Types of Ancient Roman architecture

Despite the technical developments of the Romans, which took their buildings far away from the basic Greek conception where columns were needed to support heavy beams and roofs, they were very reluctant to abandon the classical orders in formal public buildings, even though these had become essentially decorative. However, they did not feel entirely restricted by Greek aesthetic concerns, and treated the orders with considerable freedom.

Innovation started in the 3rd or 2nd century BC with the development of Roman concrete as a readily available adjunct to, or substitute for, stone and brick. More daring buildings soon followed, with great pillars supporting broad arches and domes. The freedom of concrete also inspired the colonnade screen, a row of purely decorative columns in front of a load-bearing wall. In smaller-scale architecture, concrete’s strength freed the floor plan from rectangular cells to a more free-flowing environment.

Factors such as wealth and high population densities in cities forced the ancient Romans to discover new architectural solutions of their own. The use of vaults and arches, together with a sound knowledge of building materials, enabled them to achieve unprecedented successes in the construction of imposing infrastructure for public use. Examples include the aqueducts of Rome, the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla, the basilicas and Colosseum. These were reproduced at a smaller scale in most important towns and cities in the Empire. Some surviving structures are almost complete, such as the town walls of Lugo in Hispania Tarraconensis, now northern Spain. The administrative structure and wealth of the empire made possible very large projects even in locations remote from the main centres, as did the use of slave labour, both skilled and unskilled.

Especially under the empire, architecture often served a political function, demonstrating the power of the Roman state in general, and of specific individuals responsible for building. Roman architecture perhaps reached its peak in the reign of Hadrian, whose many achievements include rebuilding the Pantheon in its current form and leaving his mark on the landscape of northern Britain with Hadrian’s Wall.

Building types

The amphitheatre was, with the triumphal arch and basilica, the only major new type of building developed by the Romans. Some of the most impressive secular buildings are the amphitheatres, over 200 being known and many of which are well preserved, such as that at Arles, as well as its progenitor, the Colosseum in Rome. They were used for gladiatorial contests, public displays, public meetings and bullfights, the tradition of which still survives in Spain. Their typical shape, functions and name distinguish them from Roman theatres, which are more or less semicircular in shape; from the circuses (akin to hippodromes) whose much longer circuits were designed mainly for horse or chariot racing events; and from the smaller stadia, which were primarily designed for athletics and footraces.

The earliest Roman amphitheatres date from the middle of the first century BC, but most were built under Imperial rule, from the Augustan period (27 BC–14 AD) onwards. Imperial amphitheatres were built throughout the Roman empire; the largest could accommodate 40,000–60,000 spectators, and the most elaborate featured multi-storeyed, arcaded façades and were elaborately decorated with marble, stucco and statuary. After the end of gladiatorial games in the 5th century and of animal killings in the 6th, most amphitheatres fell into disrepair, and their materials were mined or recycled. Some were razed, and others converted into fortifications. A few continued as convenient open meeting places; in some of these, churches were sited.

Architecturally, they are typically an example of the Roman use of the classical orders to decorate large concrete walls pierced at intervals, where the columns have nothing to support. Aesthetically, however, the formula is successful.

The Roman basilica was a large public building where business or legal matters could be transacted. They were normally where the magistrates held court, and used for other official ceremonies, having many of the functions of the modern town hall. The first basilicas had no religious function at all. As early as the time of Augustus, a public basilica for transacting business had been part of any settlement that considered itself a city, used in the same way as the late medieval covered market houses of northern Europe, where the meeting room, for lack of urban space, was set above the arcades, however. Although their form was variable, basilicas often contained interior colonnades that divided the space, giving aisles or arcaded spaces on one or both sides, with an apse at one end (or less often at each end), where the magistrates sat, often on a slightly raised dais. The central aisle tended to be wide and was higher than the flanking aisles, so that light could penetrate through the clerestory windows.

The oldest known basilica, the Basilica Porcia, was built in Rome in 184 BC by Cato the Elder during the time he was Censor. Other early examples include the basilica at Pompeii (late 2nd century BC). After Christianity became the official religion, the basilica shape was found appropriate for the first large public churches, with the attraction of avoiding reminiscences of the Greco-Roman temple form.

