A Bird’s Eye View Of Roman Architecture

The Romans fabricated two kinds of houses, the domus and the insula. The first was the privilege of the affluent, the latter was an apartment building for the working class. The domus consisted of a few rooms built around an atrium. Often more rooms were added at the back around a court with columns, the peristyle. The atrium was an oblong room with an open roof. The atrium with the surrounding chambers was purely built in Roman style. The peristyle was drawn up in Greek or Middle Eastern fashion.

The common activities of the family took place in the atrium. The chambers around it were meant for relaxation and conversation. It could be reached from the street through the prothyrum, an entrance with corridor. Between the atrium and the peristyle there was the tablinum, an open living room that could be closed with a curtain. A broad walkway, the fauces, was situated at the side of the tablinum to provide easy access to the peristyle. The peristyle, such as in the domus of Vettii at Pompeji, encompassed the family living room. Around the court of columns were situated the oecus (reception), the cubicula (sleeping rooms), the alae (niches for private conversations), the triclinia (dining rooms). In the domus of Pansa at Pompeji the triclini possess three couches for nine persons to lie on (as was customary for Romans); nine persons being the accepted number of guests for a Roman party. The latter domus also possessed an upper storey built both around the atrium and the peristyle.

The second kind of building, the insula (lit. ‘island’), was the apartment building. The insula provided cheap or affordable housing for workers in places where space was expensive and the population numerous. The insula was fabricated with stones or bricks and covered with concrete and often had five or more stories; despite legislation that stipulated against structures higher than 21 meters, or 18 meters in the time of Trajan. The ground floors were usually reserved for different kinds of stores and craftsmen.

Most insulae were fitted with wooden or concrete balconies. Pumps were used to transport water up, but did not reach above the lower stories. Renters in the higher flats had to make do with public sanitation and water facilities. The insulae were designed for maximum use of space. Light came in from the outside windows and the courtyard. Cheap construction and a shortage of water caused numerous collapses and fires. Excavations at Ostia, practically a suburb of Rome, attest to these things. Moreover mention is made of these buildings by Roman authors.

Romans possessed a tremendous technique in the way of city planning. When a new city was laid out, its function, climate and geographical location were taken into account. Characteristic of a Roman town (probably developed from earlier Italic towns in combination with the occupation of building an army camp) was its square layout. Roads and streets ran on parallels and met in the center, comparable with New York.

In, or close to, the center lay the so-called forum, the hub of Roman culture. Gradually around this other buildings were erected for specific civil, trade and religious activities. In the time of the Caesars it was customary to make the forum as large as possible, to provide space for all sorts of events. In a great and ancient city as Rome itself there were different forums; each with its own objective, such as administration, justice, commerce and finance. Also there were forums especially for the sale of meat or vegetables. For the latter purpose the macellum was developed, a market building with shops all around a pillared court.

Long established communities, which had grown more haphazardly than by plan, in time were influenced by Roman designs as described above. Often, however, also at Rome, the situation hindered a logical application. Usually rows of pillars were made on both sides of important streets. Water was conducted to spectacular fountains and basins for practical use.

Water was transported through aqueducts to large reservoirs (if the climate did not prescribe wells). Sewer systems collected the superfluous water from the streets and from private quarters. One saying about the sewer became famous: pecunia non olet (money does not smell).

Building codes were drawn up and implemented. The design of an entire town can clearly be seen in some places in North Africa, such as at Timgad, Tébessa and Thuburbo Majus. In these towns little or none at all was added and the original planning is still intact..

From about 200 B.C. till 50 A.D. the many encounters with Greek culture, as well as the fact that Rome developed as a republic, caused temples to be constructed conform Greek style. Both sculpture and spatial effects imitated Greek designs. Greek influence on Roman culture was summed up in the saying: Graeca capta Romam cepit (Conquered Greece conquered Rome).

However in the time of Caesar Augustus Roman temples took on a more Italic spatial look. Also new forms, particularly with floral arrangements and detailed friezes, were invented. In this time above all in secular buildings an architectural style was developed totally owned by Roman influences. Also it was in this time that Roman culture started exercising its influence in foreign countries, for instance in the construction of theaters and amphitheaters.

Romans had a predilection for spatial compositions worked out in the organ- ization of lines, surfaces, mass and voluminous parts. In this they differed from their predecessors in those times around the Mediterranean. No matter how much they adopted the elements of previous styles, they did this in their own fashion.

