The Architecture of Ancient Rome

Roman architecture served the needs of the Roman state, which was keen to impress, entertain and cater for a growing

The Architecture of Ancient Rome


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n adopted from the Etruscans, the people who dominated central Italy before the Romans. The Etruscans may have received elements of their style from Greece and Mesopotamia, or they may have developed it independently. The house of a wealthy man might consist of a dozen or so rooms arranged around a partially roofed court, one or two stories high, called an atrium. A rectangular opening in the center of the atrium roof was positioned over a pool, the impluvium, and surrounded by a peaked roof covered with terra cotta tiles. The arrangement allowed rainwater to be collected for household use, as well as providing a pleasant interior space. Water was vital to the lifestyle of the Romans, as witnessed by the aqueducts that remain from the time.

In ancient Rome most city people lived in several story-high fire traps. In the city of ancient Rome, only the wealthy could afford to live in adomus(in this case, house, like a mansion). For most of Rome apartments (or the back rooms of their ground floor shops) were the affordable alternative, making Rome the first urban, flat-based society. The Rome apartments were often in buildings calledinsula.

The Rome apartments may have contained 3 types of rooms:

  1. cubicula(bedrooms)
  2. exedra(sitting room)
  3. medianumcorridors facing the street and like the atrium of adomus.


  1. Public architecture


Temple. Roman architecture was sometimes determined based upon the requirements ofRoman religion. For example, thePantheonwas an amazingengineeringfeat created for religious purposes, and its design (the large dome and open spaces) was made to fit the requirements of the religious services.

Amphitheatres. In 50 B.C., C. Scribonius Curio built the first amphitheater in Rome to stage his father's funeral games. Curio's amphitheater and the next one, built in 46 B.C., by Julius Caesar, were made of wood. The weight of the spectators was at times too great for the wooden structure and, of course, the wood was easily destroyed by fire. Some of the most impressive public buildings are theamphitheatres, over 220 being known and many of which are well preserved, such as that atArles, as well as its progenitor, theColosseumin Rome. Elliptical in shape, the circus had a fixed central divider called aspina down the middle, which was useful in chariot races, but got in the way during fights. In addition, the spectators' view was limited in the circus. The amphitheater put spectators on all sides of the action. They were used forgladiatorialcontests, public displays, public meetings andbullfights, the last of which survives in Spain. They are among the most impressive remains of theRoman empireat its height, and many of them are still used for public displays and performances.

Circus. The first and biggest circus in Rome, the Circus Maximus was located between the Aventine and Palatine hills. Its shape made it particularly suitable for chariot races, although spectators could also watch other stadium events there or from the surrounding hillsides. Each year in ancient Rome, from the early legendary period, the Circus Maximus became the venue for an important and popular celebration.

TheLudi RomaniorLudi Magniwere held to honor Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Best and Greatest) whose temple was dedicated, according to tradition, which is always shaky for the early period.

Basilicas. Before they became Christian buildings,basilicas were civil and administrative gathering places that could hold large numbers of people and were located in the town's forum. They would serve as courts of Roman law throughout the Empire. Rectangular in shape, the standard basilica had wooden ceilings and ended with semicircular niches called apses.

TheBasilicaof Maxentius or the Basilica of Constantine was the last non-Christian basilica built on the Roman forum. It was built for commercial and administrative purposes. Parts of the Velia ridge between the Esquiline and the Palatine hills had to be leveled for the basilica. The Basilica of Maxentius was built with arches of both the barrel and groined variety, but only three of the barrel vaults remain standing. The rectangle that formed the basilica was 100×65 m, which was divided into a central nave (80×25 m) and aisles to either side. Threegroined vaultscovered the nave, with a maximum height of 35 m. Eight Corinthian columns 14.5 m high supported them. There may have been large windows on the upper walls of the nave. Floors were marble and the roof was covered with gilded bronze tiles.

The SeveranBasilica(and forum) in Leptis Magna was begun in 196 bySeverusbut completed in 216. The basilica was the chief administrative building in Leptis Magna. Its columns were red granite. It was 160 m long and 69 m wide with a 3-aisled colonnade. At either end of the rectangular structure was a decorated apse.

