Saturday, March 15, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 5 & 6

Cornice fragment from
Temple of Venus Genetrix
I signed up last autumn for an online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture. The last couple of weeks we have been discussing how Rome politically transformed from a Republic into an Empire and the significant implications this had for its architectural development. It was always so difficult to recall the various emperors and when they ruled; however, tying them to innovations in construction and well known monuments make it much easier to remember. We'll cover one dictator, 8 emperors and about 150 years in this review.

Julius Caesar 49 - 44 B.C.E.

In the year 63 B.C.E. Julius Caesar campaigned fiercely for and seized the highest religious office, that of Pontifus Maximus. With his ascension to dictator in 49 B.C.E. he effectively became both the head of state and of religion, a precedent that would continue throughout Roman Imperial times. One of his first architectural commissions was the Forum of Julius anchored by a temple dedicated to Venus Genetrix, the goddess of motherhood and domesticity.

Augustus 27 B.C.E. - 14 C.E.

Procession scene on the
  Ara Pacis Augustae
Caesar's posthumously adopted son and eventual successor, Octavius took on the name and title of Augustus Imperator, the first Emperor of Rome. He followed his grand uncle's example by building his own forum, the Forum of Augustus, anchored by a temple dedicated to Mars Ultor or "Mars the Avenger". The capitals of the temple served as one of the finest examples of the Corinthian order developed by the Romans that would be used as a precedent in their later works and again much later during the Renaissance.  The historian Suetonius quotes Augustus as claiming to have, "found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble." It was in fact under his rule that marble from Luna, present day Carrera, was significantly exploited for many projects including the aforementioned Temple of Mars Ultor and the incredibly preserved Ara Pacis monument which celebrates the subsequent peace ushered in by Augustus' significant military conquests.

Tiberius 14 - 37 C.E.

Villa Jovis, Isle of Capri
Although Tiberius would make some contributions to temple building and civic architecture he manifested a
distinct preference for the country life. So much so that he essentially moved to the isle of Capri, establishing the first Imperial villa, a private estate from which he ran the empire.

Caligula 37 - 41 C.E.

Caligula did have a reputation as a wanton, hedonistic, irresponsible emperor. He took Tiberius' shift toward private architecture to the extreme, building one villa after another. This directly led to his reign coming to a swift end by assassination. Nevertheless, he did commission two major aqueducts into the city of Rome. Also, during his rule tufa and pumice began to be incorporated as aggregates for a "lightweight" Roman cement that would open up architectural possibilities for vaults and domes.

Aqua Claudia

Claudius 41 - 54 C.E.

Porta Maggiore
Now we arrive at my personal favourite, the late blooming Claudius. He didn't become emperor until 50 years of age and was only chosen after the assassination of Caligula because he had a terrible stammer. The Praetorian guard and others mistakenly assumed he was dimwitted and would be easy to control. In fact, Claudius had spent all those years in scholarly studies: history, antiquarianism, linguistics. He had written histories on Rome and Etruria, was the last known Roman scholar to be able to read and write Etruscan and proposed additional letters to the Roman alphabet that were adopted upon his becoming emperor. 

Claudius also had an interest in architecture and civic architecture specifically. He commissioned an amazing harbor to be constructed at the mouth of the Tiber river, at the town of Portus. "Porta" is Latin for "door" or "gate" and the town of Portus was so named as the Tiber river was considered the symbolic "gateway" to Rome. This is how the word "port" arrives to English today, meaning a constructed harbor. Heavy rustication contrasted with delicately carved elements typified public works under his rule, perhaps denoting a nostalgia for an Etruscan past.

Nero 54 - 68 C.E.

Octagonal room, Domus Aurea
With notorious Nero the party began anew. He began a campaign of building palatial complexes in the heart of Rome. His initial project, the Domus Tranistoria, burnt to the ground together with a large residential section of the city. After the fire, Nero appropriated the entire Esquiline hill, a good portion of the Palantine and Caelian hills for a total area of about 300 acres for himself. Several grandiose projects would arise from the ashes, the most of ostentatious of which was the Domus Aurea or "Golden House". This palace was the most ambitious construction work in Rome until that time. The walls abandoned the vulnerable opus incertum construction in favor of the more fire resistant opus latericium, brick facing over Roman concrete. This substrate was in turn clad with marble or rendered with lime stucco often to be finished in buon fresco. The full potential of concrete was being explored in the "Octagonal room". The departure from a rectilinear plans combined with the domed roof and huge oculus placed more emphasis on volumetric space and illumination. 

Vespasian 69 - 79 C.E.

Colosseum groin vaults
With the forced suicide of Nero, the Claudian line of emperors came to an end. After some civil strife, Vespasian would establish the subsequent Flavian line. He was quick to make amends with the people by initiating a popular campaign of public construction, the most notable of which was the Flavian amphitheatre better known as the Colosseum. The building is truly a wonder, elliptical in plan, stacked annular vaulting all in concrete. The annular vaults were crossed by vaults leading to the interior creating the arcades around the structure. The intersection produces "groin vaults", the intersection of two barrel vaults and the first known use of this system. 
Colosseum façade

Also of significant architectural interest is the hierarchical arrangement of the Classical orders on the façade: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns are placed as a system one surmounted above the other. They serve no structural purpose as the load is carried entirely by the concrete system of vaulting. However, they visually reinforce the sense of vertical support and adorn and refine the façade with a logical system of proportion. The more geometric, austere Doric columns rest below, terminating with slender, delicate Corinthian pilasters at the very top. This precedent of superimposition of the orders continued to be used from antiquity through the Renaissance and into our time.

Titus 79 - 81 C.E.

Titus was best known for his conquest of Jerusalem, as a Roman general in 70 C.E. He also commissioned a magnificent public building, the first of the imperial bath houses, the so called "Thermae Titi" or Baths of Titus. Though only fragments survive today, enough of the building was remaining in the 16th century for Andrea Palladio to accurately survey and record the plan which made even more elaborate use of groin vaulting than the Colosseum. The famous triumphal "Arch of Titus" commemorating his victory in Jerusalem was actually erected in his honour by his brother and successor, Domitian.

Forum Transitorium
Domitian 81 - 96 C.E.

The last of the Flavian line, Domitian was an omnivore for architecture, commissioning his own grand palace, a new forum and an incredible stadium. A little known treasure is the Forum Transitorium. The entablature of the colonnade projects and recedes to form bays in a rhythmic pattern that conveys a movement and vitality that would be once again explored in the 17th century Baroque.

The "Circus Agonalis" or stadium of Domitian must have been a wonder with the arena floor at over 700 feet in length and the seats rising to 100 feet above. Not much is left of the structure; however, the footprint of the arena is occupied by the lovely Piazza Navona, one of the most cherished gathering places in Rome.

Piazza Navona

Contributed by Patrick Webb 


  1. Great piece there Patrick! Hopefully it will help me to remember more of that succession. Interesting that Vespasian died the same year that Pompeii was buried by Vesuvius. Ves-Ves. Always marvel at that fantastic bit of entablature from the temple of Vespasian too. The other night we walked by the top end of the Stadium of Domitian and there is a little museum with some excavated parts of the entry. Check that out some day. Also today we toured the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne, whose curved facade is said to follow the curve of the bottom end of the stadium. Please feel free to continue this one with Trajan, Hadrian etc.

  2. Thanks Steve. Loving your posts!
    For everybody else, Steve is in Rome right now giving a daily account of all the lusciousness he is uncovering: