with a round interior, a traditional temple façade with an innovative inner space. Much of the structure can be dated to the time of the emperor Hadrian in the early second century c.e. but there has been considerable discussion as to the dating of the whole temple. The sixteen Corinthian columns that support the porch are granite shafts 38 feet high, an engineering accomplishment in its own right. The proportion of the "rotunda" is mathematically harmonious because the height of the interior is the same as the diameter of the interior. The construction of the main part of the building relies on an elaborate system of relieving arches within the walls to help distribute the weight vertically. In addition, the concrete of each ascending level of the walls was purposely made with progressively lighter materials. The architects and engineers of the Pantheon worked together to produce what is not only one of the best preserved, but also one of the most beautiful buildings from Roman times.

Basilicas and Baths.

Two types of construction that best exemplify the Roman architectural achievements of inventive use of concrete as a material and the enclosure of large spaces are the basilica and the bathing establishment. Both of these types were places of public assembly. A basilica can be defined simply as a large hall used for civic and administrative purposes capable of accommodating large crowds. The Roman bath was also often a large and complex structure built on a grand scale. The Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, built in the fourth century c.e. is a good example of the size and complexity a civic building could attain. In size it was larger than a football field—213 by 328 feet—with a large central space covered by enormous vaults. On either side of this were three large bays. This reflects the plan of the later basilica form used in Christian churches made up of a high central aisle with two lower side aisles. The building was finished by the emperor Constantine so the structure is sometimes referred to with his name rather than that of Maxentius. One side of this basilica still stands as a vivid example of the size and scale of late Roman architecture. Compared to the basilica the Roman bathing establishment could be far more complex. Early in the third century c.e. the emperor Caracalla completed an enormous public bath that had been begun by his father, Septimius Severus. The Baths of Caracalla were meant as a form of imperial propaganda, built for the public good at great expense, reflecting the emperor's desire to appear as a concerned ruler. Whatever Caracalla's motives, the ruins of his baths survive as another example of construction on a grand scale, with the main building alone measuring over 800 feet wide. There were three essential parts of any Roman public bath: the frigidarium, the tepidarium, and the caldarium, a series of rooms that got progressively hotter. The standard method of heating baths employed a system of hypocausts, conduits for steam or hot water beneath the floor. In the Baths of Caracalla, as in many large bathing establishments, in addition to the changing rooms and rooms for washing there were also areas for exercise and games, swimming pools, gardens, libraries, and other social areas. The visit to the baths was an important part of a Roman's social life and it was well provided for here. The scale of Caracalla's baths can only be compared in modern times to grand structures such as large train stations and public libraries.

Theaters and Arenas.

The Roman theater was significantly different in its construction from the type developed by the Greeks. Although Greek and Roman theaters appear to be very similar, all they really had in common was that they both had areas for the dancers or actors and provided seating for the spectators. The auditorium of the Greek theater was more than a half circle in plan where the Roman type was almost always a semicircle. The orchestra in the Greek theater was the focus of much of the action but the stage with an elaborate permanent backdrop of complex design—thescaena—was the place where the Roman drama was acted. The theater at Aspendus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), built in the second century c.e. is a prime example of the developed and elaborate nature of the Roman type. The auditorium has a diameter of over 300 feet and the elevated stage is over twenty feet deep. It is estimated that this building could accommodate over 7,000 people. Such construction on a large scale attests to the importance of the theater in Roman life. In many respects the amphitheater for gladiatorial and other games was just as important. One of the most visible and imposing monuments in Rome is the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, but it is only the best known example of a type that was built in many parts of the empire. The Colosseum was begun by Vespasian and finished by his sons Titus and Domitian between 70 and 80 c.e. It occupied the site of Nero's Golden House and gave back to the people a



