Roman architecture (article) | Ancient Rome | Khan Academy (2023)

Roman architecture was unlike anything that had come before. The Persians, Egyptians, Greeks and Etruscans all had monumental architecture. The grandeur of their buildings, though, was largely external. Buildings were designed to be impressive when viewed from outside because their architects all had to rely on building in a post-and-lintel system, which means that they used two upright posts, like columns, with a horizontal block, known as a lintel, laid flat across the top. A good example is this ancient Greek Temple in Paestum, Italy.

Hera II, Paestum, c. 460 B.C.E. (Classical), tufa, 24.26 x 59.98 m

An example of post and lintel architecture:Hera II, Paestum, c. 460 B.C.E. (Classical period), tufa, 24.26 x 59.98 m

Since lintels are heavy, the interior spaces of buildings could only be limited in size. Much of the interior space had to be devoted to supporting heavy loads.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, c. 1734, oil on canvas, 128 x 99 cm (National Gallery of Art)

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, c. 1734, oil on canvas, 128 x 99 cm (National Gallery of Art)

Roman architecture differed fundamentally from this tradition because of the discovery, experimentation and exploitation of concrete, arches and vaulting (a good example of this is the Pantheon, c. 125 C.E.). Thanks to these innovations, from the first centuryC.E. Romans were able to create interior spaces that had previously been unheard of. Romans became increasingly concerned with shaping interior space rather than filling it with structural supports. As a result, the inside of Roman buildings were as impressive as their exteriors.

Materials, Methods and Innovations

Long before concrete made its appearance on the building scene in Rome, the Romans utilized a volcanic stone native to Italy called tufa to construct their buildings. Although tufa never went out of use, travertine began to be utilized in the late 2nd centuryB.C.E. because it was more durable. Also, its off-white color made it an acceptable substitute for marble.

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as, Fortuna Virilis), travertine, tufa, and stucco, c. 120-80 B.C.E., Rome

Temple of Portunus (formerly known as, Fortuna Virilis),
c. 120-80 B.C.E., structure istravertine andtufa,stuccoed to look like Greek marble,Rome

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Marble was slow to catch on in Rome during the Republican period since it was seen as an extravagance, but after the reign of Augustus (31 B.C.E. - 14 C.E.), marble became quite fashionable. Augustus had famously claimed in his funerary inscription, known as the Res Gestae, that he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble” referring to his ambitious building campaigns.

Roman concrete (opus caementicium), was developed early in the 2nd c. BCE. The use of mortar as a bonding agent in ashlar masonry wasn’t new in the ancient world; mortar was a combination of sand, lime and water in proper proportions. The major contribution the Romans made to the mortar recipe was the introduction of volcanic Italian sand (also known as “pozzolana”). The Roman builders who used pozzolana rather than ordinary sand noticed that their mortar was incredibly strong and durable. It also had the ability to set underwater. Brick and tile were commonly plastered over the concrete since it was not considered very pretty on its own, but concrete’s structural possibilities were far more important. The invention of opus caementicium initiated the Roman architectural revolution, allowing for builders to be much more creative with their designs. Since concrete takes the shapeof the mold or frame it is poured into, buildings began to take on ever more fluid and creative shapes.

True arch (left) and corbeled arch (right) (CC BY-SA 2.5)

True arch (left) and corbeled arch (right) (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Romans also exploited the opportunities afforded to architects by the innovation of the true arch (as opposed to a corbeled arch wherestones are laid so that they move slightly in toward the center as they move higher).A truearch is composed of wedge-shaped blocks (typically of a durable stone), called voussoirs, with a key stone in the center holding them into place. In a truearch, weight is transferred from one voussoir down to the next, from the top of the arch to ground level, creating a sturdy building tool. True archescan span greater distances than a simple post-and-lintel.The use of concrete, combined with the employment of true arches allowed for vaults and domes to be built, creating expansive and breathtaking interior spaces.

Roman Architects

We don’t know much about Roman architects. Few individual architects are known to us because the dedicatory inscriptions, which appear on finished buildings, usually commemorated the person who commissioned and paid for the structure. We do know that architects came from all walks of life, from freedmen all the way up to the Emperor Hadrian, and they were responsible for all aspects of building on a project. The architect would design the building and act as engineer; he would serve as contractor and supervisor and would attempt to keep the project within budget.

