ANCIENT ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

   Ancient Romans are traditionally known for the creation of an architectural style founded on Greek models, but it had to accommodate a larger population and denser urban society as well as a much larger empire. As a result, Roman architecture was both practical and propagandistic. That is, Roman engineers are famous for their aqueducts that brought water hundreds of miles to the center of the cities, for their lined streets, for their well-organized towns, and also for their monumental architecture that stands today as testament to their far-reaching power.
   The Roman Republic was formed in 509 BC, and by the 300s BC, Romans had asserted total control over the Etruscan-dominated Italic Peninsula of modern-day Italy. By the second century AD, the Romans ruled over territory as far north as modern-day Scotland, down to northern Africa, across to the Near East, and down into Egypt. Thus, ruins of Ancient Roman construction, first seen in the capital city of Rome, can be found across all of Europe, as far north as northern England, where Hadrian's Wall had been built in the second century AD to provide a 73-mile-long stone divide between the Roman territories and the land of the Scots, and as far south as Mediterranean Africa and the Near East.
   Given that Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire, Roman Republic and Imperial architecture there is the most lavish. The roads were first paved by Augustus, who also built the first Imperial forum and claimed to have transformed the entire city from mud-brick structures to marble. The forum is laid out from the Via Sacra, or Sacred Way, through numerous temples, arches, and large open court-yards with colonnade-lined storefronts and an open market area. Two large basilicas anchor the forum. The Basilica Ulpia, from AD 113, is a massive rectangular building with several entrances into a huge, unencumbered interior space, called a nave. Clerestory windows allow light in through a colonnade on the upper story of the nave, while shorter side aisles were lined with colonnades running along the sides of the nave on the ground floor. Administrative rooms were located off both side aisles, while each short end of the basilica had an apse, used for the court of law. While this building had a massive timber roof, the later Basilica of Constantine maintained a larger interior, made possible by the use of a groin, or ribbed, vault. Above the forum, on the Palatine Hill, Imperial homes were built with a grand view of the city. In addition to the forum, Rome had the Circus Maximus, used for chariot races, a gigantic bathhouse built under the reign of Caracalla, and the Colosseum.
   The Baths of Caracalla, built around AD 212, were built as a public bathhouse with a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a library, saunas, and hot, warm, and cold baths that were heated and cooled from an elaborate system of temperature controls maintained in a series of subterranean rooms. The difficulty of this feat of engineering remains staggeringly impressive today. With vast interior spaces and massive walls, this entire building complex covered over 50 acres. Of course, the ability to bring water into the city of Rome was central to its survival. The Pont du Gard, in Nîmes, France, survives today and demonstrates how water was brought from a spring about 30 miles away into the Ancient Roman town of Nîmes. The bridge was constructed with an imperceptibly gradual slant over the 30 miles so that water would flow toward the city gradually, across an uneven terrain. Three levels of arches would bring water in different quantities that averaged about 100 gallons a day for each person.
   Temples filled the forum and could also be found all across the city of Rome. The small rectangular temple possibly dedicated to Portunus, from the late second century BC, reveals the blending of Etruscan architecture, in that it is an axially planned structure with one entrance into one room elevated onto a column-lined portico, with Greek temple design, in its suggestion of the continuation of columns around all four sides of the building. Instead of free-standing columns, as found in Greek temples, here they appear as half-columns engaged, or attached to a wall. The Pantheon is equally significant in Rome, boasting one of the largest domes in all of antiquity, a feat of engineering not to be fully understood again until the Renaissance.
   Romans also used architectural monuments such as triumphal arches and monumental freestanding columns to glorify their accomplishments. The Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, built around 13 BC to commemorate the peaceful reign of Augustus; the Column of Trajan, built after AD 113 to commemorate Trajan's victory over the Dacians in northern Europe; and the Arch of Titus, built in AD 81 when Titus returned triumphantly from Jerusalem after having looted and burned the Temple of Solomon, all exemplify this idea. The Arch of Constantine, built in AD 313 by Constantine to commemorate victory over his rival Maxentius, is perhaps the best known of this monument type; it later came to symbolize the triumph of Christianity and was therefore a popular classical model in the Renaissance.
   Provincial towns were built with a grid-like plan, like the Roman military encampments, which were called castra. Timgad in Algeria is an excellent example of this Roman frontier military city. Built around AD 100 under the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, Timgad was built as a square town and covers over 30 acres, with broad paved streets laid out on a north-south, east-west axis that provided housing for over 15,000 people, a central market area with administrative buildings, a theater, a library, and a public bathhouse. Because of its remote location today, Timgad is in an excellent state of preservation and has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. However, further research remains to be done here.
   Pompeii has also survived in good condition, given its odd circumstance of being covered in volcanic ash in the first century AD and then excavated gradually after being rediscovered in 1594. In the year AD 79 Pompeii, located south of Rome, was a thriving town home to over 20,000 people, when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and immediately covered the entire area with a thick layer of volcanic ash, instantly killing thousands of people and ending all city life. Pompeii today reveals cobblestone streets with shop fronts that open onto the street and a central administrative, religious, and market area, called a forum. For entertainment, the town had a bathhouse, gymnasium, theater, and amphitheater.
   Houses in Pompeii reveal the layout of a Roman villa with simple exteriors but with one or two open courtyards in the central part of the house. Courtyards were used to bring light and air into the center of the home; the first courtyard, with a shallow pool to store water, functioned as an entrance atrium while a second courtyard, lined with columns and thus called a peristyle court, might have a garden. The atrium of the House of the Silver Wedding is excellently preserved, while the House of the Vetii reveals a peristyle court. The walls of these homes were lavishly painted with murals that depict land-scapes, urban scenes, and still lifes, as well as faux niches and other architectural elements, like columns, that cover the entire wall surface. Just outside Rome in Tivoli, Hadrian's Villa, from around AD 130, is a model of Roman interest in rural life, with an open villa design that is integrated into a setting of beautiful formal gardens, pools, grottoes, and garden sculpture.
   The Roman engineer Vitruvius, in his first-century BC treatise called The Ten Books on Architecture, discussed in detail these building types and classical rules, and it was his treatise that had the most impact on subsequent generations of classicizing architects. Thus, the appeal of Ancient Roman architecture is based not only on its enduring aesthetics, borrowed from the Greeks, but also on its expansion of civic structures to include more varied types with a more sophisticated engineering. One could argue that the vast Roman Empire was successful due in part to its incredible architectural feats, which stood as powerful propagandistic tools of a highly sophisticated culture.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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