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Roman architecture

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Pantheon in Rome
Pantheon in Rome

The beginnings of Roman architecture are rather simple, and the way of erecting the building can be said primitive, by contemporary standards. During the early monarchy, Rome was a wooden city and straw was used to cover the roofs. The first Roman temples were built during the reign of Etruscan kings, then the Romans learned to cast bronze and burn terracotta. However, the importance of Rome in the Mediterranean world was virtually none. The situation changed when Rome made numerous business contacts, began expansion on the peninsula and became acquainted with Hellenistic architecture, especially the Greeks. These factors strongly influenced the further shaping of the architecture of ancient Rome.

The departure from wooden buildings took place at the end of the 3rd century BCE, when brick-built private houses, large tenement houses (insulae) and one-story houses rich. During this period, public buildings began to arise around the Roman Forum, which quickly became the main centre of Rome’s social and commercial life. One of the first such buildings was the great Flaminius Circus of 221 BCE From the second century BCE, the first indoor halls ( curiae) began to be established for court meetings and various types of meetings.

Panorama depicting the Trajan forum and the Trajan column, which is far to the left.

With the expansion in Italy and beyond, the Romans began to see the benefits of a vast network of roads. It is possible that the idea was taken from Carthage, which was one of the few countries using this new convenience. In the Roman state they were initially mainly of a military nature, but during the peace period they proved to be excellent trade routes.

Roman cities had a regular plan, streets intersecting at a right angle, and a central square. The Romans planned large urban complexes for especially the market buildings – the forum at which the most important buildings in the city were concentrated, which at first were arranged quite chaotically. It was only during the empire that system symmetries began to be used . The architecture of this period was representative. The buildings were characterized by a large size and variety of architectural orders.

Aqueduct. Ancient Rome was supplied by an aqueduct network of 420 km, of which only 47 km ran above the surface of the earth. This network provided one million cubic meters of spring water per day.
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The Romans borrowed new construction techniques from the Greeks. Column porticos, the shapes of theater and circus buildings and architectural styles (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) were introduced, which were mixed together. In the facades of several-storey buildings, they often placed optically heavier Doric columns on the ground floor, slimmer Ionic columns above, and Corinthian ones on the top. Triumphal arches and columns were their own creation. The Romans enriched the Greek architectural order with arcades, which are arches supported on two columns. In addition, they created their own Architectural order. Columns, entablature and arcades have become over time the characteristic elements of the monumental architecture of ancient Rome.

The need to supply water to the inhabitants of Rome gave birth to the construction of waterworks and aqueducts that imported it from the nearby mountains. The first aqueduct was Aqua Appia, created in 312 BCE. Over time, along with the territorial expansion, aqueducts began to be mass-created throughout Italy. They were located near larger urban centres. The most important waterworks in this period included aqua Macia, built in 144 BCE by Quintus Marcius Rex. As the only of the preserved waterworks, it is still active today. These large structures were based on the technique of building bridges to compensate for differences in height of the terrain.

Temple of Jupiter, the Best of the Greatest, God of the Gods.
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The recent period of the republic has brought Rome a whole new look. Wonderful buildings, such as the Temple of Jupiter built in the Tuscan style, were created in the capital. In the first century BCE, ambitious leaders who wanted to gain the people’s sympathy for the spoils of war built great constructions in Rome. And so the fire-damaged temple of Jupiter was rebuilt by Sulla, Pompey the Great erected the first stone theatre, and Caesar built his own forum – Caesar’s Forum. The aristocracy, incredibly enriching in the wars, began to erect elegant villas surrounded by beautiful gardens. At that time, Roman cities were surrounded by defensive walls with gates and towers.

The Romans used very efficient, though not very innovative technology. They had better construction equipment than the Egyptians, including turnstiles, cranes and iron tools that pyramid builders never had. On the other hand, they did not have anything beyond Greek achievements in this field. They used many materials, most of which have long been used in the East. It was this age that the Romans took over the invented new building materials: brick and cement mortar. The exception was concrete, an original Roman invention that allowed the construction of buildings of a new shape. In addition, the invention of the domes allowed the Romans to become the first who did not need rows of columns to support widely spread alloys. One of the largest and most famous buildings in which the dome was used was the Pantheon in Rome. Arches and large vaults were borrowed from those regions, which greatly facilitated the construction of larger buildings. The vaults were used primarily in temple and monumental public buildings. Towards the end of the 1st century BCE, marble was mined in northern Italy, in Carrara. Along with stone, it has become one of the most popular materials. The end of the republic and the beginning of the principate were to introduce the Roman state into a new, better architectural period.