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part of the city he had occupied for himself. The Colosseum was a masterpiece of construction supported on an interlocking structure of passages, stairways, and ramps, all necessary and carefully planned for the movement of forty-five to fifty thousand spectators. Below the arena level was a subterranean maze of corridors, storerooms, and cages to accommodate prisoners and wild animals. The exterior decoration reflected the debt to Greek practice by using columns of the Doric order on the ground floor, Ionic on the second, Corinthian on the third, and engaged Corinthian pilasters for the fourth tier. There was also a system of awnings to provide some shade from the bright Roman sun. Amphitheaters similar to the Colosseum were built throughout the empire—at Pompeii and Verona in Italy, Nîmes and Arles in France, and El Djem in southern Tunisia, to name just a few. The arena in El Djem, which held only about 30,000 spectators, is one of the best-preserved examples partly because it is now in a sparsely populated part of the country. Preserved Roman theaters and amphitheaters stand today as vivid reminders of the popular entertainments enjoyed by the Roman people and provided for them by the emperors. As examples of a highly developed engineering and architectural tradition they nevertheless call to mind the dramatic and comic literature of the Roman stage as well as the often bloody spectacles of the arena.


The Romans were especially fond of commemorating their achievements in war by the celebration of a "triumph"—a victory procession voted by the Senate—and the erection of a monumental triumphal arch. A typical example is the Arch of Titus at the east end of the Roman Forum. It celebrates his victory in the Jewish war of 70 c.e. and the two large relief carvings on the interior illustrate the victory procession. On one Titus is shown in his chariot accompanied by the goddess Roma and a winged victory. On the other the victorious soldiers carry the booty from the Temple at Jerusalem, including a giant menorah, the seven-branched candlestick. An example of a monumental arch commemorating an event that was not a military triumph is the arch erected by Trajan at Benevento south of Rome. On this arch, dated 14–17 c.e. Trajan is shown distributing food to the poor of the city. The arch is also decorated with images of victories and the seasons, and also with some later additions that include the young Hadrian, stressing his relationship to Trajan. Not all arches commemorate a special event. Some mark the entrance to a city, to a forum, a market, or even the end of a bridge, and some serve only as civic decoration. A type of monument comparable to the "triumphal" arch is the commemorative column. The Column of Trajan in the forum he constructed memorializes his two wars against the Dacians in a band of relief carving that slowly spirals to the top of its 125 feet. Constructed of drums carved from marble that weigh an estimated forty tons, the shaft contains a spiral staircase of 185 steps as well as a tomb chamber for the ashes of the emperor. It is a documentary in stone with a mixture of stock scenes of the emperor addressing his troops and carefully detailed views of the Roman army at war where even the insignia of the various units have been faithfully reproduced. Its aim was to emphasize the nobility of the emperor and the character of the Roman army. The Column of Trajan is one of the most successful examples of narrative in Roman art even though the higher parts are almost impossible to appreciate. Commemorative arches and columns such as this one and the later Column of Marcus Aurelius reveal a great deal about the Roman desire to commemorate important events and military campaigns. They acted as decoration and focus to the cityscape and served as visible reminders of the might of the Roman Empire.

Burial of the Dead.

Like the Etruscans before them, the Romans practiced both cremation and inhumation. The purpose of the tomb was twofold: to protect the remains and commemorate the dead. Tombs could take a variety of forms as different as a simple square box, a cylindrical structure resembling a tumulus, a tower, and even a pyramid depending on the social position of the deceased and the local custom. In one case the tomb of a baker was designed to look like an oven; in another, the tomb of Cestius on the Appian way, the shape is pyramidal for reasons that have not been explained. The tomb of the emperor Augustus was a cylindrical monument, 280 feet in diameter, built in the Campus Martius just outside of Rome. It was constructed of several layers with a circular colonnade at the second stage. The emperor's intention was to make his tomb a monument to the Julian family, and he had the ashes of other members of the family collected to be entombed with him. A little more than a hundred years later Hadrian also had his tomb designed as a large cylindrical building, perhaps in imitation of Augustus. The tomb of Augustus had been filled with the remains of Nerva, the last to be deposited in it. Trajan's ashes, in a break with tradition, were entombed in his column, so Hadrian was actually building a mausoleum for the continued use of the imperial family and it was used as such until the burial of Caracalla. Hadrian's tomb is now known as the Castel Sant' Angelo and by the sixth century it was used as a fortress. Its decorative elements were lost long ago and in one account sculpture was hurled from its heights as missals. This was the fate shared by many of the monuments of Rome. Buildings were robbed of their stone to be reused in new construction. The Pantheon was converted into a Christian church and towers were added to it which have since been removed. The Arch of Titus was incorporated into the wall of a medieval fortress, and the Roman Forum became an area where animals were sent to graze.


