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roman architecture

roman architecture

Of all the achievements of Roman architecture, two are of particular note: their use of arches and domes such as that of the Pantheon coupled with the more common columns. Coupled with a very advanced knowledge of the structural behavior of materials the Romans made enormous steps in construction techniques which remained unequaled for over a thousand five hundred years, if not more.

Amongst the great achievements in Rome itself it is worth noting the bridges, aqueducts (eg. Porta Maggiore), Constantine's arch, the Colosseum and the Pantheon. The temple of Portunus by the Forum Boarium. This doesn't mean there weren't many many other achievements, but perhaps these buildings are the most useful in forming a personal set of archetypes against which we can compare other buildings of all ages.

From here on the best I can do is to make a few comments and notes about Roman architecture. Even ten, or a hundred pages would not do it justice. Suffice to say that as with the other arts, such as painting and sculpture, the ancient Romans absorbed all the best from the people they dominated, made it their own and made it bigger or better or both. In the case of architecture they certainly made it bigger by applying technological innovation such as cement & the use of arches. Particularly interesting examples of this combination of influences are to be found for example in the architecture of Pompeii.

Social and crowd control issues were also very prominent in Roman architecture, again a perfect example of this is to be had from Pompeii's amphitheatre which like numerous others in the Roman empire managed to include all of the tenets of good security and crowd control which are applied in modern stadia, perhaps even better: imagine the potential issues with hooliganism amongst armed spectators at a violent gladiator show! Yet closer inspection shows us the successful implementation of:

As can be seen the subject of Roman architecture is vast and deep - let's see if we can break it down into some highlights and manageable chunks from which we can then link to other pages and aspects:

| External Influences | Construction Materials | Temples and Public Buildings | Innovation |Mysticism & Propaganda | Commemorative Columns | The Triumphal Arch | Famous Architects |

External Influences

Of particular note is the influence received from the Etruscans and then the Greeks but also the Egyptians, Persians, Judaeans and other conquered nations all made contributions. The city of Rome is littered with obelisks and even a pyramid has survived the ages on the Aventine hill. Emperor Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, near Rome, abounds with the architectural innovations which he brought back from his travels across the empire. Many if not all of the architectural features included in the villa, including a sea of vaults and domes are most likely executed by the architect Apolodorus of Damascus.

Building and Construction Materials

A further influence comes from climatic conditions and the availability of local building materials. All of these factors contribute to a varied set of architectural solutions to the same set of problems. A house built in northern Europe would be very likely to employ plenty of timber and require a steep sided roof in order to support snow falls whilst an equivalent dwelling in southern Europe might opt for thick stone in order to maintain a stable temperature and a low, flat distribution of the interiors aimed at assisting the flow of air through it.

If art is an expression of a culture's consciousness of itself then there is much to be gained from looking at the role of the Roman individual within society and the world about him. The Egyptian was a subject of the all-powerful Gods, the Greek was an individual who could study and understand his situation with respect to the gods. The gods would often taken on human form. He was an individual who could choose and this freedom of choice and of existence expressed itself through philosophy and art.

The Roman's same consciousness of the individual and his personal freedom expressed itself through law and the state. It is not surprising therefore that the art and architecture expressed these ideals through luxurious temples, baths, amphitheaters and circuses.

Roman consciousness was pragmatic and utilitarian and so was their conception of building and architecture. Even their greatest buildings, including the Triumphal Arch, served as uplifting propaganda in the face of a failing economy and increasingly demoralised population.

Temples and Public Buildings

Whilst the Greeks produced marvelous temples and art, the Romans multiplied them ad infinitum almost to the point of diluting their individual significance. It is also interesting to note how the Temples of the Greeks were adopted by the Romans and how by the end of the empire they were literally turned inside-out: The great basilicas were initially conceived as gigantic "malls". Later they were transformed into the ideal structures of the Christian religion. The Greek gods were "without" and the Romans diluted and killed this concept until they replaced it with a new building of worship where the god was "within". Public architecture intended to lull the troubled heart of the individual.

