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6 Unique and Impressive Buildings of Roman Architecture

Roman architecture shapes spaces.
—H. Kähler, The Art of Rome and Her Empire

Roman Architecture continued and adopted classical Greek Architecture and established different architectural styles. It is the architecture, particularly of cities. The structures were the composition of proportional relationships and clear connections. Romans were innovative in constructing new technologies and inventing new materials. Amphitheaters, Triumphal arches, Basilicas, Public baths, and aqueducts are great illustrations of inventions of Roman architecture that were engineering marvels.

Roman Architecture
Image source – worldatlas.com

Roman Innovations

1. Columns:

In addition to the three Greek orders, the Romans added two different orders.

  • Tuscan Order
    • It is a simplified Doric type of order with a plain base, Unfluted column, and no decorations other than moldings.
  • Composite Order
    • Composite order combines elements of both Ionic and Corinthian orders. It is modified by superimposing ionic vaults, set on four sides diagonally, and decorated with acanthus leaves.

2. Concrete

Romans created a revolution in architectural design with the discovery of slow-drying concrete. Romans used a form of concrete opus caementicum, which was a thick mortar laid with bands of brick. It was a mixture of stones, aggregates, lime mortar, pozzolana, and water.

3. Arch and Vault

Arches stand as a victory of achievements by the Romans in military campaigns to show power. Decorated with relief sculptures and inscriptions of significant events in military victories. The largest surviving example of the triumphal arch is the Arch of Constantine captures Constantine’s victory.

4. Dome

The Romans were the first to build domes for interior spaces in the history of architecture. Domes generated well-defined and large interior spaces which were primarily seen in Temples, Basilicas, Public baths, and palaces. They replaced traditional post and lintel construction.

Materials and Architectural Features:

Materials:

Stone, Brick, and concrete were primarily used materials in Roman Architecture.

  • Stone – Colored marbles and travertine limestone are the main stones used for theatres and temples. Travertine limestone was used for the façade of the Colosseum.
  • Brick – Sun-dried mud bricks were replaced with fired clay bricks by Romans. The bricks were made in different sizes and shapes – square, rectangle, circle, and triangle. They were not only used for walls, but also as facing for concrete.
  • Concrete – Concrete replaced brick as the primary building material. In the earlier years, Roman builders incorporated brick or stone as an outer covering, and later they used regular square bricks.

Architectural Features:

  • Roofs – Truss roofs over 30m can be seen in the rectangular spaces of the monumental buildings of Rome.
  • Spiral stairs – Romans introduced spiral stairs – a type of stairway with a complex helical structure.
  • Mosaics – Colorful fragments of stone combined with cement.
  • Hypocaust – Hot air was used to heat houses typically a system of underfloor heating. They were mainly used in public baths and houses.

Urban Planning

In early Roman cities, the street network was forming irregular rectangles. At the heart of the old cities, was the forum, the temple of Jupiter,- lined with loggias and civic buildings. The city of Rome comprises Amphitheaters, Basilicas, Baths, Forums, Theatres, Circuses, Temples, and camps.

Later extensions gave rise to regular grid-like streets, similar to that of the city of Pompeii. Towns were developed using orthogonal planning as the basis of laying a city and made this the basis for army camps. The main public place in Roman cities was enclosed by city offices, and one or more basilicas.

Forum

Each Roman city had at least one Forum that was functioning as a marketplace. Each Forum admires a significant military achievement and is dedicated to God. It was also a place for significant social gatherings, diverse activities, and other public meetings. Forums would have a temple of Jupiter at North, as well as the Basilica.

The Forums were not only attractive but also designed for utilitarian purposes. The great hall of the markets has a series of shops, attic windows, vaults, and lifted ceilings.

Roman architecture
A panoramic view of the Forum Trajanum; Image source – Wikipedia

Infrastructure

  • Roads – Roads were built for the expansion and development of the Roman Empire. They were means of internal carriers of trade goods and communications. The movement of armies and officials was an efficient way across other countries.
  • Market streets – Streets with polygonal masonry are the main characteristics of Roman street design.
  • Aqueducts – A large number of Aqueducts were constructed during Roman times to carry water from distant sources to internal cities supplying both public facilities and private households. They were constructed with a downward gradient allowing water to flow through gravity.
  • Bridges – Roman bridges were large and long-lasting built with stone and semi-circular arches as supporting members. A few of the bridges were concrete as well. They have also introduced segmental arches for the construction of bridges.
  • Canals – Canals were for multiple purposes – irrigation, navigation, flood control, drainage, and land reclamation.
  • Dams – Dams served as multiple-purpose structures – irrigation, river diversion, and soil retention. Two common types of dams were earth-filled and masonry gravity dams.
  • Defensive walls – Major cities and towns were fortified with walls of massive and irregular polygonal blocks.

Significant Building Types In Roman Architecture:

1. Amphitheaters:

Amphitheaters are the major types of buildings constructed by Romans. Most of them are preserved (over 200 are known) and are used for contests for armed combatants, public displays, meetings, and bullfights. The Colosseum and the amphitheater of Pompeii are the finest examples of the impressive architecture of the Romans which we can still see even if the part of the buildings fell into disrepair.