Architecture consists of three branches; namely, building, dialling, and mechanics. The building is divided into two parts. The first regulates the general plan of the walls of a city and its public buildings; the other relates to private buildings. Public buildings are for three purposes; defence, religion, and the security of the public. Buildings for defence are those walls, towers, and gates of a town, necessary for the continual shelter of its inhabitants against the attacks of an enemy. Those for the purposes of religion are the fanes and temples of the immortal gods. Those for public convenience are gates, fora or squares for market-places, baths, theatres, walks, and the like; which, being for public use, are placed in public situations, and should be arranged to as best to meet the convenience of the public.

All these should possess strength, utility, and beauty. Strength arises from carrying down the foundations to a good solid bottom, and from making a proper choice of materials without parsimony. Utility arises from a judicious distribution of the parts, so that their purposes be duly answered, and that each have its proper situation. Beauty is produced by the pleasing appearance and good taste of the whole, and by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportioned to each other.

Vitruvius, On Architecture, I, 3

The houses were built similarly to Greek ones, i.e. they had atrium and peristyle. Villas were also built, and tenement houses were built in the cities to house shops and workshops on the ground floor, and apartments on the upper floors.

Reconstruction of Maximus Circus.
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Roads erected massively during the republic in Italy led to the fact that trade in this region became definitely simpler and more efficient, which in a short time was transferred to conquered territories. Cemeteries, or cemeteries, were formed along the roads. Catacombs and mausoleums were created, e.g. the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Sewage drainage channels began to be created, especially in northern Italy ( Cloaca Maxima) and bridges that proved the construction genius of the Romans. During the war expeditions in the north in the first century CE and the beginning of the second century excellent constructions were made. The bridge on the Danube was considered ideal, built for emperor Trajan, which was located under the Iron Gate. It is also worth mentioning the Bridge of Fabricius in Rome, which is the oldest preserved bridge in this city. These structures were erected by soldiers, mainly to cross the river. It was a confirmation of engineering genius and the skills that the Romans had in the team. Many unique buildings were built in different parts of the empire. Many cities in the east and west boasted curia, circuses, amphitheatres, bathhouses (thermal baths), gymnasiums and other public buildings. To the glory of the chiefs, Roman title triumphal arches, ancient Rome, triumphal arches were created. Palaces for emperors were built. You can mention the Golden House of Nero, the palace Flavius, or Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. They also built basilicas, which were used to conduct court hearings and conclude commercial contracts. They were buildings of large size, built on a rectangular plan divided along three or five parts by a colonnade. In the central part there was a platform for the official – the tribunal.

Tomb of Cecylia Metella. Her magnificent tomb by the Appian Road ( Via Appia) has survived to this day.

Cecylia Metella was the daughter of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Cretean, consul in 69 BCE She was also the wife of Marek Licinius Krassus, son of the triumvir Mark Krassus. Her son, also Marcus Licinius Crassus, became a consul in 30 BCE.

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The Romans also built tombs. Monumental mausoleums of circular shape are represented by the mausoleum of Cecylia Metella at via Apia. On a rectangular, brick base stands a cylindrical cell with a diameter of about 30 meters, covered with travertine. The cell wall is decorated with a frieze and topped with a cornice. It was probably covered by a conical roof. The burial chamber is round and a narrow corridor with two niches on the sides leads to it. Ordinary citizens were buried along roads outside the city, in stone tombs decorated with carvings. In Rome, there are also underground tombs carved in volcanic tuff – catacombs, which form a complicated maze corridor with lower walls for a sarcophagus or an urn with ashes.

Finally, it is also worth mentioning that in the conquered territories the Romans established permanent military camps (castrum romanum), which gave rise to numerous cities.