The great innovations of the basilica are not only to be found in its later transformation for religious purposes. Well before that, the use of concrete meant that the structures could be made with greater freedom both in division of the structural areas as well as their overall size (stronger meant bigger). The top floors no longer needed to follow the structure of those below and this afforded a new found freedom of design for architects.


Clearly the Romans were excellent engineers and this allowed enormous freedom to architecture. Destructive fires in the city pushed innovations such as the use of pozzolanic concrete. Concrete not only allowed fire-prone materials to be eliminated but its greater strength permitted the construction of enormous structures which until then had been impossible to conceive. The enormous, single-span, dome of the Pantheon is one such example.

Other architectural innovations can be found in great buildings such as the Domus Aurea, Nero's Golden House. Its vast dimensions allowed the designers to surprise the visitor with unexpected features such as the vaulted octagonal room.

The Domus Aurea also gives us an interesting parallel with the architects and buildings of later periods. For example it is interesting to note how the Romans enjoyed using false structural features to aesthetic ends like building false vaults into their ceilings. These could be plastered and painted as in the Domus Aurea but in fact they performed no real weight-bearing function. There is merely a space between them and the beams of the floor above, which at best provided the function of improved insulation and sound proofing. I find an interesting similarity and counterpoise to this in the Gothic aesthetic trick of accentuating the structural ribs of churches in order to render a stronger sensation of height rather than to actually perform a structural function.

The manipulation of "space" in Roman architecture also shows through in the arts closely associated with Roman architecture. For example in Roman mosaics we see a breadth of solutions which manipulate the sense of space through a modular "flat" approach which enhances overall size versus a central "emblema" which creates a focus in the centre - a device rather similar to that employed during the Roman Baroque and counter reformation when the altar was placed closer to the centre of the church.

Likewise in ancient Roman painting applied to architecture we find a range of solutions subdivided into the well known 4 styles of Roman painting which show a continued preoccupation with the wall as a surface which can either act as limit and support or as something to be broken down through illusionary space to be viewed from different positions as one moves around the architecture (eg Piazza Armerina villa). Recognition of the surface brought manipulation of flat colour as a vehicle for conveying space (rather like a Mondrian painting) or by neutralising colour and overlaying images of imaginary creaturs: later known as "grotesque" because of the findings in Nero's Domus Aurea which when found was more like a series of underground grottos.

At the height of the empire we find the first examples of apartment buildings which could reach as many as three or four floors. These apartment blocks were made according to predefined models with the apartments conceived as modules. Rather than looking inwards towards a central courtyard the apartments now looked outwards to the surrounding streets. We therefore see the first modern concepts of urban planning.

The great baths are a tribute to the position and status of the individual the "civis". They naturally abounded in what was regarded most noble: water, columns and vaults with cladding of precious marbles and mosaics. The acqueducts are a tribute to the opulence of the state and its dominance over nature and the ravages of the world outside the city walls. We cannot, of course, forget the greatest of Roman pass-times: the circus. This was in many ways an extension of the Greek Amphitheater but developed to include the shows which were closest to the passions of the common man of Rome: naval battles, racing chariots, blood and gore and yet more blood.

The greatest innovation and invention of Roman architecture was not a conceptual one rather than one of engineering; at first well aligned with political propagandistic drives and later put to use for religious (Christian) motivations: the manipulation of internal space to create an interplay between "inside" and "outside" and hence completely transform the individual's perception of the space and his position within society and "reality".

Mysticism and Propaganda

An interesting influence which is often overlooked is the mystical element. Setting aside all Greek influence on architecture the first thought is to think of religion and Christianity. But this influence only made itself noticeable on Roman architecture towards end of the empire, when Christianity itself was legally accepted.

