The Roman society, like any other, had its humble beginnings. The history of their architecture runs virtually in step with the history of their empire to an extent. As the Empire expanded so did the architecture, and as Romans became more magnificent their architecture followed. Roman architecture had its humble beginnings as a form of worship. The first Roman architects were the ancient priests and dwellers who made areas of sacrifice and worship for their gods. At first, their homes were simple huts but as they grew smarter and more aware of their surroundings, they erected monumental sites for their gods. ‘“This space shall be for worship and for nothing else; it shall be four-square; … whatever is done or said in this holy space the gods shall be aware of; whatever comes … shall be a sign from the gods.’” (Brown 10) So, like many arts, Roman architecture’s roots are embedded in the worshiping and homage paid in religion.
The Romans were, of course, not the first to unveil and practice many of their building philosophies; however, they built like no other society before them. Their methods incorporated efficiency and sophistication to construct a whole new look. So with the rise of the Romans and the everlasting hail of Caesar after Caesar and Emperor after Emperor, Roman architecture expanded and influenced building over the world. Unlike the Empire, though, Roman design did not die at the hands of the Germanics, or rather at the hands of self-destruction; it continued to expand and play a part in every major style throughout history. Today, a look at any bridge, tunnel, skyscraper and most buildings will reveal a Roman influence. Even through its empire’s own tribulations and defeat, architecture has stood as an everlasting symbol of what Rome once was, and what the rest of the world is today. To conclude, Roman architecture cannot be looked at as a mere time period or cultural event, for its ramifications lie beyond cultures and beyond time itself. Roman architecture is not a variable, it is, and forever will be, a constant.
Unlike cultures before them, the Romans were not intimidated by the curve, “Greece, like the Orient, had been shy of the curve.” (Brown 20) It had proven very difficult for predecessors to successfully negotiate an angled surface; it not only took great skill, but the right kind of material and design. The Romans, however, saw great advantages in curved structures such as the arch, vault and dome. Use of the arch and its principles date back to ancient architecture; however, the Romans revolutionized the way the arch was used, and in that changed the face of architecture.
The concept of the arch was to support a structure spanning a wide distance. Builders before had used beams and columns for support, but they had sometimes been too weak. The Roman architects were not concerned with embodying an innovative new design; they were impressed with the practical advantages of the arch and the greater amount of load it could support. The concept was a step up from the Greek post-and-lintel system, where many temples and public structures were erected on columns. Through time, the arch proved to be worthy of any task, whether it was supporting a long bridge, or giving rise to a Gothic cathedral. As is the case with many Roman designs, the arch can be seen in many modern structures.
The vault was used by the Romans, predominantly, as ceilings and roofs of buildings or rooms and support for ceilings. It is basically a string of connected arches forming a semi-spherical structure. The simplest of the vaults was the barrel, or tunnel, vault. It was supported by straight walls on its side and was very sustainable. Another system the Romans fancied was the groin vault, where two barrel vaults come together and cross each other. Vaults were used in structures like the Coliseum to cover corridors and in the public baths of Roman cities.
The third advance, which came to use by the Romans, was the dome. The dome, like the arch and vault, was widely used in many grand structures. It was a spherical vault, which rested on a base wall. Compared to the vault, it was more stable; however, it was limited because it thrusts outward in a circle. The Roman hemispherical domes were very impressive and beautiful; The Pantheon’s great dome, built by Emperor Hadrian, is more than forty-three meters in diameter.
Along with a revolution in structure and design, the Romans were the first to use and produce concrete; as well as marble, mosaic, and stone. The mortar mix the Romans used provided a very strong foundation and support for structures. They used decorative stones as well as marble in public baths and many buildings. The Romans vast building supplies and their confidence in their abilities to use them were instrumental in their architectural excellence.
The durability and beauty of the Roman’s arches, vaults, and domes speak for themselves two millenniums after they were built. In many instances, the vaults and foundation arches are all that is left of ruins. Up until the nineteenth century, arches and vaults were the only methods, other than post-and-lintel, for spanning space between walls and piers, and for constructing ceilings. Their appeal and widespread use up to this day, is due largely to their durability and efficiency, as evidenced by the Roman architects.
Every great empire confers with a marvelous city, and Rome was no exception. The center of all trade, art, commerce and court for the entire empire, Rome was a magnificent city. Set on the shores of the Tiber River, Rome had been inhabited for nearly three thousand years. It was not until during the 7th century B.C. that it came to be called Rome. It was set in a perfect strategic location for it was not too close to the sea and was surrounded by seven huge hills.
