Ancient Roman architecture

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The Colosseum in Rome, Italy

Ancient Roman architecture is a mix of different aspects of Ancient Greek architecture and newer technologies such as the arch and the dome to create a new architectural style. Roman architecture flourished throughout the Empire during the Pax Romana.

Roman Architecture covers the period from the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BC, to about the 4th century, after which it becomes reclassified as 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.[1] 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 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. The Romans absorbed the Greek Architectural influence both directly (e.g. Magna Grecia) and indirectly (e.g. Etruscan Architecture was itself influenced by the Greeks). The influence is evident in many ways; for example, in the introduction and use of the Triclinium in Roman villas as a place and manner of dining. The Romans were also known to employ Greek craftsmen and engineers to construct Roman buildings.

Roman Architectural Revolution[edit]

The Roman Pantheon was the largest dome in the world for more than a millennium,[2] and is the largest unreinforced solid concrete dome to this day[3]

The Roman Architectural Revolution, also known as the Concrete Revolution,[4] was the widespread use in Roman architecture of the previously little-used architectural forms of the arch, vault, and dome. For the first time in history, their potential was fully exploited in the construction of a wide range of civil engineering structures, public buildings, and military facilities. These included amphitheatres, aqueducts, baths, bridges, circuses, dams, domes, harbours, and temples.

A crucial factor in this development that saw a trend to monumental architecture was the invention of Roman concrete (also called opus caementicium), which led to the liberation of the shape from the dictate of the traditional materials of stone and brick.[1]

Architectural features[edit]

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.


A hypocaust was an ancient Roman system of underfloor heating, used to heat houses with hot air. The Roman architect Vitruvius, writing about the end of the 1st century B.C., attributes their invention to Sergius Orata. Many remains of Roman hypocausts have survived throughout Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. The hypocaust was an invention which improved the hygiene and living conditions of citizens, and was a forerunner of modern central heating.

Hypocausts were used for heating hot baths (thermae), houses and other buildings, whether public or private. The floor was raised above the ground by pillars, called pilae stacks, with a layer of tiles, then a layer of concrete then another of tiles on top; and spaces were left inside the walls so that hot air and smoke from the furnace would pass through these enclosed areas and out of flues in the roof, thereby heating but not polluting the interior of the room.


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 inserted 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.

There were two main techniques in Greco-Roman mosaic: opus vermiculatum used tiny tesserae, typically cubes of 4 millimeters or less, and was produced in workshops in relatively small panels which were transported to the site glued to some temporary support. The tiny tesserae allowed very fine detail, and an approach to the illusionism of painting. Often small panels called emblemata were inserted into walls or as the highlights of larger floor-mosaics in coarser work. The normal technique was opus tessellatum, using larger tesserae, which was laid on site.[5] There was a distinct native Italian style using black on a white background, which was no doubt cheaper than fully coloured work[6] (see the dog at the upper left).

A specific genre of Roman mosaic obtained the name asaroton (Greek "unswept floor"). It represented optical illusion of the feast leftovers on the floor of reach houses.[7]

Roman roofs[edit]

In Sicily truss roofs presumably appeared as early as 550 BC.Hodge, A. Trevor (1960), The Woodwork of Greek Roofs, Cambridge University Press, pp. 38–44  Their potential was fully realized in the Roman period which saw over 30 m wide trussed roofs spanning the rectangular spaces of monumental public buildings such as temples, basilicas, and later churches. Such spans were thrice as large as the widest prop-and-lintel roofs and only superseded by the largest Roman domes.[8]

The largest truss roof by span of Ancient Rome covered the Aula Regia (throne room) built for emperor Domitian (81–96 AD) on the Palatine Hill, Rome. The timber truss roof had a width of 31.67 m, slightly surpassing the postulated limit of 30 m for Roman roof constructions. Tie-beam trusses allowed for much larger spans than the older prop-and-lintel system and even concrete vaulting: Nine out of the ten largest rectangular spaces in Roman architecture were bridged this way, the only exception being the groin vaulted Basilica of Maxentius.[9]

Spiral stairs[edit]

Further information: List of ancient spiral stairs

The spiral stair is a type of stairway which, due to its complex helical structure, has been introduced relatively late into architecture. Although the oldest example dates back to the 5th century BC,[2] it was only in the wake of the influential design of the Trajan's Column that this space-saving new type permanently caught hold in Roman architecture.[10]

Apart from the triumphal columns in the imperial cities of Rome and Constantinople, other types of buildings such as temples, thermae, basilicas and tombs were also fitted with spiral stairways.[10] Their notable absence in the towers of the Aurelian Wall indicates that they, unlike in medieval castles, did not yet figure prominently in Roman military engineering.[10] By late antiquity, separate stair towers were constructed adjacent to the main buildings, like in the Basilica of San Vitale.

