The Roman Empire started as a minor city-state in Italy. With its military strength, the Republic set forth to conquer neighboring city-states and expanded to other regions—Greece, Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, France, and even Britain (Lee, 2014). As the Republic expanded, it began to adopt various cultures and had to respond to the evolving needs of the empire. Roman architecture is one of Rome’s most enduring legacies, with many modern infrastructures still using the same technologies and designs they developed many millennia ago. This history essay discusses the elements of Roman Architecture that contributed to their success and made Roman Architecture an influential force in the modern world.
History of Roman Architecture
Roman architecture started humbly—mostly huts for people’s dwellings. However, their architecture evolved as the Roman Empire expanded to other parts of Italy and other neighboring regions. The evolution of Roman Architecture as we know it today started with the ancient priests who built special areas of worship for their gods. This is not an uncommon occurrence—numerous other civilizations’ architecture and art evolved as a result of religion. As the empire expanded and accommodated higher, diverse populations, Roman Architecture evolved further to accommodate the needs of the populace:
“Many of the Roman architectural innovations were a response to the changing practical needs of Roman society, and these projects were all backed by a state apparatus which funded, organised, and spread them around the Roman world, guaranteeing their permanence so that many of these great edifices survive to the present day. (Cartwright, 2018, n.d.)” [See here how to format block quotes in APA citation style.]
Roman architecture, thus, evolved along with Roman society and its needs. In turn, Roman architecture propelled Rome as one of the best builders in history. It was influenced by the cultures that came before it, particularly Greek architecture. Etruscan architecture also had a strong influence on Roman architecture. However, Roman architects departed from ancient architecture by improving on traditional construction materials and methods. Through their innovation, Romans built infrastructures that benefited the people and withstood the test of time.
Features of Roman Architecture
When people think of Roman architecture they think of the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and perhaps some aqueducts. These famous buildings are indeed characteristic of Roman architecture. In the succeeding paragraphs, I’ll discuss the architectural elements developed by Romans that became instrumental to their success. [See how to write body paragraphs for your essay.]
The Romans were the first ones to produce and use concrete, stone, and marble. Romans harnessed natural materials available in their surroundings. One of the first materials they used to build were stones. According to Strickland, stones were used in the earlier years of Roman society, but their stone masonry already exhibited a high level of complexity (2010). Romans used a variety of tools to form stones suitable for building houses and infrastructures. The Romans used Travertine, a type of limestone, capable of carrying heavy loads but was also used for building facades. Marble, another stone material, on the other hand, was used heavily during Augustus’ time for aesthetic purposes. Overall, stone was used extensively in Rome as foundation and as décor for the interior and exterior of buildings.
Brick is another versatile material that was easy to produce. Brick is made by baking clay and is used by stacking bricks on top of each other. Bricks were useful in constructing fortifications and aqueducts throughout the empire because they were easy to produce and transport, and were assembled quickly. Like brick, concrete is another versatile material that made Rome’s expansion possible. Roman concrete mortar mix was developed in the late third century. Romans used various types of sand. However, the most practical mix consisted of lime mortar and a volcanic silica material called pozzolana (Strickland, 2010). This mix not only produced strong concrete but was also capable of setting underwater since it set through a chemical reaction rather than through evaporation (Strickland, 2010). Concrete is a strong and versatile material that allowed the Romans to build strong foundations for various infrastructures that helped the empire accommodate the needs of its growing populace as well as further expand to other territories.
These materials were not only strong but also durable. Roman skills and technology harnessed these materials and created great infrastructures. However, it is also thanks to these materials' durability that infrastructures survived wars—the decline of the Roman empire—as well as hundreds of years of wear and tear such that future generations still saw and were able to use them.
What made the Romans distinct from other cultures is their love for the curve. When other cultures shied away from the complicated curve, the Romans embraced it (Strickland, 2010). They saw great advantages in curved structures, and with their skill, were able to create the right design to incorporate curves into their infrastructures. Romans were known for their arch, vault, and domes.
Arches have been used in older civilizations, however, the Romans were considered to have revolutionized this architectural design (Roth & Roth Clark, 2018). Arches were used as an alternative to beams and columns to support a structure spanning a wide distance since they were found to be stronger than the latter (Roth & Roth Clark, 2018). While the Romans used the concept of the arch for bridges and aqueducts, which increased mobility throughout the empire, they also elevated its use (Strickland, 2010). Banking on the arch’s ability to carry heavier loads, the Romans used the arch for buildings as well.