Well before that we find Roman mysticism directly influencing architecture during the time of Augustus and with a little searching probably well before that too. The Romans loved their mysticism the stars and what they might tell through their birth signs. As has already been mentioned Augustus was keen on propaganda and it seems he went as far as publicising the propitious nature of his personal birth stars in a number of monuments, including his mausoleum which was planned and built according to his star signs. The Roman architecture of the Pantheon was likewise influenced and oriented towards the rising sun on his birth date. A similar inspiration was included within the design of the Ara Pacis (altar to peace). The sun cast its shadow on the altar at the exact time and date of Augustus' birth by way of an enormous obelisk-cum-sundial.

A similar but even more spectacular effect was sought and achieved on the interior of the Pantheon where the oculus at the apex of the spherical dome allows a single shaft of sunlight to fall and travel across the interior of the building. Whilst the Pantheon with its first propagandistic intent had been built by Agrippa for Augustus in 27BC, the Pantheon as we know it, with its oculus was redesigned and built by Emperor Hadrian around 120AD. This is possibly the first example of the god being brought within and a wonderful achievement of western architecture. The Pantheon was one of only three places where the emperor might be seen by the population and the spherical connotations of the dome and building with its gigantic oculus-sun placed the emperor-god in direct relation with the heavens. The dome was an ideal structural solution to allow overhead lighting whilst directly alluding to the (circular) perfection of the heavens.

Nero's golden house - the "domus aurea"

nero's domus aureaPerhaps the most extravagant and visionary of Roman propagandistic architecture was Nero's Golden House - the "Domus Aurea" built by Emperor Nero as a focal point for his revolutionary vision of Roman culture and universe, with the emperor sun-god/Mithras dwelling at its brillliant centre. Only a portion of the villa has survived, saved by Titus & Trajan's baths built over it (work by the Architect Apollodorus of Damascus) but together with the historic accounts which have reached us it is sufficient to provide insights into the turning point in grandeur and propaganda that Roman architecture reached during the 1st century AD:

Further study of the domus aurea gives great insight into the excellence achieved in construction, architectural and decorative techniques. The use of bricks and mortar, diverse materials and technology enabled highly plastic environments of great impact to be created, modelling space, colour and light to the greatest effect.

Nero's impact on Roman Architecture

Nero’s artistic flamboyance, love of show, wealth and grandeur had one of its greatest expressions in urban development and architecture: Rome was to be rebuilt as Neronia and his residence would be known as "the Golden House", a palace of oriental inspiration in terms of lavishness which more than a grandiose dwelling appeared rather like a citadelle reaching across three of Rome’s famous hills (Palatine, Esquiline and Aventine). Whether by volition or simple opportunism, the great fire of Rome in 64AD provided him with the building site required for his great plans.

Much of what he built by Nero was later undone, destroyed or covered up by later emperors and what has survived to modern times we owe to its being built over, for example by emperor Trajan. Building over has at least enable some testimony to survive of the innovation in ancient Roman paintings and frescoed walls, ancient Roman mosaics and unparalelled marbled floors in opus sectile. It is telling that the first example of mosaic on a vaulted ceiling as well as some of the finest examples of black and white geometric patterns have been found in Nero's domus aurea: qv the Nymphaeum of Polyphemus with its roof encrusted in golden brown pumice and the central mosaic showing Odysseus handing a cup of wine to the Titan Polyphemus. The vitreous tiles used are the first example of the use of gold leaf in the Roman world.

The famous rotating dining room mentioned by ancient historians and long believed to be a pure myth has recently been rediscovered. However other parts of his legacy were altered and lost for ever more: his gardens and lake were transformed into the site for the Colosseum amphitheatre by emperor Vespasian who did well to show the population at large that he was returning what Nero had taken from them. The amphitheatre has actually gained its name from an enormous titanic bronze statue which Nero had cast of himself and which later emperors restyled into the semblance of Apollo or sun god and moved to a different site.

