Architecture in Ancient Rome

ancient rome architecture

The best I can do is to make a few comments about Roman architecture. Even ten, or a hundred pages would not do it justice. Suffice to say that as with the other arts such as painting and sculpture, the ancient Romans absorbed all the best from the people they dominated, made it their own and made it bigger or better or both.

Of particular note is the influence received from the Etruscans and then the Greeks but also the Egyptians, Persians, Judaeans and other conquered nations all made contributions. The city of Rome is littered with obelisks and even a pyramid has survived the ages. Emperor Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, near Rome, abounds with the architectural innovations which he brought back from his travels across the empire. Many if not all of the architectural features included in the villa, including a sea of vaults and domes are most likely executed by the architect Apolodorus of Damascus.

A further influence comes from climatic conditions and the availability of local building materials. All of these factors contribute to a varied set of architectural solutions to the same set of problems. A house built northern Europe would be very likely to employ plenty of timber and require a steep sided roof in order to support snow falls whilst an equivalent dwelling in southern Europe might opt for thick stone in order to maintain a stable temperature and a low, flat distribution of the interiors aimed at assisting the flow of air through it.

If art is an expression of a culture's consciousness of itself then there is much to be gained from looking at the role of the Roman individual within society and the world about him. The Egyptian was a subject of the all-powerful Gods, the Greek was an individual who could study and understand his situation with respect to the gods. The gods would often taken on human form. He was an individual who could choose and this freedom of choice and of existence expressed itself through philosophy and art. The Roman's same consciousness of the individual and his personal freedom expressed itself through law and the state. It is not surprising therefore that the art and architecture expressed these ideals through luxurious temples, baths, amphitheaters and circuses.

Roman consciousness was pragmatic and utilitarian and so was their conception of building and architecture. Even their greatest buildings, including the Triumphal Arch, served as propaganda aimed at quelling the hearts of Roman citizens in the light of a failing economy.

Whilst the Greeks produced marvelous temples and art, the Romans multiplied them ad infinitum almost to the point of diluting their individual significance. It is also interesting to note how the Temples of the Greeks were adopted by the Romans and how by the end of the empire they were literally turned inside-out: The great basilicas were initially conceived as gigantic "malls". Later they were transformed into the ideal structures of the Christian religion. The Greek gods were "without" and the Romans diluted and killed this concept until they replaced it with a new building of worship where the god was "within". Public architecture intended to lull the troubled heart of the individual.

The great innovations of the basilica are not only to be found in its later transformation for religious purposes. Well before that, the use of concrete meant that the structures could be made with greater freedom both in division of the structural areas as well as their overall size (stronger meant bigger). The top floors no longer needed to follow the structure of those below and this afforded a new found freedom of design for architects.

Clearly the Romans were excellent engineers and this allowed enormous freedom to architecture. Destructive fires in the city pushed innovations such as the use of pozzolanic concrete. Concrete not only allowed fire-prone materials to be eliminated but its greater strength permitted the construction of enormous structures which until then had been impossible to conceive. The enormous, single-span, dome of the Pantheon is one such example.

Other architectural innovations can be found in great buildings such as the Domus Aurea, Nero's Golden House. Its vast dimensions allowed the designers to surprise the visitor with unexpected features such as the vaulted octagonal room.

The Domus Aurea also gives us an interesting parallel with the architects and buildings of later periods. For example it is interesting to note how the Romans enjoyed using false structural features to aesthetic ends like building false vaults into their ceilings. These could be plastered and painted as in the Domus Aurea but in fact they perform no real weight-bearing function. There is merely a space between them and the beams of the floor above, which at best provided the function of improved insulation and sound proofing. I find an interesting similarity and counterpoise to this in the Gothic aesthetic trick of accentuating the structural ribs of churches in order to render a stronger sensation of height rather than to actually perform a structural function.

