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Roman Architecture

Cluny baths
Roman baths in Paris

One of the things the Romans are most famous for is their architecture. The Romans brought a lot of new ideas to architecture, of which the three most important are the arch, the baked brick, and the use of cement and concrete.

Around 700 BC the Etruscans brought West Asian ideas about architecture to Italy, and they taught these ideas to the Romans. We don't have much Etruscan architecture left, but a lot of their underground tombs do survive, and some traces of their temples.

In the Republican period, the Romans built temples and basilicas, but also they made a lot of improvements to their city: aqueducts and roads and sewers.

The Forum began to take shape. Outside of Rome, people began to build stone amphitheaters for gladiatorial games.

The first Roman emperor, Augustus, made more changes: he built a lot of brick and marble buildings, including a big Altar of Peace and a big tomb for his family, and a big stone theater for plays. Augustus' stepson Tiberius rebuilt the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman forum.

Augustus' great-great-grandson Nero also did a lot of building in Rome, including his Golden House.

Then in 69 AD Vespasian tore down some of the Golden House to build the Colosseum. Vespasian's son Titus built a great triumphal arch, and his other son Domitian built a great palace for himself on the Palatine hill.

Even though Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD, later architects continued to use the techniques that had been developed for his palace, just as later emperors continued to live in Domitian’s palace. Trajan’s architect used brick and concrete arches to build a new forum with a big column in it and an elaborate market building that is the source of modern shopping malls. Trajan also built the first major public bath building in Rome. It may have been the same architect who later designed Hadrian's Pantheon, a temple to all the gods, which used brick and concrete to build a huge dome. Nobody would build a bigger dome for more than a thousand years.

Learn by doing: build a model of the Colosseum
Or build a Roman arch
Later Roman Architecture

Bibliography and further reading about Roman architecture:

City : A Story of Roman Planning and Construction, by David Macaulay (1983). For kids - brilliant!

A Coloring Book of Ancient Rome, from Bellerophon Books (1988). Easy reading.

Roman Architecture, by Frank Sear (1983). The standard college textbook.

The Architecture of the Roman Empire: An Introductory Study, by William MacDonald (1982). Actually not so introductory, but it's got great illustrations that really make the building techniques clear.

Roman Imperial Architecture, by J. B. Ward-Perkins (1992). A more detailed textbook, and harder going.

Later Roman Architecture
Ancient Rome home

Build your own Roman Architecture models:

Build a model of the Roman colosseum

Or this beautiful model of the Colosseum in wooden blocks

Or build a Roman arch out of specially cut wooden blocks

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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