The Roman architecture from this lesson falls within the range of first century BC to the third century AD. The geographical region covered encompasses the Roman Empire at its height. The heart of the empire during this point in time was still Rome, but Roman citizens lived on three different continents. In other words, to be Roman didn’t necessarily mean you were born on the Italian Peninsula. In fact, in most cases, you probably were not.
The timeline below highlights the period covered in this lesson.
The map below shows most of the Roman Empire at its greatest expanse, under the emperor Flavian during the beginning of the second century AD. Notice how it extends well beyond the Italian peninsula.
The discovery of concrete allowed the Romans to create unique architectural elements, such as the barrel vault and building on a curve, exemplified in the Colosseum.
The recipes vary, but the traditional Roman concrete composition consisted of some combination of calcium oxide or quicklime, volcanic ash, sand, and ground pumice, which is a type of volcanic stone. In the presence of water, these basic constituents chemically react and fuse together, eventually setting, or hardening, into the desired shape.
Concrete enabled the building of structures that wouldn’t have been possible with stone alone, given its limitations. The benefits of using concrete were many, including:
Rounded arches are possible with stone but only to a certain size, after which you run the risk of collapse. Large expanses wouldn’t have been possible with just stone.
EXAMPLETake, for instance, this amazing example of a Roman aqueduct below:
This structure, the Pont du Gard in Nimes, France, wouldn’t have been possible with just stone. It was built in the late first century BC.
This aqueduct provided fresh water from more than 30 miles away. It has an almost imperceptible gentle decline of 54 total feet, gradually over those 30 miles, which is pretty amazing. This is as much a mathematical marvel as it is an architectural one. The huge, rounded arches that stretch across the river wouldn’t have been possible without concrete. The proliferation of structures such as this around the empire, in addition to the technical innovations inherent to those structures, was another way of reinforcing the Roman image of power.
Now, this next image, the Maison Carrée, was built by the Roman military man, Marcus Agrippa, in 12 BC.
This structure is dedicated to the two adopted sons of Marcus Agrippa’s friend and emperor, Augustus Caesar. The fact that it remains in such amazing condition is due to two things: the construction prowess of the Romans and their use of concrete and cut stone, and the fact that it was converted into a Christian church hundreds of years later.
This structure is beautiful to classical Greek ideals but in a manner that really becomes entirely Roman. Specifically, the combination of the freestanding colonnade surrounding the portico, or the area in the front, and its use of embedded columns for the remainder of the building are Roman characteristics.
Greek structures such as the Parthenon are true architectural marvels. But, like other Greek temples, they are just an elaborate application of the basic post-and-lintel system, which is partly a consequence of the lack of available materials. Cut stone has tremendous compression strength but is considerably weaker in its lateral strength. The higher you build, the more this comes into play.
The Roman adoption of the Etruscan Roman arch, combined with the construction qualities of concrete, resulted in a height and airiness to buildings that wasn’t possible before.
EXAMPLEThe famous Colosseum in Rome, Italy, shown below, is an example of this.
Architecture of the Colosseum, which was also called the Flavian Amphitheater, started in 72 AD and was dedicated in 80 AD. It’s constructed of masonry and stone. Even though it has three levels of columns, these are merely aesthetic additions.
Along with the Colosseum, the public Baths of Caracalla were an example of a public work commissioned by emperors as a way of building and/or maintaining popularity among the people. The Colosseum became an arena for gladiatorial events while the public baths served as a place where Roman citizens could bathe, relax, and socialize. They were constructed of concrete.
EXAMPLEThis final example is of the public Baths of Caracalla from early 3rd century AD.