Building Types

Forum, Pompeii, looking toward Mt. Vesuvius

Forum, Pompeii, looking toward Mt. Vesuvius, photo: Steven Zucker(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Roman cities were typically focused on the forum (a large open plaza, surrounded by important buildings), which was the civic, religious and economic heart of the city. It was in the city’s forum that major temples (such as a Capitoline temple, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) were located, as well as other important shrines. Also useful in the forum plan were the basilica(a law court), and other official meeting places for the town council, such as a curia building. Quite often the city’s meat, fish and vegetable markets sprang up around the bustling forum. Surrounding the forum, lining the city’s streets, framing gateways, and marking crossings stood the connective architecture of the city: the porticoes, colonnades, arches and fountains that beautified a Roman city and welcomed weary travelers to town. Pompeii, Italy is an excellent example of a city with a well preserved forum.

House of Diana, Ostia, late 2nd century C.E.

House of Diana, Ostia, late 2nd century C.E., photo:Sebastià Giralt(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Romans had a wide range of housing. The wealthy could own a house (domus) in the city as well as a country farmhouse (villa), while the less fortunate lived in multi-story apartment buildings called insulae. The House of Diana in Ostia, Rome’s port city, from the late 2nd c. C.E. is a great example of an insula. Even in death, the Romans found the need to construct grand buildings to commemorate and house their remains, like Eurysaces the Baker, whose elaborate tomb still stands near the Porta Maggiore in Rome.

The tomb of Eurysaces the baker, Rome, c. 50-20 B.C.E.

The tomb of Eurysaces the baker, Rome, c. 50-20 B.C.E., photo:Jeremy Cherfas(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Romans built aqueducts throughout their domain and introduced water into the cities they built and occupied, increasing sanitary conditions. A ready supply of water also allowed bath houses to become standard features of Roman cities, from Timgad, Algeria to Bath, England. A healthy Roman lifestyle also included trips to the gymnasium. Quite often, in the Imperial period, grand gymnasium-bath complexes were built and funded by the state, such as the Baths of Caracalla which included running tracks, gardens and libraries.

Aqueducts supplied Rome with clean water brought from sources far from the city. In this view, we see an aqueduct carried on piers passing through a built-up neighborhood. Elements of the model © 2008 The Regents of the University of California, © 2011 Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, © 2012 Frischer Consulting. All rights reserved. Image © 2012 Bernard Frischer

Aqueduct (reconstruction). Aqueducts supplied Rome with clean water brought from sources far from the city. In this view, we see an aqueduct carried on piers passing through a built-up neighborhood. Elements of the model © 2008 The Regents of the University of California, © 2011 Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, © 2012 Frischer Consulting. All rights reserved. Image © 2012 Bernard Frischer

Entertainment varied greatly to suit all tastes in Rome, necessitating the erection of many types of structures. There were Greek style theaters for plays as well as smaller, more intimate odeon buildings, like the one in Pompeii, which were specifically designed for musical performances. The Romans also built amphitheaters—elliptical, enclosed spaces such as the Colloseum—which were used for gladiatorial combats or battles between men and animals. The Romans also built a circus in many of their cities. The circuses, such as the one in Lepcis Magna, Libya, were venues for residents to watch chariot racing.

Arch of Titus (foreground) with the Colloseum in the background.

Arch of Titus (foreground) with the Colloseum in the background, photo: Steven Zucker(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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The Romans continued to perfect their bridge building and road laying skills as well, allowing them to cross rivers and gullies and traverse great distances in order to expand their empire and better supervise it.From the bridge in Alcántara, Spain to the paved roads in Petra, Jordan, the Romans moved messages, money and troops efficiently.

Republican Period

Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Capitoline Hill, Rome (reconstruction courtesy Dr. Bernard Frischer)

Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Capitoline Hill, Rome (reconstruction courtesy Dr. Bernard Frischer)

Republican Roman architecture was influenced by the Etruscans who were the early kings of Rome; the Etruscans were in turn influenced by Greek architecture. The Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, begun in the late 6th centuryB.C.E., bears all the hallmarks of Etruscan architecture. The temple was erected from local tufa on a high podium and what is most characteristic is its frontality. The porch is very deep and the visitor is meant to approach from only one access point, rather than walk all the way around, as was common in Greek temples. Also, the presence of three cellas, or cult rooms, was also unique. The Temple of Jupiter would remain influential in temple design for much of the Republican period.

Drawing on such deep and rich traditions didn’t mean that Roman architects were unwilling to try new things. In the late Republican period, architects began to experiment with concrete, testing its capability to see how the material might allow them to build on a grand scale.

Model of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, from the archeological museum, Palestrina

Model of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, from the archeological museum, Palestrina(CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia in modern day Palestrina is comprised of two complexes, an upper and a lower one. The upper complex is built into a hillside and terraced, much like a Hellenistic sanctuary, with ramps and stairs leading from the terraces to the small theater and tholos temple at the pinnacle. The entire compound is intricately woven together to manipulate the visitor’s experience of sight, daylight and the approach to the sanctuary itself. No longer dependent on post-and-lintel architecture, the builders utilized concrete to make a vast system of covered ramps, large terraces, shops and barrel vaults.