The Roman circus was a large open-air venue used for public events in the ancient Roman Empire. The circuses were similar to the ancient Greek hippodromes, although circuses served varying purposes and differed in design and construction. Along with theatres and amphitheatres, Circuses were one of the main entertainment sites of the time. Circuses were venues for chariot races, horse races, and performances that commemorated important events of the empire were performed there. For events that involved re-enactments of naval battles, the circus was flooded with water.

The performance space of the Roman circus was normally, despite its name, an oblong rectangle of two linear sections of race track, separated by a median strip running along the length of about two thirds the track, joined at one end with a semicircular section and at the other end with an undivided section of track closed (in most cases) by a distinctive starting gate known as the carceres, thereby creating a circuit for the races.

A forum was a central public open space in a Roman municipium, or any civitas, primarily used as a marketplace, along with the buildings used for shops and the stoas used for open stalls. Other large public buildings were often sited at the edges or close by. Many forums were constructed at remote locations along a road by the magistrate responsible for the road, in which case the forum was the only settlement at the site and had its own name, such as Forum Popili or Forum Livi.

During the years of the Republic, Augustus claimed he “found the city in brick and left it in marble”. While chances are high that this was an exaggeration, there is something to be said for the influx of marble use in Roman Forum from 63 BC onwards. During Augustus reign, the Forum was described to have been “a larger, freer space than was the Forum of imperial times.” The Forum began to take on even more changes upon the arrival of Julius Casear who drew out extensive plans for the market hub. While Casear’s death came prematurely, the ideas himself, as well as Augustus had in regards to the Forum proved to be the most influential for years to come. According to Walter Dennison’s The Roman Forum As Cicero Saw It, the author writes that “the diverting of public business to the larger and splendid imperial fora erected in the vicinity resulted in leaving the general design of the Forum Romanum”.

Every city had at least one forum of varying size. In addition to its standard function as a marketplace, a forum was a gathering place of great social significance, and often the scene of diverse activities, including political discussions and debates, rendezvous, meetings, etc. Much the best known example is the Roman Forum, the earliest of several in Rome.

In new Roman towns the forum was usually located at, or just off, the intersection of the main north-south and east-west streets (the cardo and decumanus). All forums would have a Temple of Jupiter at the north end, and would also contain other temples, as well as the basilica; a public weights and measures table, so customers at the market could ensure they were not being sold short measures; and would often have the baths nearby.

A horreum was a type of public warehouse used during the ancient Roman period. Although the Latin term is often used to refer to granaries, Roman horrea were used to store many other types of consumables; the giant Horrea Galbae in Rome were used not only to store grain but also olive oil, wine, foodstuffs, clothing and even marble. By the end of the imperial period, the city of Rome had nearly 300 horrea to supply its demands. The biggest were enormous, even by modern standards; the Horrea Galbae contained 140 rooms on the ground floor alone, covering an area of some 225,000 square feet (21,000 m²).

The first horrea were built in Rome towards the end of the 2nd century BC, with the first known public horreum being constructed by the ill-fated tribune, Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC. The word came to be applied to any place designated for the preservation of goods; thus it was often used refer to cellars (horrea subterranea), but it could also be applied to a place where artworks were stored, or even to a library. Some public horrea functioned somewhat like banks, where valuables could be stored, but the most important class of horrea were those where foodstuffs such as grain and olive oil were stored and distributed by the state.

The word itself is thought to have linguist roots tied to the word hordeum which in Latin means ‘barley’. In the John’s Hopkin’s University Press, The Classical Weekly states that “Pliny the Elder does indeed make a distinction between the two words6. He describes the horreum as a structure made of brick, the walls of which were not less than three feet thick; it had no windows or openings for ventilation”. Furthermore, the storehouses would also host oil and wine and also utilize large jars that could serve as cache’s for large amounts of products.These storehouses were also used to house keep large sums of money and were used much like personal storage units today are. Romans were “These horrea were divided and subdivided, so that one could hire only so much space as one wanted, a whole room (cella), a closet (armarium), or only a chest or strong box (arca, arcula, locus, loculus).”

