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A Guide to Classical Roman Architecture

Colosseum in Roman Classical Roman Architecture
The Roman Colosseum. Photo by Diliff (CC BY-SA 2.5)
The Style Is Best Known For
  • The Pantheon in Rome
  • The Colosseum in Rome
  • The buildings of Pompeii
What and Where?

Classical Roman architecture can be found all over the Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. (Click here for a map of the Roman Empire on Smarthistory). Building types include basilicas (public gathering spaces), triumphal arches, amphitheaters, private homes, temples, bridges, baths, and palaces. A few are have survived completely intact, mainly because they were adapted for later, Christian uses. Classical Roman architecture was built for about a millennium starting around 500 BCE.

Pantheon Rome Classical Roman Architecture
The Pantheon in Rome, early 2nd century CE, is an example of a classical building that has been well preserved because it was converted into a Christian church. Photo by Martin Olsson (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Key Features
  • Architecture was often designed on a very large scale.
  • Many similar elements to classical Greek architecture, including the classical orders.
  • Building materials include marble, stone, concrete, brick, and stucco.
  • Frequent use of arches
  • Vaults and domes
  • Decoration includes relief sculpture, fresco (on the interior), and colored marble.

Ancient Rome began in 509 BCE as a republic governed by a senate of adult male citizens. This ended in 31 BCE, when Augustus proclaimed himself emperor. He ushered in the Roman Empire and two hundred years of relative peace. The massive empire endured for a total of four-and-a-half centuries. It eventually began to collapse due to internal tensions and split into an eastern and western empire in the fourth century CE. The western half was overrun by invaders from the north and officially ended in 476 CE. This began the so-called dark ages of western Europe. The eastern half, known as the Byzantine Empire, thrived for many centuries longer.

Arch of Titus Classical Roman Architecture
The Arch of Titus in Rome, c.81 CE. Photo by Alexander Z. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Underlying Ideas
  • The Romans learned about ancient Greece architecture through Hellenization and used Greek architectural ideas as their own jumping-off point.
  • They also picked up ideas from the Etruscans who previously inhabited Rome. You can learn about Etruscan civilization at Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  • The development of concrete changed everything. Concrete is lighter and more versatile than other building materials. It can take on many different shapes and doesn’t require as much support as stone does.
  • Classical Roman architecture was the first to use the arch, another game changer. An arch transfers all of its weight to its supporting columns, so there doesn’t need to be any wall between the columns. This means that buildings using arches can have more windows and larger uninterrupted interior spaces than those with flat roofs on supports (post-and-lintel construction).
  • Like the Greeks, the ancient Romans placed a lot of importance on worshipping their gods.* They built temples and other structures dedicated to them.
  • Commissioning major architectural works was a good way for Roman Emperors to demonstrate wealthy, power, and glory. The iconography of their commissions often aimed to legitimize the reigns of those who had acquired power through conflict (as many of them did).
  • Colonization spread Roman architecture far and wide, since Roman colonies got suites of Roman-style buildings.
  • Romans loved a good spectacle – in a building, an entertainment, anything.

*By the end of the Roman Empire, Christianity was the official religion. We’ll talk about early Christian art and architecture separately.

Pont du Gard Classical Roman Architecture
The Pont du Gard, an ancient (1st century CE) Roman aqueduct in France. Photo by Benh LIEU SONG (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Why You Should Care

Like the ancient Greek from which it began, classical Roman architecture has had a lasting impact on western architecture. If you want to understand pretty much anything that’s happened through to the present day, this is a good place to start. Well-known buildings and forms directly influenced by classical Roman architecture include:

  • The Arc de Triomphe in Paris
  • Sports and concert arenas like Madison Square Garden
  • The United States Capital in Washington D.C.
  • St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (see Renaissance Architecture)
  • Notre Dame in Paris and Christian churches in general (see Gothic Architecture)
  • Pretty much anything with a domed roof
  • Anything made of concrete (though the recipe for concrete was lost and had to be reinvented).

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