The Glory of Rome: Imperial Monumental Architecture

Right, I am back banging on about architecture. We left it on the Greeks last time, so it only makes sense to talk about the Romans a bit today! But today I am going to do something slightly different from last time. I will give you a run through the uses of Roman architecture and then I will talk about certain buildings which are renown and explain them from this architectural/historical point of view. Just to keep things interesting…!

So, the thing with Roman architecture is that it really evolves from its uses in Greek times, so these construction industry advancements are deployed in multitudes of ways. For the Romans a building had to comply with three principles: firmitas (how solid something is), utilitas (it must be functional) et venustas (but it also gotta be pretty). For this purpose, the individual architect gain more prestige in Romans, and this is also the time where the construction and decoration process of a building gets separated. For the purpose of decoration and statement-making, the Romans develop the idea of a main facade for a building: the face of the structure if you like. They also become obsessed with making huge things, not just buildings but sculptures as well. in this regards the borrowed a lot from the Egyptians Pharaohs who were up until this moment the key example of monumental and colossal art. And this is a tendency that we see from here on in nationalistic movements and revivals: think of all the nationalist, particularly fascist movements of the 19th and 20th century. I am sure you will notice they are inspired by Roman architecture a fair bit. From the point of view of structural and ornamental elements, we see both old and new things appearing. In terms of structure support we have walls, pillars and columns as well as midpoint arches. The style use in columns and capitals reflects new patterns: the still used the Greek orders, but they created new or altered these ones as we see in the Doric-Tuscan style and the composite which often involved the use of Ionic and Corinthian ornamental elements at combined.When creating roofs and ceiling, the Romans went further than the triangular and rectangular bases the Greeks were used to. It is thanks to them that we start seeing the development of more elaborate architraves and vaults, and on this they were particularly prolific as we see the creation of semi-spheferic, pointed quarter spheres, edged and barrel vaults.

The Romans did not keep their glorious architectural styles just for private building such as the domus and the insulae; they applied this to religious and political sites as well. Their temples imitate those of the Greeks but they move away from the rectangular shaped tier, and start creating completely circular colonnades. Their artistic aspirations are also visible in public buildings such as roads, bridges and aqueducts, baths, theatres and amphitheatres, but we also start seeing the triumphal arches and columns which again highlight these idea of imperialistic monumental ornamental commemorations.

Trajan's column
Trajan’s Column, Rome. I took this picture in 2008 in a trip of Italy that we did with school, so you know, a few years back. However, you get the sense of what i mean with monumental architecture for public uses – this is political propaganda.

Some of the best examples of these types of structures used throughout the Roman Empire you can find them, of course, in Rome. Just above we have Trajan’s column. This piece has traditionally been attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, who was a favourite of the emperor Trajan – he did a few works for him including, the column of course, Trajan’s bridge following his campaign in Dacia, and Trajan’s forum – (Good guy Trajan, giving us monumental architecture, roads, sewers, 3 months of gladiatorial games…devaluation of currency…the alimenta act for the welfare of the poor…Little knew the Dacians that their loss would bring such high stakes to the Empire, not just pretty buildings). In any case, this artefact is pretty impressive. Built in the high roman empire – completed in 113 AD – it manages to combine all of the arts in one. The column is made of 40 metres of solid marble, erected over a podium, decorated with a massive helical frieze (200 m ) going from its base to the capital; this was super innovative at the time. The frieze, of course, talks about the conquest of the Dacians, the glory of Rome and how cool Trajan was – if you gonna do it, go big: at the top, the pillar is crowned with a statue of the man and legend. I mean this is the ultimate example of firmitas, utilitas et venustas. This is also very noticeable in another structure seemingly erected during Trajan’s reign too, but much closer to his own homeland in Hispania. I am talking about the aqueduct that we have in Segovia, which is obviously a UNESCO heritage site.

I am sure you appreciate here the qualities that make this such a perfect example of the objective and purpose of Roman architecture. This structure is 818 metres long by 56 m high and it serve a public function: providing and transporting water for the city and the area. But the actual technique used is just as impressive as the sheer size of the thing itself: this is made out of square blocks of granite, without any mortar, and it is composed by 2 superposed  midpoint arch rows. For the Roman mind it is really the use of the space, and of this chunky material in such a graceful way and scale what makes it truly extraordinary. The perfect harmony obtained once away by the vertical and horizontal lines is something taken from the Greeks and their obsession with symmetry. But this building says more about Rome as a society that one might think. This is making a blatant statement of the power of Imperialism and the strength of the romanisation process in areas like Spain, it is telling us about Roman society being an urban community with high needs and demands – and of course, the thing those pieces of stone cannot talk to you about is all the slaves that worked in the construction of this building…

However, Rome starts struggling with one issue: religion. And it will be the rise of Christianity that will show us the new changes in architecture that start cropping up in Europe, but that, is another story…


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