Axel Boëthius and J. B. Ward-Perkins, Etruscan and Roman Architecture (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1970).

Richard Brilliant, Roman Art from the Republic to Constantine (London: Phaidon, 1974).

Nancy H. Ramage and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991).

Roman architecture

views updated May 14 2018

Roman architecture. Knowledge of the architecture of Ancient Rome during the Republic (509–27 bc) is limited, although the Sanctuary and Temple of Fortuna, Primigenia, Palestrina (Praeneste—perhaps late C2, bc), but more likely c.80 bc), has been investigated. It consisted of several terraces, connected by steps and ramps, rising up a steep hillside above the temple, with a semicircular double portico surrounding a theatre. The climax of the composition was the circular temple at the top of the terraces. It is undoubtedly the finest partly surviving Republican composition, and was clearly of great magnificence. We know more, however, about the architecture of the Roman Empire from the time of Augustus (Emperor 27 bc–ad 14) to the foundation of Constantinople (ad 330). Not only was Roman architecture of great significance in itself in the history of Classicism, the evolution of complex geometries, advances in constructional techniques of the arcuated type (including domes and vaults) using a type of concrete, and the development of engineering (roads, aqueducts, bridges, heating, etc.), but it inspired Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Classical design up to the beginning of C21.

Roman architecture, even that of the Empire at its most advanced, was derived from Hellenistic prototypes, yet in Hellenic and Hellenistic architecture the column of an Order was fully exploited in design, while in Roman work was often reduced in status, becoming engaged or used decoratively, as in the pseudo-peripteral Temples of Fortuna Virilis, Rome (C2 bc or probably c.40), and the Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France (16 bc), both of which are set on high podia, have deep porticoes based on the prostyle Etruscan type, but with the rest of the surrounding colonnade or peristyle usual in a Greek temple engaged with the cella walls. From the Greeks, too, came the Orders, but developed as distinctive Roman types of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Roman Doric, as at the Republican Temple at Cori (c.80 bc), was taller and more slender than Greek Doric (with the upper two-thirds of the column-shafts fluted with 18 flutes in the Hellenistic style, the lower thirds cut as 18-sided polygons), and its entablature was much less high (with 3 triglyphs over each intercolumniation), whilst the distinctive type of Roman Tuscan Doric (amalgamating the Tuscan Order (derived from Etruscan prototypes)) only shared triglyphs, guttae, and mutules with the Hellenic Order. Roman Ionic was less elegant than Hellenic or Hellenistic precedents, and included the eight-voluted angular capital as at the Temple of Saturn, Rome (ad C3 or ad C4), that removed the need for a special angle capital at the corners of the portico. Such ‘diagonal’ capitals occurred at Pompeii, and were in widespread use before AD 79.

The Greeks had used the Corinthian Order sparingly (e.g. Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens (334 bc)), but the Romans adopted it as an all-purpose Order, greatly elaborating the entablature and applying lavish enrichment with an almost uninhibited zest. To the range of Orders the Romans added the Composite Order, which was really a type of Corinthian, but with a capital consisting of a luxurious version of the Ionic angular capital set over two rows of acanthus-leaves. Greek Ionic and Corinthian shafts were always fluted, but in Roman Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite Orders the shafts could be fluted or unfluted. In addition to the range of Greek ornament the Romans added a great repertoire of their own. There was also the simple and robust Tuscan Order among the five Roman Orders.