Unlike many smaller Roman cities, Rome did not have a very orderly layout. As the population grew, eventually reaching one million, the city extended its limits and added public works. Two of the revolutionary systems used in Rome were the aqueducts and the sewer system. The aqueducts, which were built by the Roman army, supplied water to the ever-growing population. They were huge cement edifices, which carried water along their tops. The underground sewers were an intellectual marvel at the time. Another popular feature of Rome was the public baths located around the city. These were public buildings with huge open-air rooms inside where people would bathe and exercise. The great vaulted roofs still stand today over what once was the baths. Public tombs were also customary for nearly all residents, even slaves. Depending on one’s stature in society, one could have various structures erected. Emperors and senate members constructed huge mausoleums with monuments. The common people were cremated and their ashes were kept in small niches with a plaque.
The empire sprung off from Rome in every direction, on land and sea. “All roads lead to Rome” was the case with roads such as the Via Appia stretching out across the land. The roads were so plentiful, and well built that many of them survive today as landmarks and remnants of a vast empire. As the Empire expanded, so did the architecture, “The opening of the world to Rome by conquest, power, and wealth was the beginning of a revolutionary phase in which Roman architecture was remade.” (Brown 18) A growing population brought huge amounts of trade to Rome, making it the center of trade on the Mediterranean Sea.
The increase in trade brought newfound wealth to Rome and the city began to sprout up with all kinds of new monuments. Each leader and emperor constructed his own forum and countless monumental arches were erected. Though some masterpieces were constructed under specific Emperors, the greatness in Roman architecture endured throughout the whole era of the Empire. Not only did every Emperor construct many monumental sites, they also encouraged the construction of various public works in Rome. The Empire brought many products into the city such as wine, pottery, glassware, grain and animals. The imports made far off delicacies available to the general population in Rome. The Roman army also captured slaves from Greece, Britain and the Middle East to serve on the farms in the empire. Many of the Greek slaves also served as educators to young Romans, and some slaves were regarded as close friends.
The first real organized sports in history may have occurred in Rome along with organized betting. Racecourses such as Circus Maximus and amphitheaters such as the Coliseum served the Roman people with entertainment. Betting on chariot races was popular and betting on someone’s life was too. Wild animals from Africa were captured and sent to Rome to square off against gladiators. The full experience of Rome encompasses that of a modern city.
Rome’s uniqueness and destiny for greatness came from its position as the head of a huge Empire. Rome was once regarded to many as not only the capital of the Empire, but the capital of the World as well. It did not represent all the world’s people by far, but it definitely did represent what the modern cities would be like, and what a great city should be. Some view the great power of a centralized Rome as a product in the downfall of the Romans, but if one looks at what the city has given us today, and what it gave to the people of Rome at the time, its greatness and praise should never be questioned.
As important and significant the arches, vaults, domes and public works are to Roman architecture, the true beauty and amazing feats of the culture lie in several masterpieces of the Roman people. These structures, of immense importance to the Romans, have stood for two thousand years as symbols of the greatness and legend of the Roman Empire. The masterpieces are not only of immense proportion, but also of great beauty and sophistication. They are our closest link to the Roman people and their lifestyle.
The first, and maybe most magnificent of all, is the Pantheon. If looked at only by its beauty, the Pantheon would be a masterpiece, but the huge dome erected over it and its design proves to be even more remarkable. The term pantheon refers to a building that serves as a mausoleum or memorial for eminent personages of a country (as is the case of the French Panthéon), but the Roman’s Pantheon was a monument for all the gods. The Pantheon was built from AD 118-128 under the supervision of Emperor Hadrian; it replaced a smaller temple built in 27 BC, which had been pillaged by fires. Hadrian’s wish for a lasting, fireproof, structure was the reason for a bronze dome. The dome, itself, was supported by eight drums, which wrapped around the perimeter of the building. The massive forty-three meter dome had an oculus in the center portion, which emitted light into the dome. The dome sets down on the interior wall with arches to support it. “These arches … were designed to discharge the vertical weight of the lower part of the dome onto the solid parts of the wall inside.” (Rivoira 125) The Pantheon incorporated arches, domes, vaults and columns to give it a unique design. Inside, columns rise up to the support system; it is a truly beautiful piece of architectural genius. The Pantheon retains a universal beauty; a look of sophistication and greatness that everyone appreciates.
Another masterpiece, the Coliseum, is still regarded as one of the more famous buildings in the world today. It was built by Emperor’s Vesavius, Titus, and Domitian in AD 69-81. However, looking at the Coliseum now is the equivalent of looking at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel if the paint had chipped off and his work had been left to decay. The Coliseum was not left to decay, but was destroyed by earthquake after earthquake and countless fires and even used as a quarry; it is now just a ruin of the great amphitheater.
