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Roman architecture

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)

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Roman architecture

Roman architecture, structures produced by the ancient Romans.

The Etruscans

The origins of Roman architecture can be traced to the Etruscans, who migrated from Asia Minor to Italy in the 12th cent. BC What little is known about their architecture has been ascertained from clay models and tomb interiors. Etruscan architecture is thought to have derived from prototypes found in the nearby Greek colonies in southern Italy established during the 8th and 7th cent. BC The Etruscans are thought to have used arches and vaults in their later architecture.

Structural Characteristics

Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in the 5th cent. BC, Roman architects began to absorb and synthesize influences from both the Etruscans and the Greeks, adapting earlier building types to their specialized urban needs. A characteristic feature of Roman design was the combined use of arcuated and trabeated construction (employing arches and constructed with post and lintel). Although at first tentatively employed in the spaces between the classical columns, the arch eventually came to be the chief structural element. Flanking columns, usually engaged and superimposed (partly embedded into a wall and laid over it), served merely as buttresses or for decoration.

The cut-stone construction of the Greeks was largely replaced after the invention of concrete in the 2d cent. BC This enabled architects to cover vast interior spaces with vaults of increasing complexity and without interior supports. These included the barrel vault, the cross or groined vault, and the dome and semidome. Vault buttresses, instead of forming exterior projections, became an integral part of the interior support system. Although unfired brick was employed in all periods, under the empire baked bricks became popular as a facing for concrete walls. From early times stucco was used as a finish for important buildings. For the more luxurious finishing of exterior and interior walls, sheathings of alabaster, porphyry, or marble were used.

Of the Republican period (c.500–27 BC), the great aqueducts outside the city of Rome are the most impressive remains, but monumental architectural ruins also have been excavated at the city-state of Gabii. Dated to c.350–250 BC, the formative period of Roman architecture, the Gabii remains consist of a large complex with stone walls and terraces connected by an impressive staircase and surrounded by rooms as well as other structures. Ambitious and grand in scale, they appear to contradict the small and modest reputation ascribed to buildings of this period; the influence Gabii may have had on the growth of Rome is unclear.

Roman Landmarks and Building Patterns

The principal monuments of Roman architecture belong chiefly to the period between 100 BC and AD 300, including the Colosseum (AD 70–82), the Pantheon (AD 118–125; see under pantheon), and the Baths of Caracalla (c.AD 215). Beginning with the reign of Augustus (30 BC–AD 14), the Roman architectural output proceeded on a vast scale to accommodate the needs of the rapidly expanding empire. Provincial towns were laid out according to logical plans, particularly in North Africa. In Syria, arcaded streets were built.

Each town's focus was the forum, or open public square, surrounded by colonnades and the principal buildings in axial arrangement. The great forum in Rome itself was built in stages, as each emperor sought to glorify his achievements. The last large forum to be built was that of Trajan (2d cent. AD), and was the most extravagant. Within each forum, a temple, conforming to Etruscan type, was usually elevated on a high base with steps ascending to a deep portico. Since the temple was to be seen only from the front, the Roman architect utilized pilasters or engaged columns along its sides. This pseudoperipteral type is seen in the Maison Carrée (1st cent. AD) at Nîmes, France. Examples of circular temples include the temple of Vesta at Tivoli (1st cent. BC) and the 3d-century temples of Jupiter at Split and Venus at Baalbek.

Roman Architectural Innovations

Most important among the structures developed by the Romans themselves were basilicas, baths, amphitheaters, and triumphal arches. Unlike their Greek prototypes, Roman theaters were freestanding structures. The auditorium was semicircular, with movable seats at the orchestra level. Distinctly Roman innovation were the uniting of stage and auditorium as a single structure and the rich architectural embellishment of the stage itself. For the oval amphitheaters such as the colosseum, there are no known Greek precedents. The monumental or triumphal arch was also a purely Roman invention. The basilica, probably a Roman development based on the Greek temple, provided a large and relatively open interior space. From its original use as a Roman law court, the basilica form was adapted by the Christians for their churches.

The baths, while probably derived from Greek gymnasia, were constructed on a totally unprecedented scale, the complexity of their plan competing with the luxury of their detail. In the typical Roman dwelling, the rooms were grouped about the atrium, which, by means of an opening in its roof, also served as a court. Multistory houses in the larger cities, called insulae, anticipated modern apartment buildings, as can be seen for example at Ostia (3d cent. AD). A third type of Roman dwelling was the luxurious country villa built by wealthy citizens to escape the congestion and squalor of the cities.


See G. T. Rivoira, Roman Architecture (1925, repr. 1972); M. Wheeler, Roman Art and Architecture (1964); W. L. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire (2 vol., 1965 and 1986); A. Boëthius, Etruscan and Roman Architecture (1970); J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture (1981).

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Roman art and architecture

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.

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