Another influence on Roman design from Hellenistic architecture was the tendency to a much wider intercolumniation than that of Hellenic buildings, something that was no doubt partly due to the widely spaced columns of Etruscan porticoes. Wall-surfaces, too, were given considerable attention, not only with finishes (e.g. coloured marbles, etc.), but by means of the engaged columns and pilasters so typical of Roman work. One of the most influential Roman innovations was the synthesis of arches (set in substantial blocky structures) and the columnar and trabeated forms of the Orders (applied with very wide intercolumniations), an example of which was the triumphal arch of Titus (c. ad 90) in Rome. This combination was further developed as the assemblage of Orders applied to several storeys of arcuated walls, as in the Colosseum, Rome (c. ad 75–82). The impact of these inventions cannot be overstated, as the history of Classical architecture demonstrates. In particular, they were used in various combinations and transformations from Renaissance times.

Roman developments in the use of brick, concrete, and stone for building led to the construction of enormous arched and vaulted monumental buildings in which interpenetration of volumes based on complexities of plan-form were explored. Rough surfaces were then clad with stucco, coloured marbles, and other materials, and internal décor of great magnificence was achieved. Good examples of vaulted and domed structures were those at Pompeii in C2 bc, the Roman Tabularium with its half-engaged columns (78 bc), Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden House—ad mid-C1) attributed to Severus, and the huge complex of Severan buildings on the Palatine by Rabirius (ad late C1). Vaulted structures with ingenious geometries in the planning include the thermae of Caracalla (c.215) and Diocletian (306) and the basilica of Maxentius (310–313) in Rome. Highly organized monumental Roman buildings such as the thermae, Domus Aurea, Villa Adriana (Hadrian's Villa) at Tivoli (from c.123), and the gigantic Palace of Emperor Diocletian at Spalato (Salona), Dalmatia (c.300), differ greatly from the architecture of Ancient Greece, yet can be described as ‘Classical’. In fact, they can also be seen as having tendencies that in a curious way anticipated some designs of the Baroque period (although cannot be described as truly Baroque themselves), not only in the geometrical complexities of their plans, but in the elevational treatment, such as the segmental arch rising into the pediment (called an arcuated lintel) in the forecourt of Diocletian's Palace. Furthermore, vast developments such as the Villa Adriana at Tivoli had different areas and parts intended as mnemonics of various regions within the Empire (such as the Canopus with its Nilotic references), and so were not only important precedents for the C18 garden of allusions, intended to trigger associations, improving thoughts, and sentiments in the visitor, but were forerunners of the eclectic cult of the Picturesque.

Temples with porticoes at one end only, set on high podia, derive from Etruscan precedents, while temples related to colonnaded forecourts were Hellenistic in origin, and reached heights of magnificence in the Imperial fora at the Baalbek complex, Lebanon (formerly Heliopolis—ad C1–3). The Romans also built circular temples (e.g. ‘Temple of Vesta’ (probably Hercules Victor) in the Forum Boarium (c. C1 bc) and the ‘Temple of Vesta’ or ‘Sybil’ at Tivoli (very likely of the same period, and influential in C18). Almost proto-Baroque was the circular temple at Baalbek, with entablature arranged in five concave segmental curves on plan over four Corinthian columns. Circular mausolea, e.g. the Tomb of Caecilia Metella, Rome (C1 bc), derived from Etruscan tumuli which were precedents for Imperial mausolea and other circular structures. Possibly the best-known Roman circular building is the Hadrianic Pantheon (c.120), a thick drum from which rises a coffered dome with a central oculus. The height of the drum is the same as the radius of the dome (the low, stepped exterior was an inspiration to Neo-Classical architects), and the diameter of the drum is the same as the dimension from the floor to the oculus. Attached to the drum is a large deep octastyle pedimented portico. Another familiar Roman building-type is the basilica which, with its clerestoreyed nave, lean-to aisles, and apsidal end, was one of the most influential of all forms and the precedent for countless churches and halls for the best part of two millennia. Other important Roman buildings included amphitheatres (of which the Colosseum was the grandest and most influential representative); thermae (mentioned above, and including many rooms of different shapes and sizes all combined within one ingenious plan); circuses and hippodromes (huge structures, clearly influences in the design of C20 sports stadia, race-courses, and running-tracks); commemorative columns, e.g. Trajan's Column, Rome (early C2); triumphal arches; and Imperial fora, such as Trajan's forum, Rome (c.113), designed by Apollodorus (which were the models for many civic spaces).