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Imperial Period

Octagon room, Domus Aurea, Rome, c. 64-68 C.E.

Severus and Celer, octagon room, Domus Aurea, Rome, c. 64-68 C.E. (photo source)

The Emperor Nero began building his infamous Domus Aurea, or Golden House, after a great fire swept through Rome in 64 C.E. and destroyed much of the downtown area. The destruction allowed Nero to take over valuable real estate for his own building project; a vast new villa. Although the choice was not in the public interest, Nero’s desire to live in grand fashion did spur on the architectural revolution in Rome. The architects, Severus and Celer, are known (thanks to the Roman historian Tacitus), and they built a grand palace, complete with courtyards, dining rooms, colonnades and fountains. They also used concrete extensively, including barrel vaults and domes throughout the complex. What makes the Golden House unique in Roman architecture is that Severus and Celer were using concrete in new and exciting ways; rather than utilizing the material for just its structural purposes, the architects began to experiment with concrete in aesthetic modes, for instance, to make expansive domed spaces.

Apollodorus of Damascus, Markets of Trajan, Rome, c. 106-12 C.E., photo: Steven Zucker(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Nero may have started a new trend for bigger and better concrete architecture, but Roman architects, and the emperors who supported them, took that trend and pushed it to its greatest potential. Vespasian’s Colosseum, the Markets of Trajan, the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of Maxentius are just a few of the most impressive structures to come out of the architectural revolution in Rome. Roman architecture was not entirely comprised of concrete, however. Some buildings, which were made from marble, hearkened back to the sober, Classical beauty of Greek architecture, like the Forum of Trajan. Concrete structures and marble buildings stood side by side in Rome, demonstrating that the Romans appreciated the architectural history of the Mediterranean just as much as they did their own innovation. Ultimately, Roman architecture is overwhelmingly a success story of experimentation and the desire to achieve something new.

Essay by Dr. Jessica Ambler

Additional resources:

James C.AndersonJr.,Roman Architecture and Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

DianaKleiner, Roman Architecture: A Visual Guide (Kindle) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

William J.MacDonald,The Architecture of the Roman Empire, vol.I: An Introductory Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

FrankSear, Roman Architecture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).

J.B.Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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FAQs

What is Roman architecture summary? ›

What is Roman architecture known for? Roman architecture is known for concrete-domed buildings, the innovative use of the arch, the amphitheatre design, the basilica, the triumphal arch, and residential apartment blocks.

What is the most famous Roman architecture? ›

The Colosseum is the most prominent example of ancient Roman architecture, but also the Roman Forum, the Domus Aurea, the Pantheon, Trajan's Column, Trajan's Market, the Catacombs, the Circus Maximus, the Baths of Caracalla, Castel Sant'Angelo, the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Ara Pacis, the Arch of Constantine, the ...

What was the purpose of Roman architecture? ›

Romans built monuments as a statement of power

Many great works of Roman architecture were constructed as a means of stating the power of the Romans, as Emperors celebrated their status and reputations with grand public works of architecture.

What are the three types of Roman architecture? ›

The three types of architecture used in ancient Roman architecture were Corinthian, Doric and Ionic.

What was a key element of Roman architecture? ›

Arches | Ancient Architecture in Rome

They did extensive experimenting in the use of arches. They used arches all possible structures but are mainly renowned for their use in Aqueducts, Baths, Basilicas, and Triumphal arches.

What are 2 examples of Roman architecture? ›

Vespasian's Colosseum, the Markets of Trajan, the Baths of Caracalla and the Basilica of Maxentius are just a few of the most impressive structures to come out of the architectural revolution in Rome.

What is Roman architecture style called? ›

Roman architectural style continued to influence building in the former empire for many centuries, and the style used in Western Europe beginning about 1000 is called Romanesque architecture to reflect this dependence on basic Roman forms.

What influences Roman architecture? ›

Influences in Roman Religious Architecture

Romans took elements from Greek and Etruscan architecture and developed their own style. The Etruscans were a civilization in the Italian peninsula that preceded the Roman civilization.

Who invented Roman architecture? ›

Vitruvius is considered the first great architect of Rome and responsible for the characteristic style of the buildings of the Roman Empire.

What are two main Roman architectural features? ›

They moved from trabeated construction mostly based on columns and lintels to one based on massive walls, punctuated by arches, and later domes, both of which greatly developed under the Romans. The classical orders now became largely decorative rather than structural, except in colonnades.

