Roman Architecture

Introduction

Overall Summary

Tiny Summary of Roman Architecture
Pax Romana
ca. 0-200
Late Empire
ca. 200-500
temples (Maison-Carrée, Pantheon), Colosseum Baths of Caracalla
Early Christian
church designs (basilica > Latin cross & central plan),
earliest churches (Old St Peter's, Santa Sabina)

General Features

The Romans embraced Greek culture so eagerly that it became the foundation of Roman culture. Consequently, Roman forms of art and architecture emerged largely from the adoption and reshaping of Greek models. In terms of architecture, this entailed the adoption of the three orders (basic styles) of Greek temples (see Classical Orders).

In one respect, however, Roman architecture stands clearly apart from its Greek predecessors. The Romans were the first civilization to fully exploit arched construction, in which a roof is supported by arches (as opposed to post-and-beam construction, in which a roof sits directly on columns). Among older cultures, arched construction was either relatively simple (e.g. Mesopotamia) or virtually absent (e.g. Greece).

Post-and-beam Construction vs Arched Construction

In architecture, vertical supports are often referred to as "posts" or "pillars". A circular support is known as a column, while a square or rectangular support is often called a pier.

Prior to the age of steel framing, the interior space of a post-and-beam structure was necessarily crowded with columns. Arches, on the other hand, could redirect a building's weight over long distances to thick posts, allowing for vast, relatively unobstructed rooms (see Tension and Compression).2

The principal building materials of ancient Rome were stone and concrete. Though concrete dates to the earliest civilizations, the Romans were the first to build with it extensively. Concrete walls were often coated in facings of stone or brick.4,20,21

The heart of a Roman city was the forum: a public square, typically paved and surrounded by the city's principal civic buildings. Larger cities might feature multiple forums.7,9

Reconstruction of a Roman Forum

Vaulting

An arch-shaped ceiling is known as a vault. Vaults come in various forms; the simplest is the tunnel vault (aka barrel vault), which can be described as a "continuous arch". The weight of such a vault demanded thick supportive walls with limited gaps. Moreover, since the height of a tunnel vault must increase along with its width, there was a practical limit on its size.22

Tunnel Vault
Tunnel Vault
Groin Vault
Groin Vaults
Dome
Dome

Roman architects overcame these limitations in two ways. One was the dome, which can cover a large circular area. The other was the groin vault: a structure formed by the intersection of two tunnel vaults, which concentrates the weight at four points and allows the supportive walls to be reduced to four posts. A grid of groin vaults could enclose an unlimited area with a minimum of vertical supports.22

Triumphal Structures

One of the most enduringly popular forms of Roman architecture is the triumphal arch, a free-standing archway built to commemorate a great event (often a military campaign). A triumphal arch often features sculpture relevant to the event in question, such as narrative reliefs or crowning statues.7 Large triumphal arches sometimes have two sub-arches flanking the main central arch.

Triumphal Arch in Libya
Triumphal Arch in Athens (Arch of Hadrian)
Triumphal Arch in Rome (Arch of Septimius Severus)
Triumphal Arch in Jerash (Arch of Hadrian)
Trajan's Column, Rome

A popular cousin of the triumphal arch was the triumphal column. The surface of a triumphal column is ideal for illustrating long stories, as it can be wrapped in a continuous, spiralling series of narrative reliefs. By far the most famous example is Trajan's Column, Rome.

Roads and Aqueducts

As the Roman state expanded, so did its networks of roads and aqueducts. Many modern European roads (from city streets to highways) lie atop Roman originals. (Many refurbished Roman buildings, for that matter, are still used today.) Roman aqueducts, which provided gravity-fed streams of water for drinking supplies and baths, were essentially narrow stone channels supported by continuous pier-and-arch construction.G139,H200,9

Ancient Roman Road
Map of Ancient Roman Highways
(modified by Essential Humanities)
Roman Aqueduct
Roman Aqueduct Channel

Main Article

Pax Romana Architecture

ca. 0-200

The Republic (ca. 500 BC-0) was the formative age of the Roman state and culture. Roman territory was limited to Italy during the Early Republic (ca. 500-250 BC), then expanded rapidly across Mediterranean lands during the Late Republic (ca. 250 BC-0). Roman power (and architectural activity) peaked during the Pax Romana (ca. 0-200), then declined in the Late Empire (ca. 200-500). While the building types covered in the remainder of this article generally date to the Republic, it was during the Empire period that the most extraordinary specimens of each type were constructed.

Roman temples can be divided into two categories: post-and-beam (like those of the Greeks) and vaulted.

Post-and-beam Roman temples are distinguished from their Greek predecessors in various ways. Typically, the three-stepped floor was replaced with a tall platform, and the columns along the sides of the temple were converted to engaged columns.G139,7 Both transformations apply to the finest surviving Roman post-and-beam temple, the Maison-Carrée, in France.

Maison-Carrée
Engaged Columns (Maison-Carrée)
Pilasters
Series of Blind Arches (i.e. a 'blind arcade')

An engaged column ("attached column"), the decorative version of a true column, has the appearance of being partly embedded in a wall. A flattened engaged column is called a pilaster. The decorative version of an arch is a blind arch: a shallow, arched depression in a wall.