Structural and uninhibited use of the arch made great engineering works possible, such as aqueducts and bridges. Good examples of aqueducts include the Pont du Gard, Nîmes (ad C1), which carried the aqueduct and road over the river-gorge, and the Aqua Claudia, Rome (ad 38–52), with its Sublime array of arches carried on massive stone piers. Surviving bridges include the Pons Mulvius (c.109 bc), which crosses the Tiber near Rome and carries the Via Flaminia. Such a command of structure also enabled multi-storey apart-ment-blocks called insulae to be built, with identical floor-plans throughout, and fire-resistant construction of brick with concrete vaults (e.g. insulae at the Roman port of Ostia, near Rome). From C1 insulae often had arcaded ground-floors.

The better type of dwelling-house in towns (domus) had its origins in Greek and Hellenistic models, and was usually of one or two storeys. Internal planning was based on axes and symmetry, with the main rooms placed around the atrium and perhaps other internal courts (often with peristyles). The domus presented blank walls to the street, or backed on to shops that faced the street, as at Pompeii, so it was an intensely private place, keeping the outside world at bay. Bigger houses also had walled gardens attached to them.

Country or suburban houses were called villas, the plans of which were looser and often of some complexity, designed to exploit views of the countryside or the sea: the most celebrated example was Pliny's villa at Laurentum, an elusive building described by its owner that has exercised the imaginations of many who have attempted a reconstruction. However, it must be regarded primarily as a literary phenomenon, and does not represent an archaeological datum, whereas many other Roman villas have been excavated in Italy, France, Tunisia, and England. The villa, unlike the domus, was therefore outward- rather than inward-looking, and had rooms of various shapes and sizes, including internal galleries. External colonnades, connected to the gardens, enabled the pleasures of nature to be enjoyed.

Whereas Greek temples tended to be set on an acropolis (e.g. the Parthenon, Athens), remote from the city below, Roman temples, on the other hand, were usually sited near or in public places (e.g. Maison Carrée, Nîmes, and Temple of Fortuna Virilis, Rome). The triumphalism of Roman architecture was influential in Early Christian basilican churches, while Roman constructional techniques were passed to the Eastern Empire, and were continued and developed by Byzantine architects.

Finally, there was the architecture of Death, including the underground cemeteries (catacombs), private hypogea, and columbaria, linear cemeteries (roads lined with family and individual tombs, often set in funerary gardens (e.g. the Appian Way) ), vast Imperial mausolea, cemeteries with built tombs in clusters (e.g. at Ostia), and circular tomb-structures (e.g. Santa Costanza, Rome (mid-C4) ) that were important models for martyria and other Christian buildings.


J. Anderson (1997);
A. Boëthius (1960);
B&W-P (1970);
Colvin (1991);
J. Curl (2001, 2002a);
W. MacD (1965–86);
W. MacD & and Pinto (1995);
D. S. Robertson (1945);
Jane Turner (1996);
Tomlinson (1995);
Toynbee (1971);
Ward-Perkins (1974, 1981, 1986);
D. Watkin (1986);
Mort. Wheeler (1964);
Wilson Jones (2000)

Roman art and architecture

views updated Jun 27 2018

Roman art and architecture Classical art and architecture of ancient Rome. Prior to 400 bc, Roman art was largely Etruscan art in the form of tomb decorations, after which Greek influence became dominant. Few examples of later Roman painting have survived: the best examples are found in the Italian towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Another common art form was the mosaic. Floors and walls were decorated mostly in elaborate geometric patterns, but mosaics were also created to depict everyday scenes, or gods and goddesses. In sculpture, the Romans excelled in portrait busts and reliefs. In architecture, notable features include the adoption of the arch, vault, and dome. Fine examples include the Pantheon and Colosseum in Rome.