At the height of the empire we find the first examples of apartment buildings which could reach as many as three or

four floors. These apartment blocks were made according to predefined models with the apartments conceived as modules. Rather than looking inwards towards a central courtyard the apartments now looked outwards to the surrounding streets. We therefore see the first modern concepts of urban planning.

The great baths are a tribute to the position and status of the individual the "civis". They naturally abounded in what was regarded most noble: water, columns and vaults with cladding of precious marbles and mosaics. The acqueducts are a tribute to the opulence of the state and its dominance over nature and the ravages of the world outside the city walls. We cannot, of course, forget the greatest of Roman pass-times: the circus. This was in many ways an extension of the Greek Amphitheater but developed to include the shows which were closest to the passions of the common man of Rome: naval battles, racing chariots, blood and gore and yet more blood.

An interesting influence which is often overlooked is the mystical element. Setting aside all Greek influence on architecture the first thought is to think of religion and Christianity. But this influence only made itself noticeable on Roman architecture towards end of the empire, when Christianity itself was legally accepted.

Well before that we find Roman mysticism directly influencing architecture during the time of Augustus and with a little searching probably well before that too. The Romans loved their mysticism the stars and what they might tell through their birth signs. As has already been mentioned Augustus was keen on propaganda and it seems he went as far as publicising the propitious nature of his personal birth stars in a number of monuments, including his mausoleum which was planned and built according to his star signs. The Pantheon was likewise influenced and oriented towards the rising sun on his birth date. A similar inspiration was included within the design of the Ara Pacis (altar to peace). The sun cast its shadow on the altar at the exact time and date of Augustus' birth by way of an enormous obelisk-cum-sundial.

A similar but even more spectacular effect was sought and achieved on the interior of the Pantheon where the oculus at the apex of the spherical dome allows a single shaft of sunlight to fall and travel across the interior of the building. This is possibly the first example of the god being brought within. The Pantheon was one of only three places where the emperor might be seen by the population and the spherical connotations of the dome and building with its gigantic oculus -sun placed the emperor-god in direct relation with the heavens. The dome was an ideal structural solution to allow overhead lighting whilst directly alluding to the (circular) perfection of the heavens.

The commemorative column. holding up a statue was not a Roman invention but the Romans did go a step further with the columns of Trajan and Antoninus. There is no precedent to the idea of binding the column with a narrative frieze, not dissimilar from the concept of the books which existed in those times (books were not bound as they are now, but were a continuous scroll). An interesting note is that the scroll is made higher as it moves up the column in order to counteract the effect of perspective. Even if both columns have a commemorative and history-story telling purpose to them, the later of the two columns doesn't follow a strict chronological order but rather places the most important events where they are most visible (closer to the ground). The base of the column was intended to hold the funerary remains of the emperor himself.

Of all these achievements it is perhaps the Triumphal arch which is the most significant Roman contribution to art and architecture. Unlike other Roman creations, the Triumphal arch has no functional purpose per se. It is monumental, massive and durable and it does nothing more than announce the arrival and entrance (into the city) of the great conqueror. An everlasting monument to the passing of the supreme individual for whom the arch was created.

The Romans fully appreciated the aesthetic discovery of the Triumphal Arch and as was their custom they repeated it wherever they could. Unlike the Greek temple, repetition of the arch never diluted its pure, elemental significance. It would be difficult to overlook the fact that the powerful arches of the Aqueducts and of the Amphitheaters go beyond their obvious function to provide a self-celebration of grandiosity.

With the political and economic downfall of the Western Empire we see the final Roman tribute to architecture. As the basilica was turned to religious use the Greek temple is decidedly turned inside out. The pragmatic reason for this can be found in the practical way in which a large space could be enclosed relatively cheaply. And what did the Romans introduce at the end of the nave? A Triumphal Arch separating the Plebeians from the Altar. Triumph was brought "within" whilst the world outside became a barbarian dominion.

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Category: Architecture

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