In its day, the Coliseum was a marvel to look at. It was a full three story elliptical arcade (row of arches) with a fourth story full of windows. In between each arch and window sat statues of great heroes and gods, and in the middle of the ellipse sat a pit for the fights. Set deep in the heart of Rome, the Coliseum was once the greatest amphitheater in the Empire. The citizens would flood there to see men fight beasts and other spectacles. Inside, there was seating for approximately fifty thousand people and a special area for emperors and city leaders. Around the pit and underground lay an intricate set of rooms where beasts such as lions would be kept and supplies stored; today it looks somewhat like an excavation of secret passages. Although it was one of the last of its kind made, the Coliseum remained active until AD 523. For the citizens of Rome it was a great place for leisure and fun, and also a beloved structure. Today, although it is damaged, many still view the Coliseum as the epitome of Roman architecture. “…perhaps the greatest work of architectural engineering left to us by Roman antiquity is Rome’s Coliseum…With its tiers of arches, its superimposed orders in the form of half-columns, and its crowning range of pilasters, it was to become a pattern for Renaissance architecture.” (Wheeler 118)
The next structure, the Circus Maximus, was one of the more popular structures built by the Roman people. The outer dimensions of the Circus tally at nearly 610 meters long and 190 meters wide and the inside tiers of seats could accommodate close to two hundred thousand people. During Caesar’s reign, the Circus was reconstructed and enlarged. The Circus was a very popular place for Romans to watch chariot races and other events, “The race course and processional track first received comparably monumental treatment in the imperial Circus Maximus at Rome, where it was the most venerable of festival places … It was compelling enough to annul the functional asymmetry for the starting end with its oblique arc of starting boxes and canted right wall.” (Brown 29) The Circus is not revered as a true masterpiece of architecture, but, as a public area of entertainment, it does represent an important part of imperial Roman architecture.
These were not the only great works of Roman Architecture. Hadrian’s Wall, the Emperors’ Forums and many others all were symbols of the great Roman Empire and their superior builders. Although many of these masterpieces were not necessary for survival like the aqueducts, they were favorites of the Roman people; and they signify to us ages later a magnificent empire with a sophisticated and grand style.
If the Roman era were to be classified as a time of advancement, then let architecture be one of the greatest advancements. Rome’s ability to challenge and change the precedents set by its older brother Greece was the key to the Roman Empire’s greatness. The precedent challenged, or more the limit surpassed that was key to architecture was the incorporation and widespread use of the arch. Rome’s ability to spread its empire with minimum supplies and efficiency can all be attributed to the advancement in architecture.
While it is valid to say that Roman architecture expanded as the Roman Empire did, it might do more just to say that the advancements in architecture led to the advancement of the Roman Empire. If asked how Romans spread their power throughout the world, the response might be that Rome’s armies spread the power. But how did Romans move across the Empire? And how were towns able to survive across the empire? How is it that Romans were able to sustain such great cities? And how is it that every Roman town was so similar to Rome itself? The profound answer would be the advancements in architecture. Architecture did not win the empire for Rome, but it enabled the brilliant military minds and emperors to spread their power much more easily and in an efficient manner.
The arch alone provided an easy, inexpensive way to construct bridges and build basic defenses for cities. Traveling through the road system, the armies were quickly able to attack enemies and defend cities in distress. Once a city or village was conquered the Roman builders would go to work and begin constructing a greater town with aqueducts, sewer systems, and all the coefficients of a Roman city. The Romans’ lasting influence from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, from Britain to North Africa was due largely to their ability to navigate forces and sustain cities. The influence of Rome changed many cultures throughout the Empire. Many adopted Rome’s spiritual and political customs.
Today it is still very possible to see Roman architecture in buildings and designs. Suspension bridges, for example, use arches for support and the dome is widely used in arenas. The vault can be seen in subways and tunnels as well. New materials such as reinforced steel and polymers as well as new design revolutions have changed our way of architecture and building, but the influence of Roman architecture and the efficient mindset of the Roman people will always play a part in construction and architecture. One can’t help but wonder if some culture two thousand years from now will look at our skyscrapers and cities and be amazed at us.
Although Roman architecture is often referred to as Classical architecture, the influence and impact it has had on the world since its time should probably cause us to label Rome as the first modern age. They’re methods and values were much different than ours, but their importance in the history of the world concludes that they are worthy of all the fascination and thought we endure in them. If history is indeed to repeat itself, then shouldn’t we learn all we can about Rome? Hopefully, for our own sake, history will not repeat itself, but as we continue to advance as a society it is important to remember the past and plan for the future.
Roman architects, more than anything, remembered the past and planned for the future. They incorporated knowledge from those before them and created a marvelous society with new building principles. The concept of the arches, vaults and domes, and the greatness of structures like the Pantheon and the Coliseum have had their hand in the architectural styles of every builder since the Romans. The Romans’ greatness as builders and as people is unquestionable; their impact will forever be a constant.
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