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The history of Roman architecture has its roots in Grecian and Etruscan architecture. While influenced to some extent by the Etruscan civilization that preceded theirs on the Italian mainland, the Romans considered Grecian culture as the acme of perfection and borrowed liberally from it. In the early days of the Roman Republic, Grecian artisans were engaged to construct Roman buildings in the Greek manner. Distinctly Roman elements meant for distinctly Roman purposes began to appear in the later days of the Republic, around the 1st century B.C., but Roman architecture really came into its own in the Augustan Age and onwards. Emperor Augustus famously claimed to have turned Rome from a city of bricks into a city of marble.
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Why Roman Architecture Developed & Flourished
The Italian mainland was rich in resources that could be used as building materials. The travertine hard stone and the Carrara white marble were readily available, as was clay for bricks and pozzolana sand and lava for concrete. Roman colonies in Greece, Spain, Gaul, Asia and North Africa supplied marbles, alabaster and other materials.
Unlike the Greeks, who seemed mainly interested in temple, theater and stadium architecture of comparatively small scale, the Romans had a penchant for imposing buildings and structures that would reflect the prestige, might and wealth of the Roman Empire.
Such buildings and structures, erected in every corner of the Empire, were also meant to serve as unifying symbols for Roman citizens.
Roman roads and bridges were needed to connect different parts of the the Empire. This facilitated governance of Roman territory as well as the expansion of the Empire.
Roman aqueducts were needed to supply water to the cities.
Roman cities served as administrative hubs throughout the Empire. The cities usually had a forum and a basilica at the center and a protective city wall.
Roman cities were crowded and it was necessary to address the issue of housing the urban population and maintaining order. The Romans built multi-storied tenement buildings known as insulae to house the middle and lower classes; the upper classes lived in city palaces and country villas.
Public places like the basilica, baths, libraries, temples and amphitheaters were created, respectively, to serve as administrative and public meeting places, to promote public hygiene, to pay homage to the Roman gods, to serve as a repository of knowledge, and to provide public entertainment in the form of gladiatorial combats, animal fights, dramatic performances, etc.
To decorate public places and residences, the Romans created a variety of mosaics and murals.
Triumphal arches were erected to commemorate Roman military victories.
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Features of Roman Architecture
Concrete: By perfecting the use of concrete, the Romans were able to construct tall, strong structures, some of which are still standing today and in quite good condition. Concrete in Roman times was made by mixing lime mortar, sand and stones with water; aside from concrete's strength, the ease of transport of these materials made concrete construction viable. Reusable wooden frames were used to set the concrete in the manner required, and once set the concrete surface was often covered with plaster or stone panels.
Arches, Vaults and Domes: The Romans wanted vast indoor spaces in which large numbers of people could comfortably congregate in, and so, to create these large unobstructed spaces, they replaced the old post and lintel system with the arch system. Using arches, barrel vaults, groin vaults and domes, they were able to roof large public buildings like public baths, basilicas and temples.
Columns: Columns were used both as functional and decorative architectural elements. Columns regularly featured in Roman temples and basilicas. In Roman temples, unlike the Greek ones, columns did not go around the temple's main chamber; they were embedded in the walls along the sides and back of the chamber. The Romans used the Greek orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, as well as the wholly Roman Tuscan and Composite orders.
Elaborate Interior Decoration: This was particularly prevalent in late Roman architecture. The decoration was usually non-structural and veered towards the ornate.
Mosaics: Mosaics were made of color stone chips set in cements and were used to decorate a wide range of private and public buildings. The Romans created intricate geometric designs, portraits, scenes and so on.
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Examples of famous Roman architecture
- Forum of Augustus, Rome (2nd century B.C.)
- Pont du Gard Aqueduct (19 B.C., or 1st century A.D.)
- Roman Bridge at Merida (1st century A.D.)
- The Aqueduct at Nimes (1st century A.D.)
- Theater at Orange in Provence (1st century A.D.)
- The Maison Carree at Nimes, Provence (1st century A.D.)
- The Treasury at Petra (2nd century A.D.)
- The Colosseum in Rome (70-80 A.D.)
- Arch of Titus (c. 81 A.D.)
- Arch of Trajan (114-117 A.D.)
- The Pantheon in Rome (126 A.D.)
- The Baths of Caracalla (211-217 A.D.)
- The Basilica of Constantine, Rome (306-310 A.D.)
- Aqueduct of Segovia (1st-2nd Century C.E.)
- Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus Aqueducts in Rome
- Roman City wall in Autun, Central France (built in the Augustan Age, 27 B.C.-14 A.D.)
- The Baths of Diocletian (298-306 A.D.)
- Temple of Fortuna Virilis, Rome (1st century B.C.)
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman architecture gradually faded out of the picture. Interest was revived during the Italian Renaissance, when all things Greek and Roman were once more in vogue, and the Western world saw a resurgence in classical architecture.
The term 'classical architecture', while referring to Ancient Grecian and Ancient Roman architecture, is also used to describe later architecture, particularly from the Renaissance, Georgian England, Napoleonic France and more modern times, that has been based on or influenced by Greco-Roman ideals.
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Notable Examples of Revived Classical Architecture
- Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe, commissioned in 1806 and completed in 1836.
- Cass Gilbert's Washington Supreme Court building, completed in 1935.
- The Washington Square Arch in New York City, derived from the Roman Triumphal Arch.
- Washington Monument in Baltimore, based on the Column of Trajan.
- By Martin Falbisoner (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- The History of Fine Arts in India and the West, Edith Tomory, Orient Longman, 1989
- Forum Agustus CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- By Rik Schuiling (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- The History of Art, Hamlyn, 1985