Roman Architecture from a Typological Standpoint

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History and Theory of Architecture and Design

Discuss Roman architecture from a typological standpoint by stressing:

  1. The shift from pre-existing to newly developed typologies
  2. The achievement gained in construction techniques wherever applicable

Consider at least two different types.

List of Illustrations

1. Rome, Forum Romanum: plan

Steve Watson, 1996, The Roman Forum [online]. Available from Accessed 14th april 2014

2. Athens, Stoa Basileios: digital reconstruction of the building

Kronostaf [online]. Available from Accessed 14th april 2014

3. Rome, Basilica Aemilia: plan

Vitruvius – De Architectura Libri X [online]. Available from Accessed 14th april 2014

4. Rome, Arch of Augustus: a possible reconstruction of the elevation

American Journal of Archeology [online]. Available from Accessed 14th april 2014

5. Rome, Pantheon: plan (above) and section (below)

My archicad [online]. Available from Accessed 14th april 2014

6. Rome, Pantheon: the dome

Go there guide [online]. Available from Accessed 14th april 2014

It is difficult, without any doubt, to discuss about what can be defined as Roman architecture. Roman civilization covered a huge time span that began with the foundation of the Urbs (as Rome was called by Latin writers and philosophers), traditionally dated to 753 BC, and collapsed with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in 476 AD. Therefore, it is deducible that all the populations it got in touch with over the centuries influenced its culture. Unlike Greek architecture, product of a self-confident civilization that was able to maintain an incredible unity of artistic purpose and that is still recognizable today as belonging to the Greek culture (Ward-Perkins 1912), Roman art and architecture

“Were born and took shape in a world that was already dominated both by the substance and by the idea of Greek achievement, first through the Greek colonies in the west, at second hand through Etruria.”

(Ward-Perkins, 1912, p.9)

As the result of the match of these influences, it could be problematic to understand when it is appropriated to talk about roman architecture as a definable architectural style. According to Sear (1982, p.28),

“It is when all the outside influences had been forged together and assimilated, when techniques and ornaments were so fully understood that they could be used with confidence to create something fresh and original. This process of forging a new style began under Augustus.”

In this essay the shift from the pre-existing to the newly developed typologies and the technical innovations produced by Romans will be analyzed by focusing on the relationship between the Roman and earlier architectures. In order to discuss this change, four typologies, all belonging to the Augustan or later periods, will be taken in consideration. In the first paragraph the author will argue about the connection between the Greek agora and the Roman forum. The second typology will concern the origins and the main features of the Roman basilica. The third typology discussed will regard the honorific building. Finally, the author will illustrate the typology of the religious buildings, focusing on Roman temples and the Pantheon in particular.

As previously said, it is only with the beginning of the Augustan era that a proper Roman architecture developed. This happened when the foster son of Julius Caesar, Augustus, started a renovation project of his new born empire’s capital city. Like Suetonius (1977) reports, “He found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”, and he did it according to his personal taste and interests. In fact, it has to be considered that a sovereign is by definition the “architect” of his land. Moreover, the raise of the Empire is a moment of primary importance for the Roman history. Since that, the Romans of the Republic have always avoided to let a single individual holding absolute power. From this perspective the murder of Julius Caesar could have been justified by the senator’s will of preserving the integrity of the Republic. In 27 BC, upon the appointment of the first Roman emperor, all the powers were put in the hands of one, legitimating him to became not only the ruler of the Roman belongings but even a sort of God; additionally, Rome was per excellence the symbol of the emperor’s power. For all these reasons it was inevitable that Augustus likings were a major factor in shaping a public taste (Ward-Perkins, 1912). One of the most representative works in this sense is the continuation of the Forum Romanum, originally begun by Augustus’s father Julius Caesar.

When thinking about the Forum, it is unavoidable to try to find a possible connection with the Greek agora, the public space built by the Athenians. The Greek agora was the place where administrative, politic, legal, commercial and moreover activities occurred and the stoa or colonnade porch was probably the most important building standing in the square: it is defined by Watkin (1986, p.49) as a “Covered meeting-place for a wide range of activities.” However, it has been argued (Pergolis, cited by Carlos Zeballos) that the aim of the agora was to give the citizen self-consciousness; on the other hand the Roman forum’s purpose was to make him aware of the State.

