The origins of Roman architecture can be traced to the Etruscans, who
migrated from Asia Minor to Italy in the 12th cent. B.C. What little is
known about their architecture has been ascertained from clay models and
tomb interiors. Etruscan architecture is thought to have derived from
prototypes found in the nearby Greek colonies in southern Italy established
during the 8th and 7th cent. B.C. The Etruscans are thought to have used
arches and vaults in their later architecture.
Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in the 5th cent. B.C.,
Roman architects began to absorb and synthesize influences from both the
Etruscans and the Greeks, adapting earlier building types to their specialized
urban needs. A characteristic feature of Roman design was the combined
use of arcuated and trabeated construction (employing arches and constructed
with post and lintel). Although at first tentatively employed in the spaces
between the classical columns, the arch eventually came to be the chief
structural element. Flanking columns, usually engaged and superimposed
(partly embedded into a wall and laid over it), served merely as buttresses
or for decoration.
The cut-stone construction of the Greeks was largely replaced after the
invention of concrete in the 2d cent. B.C. This enabled architects to
cover vast interior spaces with vaults of increasing complexity and without
interior supports. These included the barrel vault, the cross or groined
vault, and the dome and semidome. Vault buttresses, instead of forming
exterior projections, became an integral part of the interior support
system. Although unfired brick was employed in all periods, under the
empire baked bricks became popular as a facing for concrete walls. From
early times stucco was used as a finish for important buildings. For the
more luxurious finishing of exterior and interior walls, sheathings of
alabaster, porphyry, or marble were used. Of the Republican period (c.50027
B.C.), the great aqueducts outside the city of Rome are the most impressive
Roman Landmarks and Building Patterns
The principal monuments of Roman architecture belong chiefly to the period
between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300, including the Colosseum (A.D. 7082),
the Pantheon (A.D. 118125), and the Baths of Caracalla (c. A.D.
215). Beginning with the reign of Augustus (30 B.C.A.D. 14), the
Roman architectural output proceeded on a vast scale to accommodate the
needs of the rapidly expanding empire. Provincial towns were laid out
according to logical plans, particularly in North Africa. In Syria, arcaded
streets were built.
Each town's focus was the forum, or open public square, surrounded by
colonnades and the principal buildings in axial arrangement. The great
forum in Rome itself was built in stages, as each emperor sought to glorify
his achievements. The last large forum to be built was that of Trajan
(2d cent. A.D.), and was the most extravagant. Within each forum, a temple,
conforming to Etruscan type, was usually elevated on a high base with
steps ascending to a deep portico. Since the temple was to be seen only
from the front, the Roman architect utilized pilasters or engaged columns
along its sides. This pseudoperipteral type is seen in the Maison Carrée
(1st cent. A.D.) at Nîmes, France. Examples of circular temples
include the temple of Vesta at Tivoli (1st cent. B.C.) and the 3d-century
temples of Jupiter at Split and Venus at Baalbek.
Roman Architectural Innovations
Most important among the structures developed by the Romans themselves
were basilicas, baths, amphitheaters, and triumphal arches. Unlike their
Greek prototypes, Roman theaters were freestanding structures. The auditorium
was semicircular, with movable seats at the orchestra level. Distinctly
Roman innovation were the uniting of stage and auditorium as a single
structure and the rich architectural embellishment of the stage itself.
For the oval amphitheaters such as the colosseum, there are no known Greek
precedents. The monumental or triumphal arch was also a purely Roman invention.
The basilica, probably a Roman development based on the Greek temple,
provided a large and relatively open interior space. From its original
use as a Roman law court, the basilica form was adapted by the Christians
for their churches.
The baths, while probably derived from Greek gymnasia, were constructed
on a totally unprecedented scale, the complexity of their plan competing
with the luxury of their detail. In the typical Roman dwelling, the rooms
were grouped about the atrium, which, by means of an opening in its roof,
also served as a court. Multistory houses in the larger cities, called
insulae, anticipated modern apartment buildings, as can be seen for example
at Ostia (3d cent. A.D.). A third type of Roman dwelling was the luxurious
country villa built by wealthy citizens to escape the congestion and squalor
of the cities.
See G. T. Rivoira, Roman Architecture (1925, repr. 1972); M. Wheeler,
Roman Art and Architecture (1964); W.L. MacDonald, The Architecture of
the Roman Empire (2 vol., 1965 and 1986); A. Bo‘thius, Etruscan and Roman
Architecture (1970); J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture (1981).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2000 Columbia University