The construction of spiral stairs passed on both to Christian and Islamic architecture.

Modern influences[edit]

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

Roman influences may be found around us today, in banks, government buildings, great houses, even small houses, perhaps in the form of a porch with Doric columns and a pediment or in a fireplace or a mosaic shower floor copied from an original in Pompeii or Herculaneum.[citation needed] 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.


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.

Roman brick[edit]

Close-up view of the wall of the Roman shore fort at Burgh Castle, Norfolk, showing alternating courses of flint and brickwork.

The Romans made fired clay bricks, and the Roman legions, which operated mobile kilns, introduced bricks to many parts of the empire. Roman bricks are often stamped with the mark of the legion that supervised their production. The use of bricks in southern and western Germany, for example, can be traced back to traditions already described by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

Roman brick was almost invariably of a lesser height than modern brick, but was made in a variety of different shapes and sizes.[11] Shapes included square, rectangular, triangular and round, and the largest bricks found have measured over three feet in length.[12] Ancient Roman bricks had a general size of 1½ Roman feet by 1 Roman foot, but common variations up to 15 inches existed. Other brick sizes in Ancient Rome included 24" x 12" x 4", and 15" x 8" x 10". Ancient Roman bricks found in France measured 8" x 8" x 3". The Constantine Basilica in Trier is constructed from Roman bricks 15" square by 1½" thick.[13] There is often little obvious difference (particularly when only fragments survive) between Roman bricks used for walls on the one hand, and tiles used for roofing or flooring on the other, and so archaeologists sometimes prefer to employ the generic term Ceramic Building Material (or CBM).

The Romans perfected brick-making during the first century of their empire and used it ubiquitously, in public and private construction alike. The Romans took their brickmaking skills everywhere they went, introducing the craft to the local populations.[13] In the British Isles, the introduction of Roman brick by the Ancient Romans was followed by a 600–700 year gap in major brick production.

Roman concrete[edit]

Main article: Roman concrete

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.

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] .

City design[edit]

Further information: Centuriation

The ancient Romans employed regular orthogonal structures on which they molded their colonies.[14] They probably were inspired by Greek and Hellenic examples, as well as by regularly planned cities that were built by the Etruscans in Italy.[15] (see Marzabotto)

The Romans used a consolidated scheme for city planning, developed for military defense and civil convenience. The basic plan consisted of a central forum with city services, surrounded by a compact, rectilinear grid of streets, and wrapped in a wall for defense. To reduce travel times, two diagonal streets crossed the square grid, passing through the central square. A river usually flowed through the city, providing water, transport, and sewage disposal.[16] Hundreds of towns and cities were built by the Romans throughout their empire. Many European towns, such as Turin, preserve the remains of these schemes, which show the very logical way the Romans designed their cities. They would lay out the streets at right angles, in the form of a square grid. All roads were equal in width and length, except for two, which were slightly wider than the others. One of these ran east–west, the other, north–south, and intersected in the middle to form the center of the grid. All roads were made of carefully fitted flag stones and filled in with smaller, hard-packed rocks and pebbles. Bridges were constructed where needed. Each square marked by four roads was called an insula, the Roman equivalent of a modern city block.

Each insula was 80 yards (73 m) square, with the land within it divided. As the city developed, each insula would eventually be filled with buildings of various shapes and sizes and crisscrossed with back roads and alleys. Most insulae were given to the first settlers of a Roman city, but each person had to pay to construct his own house.

The city was surrounded by a wall to protect it from invaders and to mark the city limits. Areas outside city limits were left open as farmland. At the end of each main road was a large gateway with watchtowers. A portcullis covered the opening when the city was under siege, and additional watchtowers were constructed along the city walls. An aqueduct was built outside the city walls.

The development of Greek and Roman urbanization is relatively well-known, as there are relatively many written sources, and there has been much attention to the subject since the Romans and Greeks are generally regarded as the main ancestors of modern Western culture. It should not be forgotten, though, that there were also other cultures with more or less urban settlements in Europe, primarily of Celtic origin.[17] Among these, there are also cases that appear to have been newly planned, such as the Lusatian town of Biskupin in Poland.

Roman road[edit]

Main article: Roman road
Further information: Decumanus Maximus and Cardo

Building types[edit]


Main article: Roman amphitheatre
Further information: List of Roman amphitheatres

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.


Main article: Basilica
Northern aisle of the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome


Main article: Circus (building)


Further information: List of Roman domes
Dome of the Pantheon, inner view


Main articles: Roman Forum and Forum (Roman)

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,[18] 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.


Main article: Horreum


Insula in Ostia Antica
Main article: Insula (building)

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 rooms were at the top owing to the inability to escape in the event of a fire and the lack of piped water. 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.[19]

Insula has been the subject of great debate for historians of Roman culture, as they argued over the various meanings of the word.[20] Insula was a word used to describe apartment buildings, or the apartments themselves,[21] 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.

Light houses[edit]

Main article: Roman lighthouse

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.


Main article: Thermae
Further information: List of Roman public baths

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.


Main article: Roman temple

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.



Main article: Roman villa


Further information: List of ancient watermills



Main article: Roman aqueduct


Main article: Roman bridge
Further information: List of Roman bridges


Further information: List of Roman canals


Further information: List of Roman cisterns


Artistic structures[edit]



Main article: Obelisk
Further information: List of obelisks in Rome

Roman gardens[edit]

Main article: Roman gardens
Gardens in Conimbriga, Portugal

Triumphal arch[edit]

Further information: List of Roman triumphal arches

Victory columns[edit]

Further information: List of Roman victory columns

Significant buildings and areas[edit]

Hadrian's Wall

Public buildings

Private architecture

Civil engineering

Military engineering

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Chin, Kaitlin. "The Pantheon". Landscape Architecture Study Tour. Retrieved 11 September 2014. 
  2. ^ "BUILDING BIG: Pantheon". PBS. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  3. ^ "The Roman Pantheon: The Triumph of Concrete". Roman Concrete. Retrieved 16 September 2014. 
  4. ^ DeLaine 1990, p. 407; Rook 1992, pp. 18f.; Gardner 2005, p. 170
  5. ^ Smith 1983, pp. 116–119.
  6. ^ Smith 1983, pp. 121–123.
  7. ^ "A Mosaic Floor from a Roman Villa at Anaploga". American School of Classical Studies. Retrieved 3 February 2014. 
  8. ^ Ulrich 2007, pp. 148f.
  9. ^ Ulrich 2007, p. 148f.
  10. ^ a b c Beckmann 2002, pp. 353–356
  11. ^ Juracek, Jack. Surfaces: Visual Research for Artists, Architects, and Designers, (Google Books), W. W. Norton & Company: 1996, p. 310, (ISBN 0-393-73007-7). Retrieved 3 October 2007.
  12. ^ Peet, Stephen Denison. The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, (Google Books), Jameson & Morse [etc.]: 1911, pp. 35–36. Retrieved 3 October 2007.
  13. ^ a b Walters, Henry Beauchamp and Birch, Samuel. History of Ancient Pottery: Greek, Etruscan, and Roman, (Google Books), J. Murray: 1905, pp. 330–40. Retrieved 3 October 2007.
  14. ^ Morris 1972, pp. 39-41, 51-60; Kolb 1984, pp. 169-238; Benevolo, Leonardo (1993). Die Geschichte der Stadt. Frankfurt am Main/New York. pp. 256-267.
  15. ^ Harris, W. (1989). "Invisible Cities: the Beginning of Etruscan Urbanization". Atti del Secondo Congresso Internazionale Etrusco. Roma, 1989. pp. 375-392. p. 85. The Etruscans were, in their turn, probably also influenced in this respect by Greek and Hellenic culture.
  16. ^ Vitrivius (1914). The Ten Books on Architecture, Bk I. Morris H. Morgan (translator). Harvard University Press. 
  17. ^ Demandt, Alexander (1998) ‘’Die Kelten’’. München: Verlag Ch. Beck. In fact, many sites where the Romans created towns, such as Paris, Vienna and Bratislava, had previously been Celtic settlements of more or less urban character.
  18. ^ writer873. "The Roman Forum". Ancient Encyclopedia History. Web. 3/25/2012[unreliable source?]
  19. ^ Hermansen, G. "The Medianum and the Roman Apartment", Phoenix, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), pp. 342-347.
  20. ^ Storey, Glenn R. “Regionaries-Type Insulae 2: Architectural/Residential Units at Rome”, American Journal of Archaeology 2002 pp.411-434.
  21. ^ Storey, Glenn R., “The Meaning of "Insula" in Roman Residential Terminology”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome , Vol. 49, (2004), pp. 47-84

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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