The Pantheon, perhaps the most celebrated of all Roman buildings, is certainly the most famous vaulted Roman temple. It features a vast dome (the world's largest until the Renaissance, with the construction of Brunelleschi's dome) pierced with a circular skylight. The Pantheon is often upheld as the masterpiece of the Corinthian order; as such, it may be considered the final piece of the classical "set", along with the Parthenon (the Doric masterpiece) and Erechtheum (the Ionic masterpiece).

The Pantheon (Rome)
Pantheon Interior
Circular Skylight in the Dome of the Pantheon

The ancient Greeks constructed performance areas (e.g. theatre stages, racetracks) at the bases of natural inclines, allowing them to install hillside venue seating. Using vaulted construction, the Romans could build free-standing venue seating, allowing Greek-style theatres and racetracks to be erected anywhere.11 Moreover, free-standing venue seating allowed the Romans to develop the amphitheatre (amphi="both", as in "both sides"), in which seating runs continuously around a central arena.7

Venue Seating: Natural Incline vs Free-standing

Largest of all Roman buildings was the amphitheatre known as the Colosseum. The layout of the modern stadium, which allows the efficient flow of thousands of spectators, was established by this building. The exterior of the Colosseum features the popular classical motif of superimposed orders (in which orders are arranged vertically, from simplest at the bottom to most elaborate at the top), which dates to the Hellenistic era.E18,G146

Colosseum (Rome)
Colosseum Interior

Late Empire Architecture

ca. 200-500

The Early Roman Empire (ca. 0-200), also known as the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"), was the most prosperous and stable age of Roman history. Unsurprisingly, the masterpieces of Roman architecture date chiefly from this period. Nonetheless, the Late Roman Empire (ca. 200-500) had its share of magnificent buildings, and holds particular interest as a transitional phase to the Middle Ages.

The most ambitious construction project of the Late Empire was the Baths of Caracalla. While baths were a standard feature of Roman cities, the Baths of Caracalla were exceptionally large and luxurious (see model). In addition to actual baths (hot, lukewarm, and cold), the complex included exercise rooms, swimming pools, lecture halls, and libraries. The interior was richly decorated with murals, sculptures, mosaics, and stucco.11,33,34

Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla
Ruins of the Baths of Caracalla
Plan of the Baths of Caracalla
Reconstruction of the Baths of Caracalla

Early Christian Architecture

ca. 200-500

The Late Empire was the final age of Roman art and architecture. It was also the first age of Christian art and architecture; consequently, this period is also known as the Early Christian age (ca. 200-500). (Though Jesus lived in the early first century, it took decades for Christianity to emerge as a distinct religion, and further decades for Christian-themed art to develop.)

Early Christian art features the adaptation of Roman art forms to Christian purposes (see Early Christian Art). In the field of architecture, the most important adaptation was the embrace of the Roman basilica as the standard design for the Christian church (see Church Anatomy).13 While Early Christian churches typically featured plain exteriors, interiors were often richly decorated. The best-preserved Early Christian church may be Santa Sabina (Rome), whose fifth-century appearance remains little changed today.G173

Exterior of Santa Sabina
Interior of Santa Sabina

Santa Sabina is a "basilica church"; that is, it features the same layout as a Roman basilica. From the Early Christian period onward, the basilica layout remained a popular choice for churches throughout Europe. Yet the most prevalent church layouts became the Latin cross church (in Western Europe) and central plan church (in Eastern Europe), both of which evolved (during the Early Christian period) from the basilica church. The Latin cross design essentially adds two lateral extensions ("transepts") to the basilica layout, while the central plan design essentially compresses the basilica layout into a square (atop which a great dome is placed).

Basilica Church
Latin Cross Church vs Central-plan Church

The foremost Early Christian church (and the world’s largest church until the High Middle Ages) was Old Saint Peter’s in Rome, which was replaced by the current Saint Peter’s during the Renaissance. This church was built under Constantine, the first Christian emperor. The building site is traditionally considered the burial place of Saint Peter (who is considered the first pope).G172,31

Reconstruction of Old Saint Peter's
Reconstruction of Old Saint Peter's (cross-section)

Along with churches, the Early Christian period featured a variety of other Christian buildings, including the chapel (small church), baptistry (baptism chamber), shrine (a building that honours a holy person or place, and often contains relics), and mausoleum (above-ground tomb). These structures may be referred to collectively as minor Christian buildings. Like Eastern European churches, minor Christian buildings typically feature central plan layouts.14 (The term "central plan" denotes rotational symmetry: if the plan is rotated around its central point, it looks the same at multiple points of rotation.)

Central Plan Layouts

It should be noted that Christian architecture blossomed later than other forms of Christian art (e.g. painting, sculpture), simply because it could not be produced covertly. Christian architecture only began to flourish after 313, when persecution of Christians was greatly alleviated by Constantine's proclamation of official tolerance. Prior to this edict, Christian meetings and worship were usually conducted secretly, in homes of the faithful.13

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