The intent of the Forum Romanum was to remind the Romans of the honor of the old Republic, and the triumphs of the new leader, Augustus. This ambition is proved by the works he started since the early years of his reign in this location. Once the renovation project ended, the forum consisted in two long basilicas (Aemilia and Julia), three temples, two of them started by Julius Caesar (temple of Concord and temple of Castor), and a new last one, dedicated to the Divus Julius, Augustus former father. The temple of Divus Julius was flanked by a monumental construction, the Arch of Augustus. All of these architectural constructions played a fundamental role in the Roman history.

The Roman basilica is one of the most representative typology of buildings in the Roman architecture. It operated as a meeting-place for the citizens, an exchange for merchants and even as a court of justice. In this sense, it has been argued (Purdue University) that the design hailed from an Hellenistic Greek building called Stoa Basileios (Greek: βασίλειος στοά), located in the Athenian agora. In this particular case, the translation of the term Basileios is Royal: it was in fact identified as the seat of the Archon Basileus, one of the nine chief magistrates in ancient Athens, whose duties were religious and juridical. It appeared to be a rectangular building with eight Doric columns along the façade and four inside (Foundation of the Hellenic World, 2006), a shape that well reminds of the basilica. A last evidence of the Greek origin of the Roman basilica is the spelling of the word basilica itself that, as Welsh stated, came from the Greek term “basilike”, which means “kingly”. The basilica usually had a rectangular plan and it was normally timber-roofed. It also could have a rectangular tribune, a single or two apses and an interior colonnade that divided the space. The mayor entrance could have been on either the transverse or the longitudinal axes (MacDonald, 1986). An example of this typology could be given by The Basilica Aemilia. It was one of the earliest basilicas: the first construction is dated from 179 BC and it is stated that it has had a two-storied colonnaded façade of sixteen bays as a stoa. On the inside, it was located an enclosed hall, where the magistrate could practice his work. The basilica was entirely rebuilt by Augustus. The Imperial basilica was divided in three parts: the porch, the hall and the ”tabaerne”, six square room that were probably used as offices. This porch was perfectly similar to the one of the basilica Julia: it consisted in two floors supported by marble’s pilasters and columns. The ground floor façade was divided in fourteen arches overcame by a Doric lodge. The use of the arch is one of the innovations that distinguish Roman architecture from ones that came before. Greeks never learned to build an arched construction and used a post-and-bean structure, as they did in their stoa. This technique allowed Romans to build larger rooms:

“Arches could redirect a building's weight over long distances to thick posts, allowing for vast, relatively unobstructed rooms” (essential-humanities).

In this case, because of the remarkable size of the room, it was necessary to introduce some metal chains to reinforce the structure. From the porch, the visitor entered in a secondary room that worked as passageway to the central hall. It consisted in three naves separated by columns; the side’s ones supported a second floor. (Sear, 1982)

Moving on, the second type that will be discussed will be the honorific monument, focusing on the best-known ones, the triumphal arches. Boldwin Smith (1956) asserts that the origin of triumphal arches has to be sought in the ceremonies of deification of the monarch that gave a celestial content to an arched portal, as it happened during the Hellenistic Epiphany. He even stated that only the common factors in the history of ceremonies could explain the way in which the arched passageway was used to commemorate the ceremony of Latin Triumph. It was in fact a Latin adaptation of an Etruscan rite in which the Triumphant One was acclaimed as a god.

A monumental arch, despite its massive and elemental form, is a complicated kind of building. In every archway the radiality works in opposing direction at the same time,

It focuses down and in toward the curve’s invisible center point, but at the same time suggests reciprocal extension fanning outward and upward”.

(MacDonald, 1986, p.75-76, 1st occurrence within the paragraphs)

MacDonald (2nd occurrence within the same paragraphs) explains that this implies a tension that is regulated and framed either by flanking walls, or massive piers and by masonry piled up above the arch and its supports: this counterweight is then increased by adding orders and decorations.