Roman Volubilis Judiciary Basilica in Morocco was in the Roman province of Mauretania. It was built around A.D. 217. It had a second story supported by the columns and may have had a maximum height of 25 m. The shape is rectangular with apses on the short ends and an interior colonnade with Corinthian columns. The basilica is 42.2m long and 22.3m wide. The long side runs parallel to the forum whose open space the basilica increased with its partially protected area.

Triumphal arch. Triumphing generals and emperors erected enduring monuments like arches and columns to commemorate their victories.

The Arch of Janus Quadrifrons (Arcus Constantini), a quadrifrons triumphal arch, was built in the 4th century on top of theCloaca Maxima. It was built of concrete covered with white marble 12 sq. m x 16 m high. The arches are 10.6x5.7m.

The triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus stands in the Roman Forum. Built in 203, it commemorates the emperor's victories in the east. The arch is 23m high, 25m wide and 11.85m deep. The middle archway is 12x7m; the side archways are: 7.8x3m. The style of the four columns is composite. The columns stand on high bases on which bas relief scenes of Severus' legionaries leading prisoners. There are scenes from the war across the top, as well.

Arch ofTitus located in theRoman Forum is the oldest surviving arch in Rome.

Pentelic marble monument (13.5m wide, 15.4m high, and 4.75m deep; with archway 8.3x5.36m) in A.D. 85, 4 years after Titus' death. There was originally a bronzequadrigaon the top. The arch was damaged and then rebuilt/restored in 1822. Napoleon commissioned triumphal arches made in imitation of the Arch of Titus.

Arch ofConstantine located in Rome between theColosseumand thePalatine, commemorates Constantine'svictory over Maxentius in A.D. 312 at the Milvian Bridge. It was probably finished in 315/16 as a celebration of the 10th year of the reign of Constantine. The Arch of Constantine is white marble 21m high, 25.7m wide, and 7.4m deep; the central archway is 11.5x6.5m and the side arches are 7.4x3.36m. There were 8 fluted Corinthian columns of giallo antico (yellow marble), of which 7 remain.

The Arch ofTrajanat Benevento (Latin, Beneventum) was a triumphal arch built in 114 at the entrance to the city of Beneventum from theAppia Trajana, connecting Rome with Brundisium. This arch is one of about two dozen commemorative monuments to Trajan. The Arch of Trajan was known in the Middle Ages as the Golden Gateway.

Trajan's Column. Trajan's Column was dedicated in A.D. 113, as part of Trajan's Forum, and is remarkably intact. The marble column is almost 30m high resting on a 6m high base. Inside the column is a spiral staircase leading to a balcony along the top. The outside shows a continuous spiral frieze depicting events of Trajan's campaigns against the Dacians.

Baths. The Roman baths were another area where Roman engineers showed their ingenuity figuring out ways to make hot rooms for the public social gathering and bathing centers. The Baths of Caracalla would have accommodated 1600 people.Roman Baths might incorporate healing properties of native springs as they did at Aqua Sulis, known as Bath, in England.

Baths ofCaracalla. The Roman Emperor Caracalla built baths for the public on a grand scale. The bath complex known asThermae Antoninianae(Latin for the Baths of Caracalla), built between A.D. 212 and 216 (although the porticoes were completed later), covered about 13 hectares and could probably accommodate 1,600 bathers. It was built on a man-made terrace near theVia Appia'Appian Way'.

The baths included:

  1. a hot bath (caldarium),
  2. a warm bath (tepidarium),
  3. the cold bath (frigidarium), and
  4. a swimming pool (natatio).

There were also changing areas (apodyteria), exercise areas (palaestrae), and a sauna in the bath complex.

Frigidarium. The frigidarium was the place to take a cold plunge after having enjoyed the hottest soak in the caldarium, followed by a somewhat cooler dip in the tepidarium.

Hypocaust. The word hypocaust refers to a subfloor radiant heating system: suspended floor with space for gases and hot smoke. The word hypocaust comes from the Latinhypocaustumwhich originally meant a 'burning underneath'.

Hypocausts were vital to the ancient Roman system of central heating that made the baths hot and heated other large rooms. In addition to the hypocaust, there were sometimes hollow walls to help maintain even temperatures

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