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Unique columns in Roman architecture

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Colosseum | Illustration: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Roman Antiquities, Vol. 1, table XXXVII. View of the Flavian Amphitheater known as the Colosseum, Rome, 1756 (public domain)

Almost everyone knows the Ionian, Doric and Corinthian orders. However, there are numerous examples of columns not adhering to any of these Greek styles in the architecture of ancient Rome. Aside from simple modifications and evolutions of the Hellenic originals, one can also find some very distinct forms that can surprise them with their uniqueness.

The simplicity of the Doric columns, the volutes of the capitals of the Ionian columns and the acanthus leave adorning the Corinthian columns – these are the most recognisable elements of the ancient Greek architecture adopted by the Romans. There were however a lot of examples of deviations from the canon. The Tuscan style was defined during the Renaissance – it differed from the Doric style with its lack of fluting (grooves on the shaft) and the added base. Even though this order was known already in the Etruscan architecture, the Romans did not consider it a separate style – for example, Vitruvius never mentioned it next to the styles that originated in Greece. The case of the composite style from the 1st century CE, which combined the Ionian and the Corinthian styles, is similar – the capital of the column had acanthus leaves at the bottom and was topped with the spiral volutes characteristic of the Ionian style. The earliest preserved example of this style is the Arch of Titus in Rome from the 1st century CE.

The use of spiral is an even bigger deviation from the commonly known forms.  It was used first in the decorations on the Trajan’s Column in Rome, which run around the column in the form of a frieze forming 23 coils depicting the two Dacian wars. However, the spiral form is even more prominent in the so called Solomonic columns brought to Rome by Constantine I in the 4th century CE. Their name is derived from the Solomon Temple in Jerusalem but since it was destroyed in the 6th century BCE it is accepted today that in fact they come from Greece – they are similar in form to the Serpent Column from the Apollo temple in Delphi, originally from the 5th century BCE and moved by Constantine to Constantinople also in the 4th century CE. Perhaps the most distinct use of the spiral in the decoration of columns can be seen in Apamea in today’s Syria. After an earthquake in the year 115 CE. the Romans rebuilt and old Greek colonnade to a large extent with columns covered completely with spiral fluting. The monumental alley runs for almost two kilometres and can be observed to this day.

Author: Jakub Ernt
  • Dawid Watkin, Ilustrowana Historia Architektury Zachodniej - Antyk, Warszawa, 2006, Wydawnictwo Arkady Sp. z o.o.
  • praca zbiorowa, Historia Sztuki - Grecja, Kraków, 2010, Marketing Room Poland Sp. z o.o.
  • praca zbiorowa, Historia Sztuki - Rzym, Kraków, 2010, Marketing Room Poland Sp. z o.o.

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