History The Ancient World

Monumental Roman Architecture

Monumental Roman Architecture

The Egyptians, Persians, Etruscans, (1) and Greeks all had monumental architecture. Indeed, Greek- and even Etruscan-style construction were predominant predecessors to that of the Romans for the greater part of the Mediterranean world in the early 5th century BCE.

Yet, Rome approached its architecture as “an honour, and almost an obligation, to adorn the splendor of their age and country,” (2) reflecting the “practical character, restless energy and organizational mindset of its creators.” (3)

I will expand on the particulars of monumental Roman architecture, discussing origins and evolution, materials, and key structures such as temples, theaters and amphitheaters, triumphal arches, baths, and basilicas.

To understand the evolution of colossal Roman architecture, one must look to its origins; that is, such as the classical orders championed by the Greeks: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

The Corinthian was particularly favored in Rome (4) for its intricacy and beauty and headed the roman orders, which included Tuscan and Composite in addition to the classical capitals.

The Tuscan was a form of the original Doric column but “with a smaller capital, more slender shaft without flutes, and a moulded [sic] base” (5) while the Composite consisted of the “volute of the Ionic order…[and] the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian.” Interestingly, even when there was no longer a structural use for them, columns continued to be assembled for their traditional and familiar look and simply functioned as pure decorations. (6)

Orders of Columns in Classical Architecture

Etruscan influence was absorbed in Rome through the use of hydraulics and important building techniques it adopted to erect arches, vaults, and domes. The basic prime vaulting techniques used by the Romans in conjunction with arches were the barrel vault, groin vault, (7) and ribbed vault.

“A natural development of the vault was the dome, which enabled the construction of vaulted ceilings and the roofing of large public spaces such as the public baths and basilicas.” (8) Because of irregular ground plans, multifaceted forms of domes were a characteristic of Roman architectural design. The mastery of these Etruscan techniques, “further enhanced by their development of concrete” allowed the Romans to bridge space when creating monuments.

Prior to the widespread use of concrete after 273 BCE, the earliest Roman edifices were typically made of a type of volcanic rock called tuff (or tufa), locally-found stone, and brick.

The spread of the empire through several conquests somewhat facilitated the acquisition of other types of secondary materials such as chalk, wood, ceramics, and metal.

Marble (9) was only ever scarcely used for facing, mosaics, or other ornamental purposes owing to the high cost of importation.

Regarding one type of monumental structure, the Roman temple entailed four main units: the cella, portico, colonnade, and pronaos.

The cella, the temple’s main enclosed room, contained “an image of the deity to whom that temple was dedicated and a small altar where people would pray or worship.” (10) Behind this room, there were generally several smaller rooms that were used as storage for the various equipment and offerings.

Perhaps even more important than this core room, was the architectural focus on the front entrance.

The front porch, or the portico, was often as long as the cella and “almost always featured a row of columns,” (10) called a colonnade, ahead of an open space known as the pronaos.

While the Etruscans favored a tetra-style portico (having four columns), Greek and Roman architecture sought harmony and balance and thus boasted ideal proportions and ratios with a hexa-style portico (11) (having six columns); this helped the Romans ensure an equilibrium between the cella and the rest of the building.

Maison Carree Temple
Maison Carrée Temple in Nîmes, France

The Roman theatre unsurprisingly took after the Greek version, but presented a semicircular orchestra made whole using stone. Additionally, the Romans supplemented with a customary, highly intricate scaenae frons (stage building) “which incorporated different levels of columns, projections, pediments, and statues.” (5)(12)

Oddly passionate for enclosing spaces, some theatres were often either partially or completely roofed in wood or had canvas awnings.

Amphitheaters (13) weren’t much different, displaying “a highly decorative exterior, seats set over a network of barrel vaults, and underground rooms below the arena floor to hide people, animals, and props until they were needed in the spectacles.” (5)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a triumphal arch as “a monumental structure pierced by at least one lofty and typically arched passageway and usually commemorating a notable victory, person or event.” (14)

Roman arches (15) were “usually rectangular constructions made up of a single, or possibly, multiple arches topped with an attic, which acted as a platform for the statuary that would sit on top…” (16)

The Etruscans built monumental single bay arches that spanned their roads as gateways to their cities and the Greeks had long used the round-topped arch and a type of attic as separate architectural elements. However, Rome was responsible for the creation of this particular type of monument during the republic, in the 2nd century BCE; they would grow in popularity during the imperial period.