In the first century BCE (20-10 BCE), Marek Vitruvius Polio, a Roman architect and war engineer, wrote a treatise entitled “On the Architecture of Books Ten”, which, in addition to ancient architecture, described the construction of water clocks and war machines. Vitruvius was the constructor of war machines during the reign of Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus. He also created the so-called Vitruvian man, which is the image of a naked man inscribed in a circle and square, symbolizing movement. Later, Leonardo da Vinci disseminated his own version of this image. Vitruvius’ work was discovered in 1415 and was a guide for Renaissance architects.

Today, this work is an invaluable source of knowledge about the architecture and construction art of ancient Greeks and Romans. Vitruvius describes in detail both the Greek classical orders and their Roman varieties. The descriptions were supplemented with relevant illustrations – the original drawings were not preserved. The rules applied by the Romans when planning cities and erecting buildings were also discussed extensively.

Brilliant builders

Tympanum on the Pantheon. It is an internal triangular field of the pediment, smooth or filled with sculpture, constituting a characteristic element of the monumental buildings of Rome and Greece.
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The Romans had a really great talent for erecting monumental buildings. They were also the first bricklayers in the western world. Many of their works have survived to this day. It should be noted that not only bricklayers, but also measurers, architects and engineers worked on the erection of buildings. They invented a rather interesting blocking technique, which, when used together with a substance reminiscent of today’s concrete, resulted in incredible solidity of the erected building. In the place where the wall was to be built, first wooden form-work was laid, then gravel was poured onto the layer of sand, which was later thoroughly compacted. This constituted the foundation on which the wall was built – alternately laying a layer of mortar and a layer of stone. The walls were finished by covering them with red mortar, covering them with frescoes, carvings or marble cladding.

Roman bricklayers mainly used bricks and local materials, such as tuff from the hills around Rome, travertine from Tiburia (Colosseum) or limestones from northern Africa. However, it happened that the material was imported from very far away. A variety of elevators and cranes were used to help move heavy stone blocks.

Most Roman homes, however, were built from combining mortar with wood and bricks. They resembled much later buildings erected under Louis XIII or large Anglo-Norman farms. The roofs were covered with tiles. The way of covering them has not changed even to this day – flat tiles filled the space between the beams, while the bale was covered with half-round tiles. Machined stones were used to build public buildings.

Roman cement

The Romans produced cement from a mixture of lime and volcanic rock. The species used for underwater structures consisted of lime and volcanic ash, and the mortar thus obtained was mixed with tuff and placed in wooden molds. After immersion in water, an immediate hot reaction occurred. Lime was hydrated and reacted with ash. Extremely resistant cement was formed.

Luckily for us, descriptions of the ash used have survived. Vitruvius, engineer of the first emperor Octavian Augustus, and later Pliny the Elder reported that the best cement for marine use was made from volcanic ash from the Gulf of Naples. Particularly appreciated the one that is near the modern city of Pozzuoli, called puzolana. We now know that this type of ash and volcanic rocks built from it occur in many places around the world. The latest research shows that it is thanks to the special way in which aluminium replaces silicon compounds, the Romans managed to obtain extremely durable cement.

It is worth noting that the legionaries themselves built a lot. Entire garrisons worked on building fortifications or fortifying cities. For this purpose, they used machined stone blocks, which they connected with iron pins and sealed with lead.

The Romans were also able to build large domes from stones. Huge wooden forms covered with plaster or stucco were used to decorate them. After removing the molds, everything was decorated with reliefs or paintings.

Pont Gard aqueduct

The aqueduct was built in the years 26–16 BCE on the order of Mark Agrippa (on the bridge there is an inscription from 19 BCE dedicated to Agrippa). The building is an example of craftsmanship and knowledge of the secrets of building by the Romans.

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An example of the craftsmanship of the Romans was, for example, nineteen aqueducts supplying drinking water to Rome. Besides, buildings of this type were erected in most Roman cities. In Gaul, the aqueduct called Pont Gard has survived to this day. It was built of three rows of arcades that reached 48 meters in height. The highest row was 273 meters long. Water in cities was distributed by a system of vessels connected with the use of large-diameter lead pipes, which, as we know, did not reflect well on the health of the Romans.

  • Brigitte Hintzen-Bohlen, Rzym. Sztuka i architektura
  • Elżbieta Makowiecka, Sztuka Rzymu
  • Witold Szolginia, Architektura

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