Ancient Rome (A Global History of Architecture)

Around 200 BCE – 300 CE three empires dominated the world history. The Han dynasty ruled China, Rome conquered most of Alexander’s territory and the Olmecs and Zapotecs achieved great cultural advances in Mexico. All three perfected the grid, although Rome, because of its topography, wasn’t as precise as it was in other cities…

Rome used architecture as a tool of politics and ruling, that’s why each ruler kept the progression of architecture going. The empire actually created a brand that offered the Roman way of living as a whole architectural package. The architecture became more civic. Romans contributed greatly to construction techniques, using arches, vaults, and concrete construction. The priority for law in Rome also showed in its architecture. They made use of the previous culture of Etrucans, borrowing religious practices, laws and architecture. Most of the buildings built in this sense had a lateral tripartite cella and axial stairs. The Roman Forum differed from the Greek agora because unlike agora’s openness the forum was tightly enclosed by large colonnaded buildings in about a third of the area. The Romans learned orthogonal urban design from Greek colonies. If topography permitted and there was no significant previous settlements , Roman planners usually founded their cities on a cross-axis of streets. Also, continuing to preserve this Roman “brand” the public buildings and spaces became propaganda for Pax Romana (Roman Peace).

More than any previous culture, Romans relied on architecture and urbanism to control space, and, by extension, determine people’s behavior in it.

Most of the findings we have about Roman architecture and people’s social life, are coming from Pompeii. Even though the explosion ruined the city, it also made it stay under volcanic ash for centuries which was a great way of preserving anything. The city pattern of Pompeii is a mixture of local Oscan, Etruscan, Greek and Roman ideas. The plan is composed of long orthogonal blocks. All Popeian streets were paved with raised sidewalks and even had additional stepping stones for people to pass the street when there was water washing the street down as each block had a neighbor fountain. The public space Forum of Pompeii showed the Roman preference for axial orientation. Roman civic centers like Pompeii always included a forum, a temple and a basilica. They made use of infamous Vitruvius’ proposals, such as the temples’ depth being twice its width again with axial stairs. The Roman architects followed easily reproduced standard models which is a different approach than Greeks. 

Rome is famous for its baths and there is a reason for it. The baths of Rome was a part of a very important civic culture. It was not only consisted of multiple baths that all had different heat and purposes and spaces for sport activities it was also a social structure where Romans came after a day of work.



The Roman theaters had a different architectural approach than the Greek ones. Instead of inserting the theaters into the sloping sites, Romans built more enclosed and monumental theaters using arches and concrete vaults. The Romans invented a new form of theater for gladiatorial contests and other battles: the amphitheater. The amphitheater was two theaters joined at the end to form an ellipse. They held from 15,000 to 50,000 people. It was also mirroring brutality in Rome’s military campaigns. The most famous and the biggest one of these is the Colosseum. It was built mostly of concrete vaults and was the biggest structure of the empire in terms of mass.

Domus and Insula

Domus, the Roman house was the traditional example of Roman resdential architecure. In Rome only the rich living on the hilltops could afford to live in a domus. It was consisting of rooms introverted to the garden in the middle. This integration of natural elements into the design of the dwelling is a rare occasion in ancient architecture. As Pompeii grew larger in population these houses started forming into a multiple-family dwelling type.


The rich of Rome would not show off their money by destroying the order of Rome but rather built villas outside of the city. Villas were typically repeating the domus type but in a much larger scale and usually with more breath-taking and natural vistas.

There was another dwelling type that developed with the cities getting more crowded. Insula type was a multilevel apartment block developed from the simple shop with an attic room and several stories. They were usually constructed with mud bricks or half timber with wooden floors, stairs and ceilings.

After big fires burning the city down Romans started building fireproof apartments with the new technology of concrete. Because of these layers of dwellings in different times the mother city Rome could not have a strict gridal city plan.

As empires came into ruling and built new structures celebrating themselves and the gods,the structures started to get bigger in scale, grow in numbers and started to have a diversity in their materials. But one emperor, made the biggest impact on both the empire and architecture. Hadrian, who had great knowledge of architecture and many other subjects built Partheon. The Partheon combined Hadrian’s desire to assimilate the values of the past while pushing the limits of concrete.  The domed temple of Partheon  had a occulus at the top which is both the only light source giving the place dramatic lighting, and was a way of constructing the structure more stable. As the mass got harder to carry at the top of the dome, this opening removed the load at the most critical part.



Hadrian assembled materials and ideas from various parts of the world just like the Roman empire absorbing other cultures and uniting them.


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