Arch of Constantine
Arch of Constantine in Rome, Italy

Because pipes in homes were taxed according to their size, people went to public baths for their personal hygiene. The Roman Bath showed not only architectural skills but engineering ingenuity.

To supply the public baths with enough water, 640 kilometers worth of aqueducts had to be exploited. A furnace then heated up the water and a “hypocaust system carried the heat around the complex.” (17)

The compound generally consisted of four areas: the frigidarium (a cold bath), the tepidarium (a warm bath), the caldarium (a hot bath), and the palaestra (an exercise area).

Basilicas were first used as public meeting places for legal courts and business matters, though would later on be synonymous with churches as Roman Christians had no places to meet and worship and would therefore, utilize basilicas.

Naturally, concrete allowed for extravagant and beautiful basilicas (18) to be constructed. Colonnades were put in place to create aisles inside the building and to add strength to allow for a second story. The center aisle was commonly a bit wider in order to allude to a sense of openness. At one or both ends of the building, a semi-circular domed area called an apse, usually containing a raised platform called a dais, could be found. These were made specially to encompass either a statue or the seat of the ruling judge.

Expectedly, these buildings were commonly centrally-located in every Roman city.

St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy

Though the Romans are classically known as warriors with smart political inclinations, architecture was always an underplayed strength of the Roman society.

Outside influence inspired constructions, inventions advanced progress, buildings were erected, and methods were created that would affect architectural designs for centuries thereafter. Chief materials used, such as concrete, still dominate the architectural world today.

All sorts of Roman designs, from temples to triumphal arches (19) can be seen in various continents as well. Rome may have fallen, but its legacy has stood the test of time.


(1) The Etruscans were an Italian culture in Tuscany and powerful kingdom when the Latin tribes were building Rome.

(2) Edward Gibbon and David Womersley, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Penguin Books USA Incorporated, 1776), 72.

(3) Encyclopedia of Art and Design, “Roman Architecture (400 BCE-400 CE),” Classical Architecture Series,http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/architecture/roman.htm

(4) See the Temple of the Sun in Rome, dedicated to Sol Invictus in 270 CE, for an example of the Corinthian order.

(5) Mark Cartwright, “Roman Architecture,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu/Roman_Architecture/

(6) See the Pantheon in Rome, built by Emperor Hadrian in 126 CE, for an example of purely decorative use of columns.

(7) See the Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius in Rome, built between 308 and 312 CE, for an example of groin vaulting.

(8) Encyclopedia of Art and Design, “Roman Architecture.”

(9) See the Temple of Jupiter Stator in Rome, built by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus in 146 BCE, for an example of an all-marble building.

(10) Christopher Muscato, “The Roman Temple: Architecture, Parts & Facts,” Study, http://study.com/academy/lesson/the-roman-temple-architecture-parts-facts.html

(11) See the Maison Carrée Temple in Nîmes, France, for an example of the Roman hexa-style portico.

(12) See the Roman Theatre of Orange in Vaucluse, France, built in the early 1st century CE, for an example of a lavish scaenae frons.

(13) See the Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome, built by the Emperor Vespasian and Emperor Titus between 72 and 80 CE, for an example of a typical Roman arena.

(14) “triumphal arch,” Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/help/citing-the-dictionary

(15) See the Arch of Constantine in Rome, for an example of a Roman triumphal arch.

(16) Sarah Midford, “Roman Imperial Triumphal Arches,” Journal of the Classical Association of Victoria 27 (2014): 11-26.

(17) Chris Truman, “Roman Baths,” The History Learning Site, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/ancient-rome/roman-baths/

(18) See St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, for an example of a Roman basilica.

(19) See the Arch of Corral de Bustos in Argentina for an example of Rome’s far-reaching architectural influence.

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