The innovation brought by Nero to Roman architecture wasn't one of simple innovation in individual arts and crafts or indeed a simple result of financing the best artists: it did actually result in a uniquely expressive marriage of the various crafts as elements of architecture so that the experience of an individual when entering such spaces would be greatly impacted. Beyond the sheer sense of size (10m high ceilings in many rooms) there is a symphonic play on the sense of space as the result of physical envelope essential to the basic engineering needs coupled with more complex plasticity of such space (for example false ceilings), light (water falls, windows and translucent marbles), colour and pattern (the 3rd and 4th style frescos, stuccos and mosaics).

Commemorative Columns

The commemorative column, holding up a statue was not a Roman invention but the Romans did go a step further with the columns of Trajan and Antoninus. There is no precedent to the idea of binding the column with a narrative frieze, not dissimilar from the concept of the books which existed in those times (books were not bound as they are now, but were a continuous scroll). An interesting note is that the scroll is made higher as it moves up the column in order to counteract the effect of perspective. Even if both columns have a commemorative and history-story telling purpose to them, the later of the two columns doesn't follow a strict chronological order but rather places the most important events where they are most visible (closer to the ground). The base of the column was intended to hold the funerary remains of the emperor himself.

The Triumphal Arch

Of all these achievements it is perhaps the Triumphal arch which is the most significant Roman contribution to art and architecture. Unlike other Roman creations, the Triumphal arch has no functional purpose per se. It is monumental, massive and durable and it does nothing more than announce the arrival and entrance (into the city) of the great conqueror. An everlasting monument to the passing of the supreme individual for whom the arch was created.

The Romans fully appreciated the aesthetic discovery of the Triumphal Arch and as was their custom they repeated it wherever they could. Unlike the Greek temple, repetition of the arch never diluted its pure, elemental significance. It would be difficult to overlook the fact that the powerful arches of the Aqueducts and of the Amphitheaters go beyond their obvious function to provide a self-celebration of grandiosity.

With the political and economic downfall of the Western Empire we see the final Roman tribute to architecture. As the basilica was turned to religious use the Greek temple is decidedly turned inside out. The pragmatic reason for this can be found in the practical way in which a large space could be enclosed relatively cheaply. And what did the Romans introduce at the end of the nave? A Triumphal Arch! separating the Plebeians from the Altar. Triumph was brought to the spiritual "within" whilst the world outside became a barbarian dominion.

But this wasn't the end of the Roman Triumphal Arch - we need but look at great works such as the Trevi Fountain (18th Century) to notice that it is inspired by a triumphal arch, as are many other buildings and constructions throughout Rome and the world.

Famous Roman Architects

Here are a handful of the most significant names in Roman architecture:

Vitruvius - lived around 45BC and wrote some particularly important books on architecture and construction techniques which have survived through to our days.

Sextus Julius Frontinus - 86AD Highly distinguished under the rules of Vespasian, Domitian, Nerva and Trajan. Left works regarding the construction of acqueducts and war machinery (not to mention on bureaucracy of public works). More of a historian?

Apollodorus of Damascus. approx 110AD Involved in building the baths of Emperor Titus (80AD) over parts of Nero's Domus Aurea. He is better known for his work under Emperor Trajan eg Bridge over the Danube and Trajan's Forum. Possibly also involved in Trajan's column. Said to have been put to death by Emperor Hadrian for having mocked the Emperor's design for the temple of Rome and Venus in the Forum. Apparently he remarked that if the two giant statues were to get up they'd bump their heads on the roof.

Emperor Hadrian 123AD Said to be the mind behind the Pantheon as we know it today. Certainly a great lover of architecture. His temple of Venus and Rome has also been remembered by historians, not to mention his sumptuous villa at Tivoli.

Cissonius 204AD Architect and Engineer. Worked under emperors Severus, Caracalla and Geta. Mentioned as the tail-light of Roman Architecture. Western architecture is said to have required over a thousand years before reaching these levels again although clearly there were a great many good architects through to the end of the empire, and beyond.

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Hit Counter XX/X/MMVI This page about roman architecture was written and revised in September 2011 by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments