Roman Architecture

Weeks 1 & 2

Temple of Portunus
I signed up last autumn for an online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture. To my pleasant surprise its really fabulous. There is either a free option or $50 if you want to receive a certificate upon completion. Basically, it is an opportunity to virtually participate in a 3 credit hour Spring semester course, including some fantastic forum discussions with on site students and teaching assistants as well as moderators and online students around the world. There are lectures, homework, exams, the full experience of which I would like to share some of it with you!

Early Rome

When Rome was founded in the 8th century B.C.E., the Etruscans were still the most dominant culture on the peninsula, based out of Tuscany to the north. Before long the Greeks would begin to establish colonies to the south in Nea Polis (Naples) and on Sicily. The Romans were influenced by both cultures yet established themselves as unique. One way the Romans distinguished themselves was in their early temple architecture. We'll take the well preserved 1st century example of the Temple of Portunus on the Tiber river to illustrate this point.

Temple of Portunus plan
Etruscan temples were typically a masonry structure fronted by deep porticoes, sitting on high podiums, with a single stair oriented to a dominant façade. These features are often preserved by the Romans; however, the tripartite cella and a rather simple 'Tuscan' order of wood construction that allowed for wide intercolumniation typical of Etruscan design was eventually rejected.

Tetrastyle façade, Ionic order
Greek temples used the Doric or Ionic order, featured a single cella, and had narrower intercolumniation that was peripteral, in other words having supporting columns going around the entire temple. The Romans worked out a compromise, incorporating elements of both styles resulting in a temple design that was more Etruscan in plan but featured peripteral, engaged columns or pilasters resembling Greek prototypes in elevation.

Does New Technology Lead to Revolution or Revolution to New Technology?

Our initial assignment was to write a short essay considering whether the discovery of a new technology leads to the creation of new forms or conversely whether the desire to express something in a different way leads to the invention of a new medium. Below was my response:

I would venture that the modern Western perspective of the role technology in architecture and culture is fundamentally different than that of the Ancient Romans.

Illinois Institute of Technology
S.R. Crown Hall
A principal leader of the Modernist architectural movement, Mies van der Rohe, emphatically declared at an address in celebration of the addition to the Institute of Design to Illinois Institute of Technology that “Architecture depends on its time”, going on to state that his real hope would be that architecture and technology would “grow together, that someday the one be the expression of the other”. Certainly in his own work and teaching, Mies was a proponent of using technology (specifically modern concrete and steel) as a driving force in pushing the limits of structural possibility.

Sanctuary of:
Jupiter Anxur
1st century B.C.E.
 Everything I have studied and come to  understand of Roman architecture and culture has led me to the conclusion, that by contrast, the Romans understood architecture not as a temporal phenomenon but a locational one. That “locus” was Rome, in the sense of an actual place, likewise in the sense of a powerful culture. The use of technological innovations such as the arch, vault, dome and Roman concrete served as a physical representation of their profound sense of history and identity. If there was a revolution, it did not manifest itself as a radical rejection of historical precedent. Rather, what we see from the Romans is a deliberate, measured, incremental sophistication expanded upon over centuries, of which we today can appreciate as a harmonious legacy.

Weeks 3 & 4

House of Sallust
circa 100  B.C.E.
I signed up last autumn for an online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture. There are lectures, homework, exams, the full experience of which I would like to share some of it with you! The last couple of weeks we have been discussing Campania, the area around Mount Vesuvius whose devastating 79 C.E. eruption preserved so much of Ancient Rome's art and culture for us today. I'll first share a few thoughts on Roman painting styles and then conclude with my response to our second essay assignment: Should Rome Be an Artifact or a Living City?

Roman Painting Styles

Room of the Masks
circa 25 B.C.E.
The First Style of Roman wall painting was actually a Greek import. Popular during the 2nd century B.C.E. it featured a series of panels (socle, orthostats, isodomic blocks) surmounting a plinth and terminating above with a stringcourse and projecting cornice. All of this was realised in plaster relief and painted to resemble precious, imported marbles, an indication of sophisticated Hellenistic taste.

The Second Style was uniquely Roman and was typified by the introduction of architectural forms and the panorama. The panoramic scene might be either naturalistic or a fantastic stage set. A few of the finer examples such as at the 1st century B.C.E. House of Augustus are evidence that Roman artists were familiar with and occasionally employed linear perspective.
Red Room at Boscotrecase
circa 11 B.C.E.

If the previous styles might be what we think of as a faux finish and a trompe-l'œil mural, the Third Style makes no attempt to imitate materials or fool the eye. It is instead intended in its very design to appear strictly as decoration. Often it is characterized by highly attenuated colonettes and cornices that serve as devices to constrain an idyllic landscape not unlike a framed picture hung on a wall.

Ixion Room, Pompeii
circa 70 C.E.
All of this experience in fresco painting culminated in the Domus Aurea or "Golden House" of Nero. At the outset of construction Third Style painting was employed. However, the Master painter Fabullus developed a unique Fourth Style that seemed to combine elements from the previous styles that created a unique composition. This last style was emulated in Pompeii in the rebuilding efforts following the earthquake of 62 C.E. Imitation of marble was introduced in the plinth and socle resembling the First Style but simply painted instead of in relief. Substantive architectural elements were also reintroduced but as fragments and artifacts rather than logical compositions. Much of the framed decoration and free floating fantasy elements of the Third Style were maintained.

Should Rome Be an Artifact or a Living City?

Museum of the Ara Pacis
Unquestionably Rome today is a living, vibrant city largely due to its great architectural tradition, a conventionalized system of geometric proportion coupled with humanistic principles. Yet, the seat of the once mighty empire now appears the province, with the recent imposition of an unsympathetic, foreign Modernist style that threatens the architectural unity of the Eternal City.

Richard Meier's dour Museum of the Ara Pacis led the assault in 2005. There is nothing Roman about the building. Richard's signature over-sized museum: a blocky mass of travertine, glass and steel is completely indifferent to the function of a piazza the museum was meant to anchor. Its relation with the adjacent neoclassical churches of San Rocco and San Girolamo? Erecting a wall to obstruct their view!

MAXXI Museum
Deconstrutivist Zaha Hadid was featured recently in Steven Semes' blog "The View from Rome". The MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art quite literally cannibalizes the existing traditional architecture, a canvas of "rupture" and "transgression". No link to the traditions of Rome, no human scale, pure egotistical aggrandizement.

Must contemporary construction be incompatible with the historic urban fabric of Rome? Not at all! A distinction should be made between contemporary architecture and a Modernist architectural style. A fine  example is the bustling Richmond Riverside Development near London realized in the mid 1980's by architect Quinlan Terry in traditional architectural styles. Rome too must decide either to expand their legacy or permit their architecture be mummified as artifacts in a city museum of glass and steel.

Richmond Riverside

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


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.)

Weeks 9 & 10

Arch of Septimus Severus
Leptis Magna 
The online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture is coming to a conclusion. I've appreciated how the architectural development of Rome has been correlated to the political and cultural occurrences of the time. As Rome's ambitions grew and their Empire expanded they imposed their culture by means of military force on numerous conquered peoples of the Mediterranean and as far West as the Atlantic. Yet, at the same time these Roman provinces would begin to exert a collective cultural sway on Rome itself. A radical departure from the strictly traditional Roman architecture of Greek and Etruscan origins would occur during this period of expansion.

Rise of the Roman Baroque

Baroque is a term almost exclusively applied to the 17th century stylistic departure from the "Renaissance", the rebirth of the Classical, specifically the architecture of ancient Rome. I've come to realize that the introduction of Baroque forms can not be merely be attributed as a reaction against the constraints of the Classical, a predictable evolution in architecture or credited to the creative genius of a few artistic visionaries. An increasing number of Roman ruins were in fact being uncovered at this time both within Rome itself and among the far flung corners of the former empire. Much of this architecture was unquestionably what we would classify today as Baroque. I'll take this as a fine opportunity to explore features that characterize the Baroque by comparing Classical and 17th century examples.

St. Peter's Square

The accelerated curve of two foci with two corresponding radii. While ellipses and oval approximations became a fascination of 17th century design they certainly found their precedents in Roman Antiquity. Compare Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Baroque masterpiece at left with the Roman ruins of 2nd century Gerasa below.

Forum of Gerasa

Temple of Venus, Baalbek

Associated with the incorporation of ellipses was a general interest in the introduction of curvilinear movement. Francesco Borromini's façade of the church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is considered an icon of the Baroque, its serpentine entablature breaking with the Classical tradition. Nevertheless, we see several Roman examples manifesting a similar movement. A rather well preserved example is the Temple of Venus at Balek contrasts the concavity of the entablature with the convexity of the cella, again with concavity of the inset niches.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek
Colossal Orders

Bigger was better during the Renaissance Baroque. During this period massive façades were erected, the East front of the Louvre and the basilica at Saint Peter's being prominent examples. A solution often employed to conserve the system of proportion was a colossal order of columns that would break through two or more storeys to support the crowning entablature directly from the ground. It is interesting to note the close similarity of the façade of St. Peter's with that of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek some 1,500 years prior.

Saint Peter's Basilica

Broken Pediments

Al Khazneh, Petra

The pediment is nothing more than a formalized gable, the end of a pitched roof. By breaking it, there is a playful acknowledgement that the pediment is merely decorative, it serves no practical function. 17th century architects were having a lot of fun with broken pediments; however, they found numerous precedents from Roman Antiquity, not least of which is a collection of masterpieces in the tomb architecture at Petra.

Il Duomo di Siracusa, Sicily

Severan Forum Basilica

Neither Classical Roman architecture nor that of the Renaissance were timid about ornamentation. However, what distinguishes the Baroque periods is the tendency of enrichment to break free from formalized architectural structure. In extreme cases this serves to dematerialize major supportive elements. Compare the Severan Forum Basilica at Leptus Magna and our own Baroque Revival Congress Theatre in Chicago where in each case the pilasters are overwhelmed, scarcely recognizable as architectural forms.

Congress Theatre, Chicago

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