Saturday, March 22, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 7 & 8

Trajan's Column
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 focusing on the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, great patrons of architecture at a time when Rome was at the peak of its power. We also received our most challenging assignment yet: To put ourselves in the place of an architect of ancient Rome competing for the major commission of a lifetime, to design and build a newly founded Roman city. To obtain the commission we must submit a proposal to the patron describing our city including drawings and a letter to the patron. I'll share what I submitted in conclusion.

Trajan 98 - 117 C.E.

Grandiosity. The most fitting word I can think to describe the architecture that Trajan would commission for Rome. The world had not seen anything like it. His first order of business was to have a forum built as large as all of the existing imperial fora combined. Though much of it was later destroyed and pillaged for marble, remarkably the famous Column of Trajan stands virtually intact. What a masterpiece! A visual "scroll" unfurls as a spiraling frieze recounting in relief the conquest of the Dacians, a people from modern day Romania who fiercely and nobly opposed the Roman conquest. There is a stairway inside that can still be climbed to the very top, a height of 125 feet, marking the amount of soil removed from the Quirinal Hill for Trajan to build his forum!

An extension of the forum and a remarkable project in its own right were the Markets of Trajan. The shear size and complexity of them makes it hard to believe it approaches 2,000 years. Serving as an ancient shopping mall it would have accommodated hundreds of vendors, the Via Condotti or 5th Avenue of its day.

Markets of Trajan

Hadrian 117 - 138 C.E.

Canopus, Hadrian's Villa
Rome could not have asked for a better architectural patron than Hadrian. He was an architect himself! Both contemporary critics and those of his day try to diminish him as an amateur; however, the attributed Temple of Venus and Roma as well as several of the projects at his sprawling villa give testimony of a gifted sense of design, combined with formal studies. Notice the use of the "Serliana" or "Palladian" opening, the original design informing these Renaissance architects who rediscovered this form some 1,400 years later.

However, the undisputed champion of Roman architecture, representing the triumph of Roman concrete and engineering skill is the Pantheon. What a remarkable accomplishment. Aside from a myriad of remarkable features there is the signature unreinforced concrete dome 142 feet across, the oculus 27 feet across and 7 1/2 feet thick at the opening. I can imagine as the barbarians descended on Rome burning and pillaging centuries later they stayed their hand from the torch at the sight of the Pantheon. Even they could appreciate the excellence, the sheer majesty of her.

The Pantheon

Design Your Own Roman City

It is with utmost humility before your divine majesty, Imperator Augustus, that I present before you these plans for a new Forum for the town of Luna. As I bear witness, your great building program has turned Rome into a symbol of greatness for the world to observe and you have instructed humble servants such as I to share the greatness of Rome throughout the provinces. Luna indeed, is a fine beneficiary of your benevolence for our fellow citizens diligently oversee the quarrying of the finest marble in service of the Republic.

The selection of a very healthy site is proposed, elevated from the river Macra, away from the marshes, closer to the marble quarries. Much thought was also given to the dangers of unfavorable winds from the sea and mountains. The Decumanus Maximus has been laid from Solanvs (east) to Favonivs (west), granting access to the forum through the precinct wall whilst the Cardo Maximus runs from Septentrio (north) to Avster (south) and lead to Suburbia. Concerning materials for the building works the province is richly blessed with cypress and fir producing timbers felled in autumn, suitable clays for brick making and the finest marble for the cooking of lime. Just the pit sand of Baiae is lacking for the Opus Reticulatum and
Caementicium (concrete) works should your excellence deems these plans worthy of your patronage.

Mercury has indeed blessed our people with a fine economy so a prostyle, tetrastyle, pseudoperipteral Templum to honor him is raised upon a grand Podium against the precinct wall of the Forum manifesting the symmetry of god and man, duly proportioned in its whole as in its members, of the Ionic order as befits the statesman of the gods. I have taken note in its placement the wise observations of your servant Vitruvius, "the temple and the statue placed in the cella face the western quarter of the sky. This will enable those who approach the altar with offerings or sacrifices to face the direction of the sunrise in facing the statue in the temple, and thus those who are undertaking vows look toward the quarter from which the sun comes forth, and likewise the statues themselves appear to be coming forth out of the east to look upon them as they pray and sacrifice."

The Basilica adjoins the Forum, has its breadth exposed to the southern sun and its entrance situated to avoid a direct wind, a suitable orientation so that the discomforts of inclement weather will in no way hinder the matters of the Republic. For the citizens both a Theatrum and Thermae has been included. The theater follows the Greek model of concentric circles as the wave of the voice like the wave of water emanates in similar fashion while a vaulted passage allow the Decumanus to pass through. The Palaestra and Natatio provide for vigorous exercise, Apodyteria for changing, and the requisite Tepidaria, Caldaria, and Frigidaria.

May the gods continue to bless your valor and noble policies.
Your humblest servant Marcus Julius Patricius

DCCLXVI  (14 C.E.)

Contributed by Patrick Webb 


  1. Do a search for the Astoria Column in Astoria, OR. It was built to commemorate the founding of the west and Lewis & Clark's journey to the Pacific. It is based on the Column of Trajan. The winding scroll is done in scraffito instead of carved stone.

  2. Very nice reference! I'd never heard of the Astoria Column, thank you. Below is a reference: