Ancient Roman architecture

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The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

Ancient Roman architecture adopted certain aspects of Ancient Greek architecture, creating a new architectural style. The Romans were indebted to their Etruscan neighbors and forefathers who supplied them with a wealth of knowledge essential for future architectural solutions, such as hydraulics in the construction of arches. Later they absorbed Greek and Phoenician influence, apparent in many aspects closely related to architecture; for example, this can be seen in the introduction and use of the Triclinium in Roman villas as a place and manner of dining. Roman architecture flourished throughout the Empire during the Pax Romana.

Roman Architecture covers the period from the establishment of the Roman Republic, supposedly in 509BC, to about the 4th century, after which it becomes Late Antique or Byzantine architecture. Most of the many survivals are from the later imperial period. Roman architectural style continued to influence building in the former empire for many centuries, and the style beginning in Western Europe about 1000 is called Romanesque architecture to reflect this dependence on basic Roman forms.


Factors such as wealth and high population densities in cities forced the ancient Romans to discover new architectural solutions of their own. The use of vaults and arches, together with a sound knowledge of building materials, enabled them to achieve unprecedented successes in the construction of imposing structures for public use. Examples include the aqueducts of Rome, the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla, the basilicas and Colosseum. They were reproduced at smaller scale in most important towns and cities in the Empire. Some surviving structures are almost complete, such as the town walls of Lugo in Hispania Tarraconensis, or northern Spain. The Ancient Romans intended that public buildings should be made to impress, as well as perform a public function. The Romans did not feel restricted by Greek aesthetic axioms alone in order to achieve these objectives.[citation needed] The Pantheon is an example of this, particularly in the version rebuilt by Hadrian, which remains perfectly preserved, and which over the centuries has served, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, as the inspiration for countless public buildings[citation needed] . The same emperor left his mark on the landscape of northern Britain when he built a wall to mark the limits of the empire, and after further conquests in Scotland, the Antonine wall was built to replace Hadrian's Wall.

The arch and the dome[edit]

Dome of the Pantheon, inner view

The Roman use of the arch and their improvements in the use of concrete and bricks facilitated the building of the many aqueducts throughout the empire, such as the Aqueduct of Segovia and the eleven aqueducts in Rome itself, such as Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus. The same concepts produced numerous bridges, some of which are still in daily use, for example the Puente Romano at Mérida in Spain, and the Pont Julian and the bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, both in Provence, France.

The dome permitted construction of vaulted ceilings without crossbeams and provided large covered public space such as public baths and basilicas. The Romans based much of their architecture on the dome, such as Hadrian's Pantheon in the city of Rome, the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla.

The use of arches that spring directly from the tops of columns was a Roman development, seen from the 1st century AD, that was very widely adopted in medieval Western, Byzantine and Islamic architecture.

Art historians such as Gottfried Richter in the 1920s identified the Roman architectural innovation as being the Triumphal Arch. This symbol of power was transformed and utilised within the Christian basilicas when the Roman Empire of the West was on its last legs: The arch was set before the altar to symbolize the triumph of Christ and the afterlife. The arch is seen in aqueducts, especially in the many surviving examples, such as the Pont du Gard, the aqueduct at Segovia and the remains of the Aqueducts of Rome itself. Their survival is testimony to the durability of their materials and design.

The Romans first adopted the arch from the Etruscans, and implemented it in their own building. An arch transmits load evenly and is still commonly used in architecture today.


Insula in Ostia Antica

The Ancient Romans were responsible for significant developments in housing and public hygiene, for example their public and private baths and latrines, under-floor heating in the form of the hypocaust, mica glazing (examples in Ostia Antica), and piped hot and cold water (examples in Pompeii and Ostia).

Multi-story apartment blocks called insulae catered to a range of residential needs. The cheapest and darkest rooms were at the bottom; the lightest and most desirable at the top. Windows were mostly small, facing the street, with iron security bars. Insulae were often dangerous, unhealthy, and prone to fires because of overcrowding and haphazard cooking arrangements[citation needed] . There are examples in the Roman port town of Ostia, that date back to the reign of Trajan. External walls were in "Opus Reticulatum" and interiors in "Opus Incertum", which would then be plastered and sometimes painted.

To lighten up the small dark rooms, tenants able to afford a degree of luxury painted colourful murals on the walls. Examples have been found of jungle scenes with wild animals and exotic plants. Imitation windows (trompe l'oeil) were sometimes painted to make the rooms seem less confined.

Ancient Rome is known to have had elaborated, massive and beautiful houses and buildings. These houses and buildings belonged to those in higher social status. The average house of a commoner or Plebe did not contain many luxuries. There were members of the upper class that attended to flash their wealth into their design and architecture of their house. Many Romans perceived this morally wrong and considered to be luxuria or vice to makes people squander their money (wealth).They showed more regard towards convenience than expense. Domus, or single-family residences, were rare, with most having a layout of the closed unit, consisting of one or two rooms. Between 312 to 315 A.D. Rome had from 1781 domus and 44,850 of insulae.[1] Insula has been the subject of great debate for historians of Roman culture, as they argued over the various meanings of the word.[2] Insula was a word used to describe apartment buildings, or the apartments themselves,[3] meaning apartment, or inhabitable room, demonstrating just how small apartments for Plebes were. Urban divisions were originally street blocks, and later began to divide into smaller divisions, the word insula referring to both blocks and smaller divisions. The insula contained cenacula, tabernae, storage rooms under the stairs, and lower floor shops. Another type of housing unit for Plebes was a cenaculum, an apartment, divided into three individual rooms: cubiculum, exedra, and medianum . Common Roman apartments were mainly masses of smaller and larger structures, many with narrow balconies that present mysteries as to their use, having no doors to access them, and they lacked the excessive decoration and display of wealth that aristocrats’ houses contained. Luxury in houses was not common, as the life of the average person did not consist of being in their houses, as they instead would go to public baths, and engage in other communal activities.

  1. ^ Hermansen, G. “The Medianum and the Roman Apartment”, Phoenix, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 342-347.
  2. ^ Storey, Glenn R. “Regionaries-Type Insulae 2: Architectural/Residential Units at Rome”, American Journal of Archaeology 2002 pp.411-434.
  3. ^ Storey, Glenn R., “The Meaning of "Insula" in Roman Residential Terminology”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome , Vol. 49, (2004), pp. 47-84

Common building types[edit]

All Roman cities had at least one Thermae, a popular facility for public bathing, exercising and socializing. Exercise might include wrestling and weight-lifting, as well as swimming. Bathing was an important part of the Roman day, where some hours might be spent, at a very low cost subsidized by the government. Wealthier Romans were often accompanied by one or more slaves, who performed any required tasks such as fetching refreshment, guarding valuables, providing towels, and at the end of the session, applying olive oil to their masters' bodies which was then scraped off with a strigil, a scraper made of wood or bone. Romans did not wash with soap and water as we do now.

Roman bath-houses were also provided for private villas, town houses and forts. They were normally supplied with water from an adjacent river or stream, or by aqueduct. The design of thermae is discussed by Vitruvius in De Architectura.

Roman architecture was often at its most beautiful and impressive when adapted to the needs of Roman religion. The Pantheon in Rome has survived structurally intact because it has been continuously used for worship since it was built, over 2000 years ago[citation needed] . Although its interiors were altered when worship changed from paganism to Christianity, it is the finest and largest example of a dome built in antiquity still surviving.

Some of the most impressive secular buildings are the amphitheatres, over 220 being known and many of which are well preserved, such as that at Arles, as well as its progenitor, the Colosseum in Rome. They were used for gladiatorial contests, public displays, public meetings and bullfights, the tradition of which still survives in Spain.

Every city had a forum of varying size. In addition to its standard function as a marketplace, a forum was a gathering place of great social significance, and often the scene of diverse activities, including political discussions and debates, rendezvous, meetings, etc. The best known example is probably in Rome, Italy,[1] and is the site of the earliest forum of the empire.

Panoramic view of the Forum Trajanum with the Trajan's Column on the far left.

Many lighthouses were built around the Mediterranean and the coasts of the empire, including the Tower of Hercules at A Coruña in northern Spain, a structure which survives to this day. A smaller lighthouse at Dover, England also exists as a ruin about half the height of the original. The light would have been provided by a fire at the top of the structure.


Tile covered concrete quickly supplanted marble as the primary building material and more daring buildings soon followed, with great pillars supporting broad arches and domes rather than dense lines of columns suspending flat architraves. The freedom of concrete also inspired the colonnade screen, a row of purely decorative columns in front of a load-bearing wall. In smaller-scale architecture, concrete's strength freed the floor plan from rectangular cells to a more free-flowing environment[citation needed] . Most of these developments are described by Vitruvius writing in the first century AD in his work De Architectura.

Although concrete had been used on a minor scale in Mesopotamia, Roman architects perfected Roman concrete and used it in buildings where it could stand on its own and support a great deal of weight. The first use of concrete by the Romans was in the town of Cosa sometime after 273 BCE. Ancient Roman concrete was a mixture of lime mortar, sand with stone rubble, pozzolana, water, and stones, and stronger than previously-used concrete. The ancient builders placed these ingredients in wooden frames where it hardened and bonded to a facing of stones or (more frequently) bricks.

When the framework was removed, the new wall was very strong with a rough surface of bricks or stones. This surface could be smoothed and faced with an attractive stucco or thin panels of marble or other coloured stones called revetment. Concrete construction proved to be more flexible and less costly than building solid stone buildings. The materials were readily available and not difficult to transport. The wooden frames could be used more than once, allowing builders to work quickly and efficiently.

On return from campaigns in Greece, the general Sulla returned with what is probably the most well-known element of the early imperial period: the mosaic, a decoration of colourful chips of stone inset into cement. This tiling method took the empire by storm in the late first century and the second century and in the Roman home joined the well known mural in decorating floors, walls, and grottoes in geometric and pictorial designs.

Though most would consider concrete the Roman contribution most relevant to the modern world, the Empire's style of architecture can still be seen throughout Europe and North America in the arches and domes of many governmental and religious buildings[citation needed] .

Modern influence[edit]

During the Baroque and the Renaissance periods, Roman and Greek architectural styles again became fashionable, not only in Italy, but all over Europe.

Today we still see those influences all around us, in banks, government buildings, great houses, even small houses, perhaps in the form of a porch with Doric columns and a pediment[citation needed(doric columns not mentioned in article)], or in a fireplace or a mosaic shower floor copied from an original in Pompeii or Herculaneum. The mighty pillars, domes and arches of Rome echo in the New World too, where in Washington DC not only do we see the Capitol Building, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, but there exists a Senate and the same (in name) Republican and Democrat parties, who ran the Roman Empire. All across the US the seats of regional government were normally built in the grand traditions of Rome, with vast flights of stone steps sweeping up to towering pillared porticoes, with huge domes gilded or decorated inside with the same or similar themes that were popular in Rome.

In wealthy provincial parts of the US such as the great plantations of 18th and 19th century Louisiana, there too are the pillars and porticoes, the symmetrical façades with their pilasters, the domes and statuary that would have seemed familiar to Caesar and Augustus.

In Britain, a similar enthusiasm has seen the construction of thousands of neo-Classical buildings over the last five centuries, both civic and domestic, and many of the grandest country houses and mansions are purely Classical in style, an obvious example being Buckingham Palace.

List of buildings, features and types of buildings[edit]

Northern aisle of the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome
Gardens in Conimbriga, Portugal

Public architecture

Public buildings

Private architecture

Civil engineering

Military engineering

Architectural elements

Further reading[edit]

  • Adam, Jean-Pierre, Roman Building: Materials and Techniques, Indiana University Press, 1994
  • Fletcher, Banister; Cruickshank, Dan, Sir Banister Fletcher's a History of Architecture, Architectural Press, 20th edition, 1996 (first published 1896). ISBN 0-7506-2267-9. Cf. Part Two, Chapter 10.
  • Lancaster, Lynne C., Concrete Vaulted Construction in Imperial Rome, Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • MacDonald, William L., The Architecture of the Roman Empire I: An Introductory Study, Yale University Press, 1982
  • MacDonald, William L., The Architecture of the Roman Empire II: An Urban Appraisal, Yale University Press, 1986
  • Rowland, Ingrid D.; Howe, Thomas Noble, Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture, Cambridge University Press, 1999
  • Sear, Frank, Roman Architecture, Cornell University Press, 1989
  • Weitzmann, Kurt, ed., Age of spirituality : late antique and early Christian art, third to seventh century, pp. 109–123 and nos. 263-268 350-364, 1979, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ISBN 9780870991790; full text available online from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries
  • Wilson-Jones, Mark, Principles of Roman Architecture, Yale University Press, 2000


  1. ^ writer873. "The Roman Forum". Ancient Encyclopedia History. Web. 3/25/2012

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