Triumphal arches were built in Rome since the second century BC, however it was Augustus who set the fashion for building them all over the Empire (Watkins). Sear (1982) states that in the Forum Romanum it was erected a triumph Arch known as the Arch of Augustus, rebuilt in the 19 BC possibly with fragments from an earlier one, dated 29 BC. A description is given by MacDonald (1986): it was a triple gateway in which the center void was arched and set between huge piers with a prominent attic above; side gateways were trabeated. The orders stood on a plinths and pedestal on the same level. The inner one was overlapped with the piers and topped by a Corinthian capital. Wilson Jones (2000) claims that approximately two-thirds of all imperial columns were Corinthian. This order in fact suited the emperors for many reasons: it was Augustus choice to promote an Hellenistic image of his Rome, finally capable of matching Greece culturally. For Augustus' purpose the Corinthian order was perfect to evoke the past without falling in a mere copy of Greek architecture. Furthermore, the acanthus, the leading theme of the order, was a symbol of sacredness but it was not related to any particular divinity. This characteristic permitted Augustus to promote his imagine of a god.

Political implications in Roman architecture were involved even in the last type of building that will be analyzed, the religious one. Roman temples find their origins in both Etruscan architecture and, as the previous ones, Greek architecture. Early Roman temples were realized in brick and followed Etruscan design by showing high podia and deeply columned porch. After the second century, Greek orders begun to be employed in the elevation and, like Greek temples, they were east orientated. However, Roman temples tradition had a façade that was easily recognizable thanks to the monumental stairs that leaded to the porch, the only part of the building in which columns were erected (Sear 1982). Above all the others, The Pantheon is the most known Roman temple and it is considered, together with the Parthenon, the most representative monument of classical architecture. The first Parthenon, commissioned by Agrippa, Augustus’ general and son-in-law, is dated between 27-25 BC. The aim was to represent Augustus’ Imperial program’s masterpiece: in fact it has been claimed (Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2014) that it may have been designed as a place where the emperor could make public appearances in order to remind his people of his divine status. Nevertheless, the building was probably destroyed by fire and rebuilt by Emperor Domitian. The temple again was destructed by a lightning bolt. The current Pantheon was built by Hadrian on his return trip to Rome as the new emperor in 118 AD. Alongside his architects, he decided to build the new Temple by using a new design that attempts to unite the Greek’s porch and the Roman rotunda (Wilson Jones, 2000), a typology that had already been used in earlier Roman temples. It has been argued that Hadrian’s intention was to design the Pantheon in order “to prove that the Imperial order, with its rule of law and its core for the Republic was part of the divine order, initiated by it and subsumed to it.” (McEwan, 1993, cited by Art History Presentation Archive, 2007).

The emphasis of the building is completely focused on the interior space. The formal scheme of the interior could seem quite simple, a cylindrical drum topped by a dome. By contrast, this construction shows all the amazing abilities owned by Roman architects and engineers. The structure of the rotunda is composed by eight piers which support eight arches, which in turn correspond to the eight bays. From this perspective, the drum could be seen as an arched structure designed to cut down weight and minimize the effects of differential settlement. Once again the prevalent order is the Corinthian: Corinthian columns of giallo antico are free-standing in each bay and represent a brilliant device to give scale. The dome was the biggest ever realized until the making of Santa Maria del Fiore’s one in Florence by Brunelleschi. In mixing the concrete, another of Roman’s most brilliant innovations, several filling materials were used and graded in order that the structure resulted lighter at the dome’s top by using pumice. The oculus captivates visitor’s eye and is the only source of light in the whole building, perhaps to signify that in the Temple of all gods the only light admitted can come from the heavens above. (Wilson Jones, 2000).

In this essay the author has illustrated the evolution of the shift from the pre-existing typologies to the newly developed ones, as well as the technical innovations implemented. Moreover, the Roman emperors' political and personal approach to their architectures has been discussed. Four cases of study were presented: first, a relation between the Greek agora and the Roman forum was demonstrated by showing similarities in their uses but different political aims; secondly, the author illustrated the Roman basilica as a new type of building that possibly derived from the Greek stoa. Moving on, political implications and Hellenistic origins have been debated and technical features have been shown by presenting the triumphal arch's typology. Finally, the last case, the religious building type, has been analyzed by focusing on the Roman temple with two purposes: in the first place to explain analogies with earlier examples and then to describe one of the most significant building in Roman architecture, the Pantheon.


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