What is the oldest structure in Rome? ›

The oldest building standing in Rome is the temple of Hercules Victor and dates back to the second century BC and today represents the oldest building in Rome still standing. This temple is sometimes still referred to as the Temple of Vesta and the error is due to its circular shape which makes it similar […]

What is the basic unit of Roman architecture? ›

From the Pantheon to the great arena of the Colosseum, and from the Basilica of Maxentius to the Thermae of Caracalla — now both in ruins in the city of Rome — the arch became the fundamental unit of structure for Roman architects. From the arch, buildings can be expanded on into tunnels, domes and arcades.

What are Roman architecture made of? ›

Stones, wood, marble, and materials produced such as “Roman concrete,” bricks, and even glass allowed the buildings to stand.

What are the 4 main architecture inventions of the Romans? ›

Most important among the structures developed by the Romans themselves were basilicas, baths, amphitheaters, and triumphal arches.

What is a fun fact about Roman architecture? ›

Romans didn't invent either the arch or the vault, but they perfected both. This allowed them to build large roofed structures without forests of pillars, and great bridges and aqueducts.

Who builds Rome's first walls? ›

The origins of the city walls can be traced all the way back to the 4th century BC, when the 6th king of Rome, Servius Tullius constructed the first defenses. The Servian walls were built from large blocks of volcanic tufa and were documented as being up to 10 meters high.

When did architecture start in Rome? ›

History & Overview of Roman Architecture

Although Roman architecture is defined as beginning in 509 BCE with the establishment of the Roman Republic, the architecture of Rome was not particularly notable until the Roman Imperial period began, only slightly before the beginning of the Common Era.

What are characteristics of Roman architecture? ›

A characteristic feature of Roman design was the combined use of arcuated and trabeated construction (employing arches and constructed with post and lintel). Although at first tentatively employed in the spaces between the classical columns, the arch eventually came to be the chief structural element.

What was one of the greatest Roman contributions to the field of architecture? ›

The Roman arch was the foundation of Rome's architectural mastery and massive expanse of building projects across the ancient world. It allowed the Romans to make bigger buildings, longer roads, and better aqueducts.

Where did Roman architecture start? ›

The Romans originated in central Italy, influenced by other local Italian cultures, notably those of Etruria, but from the 5th century they came into contact with the Greeks and from then onwards, the Roman republic absorbed many aspects of first Classical and then Hellenistic art.

What is the oldest Roman arch? ›

The beautiful Arco di Augusto stands at the south eastern end of Via Corso di Augusto (a busy shopping street). This is the oldest surviving Roman arch in the world. It was erected in 27 BC to honour Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus at the intersection of two main roads of the Roman Empire – Via Flaminia and Via Emilia.

What were houses called in ancient Rome? ›

The house type referred to as the domus (Latin for “house”) is taken to mean a structure designed for either a nuclear or extended family and located in a city or town. The domus as a general architectural type is long-lived in the Roman world, although some development of the architectural form does occur.

What are the characteristics of Roman style architecture? ›

What Is Romanesque Architecture? Romanesque architecture is characterized by towering round arches, massive stone and brickwork, small windows, thick walls, and a propensity for housing art and sculpture depicting biblical scenes.

What are the characteristics of Roman building? ›

Roman Architecture Characteristics

Domes: The Pantheon, Rome, a temple dedicated to the Roman pantheon of gods. Columns: Temple of Portunus, Rome, which features columns in the Ionic style. Vaults: The Coliseum, Rome, which has vaults that cross perpendicularly to form groin vaults.

What were Roman achievements in architecture? ›

The Romans did not invent but did master both the arch and vault, bringing a new dimension to their buildings that the Greeks did not have. Arches can carry much more weight than straight beams, allowing longer distances to be spanned without supporting columns.

What type of wall is Roman architecture? ›

Roman walls went from dry-stone and sun-dried bricks walls at the beginning of Roman civilization to walls built with a concrete core and brick facing by the beginning of the Empire. These walls also provide many clues to the history of ancient Rome and the different stages of the Roman economy and society.

What three elements were used in Roman architecture? ›

Three Important Elements of Successful Roman Architecture:
  • The ARCH.
  • VAULTS. Barrel Vault. A Groin Vault was created by. crossing two barrel vaults.
  • CONCRETE.
Jan 28, 2013

What two things help define Roman architecture? ›

The two key elements of the triumphal arch – a round-topped arch and a square entablature – had long been in use as separate architectural elements in ancient Greece. The innovation of the Romans was to use these elements in a single free-standing structure.

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