The ancient Romans developed a distinctive architectural style that displayed the variety, power, and wealth of their culture. At first, Roman buildings and other structures were modeled largely on the architectural styles and traditions of the Greeks. However, Roman builders soon discovered new construction materials and techniques that helped them implement more complex designs.
The most important idea that Roman builders borrowed from the Greeks was the use of the three Greek orders, or styles, of building. These styles were known as the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Each order used a particular type of column and had other special features, such as a horizontal base and detailed roof structure. The Romans adopted these orders as well as the Greek method of using stone blocks for construction.
Beginning in the 300s B.C., the Roman government undertook vast building projects, including TEMPLES, civic buildings, ROADS, BRIDGES, and AQUEDUCTS. This surge in construction gave builders the opportunity to improve building technology.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Construction Materials. The Romans discovered new types of construction materials that gave them greater design flexibility. No longer were they limited to the cut blocks of stone used by the Greeks. In the 200s and early 100s B.C., the Romans developed concrete, which they made by mixing stone fragments with mortar*. Builders molded concrete into shapes that were too heavy or too awkward to produce in stone. Concrete also replaced timbers in structures such as ceilings, where wood had been a fire hazard. At first, Roman builders used wooden armatures, or frameworks, in which they poured the concrete. Later, they replaced these with stone or brickwork. Once the concrete cured, or hardened, it bonded with the brick or stone outer layer and was stronger than stone.
Another material that contributed to the development of Roman architecture was marble. By the A.D. 100s, the Roman empire had expanded to include regions with good sources of marble and other fine building materials. Gray and pink granite from Egypt, yellow marble from North Africa, green and white marble from Euboea in the Aegean Sea, and white marble from Greece became readily available throughout the Roman empire. Builders used these colorful stones to decorate important buildings.
Construction Design and Technique. Improvements in construction technique also enabled the Romans to explore new design possibilities. Their most important innovation was the development of the arch, a curved structure resting on two supports and spanning an opening, such as a doorway. As an alternative to the Greek style of vertical columns supporting horizontal beams, the arch brought greater variety to Roman building styles. Arches also enabled the Romans to build vaults*. They formed high vaulted ceilings by crossing arches. Vaults could be linked to create very large structures. In 193 B.C., Roman builders constructed a huge warehouse to store the city’s grain. It had 50 vaults, each nine yards wide, joined by interconnecting arches.
* mortar mixture of lime, cement, sand, and water that is placed between stones to hold them together
* vault arched ceiling or roof
As the Romans extended their control over other regions, they came into contact with other cultures and occasionally adopted foreign architectural designs. One such feature was the Syrian arch. In this design, the traditional horizontal roof structure of Greek architecture is broken by a central arch rising from a pair of columns.
One of the most striking Roman architectural features was the dome. Building on their experience with arches, the Romans experimented with curved structures that could support weight. Eventually, they developed the dome. By the A.D. 100s, the Romans had begun to build great monuments with massive domed ceilings.
As Rome’s power increased, the Romans enlarged their cities, conquered foreign cities, and established new colonies. The demand for new buildings continued through the end of the Roman Republic* and remained strong during the period of the Roman Empire. Changes in Roman society gradually created a need for different types of buildings, such as elegant palaces for powerful rulers, baths, and amphitheaters for popular pastimes. Roman architects continually met the challenges that new kinds of construction projects demanded.
The Roman Republic. From the 300s B.C. until 31 B.C., architects of the Roman Republic developed the Roman style. Buildings still contained many Greek elements, but new features, such as concrete vaults, appeared. These new features showed up in many public buildings, such as the sanctuary* of Fortuna Primigenia, built in the late 100s B.C. at Praeneste, southeast of Rome. The architect designed a vast complex of buildings on a hillside, using concrete to make platforms on the uneven ground and to construct sloping and curving vaults. Greek and Roman elements blended in such designs as vaults resting on rows of columns.
The Roman theater featured another stylistic innovation. The Greeks often built theaters at the base of a hill, with seating arranged on the natural slope. The Romans used concrete to build artificial slopes. The slopes were supported by vaults under the seating area. Here the architects installed corridors and stairways to help the spectators reach their seats. As a result, the Romans could build theaters in flat locations, such as the center of a city. When the Roman general Pompey built Rome’s first theater in 55 B.C., he added another new feature—a small temple dedicated to Venus at the top of the auditorium so that the goddess could watch the entertainments.
During this period, the Romans also built heated public baths. They installed efficient hot-water heating systems to control the temperature of the bathing pools and used concrete vaulting to construct the large bath chambers.
The Roman Empire. Roman architecture continued to thrive during most of the Roman Empire until the A.D. 300s. Roman architects no longer relied on Greek models for the basic structure of their buildings. They did, however, continue to use Greek elements for decoration.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* sanctuary place for worship
One new type of building was the imperial* palace. In the A.D. 60s, the emperor Nero built the Golden House, a magnificent palace with an artificial lake and a private park. According to writers of the day, the palace had a revolving dome decorated with gold and jewels and dining rooms in which the ceilings “rained” perfumes and flowers. The palace also had some unusual shapes, such as an eight-sided room and a fivesided courtyard.
A palace built for the emperor Domitian several decades later had separate official and private quarters. There was a basilica* and an audience chamber, each containing a recessed area for the emperor’s throne.
One of the greatest monuments built in the city of Rome during the early empire was the Colosseum. This massive amphitheater held about 50,000 spectators and had an elaborate system of corridors and stairways. It was the model for other amphitheaters in Italy and the Roman provinces.
The emperor Trajan completed a new forum—a public meeting place used for public assemblies, judicial proceedings, and other events—in Rome in A.D. 114. With a statue of Trajan at its center, the forum had a basilica, an imposing column with carved decorations, and two libraries. Four years later, under the emperor Hadrian, work began on another Roman monument, the temple known as the Pantheon. The most remarkable feature of the Pantheon was its huge concrete dome. The dome covered a vast open interior 142 feet wide and a marble floor in a checkerboard pattern.
Public baths reached a new level of luxury in the early A.D. 200s with the construction of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. This elaborate structure was built of concrete under a layer of bricks. In addition to the bathing pools, the Baths of Caracalla included a swimming pool, games courts surrounded by columns, libraries, large lecture halls, and beautiful gardens. The bath building faced southwest so that the afternoon sun shone into the heated rooms.
The great building projects of the emperors produced techniques and innovations that changed Roman architecture. Roman builders preserved some elements of Greek architecture, but by inventing and using new designs, improving construction methods, and discovering new materials, the Romans advanced beyond their Greek models, creating a style that was distinctly their own. (See also Architecture, Greek; Cities, Roman; Houses; Palaces, Imperial Roman; Theaters.)
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* basilica in Roman times, a large rectangular building used as a court of law or public meeting place