Friday, May 16, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 11 & 12

Dancing Faun, Pompeii
The online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture is finally over and
done and what an informative course it was! The fact that a course of this depth and quality is offered free to the public is amazing. I'm looking to enroll for another course soon on Greek and Roman mythology. I soon recognized in this course that it was impossible to separate the study of Roman architecture from their mythology. The elaborate ornamentation of Ancient Rome was rich in symbolism. Roman ornament not mere decoration but an act of sympathetic communication collectively understood by a cultured community. I've decided to conclude the series by highlighting a few examples of Roman ornamentation, a pervasive theme throughout the course.


Faunus was the Roman god of the forest and the fields. Perhaps more intimately important to a Roman proud of his history, Faunus was said to have been an ancient king of the Latins, a forefather of Rome's founders Romulus and Remus. The patrician villa, the "House of the Faun" in Pompeii is so named for the dancing Faun excavated there.


Perhaps I took my history lesson from Clash of the Titans as a child but I always thought of Medusa as a hideous monster. The truth is the gorgons were seen as simultaneously endowed with beauty and terror, the writhing snakes of their hair, a symbol of fertility. Furthermore, I was really impressed to learn that the word "medusa" literally means "protector". The head of the Medusa was utilized as a symbol of royal "aegis", shield or protection.

Arcade of the Severan Forum, Leptis Magna


Black Room, Boscotrecase

Swans were associated particularly with the god Apollo and are the subject of a number of legends of the metamorphosis of life, death and rebirth. Apollo was the patron god of the first emperor Augustus and his daughter Julia had swans for decoration at her villa in Boscotrecase.



Sacrificial Instruments

Ritual animal sacrifice was a major occupation of Roman religion. The blood, innards and organs were offered to the gods whilst the meat of the animals was shared communally. Only a flawless specimen was chosen and had to be quickly, cleanly dispatched. A number of Roman temple friezes record various implements utilized. In this example we see a priestly helmet, whip, pitcher, knife, libation dish and axe surrounded by two bucrania or ox skulls.

Temple of Divine Vespasian, Rome


Temple of Diana, Jerash
The acanthus plant was long held as a symbol of life, rebirth and immortality. That is quite understandable as, although attractive, the acanthus is really a weed that is hard to exterminate in its native climate. The acanthus leaf was developed as an ornamental motif for foliated scroll work and notably the Corinthian capital. Vitruvius relays the legendary origin of a young maiden upon whose grave a votive basket with some her personal possessions was left, covered with a roof tile. An acanthus plant sprung up around it, creating a beautiful effect noticed by the famous Greek sculptor Callimachus which provided him inspiration for invention of the Corinthian capital.

Contributed by Patrick Webb 


  1. Just looked at the egg and dart of the temple of Vespasian - I thought I was being put to the test with the bit I'm carving at the moment...

  2. I agree Tom, the undercarving and depth revealed by the broken nests, darts...pretty bloody amazing...