Buildings in ancient Rome are renowned in history, and across the world. Through its 1500 years of development the city went through various stages of building construction, starting from hill-top villages needing to drain the valley between them in order to have more suitable meeting areas for commerce. Innovative building techniques were enabled by thorough knowledge of building materials and innovations in pozzolanic cement.
Buildings in ancient Rome reached superlative architectural quality and an optimal combination of aesthetics and function. Much of the technology and skill in civil engineering was developed through the Roman love for military conquest and urbanisation. Both these areas heavily depended on their engineering skills. Two of the most important fields of Roman construction were the Roman roads and Roman aqueducts.
Both of these infrastructures were vastly expensive to build but their importance to the progress of Roman civilisation is unquestionable. Understanding something of what lies behind them allows us to understand some of the genius behind the construction techniques which permitted them to build other complex structures such as:
There is no doubt that ancient Roman ability in building and engineering was as superlative as the resulting Ancient Rome buildings. It was a fundamental strategic advantage which allowed Rome to conquer and govern the world, as well as easily spread her civilising influence across the western world.It also allowed so much of what was Rome to survive the erosion of the ages so that we can still gain an excellent idea of what it was like.
The legacy of Roman buildings inspired later generations
The Renaissance architects who were to build competing structures came to Rome in order to study and learn the techniques of the ancients. For example, the Florentine architect Brunelleschi came to Rome for a number of years. During this time he studied and learned the secrets of a number of Roman structures such as the dome of the Pantheon and the vaults of the Basilica of Maxentius. The manner of construction and trussing of the vault of the Pantheon is still under discussion to this day.
Roman buildings were also decorated, in keeping with the wealth and function of its users. Mosaics might adorn the floors, marble on the walls or indeed Roman paintings and frescoes.
Achievement of such a high level of precision on such a monumental scale clearly required the appropriate instrumentation. So when we consider the grandiosity of Roman construction we should not forget the role of the theory, technique and measurement instrumentation they were capable of developing in order to achieve the final results. Specialist “surveyors” formed part of any such engineering project.
These instruments were generally constructed out of wood and metal. Plumb lines (weighted strings) were used to set perfect vertical alignment. From here perfect horizontals could be obtained and from there any infinity of angles and sections. Metal graduated disks with sights mounted on a stand allowed angles to be measured rather like a sextant is used to measure the elevation of the sun above the horizon.
The Romans had a profound knowledge of their building materials and of how to best employ them in order to maximise their natural characteristics. Coupling this knowledge with their experience in engineering statics allowed them to contain the thickness and weight of walls and ceilings without impairing their solidity and durability. In so doing they managed to achieve walls, vaults, arches, columns and domes of impressive dimensions.
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