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History of Architecture

Rome: architectural history

Etruscan and Early Rome

The origins of Roman architecture can be traced to the Etruscans,

who migrated from Asia Minor to Italy in the twelfth century BC.
What little is known about their architecture has been determined
mainly from clay models and tomb interiors. The first buildings of
architectural importance in Rome date back to the seventh century
before Christ. Before this time, ‘Roman’ dwellings had not evolved
beyond some very primitive huts. Even the places of worship were
very primitive. These consisted of some sacred enclosures with
altars that had no roof and served as sites for the rituals of the
inhabitants of the time. A typical hut of the seventh century must
have consisted of low walls made of some twigs and/or tree
branches covered with earth and surrounded with low mounds of
earth or rubble which walls held the thatched roof of these early

Only a century later, because of the influence of maybe some Greek

and Eastern Mediterranean Traders, the megaron type of
arrangement for houses started to emerge. Although still built of
mainly timber and mud brick, some of these houses had internal
courtyards or atria and also open living rooms for citizens of the
higher class in society. We have this information about the type of
buildings of the sixth century because their forms were preserved in
the rock-cut tombs that the Etruscans built outside their city walls.
The tombs had a variety of flat or sloped roofs, which sometimes
had carvings on them. Roofs were supported by columns, which
were also of various shapes (square, round, etc in plan). Some of
these columns had also some primitive versions of the Doric and
Ionic orders. Later tombs also had internal courtyards or atria,
which in some cases had inward sloping roofs so as for rainwater to
be collected in a cistern. Greeks also influenced the Temples of the
time. These temples were rectangular in shape and situated on
some sort of podium, with their roof projected outwards, supported
by outer columns. However, there were many differences in the
way the space was utilised in temples in Greece and in Rome at the
time. For example, the podiums of the temples in Rome were
higher and sometimes, steps were built only on the front of the
temple; columns were commonly used at the entrance of the temple
but not that much on the sides (as opposed to columns round the
whole building in Greece); and the materials used for the podiums
were different, giving different proportions and level of detail (in
Rome timber, mud and terracotta bricks were used while in Greece
marble was most common).

In Etruscan towns, evidence of conscious planning of buildings is

firstly seen in temple structures, however in the fifth century some
grid layouts for the new cities can be seen. Moreover, care for
sewage systems began, with the introduction of open drains. The
defensive walls made of masonry which remain of the early towns,
were not built before the fourth century BC, from when defence was
really needed because of the growing predominance of Rome. ‘’All
roads lead to Rome’’: as the saying says, basically all the roads in
the Roman empire lead to the main city, that is Rome. These road
networks were built because military activity, because they
facilitated the commute from Rome to the cities in the Empire and
back, which made the Empire easier to control and manage from
Rome. More than this, many defensive buildings, which resemble
military camps but in smaller scale, were scattered in various areas
so as to control traffic and hence be able to even more control the
Empire. Even bridges at this time were only made of timber, which
limited their spans, although the piers that held these structures
might have been made of masonry.

Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome

Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in the fifth

century BC, Roman architects began to absorb and join influences
from both the Etruscans and the Greeks, adapting earlier building
types to their specialized urban needs. In this period of time, from
the beginning of the second century BC, many important changes
took place. These changes were influenced mainly by The Greeks
on the east and by the use of fairly new types of local stones.
However these changes took place because of the new knowledge
of concrete ‘technology’. This is not only visible in houses and
temples but also in new buildings such as public baths and other
places of entertainment. The architectural changes were mainly the
proportions used because of the introduction of this new material,
which also made possible arched and vaulted buildings (with
decorations in Greek orders, of which the Corinthian was mostly

The Defence system was a combination of Greek methods and

Roman innovations. Cities had surrounding high defensive walls
and multi-storey towers (such as in Greek tradition), however the
walls were not built only by stone, but were very wide in cross-
section and the intermediate space between the inner and outer
crusts were filled with earth to create a wide passage way on the
walls themselves, making them even more strong and majestic. A
typical tower consisted of three floors with very thick walls, with
rooms serving particular purposes.

Temples, although still having timber roofing, began to have stone

columns, which are evidently more close to each other. It was
common practice to build temples in a dominant position with
respect to the city forum unless the temple was situated in an area
specifically for itself in the city. If the temple was in the city forum,
the altar was usually position in the immediate entrance of the
temple itself, while if it were built in an area on its own, the axial
positioning of the temple would be emphasised.

The forum (similar to the agora in Greece), was at first an open

space that was used for various purposes such as a market, a
meeting place and a place for political discussions and activities. In
the late Republican times, the purpose of the forum remained more
or less the same however it evolved from just an undefined space to
a space with one side closed by a temple and the rest surrounded
by columns and various public buildings such as markets and
basilicas. In fact the roman combination of Greek orders and the
arch made its first appearance in these public buildings. Arches and
vaults, however, were already being used for other types of
buildings such as warehouses and used for supporting the seats of
early theatres. Moreover, some primitive versions of the dome were
used for public baths. In most of the Roman buildings at this time,
the exterior looks were more important than the interior looks. The
Basilica was one of the first buildings whose interior was
considered to be more important than the exterior. The basilica was
like the forum, a rectangular space surrounded by colonnades with
a timber roof. Light came from windows just above the colonnade.
One of the main uses of a basilica was that of dealing out justice.

Roman theatres have been largely influenced by the theatre forms

in Greece. One of the main differences between Roman and Greek
theatres is that Roman theatres are not situated on a natural slope
so as to provide for the sloping seats but they were built on flat
ground. The seats were in the form of a semicircle so as that every
seat was nearly the same distance away from the raised stage
infront of them, which stage was backed by a tall building spanning
from one side to the other of the theatre. For the oval
amphitheatres (such as the colosseum) there are no known Greek
precedents. As the name itself implies, the amphitheatre
surrounded the central stage. Both the theatre and the
amphitheatre rose highly from the ground because of the seating
and this made them rather visible and notable more than other
structures. 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.
The baths originally consisted of a sequence of rooms of different
sized reflecting their uses in the bathing process in the Roman
culture, from a cold area, to a warm room, to a hot room and then
finally to the piscine or pool.

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. Other courts were sometimes later added, which were
normally unroofed so as to serve as gardens. Multi-storey houses
called insulae, anticipated modern apartment buildings. These
buildings enjoyed privacy, just as the houses in Greece did, however
the facades of these buildings were not empty because the outer
rooms were let as shops. A third type of Roman dwelling was the
luxurious country villa built by wealthy citizens to escape the
congestion and squalor of the cities. These buildings had many of
the rooms, mainly the principal ones that enjoyed the beautiful
views of the surrounding countryside. It was in their houses that the
Romans first started to make strong use of imported marbles for
columns, for covering walls (with approx. 10mm sheets of polished
marble) and for pavements. When walls were not covered in marble
sheets, it was given various layers of stucco and then paintings or
decorations were applied to the ‘refined’ facet of the wall. Probably,
the most interesting type is the second because the paintings
started to imitate the reality on the outside of the walls (which
started approximately in the first century BC), giving new
dimensions and redefining the interior space of these houses.
Buildings had also balconies, that could be open or roofed, and in
streets there were also public fountains. Rome at this time had
quite a large population, which produced a large housing congestion
in the central part of the city, resulting in multi-storey buildings
constructed with timber frames and mud-brick walls. Because of
this, fires and fall downs of buildings were very common, until the
fire in 64 AD led to rebuilding in a more considerate way.

It was in this period that the most important works in civil and public
interest began to be built. These included several road networks,
bridges, aqueducts, new defence walls for expanding and new cities,
and various other public works that were needed to accommodate
for the expanding population needs of the empire. Town planning
followed the style of building of the typical Roman Military Camp.
Like military camps, they had two main roads that crossed the city
vertically and horizontally, called the Cardo and the Decumanus.
The bridges and the aqueducts are probable the biggest
achievement of Roman civil engineering. The architects of the time
understood how to transfer load through arches and build these
sometimes-enormous structures with considerably few material
(because of the void left by the opening of the arches). Aqueducts
are also very important because these show how the engineers of
the time solved the problem of the supply of water, by constructing
stone pipes over structures similar to bridges which served the
purpose of compensating for the contours of the ground so as to
finally achieve a proper angle of inclination so as for the water to
move by means of gravity from sources of water up in high regions
to the cities where water was needed.

Later Imperial Rome’s Architecture

There was a great sense of order in the late Imperial Roman

architecture. The innovations of the next century (50-140) were
mainly in how the interior was planned. We can fully appreciate this
by the domed interior of the Pantheon, which gives a whole different
perception of the interior of the building. No longer is a building
limited to 4 walls and a roof. The dome made it possible to cover a
space without the use of intermediate support, since in the dome,
every stone is important because all the stones together lock
themselves in place. The extension of vaults also helped in
redesigning the space and looks of interiors. These were mostly
experienced in public baths. However, today it is very difficult to
visualize the sort of impression these buildings would have implied
on people because a lot of things changed since then.

Moreover, in parallel to these developments, there were also other

developments in town planning and in the way houses were built.
Developments in housing included the planning of straight roads
forming rectangular areas reserved for building. To prevent fires,
principle walls were to be made of concrete and not more of timber.
Moreover, in these buildings we commonly see the use of the use of
the arch.