One can distinguish five different Roman styles of building, adopted from Greek culture, but used in their own unique ways. These were the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Toscan and mixed architectonic styles. On the average Roman proportional styles were more tempered, but with more flair for detail. Columns and pillars were often smooth, but the architrave, frieze and cornice were embellished.

Towards the end of the republic the so-called balneae (baths) had become a recognized characteristic of the Roman way of life. Particularly during the empire they were very popular. The Stabian Baths at Pompeii have been preserved best.

Imperial thermae were more than baths alone. They were extremely large complexes for all kinds of physical exercise and housed halls where philosophers, poets and orators addressed the public.

Roman theaters differed from those of the Greeks in various ways. The auditorium was not dug out and the walls encompassing both the stage and the seats, were continuous. The entrance to the dancing stage was formed by vaulted passages. The choir did not play a role in Roman theater. The dancing section therefore was part of the auditorium. The wall behind the stage was decorated lavishly.

Amphitheaters were arenas where plays and various shows were staged. The most important one was the Colosseum at Rome, built in about 70-82 A.D. It occupied an area of about two to three hectares and offered seats to fifty thousand spectators. Eighty exits allowed the public to leave quickly. The entire structure was made of concrete; the outside was covered with calcareous sinter and the inside with costly marble.

The circus was mainly a racing track with seats to the sides. One end was round and the other straight to allow access for the wagons. In the middle there was a line of demarcation where arbiters could perform their functions. Since it was the largest facility for viewing a spectacle, it was also used for other activities. The circuses became infamous because of the burning of Christians in the time of Nero.

Arches of triumph were sometimes erected to commemorate an important event or military campagne. Most of the time they sat by themselves and did not serve as a passage. They were decorated with reliefs and fitted out with statues.

Roman temples differed in many important details from their Greek predecessors. Greek temples had three steps round about, but the Roman temple had a high platform, or stage, with a staircase that served as entrance. Greek temples almost always looked out to the East or West, but the position of the Roman temples depended on the surrounding buildings.

The Romans often built round temples, of which the most important one survives as the Pantheon at Rome till today. It consists of a rotunda with a diameter of almost fifty meters and surrounded by concrete walls seven meters thick. A central opening at the top with a nine meter diameter lets the light in. This is called the oculus (eye), situated in the dome. The rotunda and the dome are examples of Roman expertise in working with concrete.

The Roman tomb consisted of a knoll of earth, the tumulus. It was surrounded by a ring of cement usually of considerable height. Only a few of such tombs remain; particularly the tomb of Hadrianus, now called Castel Sant’Ange lo.

The basilica was a large covered hall used by the judiciary and also by bankers and merchants. The largest such basilica was constructed in seven years, begun by Maxentius and completed by Constantine in about 313 A.D. One can still find the vaults of the salient rooms at the North side. They prove the quality of the mixture and durability of Roman reinforced (with stones, not iron) concrete. For after all these years they still hang there without support.

The construction of bridges and aqueducts also belonged to Roman expertise. The most famous examples of surviving aqueducts are the Pont du Gard at Nîmes and at Segovia in Spain. The best example of a bridge is found at Rimini. It was built by Augustus and Tiberius. The most impressive one is perhaps at Alcántara in Spain.

Private homes and even palaces usually were styled with inner courts and gardens instead of an impressive facade. This tradition was maintained, as far as possible, in the settlements in the North of Europe and in England. Also elaborated provisions for heating had to be taken care of there. In the climate of the Mediterranean, however, a tendency towards light and open construction prevailed instead of a compact and imposing one.

Also in the layout of imperial palaces at Rome the emphasis lay on gardening. The buildings themselves, as far as their function was concerned, were not very monumental and they were spread over the Palatine hill as it were randomly. Augustus himself bought and enlarged the home known as the House of Livia, still in existence today. Very little remains of Nero’s famous Golden Palace, occupying once a territory of more than 120 hectares. One can find the baths of Titus there now, the Colosseum and the Basilica of Maxentius.

The Villa of Hadrianus at Tivoli, started in about 123 A.D., was a luxurious residence with parks and gardens laid out on a grand scale. Because of the unequal terrain terraces and staircases were constructed. There still remain enormous stones and concrete fabrications. All the buildings are in Roman style, but with Greek names. The Latin word villa denoted an estate, complete with a home, terrains and precincts and dependent facilities. Around Pompeii relatively simple villa’s were found. Descriptions known in literature, such as of Pliny the Younger who describes his villa at Laurentum, and remains of the Palatial residence at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, represented the upper class. The villa of Hadrianus is too elaborate and detailed to be called a typical villa.