Another curve structure employed by the Romans is the vaults. Vaults are a string of connected arches forming a semi-spherical structure (Roth & Roth Clark, 2018; Strickland, 2010)). These were commonly used in Roman architecture for ceilings and roofs. There are two types of vaults—barrel or tunnel and groin. The barrel or tunnel vault, on the one hand, is the simpler of the two; the arch is lined straight and is supported by straight walls on both sides (Roth & Roth Clark, 2018; Strickland, 2010). The groin vault, on the other hand, consists of two barrel vaults intersecting in the middle. Vaults were often used in bathhouses and the Coliseum (Strickland, 2010).
The dome is perhaps one of the most revolutionary designs created by Romans. A dome is a spherical vault that rests on a base wall (Roth & Roth Clark, 2018). Aside from its spherical shape, the dome is known for its opening at the top which is called the oculus. The dome is the product of the years of development and innovation by Roman architects. To build this magnificent structure, Romans used concrete of varying weights, which is supported by wooden formwork or shuttering until the end of the curing process (Roth & Roth Clark, 2018). The Romans used domes extensively for religious buildings, palaces, baths, and even homes, because of their acoustic benefits, ability to spread heat evenly, as well as being symbolic of the heavens (Roth & Roth Clark, 2018). The largest and most well-known dome structure is the Pantheon, which served as a temple for worshipping the gods.
Roman Influence on Modern Architecture
At its height, the Roman Empire spanned from Britain to Egypt (Lee, 2014). Its influence, thus, extended in both the east and the west. In Europe, Christianity spread along with churches that followed Roman architecture. Basilicas are a prime example. Christian Basilicas trace their origins in Roman architecture. However, they were modified to exemplify Christian theology. Roman architects employed the same designs and methods in building Christian Basilicas but they emphasize the interiors, making them more conducive to Christian worship (Farber, n.d.). Many, if not all, Christian churches that followed were replicas of the basilicas built by the Romans. The dome, for instance, is a common feature. Furthermore, the Romans’ decision to put emphasis on the interiors is still salient in modern Christian churches (Farber, n.d.). Aside from the functional structure, Christian basilicas and churches are known for their elaborate art on the walls and the ceilings which are also evolved from Roman temples.
In the East, basilicas were also built following the Roman influence. Emperor Constantine wanted to transfer the capital from Rome to the Byzantine Empire, so he commissioned the building of basilicas (“The Christian East,” n.d.). Basilicas like the Church of St. Eirene, the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the Hagia Sophia are all modified forms of the Roman Basilica (“The Christian East,” n.d.). In the Byzantine Empire, basilicas also featured domes but their base was square or sometimes octagonal instead of rectangular like the Christian churches (“The Christian East,” n.d.). Like Christian churches, Byzantine basilicas also exhibited art on walls and roofs. Still, Byzantine basilicas differed, specifically in the art that adorned their interiors. Art in Byzantine basilicas were more formal in contrast to the idealized naturalism that dominated Christian art in the west (“The Christian East,” n.d.). Despite these differences, the two cultures evolved from the same foundations of Roman architecture.
Roman architecture’s influence is not limited to the religious world. The secular architecture of the modern world is also influenced by Roman architecture. Modern bridges and aqueducts are merely modernized versions of the ones built throughout the empire. Modern societies still benefit from construction methods developed millennia ago, with some technological enhancements. The Romanesque architectural style is also a common style employed today. Some examples are the White House, the interior of the Union Station in Washington D.C., and the Jefferson Memorial.
To conclude this essay, the Roman empire and its architecture may have had humble beginnings, but Roman ingenuity and skill propelled them to great heights. Despite the lack of technology found in the modern world, Roman architects were able to build strong infrastructures that helped their empire expand as far as it did. Roman architecture’s influence on modern architecture is only natural thanks to the durability and efficiency of their structures and construction methods.
Cartwright, M. (2018, Mar 14). Roman architecture. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Roman_Architecture/
Farber, A. (n.d.). Early Christian art and architecture after Constantine. Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/medieval-world/early-christian-art/beginners-guide-early-christian-art/a/early-christian-art-and-architecture-after-constantine
Lee, T. B. (2014, Aug 19). 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire. Vox. https://www.vox.com/world/2018/6/19/17469176/roman-empire-maps-history-explained
Roth, L. M. & Roth Clark, A. C. (2018). Understanding architecture: Its elements, history, and meaning (3rd edition). Routledge.
Strickland, M. (2010). Roman building materials, construction methods, and architecture: The identity of an empire. Clemenson University-All Theses. 909. https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1909&context=all_theses