Multi-story apartment blocks called insulae catered to a range of residential needs. The cheapest rooms were at the top owing to the inability to escape in the event of a fire and the lack of piped water. Windows were mostly small, facing the street, with iron security bars. Insulae were often dangerous, unhealthy, and prone to fires because of overcrowding and haphazard cooking arrangements. There are examples in the Roman port town of Ostia, that date back to the reign of Trajan, but they seem to have been found only in Rome and a few other places. Elsewhere writers report them as something remarkable, but Livy and Vituvius refer to them in Rome. External walls were in “Opus Reticulatum” and interiors in “Opus Incertum”, which would then be plastered and sometimes painted.

To lighten up the small dark rooms, tenants able to afford a degree of painted colourful murals on the walls. Examples have been found of jungle scenes with wild animals and exotic plants. Imitation windows (trompe l’oeil) were sometimes painted to make the rooms seem less confined.

Ancient Rome had elaborate and luxurious houses owned by the elite. The average house, or in cities apartment, of a commoner or plebe did not contain many luxuries. The domus, or single-family residence, was only for the well-off in Rome, with most having a layout of the closed unit, consisting of one or two rooms. Between 312 and 315 A.D. Rome had 1781 domus and 44,850 of insulae.

Insulae have been the subject of great debate for historians of Roman culture, defining the various meanings of the word. Insula was a word used to describe apartment buildings, or the apartments themselves, meaning apartment, or inhabitable room, demonstrating just how small apartments for Plebes were. Urban divisions were originally street blocks, and later began to divide into smaller divisions, the word insula referring to both blocks and smaller divisions. The insula contained cenacula, tabernae, storage rooms under the stairs, and lower floor shops. Another type of housing unit for Plebes was a cenaculum, an apartment, divided into three individual rooms: cubiculum, exedra, and medianum. Common Roman apartments were mainly masses of smaller and larger structures, many with narrow balconies that present mysteries as to their use, having no doors to access them, and they lacked the excessive decoration and display of wealth that aristocrats’ houses contained. Luxury in houses was not common, as the life of the average person did not consist of being in their houses, as they instead would go to public baths, and engage in other communal activities.

Many lighthouses were built around the Mediterranean and the coasts of the empire, including the Tower of Hercules at A Coruña in northern Spain, a structure which survives to this day. A smaller lighthouse at Dover, England also exists as a ruin about half the height of the original. The light would have been provided by a fire at the top of the structure.

All Roman cities had at least one thermae, a popular facility for public bathing, exercising and socializing. Exercise might include wrestling and weight-lifting, as well as swimming. Bathing was an important part of the Roman day, where some hours might be spent, at a very low cost subsidized by the government. Wealthier Romans were often accompanied by one or more slaves, who performed any required tasks such as fetching refreshment, guarding valuables, providing towels, and at the end of the session, applying olive oil to their masters’ bodies which was then scraped off with a strigil, a scraper made of wood or bone. Romans did not wash with soap and water as we do now.

Roman bath-houses were also provided for private villas, town houses and forts. They were normally supplied with water from an adjacent river or stream, or by aqueduct. The design of thermae is discussed by Vitruvius in De Architectura.

Roman temples were among the most important and richest buildings in Roman culture, though only a few survive in any sort of complete state. Their construction and maintenance was a major part of ancient Roman religion, and all towns of any importance had at least one main temple, as well as smaller shrines. The main room (cella) housed the cult image of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, and often a small altar for incense or libations. Behind the cella was a room or rooms used by temple attendants for storage of equipment and offerings.

Some remains of many Roman temples survive, above all in Rome itself, but the relatively few near-complete examples were nearly all converted to Christian churches (and sometimes subsequently to mosques), usually a considerable time after the initial triumph of Christianity under Constantine. The decline of Roman religion was relatively slow, and the temples themselves were not appropriated by the government until a decree of the Emperor Honorius in 415. Some of the oldest surviving temples include the Temple of Hercules Victor (mid 2nd century BC) and Temple of Portunus (120-80 BC), both standing within the Forum Boarium.

The form of the Roman temple was mainly derived from the Etruscan model, but using Greek styles. Roman temples emphasised the front of the building, which followed Greek temple models and typically consisted of wide steps leading to a portico with columns, a pronaos, and usually a triangular pediment above, which was filled with statuary in the most grand examples; this was as often in terracotta as stone, and no examples have survived except as fragments. However, unlike the Greek models, which generally gave equal treatment to all sides of the temple, which could be viewed and approached from all directions, the sides and rear of Roman temples might be largely undecorated (as in the Pantheon, Rome and Vic), inaccessible by steps (as in the Maison Carrée and Vic), and even back on to other buildings. As in the Maison Carrée, columns at the side might be half-columns, emerging from (“engaged with” in architectural terminology) the wall. The platform on which the temple sat was typically raised higher in Roman examples than Greek, with up ten or twelve or more steps rather than the three typical in Greek temples; the Temple of Claudius was raised twenty steps. These steps were normally only at the front, and typically not the whole width of that.

The Greek classical orders in all their details were closely followed in the façades of temples, as in other prestigious buildings. However the idealized proportions between the different elements set out by the only significant Roman writer on architecture to survive, Vitruvius, and subsequent Italian Renaissance writers, do not reflect actual Roman practice, which could be very variable, though always aiming at balance and harmony. Following a Hellenistic trend, the Corinthian order and its variant the Composite order were most common in surviving Roman temples, but for small temples like that at Alcántara, a simple Tuscan order could be used.

There was considerable local variation in style, as Roman architects often tried to incorporate elements the population expected in its sacred architecture. This was especially the case in Egypt and the Near East, where different traditions of large stone temples were already millennia old. The Romano-Celtic temple was a simple style for small temples found in the Western Empire, and by far the most common type in Roman Britain. It often lacked any of the distinctive classical features, and may have had considerable continuity with pre-Roman temples of the Celtic religion.

Roman theatres were built in all areas of the empire from Spain, to the Middle East. Because of the Romans’ ability to influence local architecture, we see numerous theatres around the world with uniquely Roman attributes.

These buildings were semi-circular and possessed certain inherent architectural structures, with minor differences depending on the region in which they were constructed. The scaenae frons was a high back wall of the stage floor, supported by columns. The proscaenium was a wall that supported the front edge of the stage with ornately decorated niches off to the sides. The Hellenistic influence is seen through the use of the proscaenium. The Roman theatre also had a podium, which sometimes supported the columns of the scaenae frons. The scaenae was originally not part of the building itself, constructed only to provide sufficient background for the actors. Eventually, it became a part of the edifice itself, made out of concrete. The theatre itself was divided into the stage (orchestra) and the seating section (auditorium). Vomitoria or entrances and exits were made available to the audience.

A Roman villa was a country house built for the upper class, while a domus was a wealthy family’s house in a town. The Empire contained many kinds of villas, not all of them lavishly appointed with mosaic floors and frescoes. In the provinces, any country house with some decorative features in the Roman style may be called a “villa” by modern scholars. Some were pleasure palaces such as those— like Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli— that were situated in the cool hills within easy reach of Rome or— like the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum— on picturesque sites overlooking the Bay of Naples. Some villas were more like the country houses of England or Poland, the visible seat of power of a local magnate, such as the famous palace rediscovered at Fishbourne in Sussex.

Suburban villas on the edge of cities were also known, such as the Middle and Late Republican villas that encroached on the Campus Martius, at that time on the edge of Rome, and which can be also seen outside the city walls of Pompeii, including the Villa of the Mysteries, famous for its frescos. These early suburban villas, such as the one at Rome’s Auditorium site or at Grottarossa in Rome, demonstrate the antiquity and heritage of the villa suburbana in Central Italy. It is possible that these early, suburban villas were also in fact the seats of power (maybe even palaces) of regional strongmen or heads of important families (gentes).

A third type of villa provided the organizational center of the large farming estates called latifundia; such villas might be lacking in luxuries. By the 4th century, villa could simply mean an agricultural estate or holding: Jerome translated the Gospel of Mark (xiv, 32) chorion, describing the olive grove of Gethsemane, with villa, without an inference that there were any dwellings there at all (Catholic Encyclopedia “Gethsemane”).

With the colossal Diocletian’s Palace, built in the countryside but later turned into a fortified city, a form of residential castle emerges, that anticipates the Middle Ages.

The initial invention of the watermill appears to have occurred in the hellenized eastern Mediterranean in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the rise of Hellenistic science and technology. In the subsequent Roman era, the use of water-power was diversified and different types of watermills were introduced. These include all three variants of the vertical water wheel as well as the horizontal water wheel. Apart from its main use in grinding flour, water-power was also applied to pounding grain, crushing ore, sawing stones and possibly fulling and bellows for iron furnaces.

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