They were semicircular, wherein the larger ones were designed for horse racing events, and the smaller ones were designed mainly for footraces and athletics. The larger one can accommodate 40,000-60,000 spectators. The Amphitheaters were elaborate structures with arcaded facades and decorated with materials like marble, stucco, and statuary.

The Colosseum the Classical Example

The Colosseum is an oval shape Amphitheatre (189 meters long, 156 meters wide, and 48,5 meters tall) located in the center of the city of Rome. The foundation pit with concrete was 167 ft wide and 40 ft deep. Concrete and brick were used to build underground areas, whereas wood, bricks, and lighter concrete were used for upper levels. The rest of the building was from masonry and the top level of seats rested on wooden supports.

The plan included long ramps, pathways, and staircases. Decorative bronze shields hung from the top story of the Colosseum. Columns on the first floor in Doric, the second floor in Ionic, third floor in Corinthian orders; Arches, and supporting barrel vaults form the three-story façade that is huge and magnificent in Roman Architecture. There were eight entrances at the ground level. A large canvas that covered the entire structure protected the interior from the bright sun and large luminaires at night.

It is so huge that It could hold more than 50,000 people. The seating was arranged in hierarchical order. It is home to both the achievements and violence of Roman society.

Roman Architecture
Image credit – thecolosseum.org

2. Basilicas

Basilicas were public meeting places where business meetings and legal matters were transacted. It was functioning as a multipurpose town hall that was used as courts for magistrates, official ceremonies, etc. Later, when Christianity became the official religion, the basilicas were functioning as churches.

Basilica Plan Main Features:

  • Axial in Spatial organization.
  • Entrance hall proceeding the central nave.
  • Central naves with a sequence of columns joined by entablature (colonnade).
  • Aisles or arcaded spaces were present on one or both sides.
  • Cylindrical apse at one or both ends.
Roman architecture
Image source – wikiwand.com

3. Temples of Roman Architecture

The Roman temples express the distinct Roman culture, though only a few temples survive even today. The temple comprises of

  • The main room houses the deity to whom the temple is dedicated.
  • The platform on which the temple rests was typically higher.
  • A portico with columns and a triangular pediment above.
  • The classical orders -mainly Corinthian and composite were seen in the columns of Roman temples.
  • A small altar to perform an offering to the deity.
  • Rooms for storage of temple equipment.

One of the best-preserved temples of Roman Architecture is the temple called Maison Carree.

Maison Carree:

It is called the square house because of its clear rectangular geometry. The temple raises on a podium of 2.85m high and a rectangular plan of 26.42×13.54m. Six Corinthian columns and a triangular pediment with a deep portico embrace the façade of the temple.

Roman architecture
Pictures of during and after restoration – Image source: Wikipedia

Pantheon

A fine example that symbolizes the Roman enclosure of space that is defined is the Pantheon. It was a temple to all Gods. The Pantheon is built using concrete of varying densities and a model of the heavenly dome (Romans imagined earth as a disk covered by a heavenly dome). The dome measures 142.5 ft in diameter. The main source of natural light is the central oculus of the coffered dome. Its beams of light slowly from the marble floor to the wall, marking out the cycles of the sun.

The architecture of the Romans and their achievements is finely seen in the Pantheon. The concrete technology, the clear geometry that assumes universal significance, and the huge scale, stand as evidence of human creativity.

Roman architecture
Image source – romeonsegway.com
Roman architecture
Image source – insightguides.com

4. Villa

Roman Villa and Domus were for the upper class and wealthy sections of society. There were different kinds of villas such as villas for pleasure palaces, villas situated on picture sites, country houses, and suburban villas which were located on the edges of cities. Few of them were lavishly decorated and had mosaic floors.

Suburban villas illustrate the ancient Roman culture and heritage, also representing seats of power.

Typical Plan of ancient Roman Domus (Image source – smarthistory.org)

5. Public Baths

The popular building types of the Romans were public baths. Most of the houses were not provided with running water. They were important not only for social and practical needs but also for various architectural experiments conducted on them. The baths vary from small scale to larger scale for wealthier sections and they had different spaces both for men and women, dressing rooms, pools, gymnasia, relaxing spaces, and heating systems.

One of the finest examples of huge and elaborate baths was the Baths of Caracalla. A sense of luxury was expressed with astonishing engineering creativity and ornately decorated interiors. Beautiful mosaics, marble, and sculptures adorn the walls and floors of the Baths of Caracalla. It also contained shops, restaurants, exercise yards, libraries, lecture halls, and reading rooms surrounded by spacious gardens filled with sculptures.

Baths of Caracalla – Image source: travelforawhile.com

6. Theaters

Roman Theaters were derived from Greek models. The theaters were built of stone in earlier days and later concrete was used. The earliest surviving stone theater was the theater of Marcellus in Rome. Roman theaters were close to the business centers of the city, unlike the Greek theaters that were on hillsides. They were semi-circular in shape with half circle orchestra. The stage was initially decorated with rows of columns and sculptural decorations. The seats were inclined on concrete barrel vaults supported by stone piers.

theater of Marcellus; Image source – stephaniedray.com

Roman Architecture, thus provided the most magnificent and impressive buildings that have stood for centuries together, thus turning architecture into art forms. The use of materials – concrete, brick, and construction techniques of arches, vaults, and domes have an enormous impact and influence on architecture even today.

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