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Ancient Roman Architects

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Romans were obsessed with building, so architects played a major role in Roman society. In this lesson, we'll focus on a few major Roman architects and see how they contributed to this ancient civilization.

Architecture in Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans were pretty skilled at a few things. They figured out how to make a successful republic and were prolific builders who filled their world with roads, aqueducts, temples, and public buildings on a size and scale never before seen. So, engineers, land surveyors, and architects (which were essentially one-in-the-same) were pretty important people. So, let's get to know a few of the people who literally built ancient Rome.

Vitruvius

Any list of Roman architects has to begin with a single name: Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Vitruvius was not just a Roman architect, he was the Roman architect. So, what made Vitruvius so great? Well, Vitruvius was the architect of Julius Caesar from 58 to 51 BCE. Not only did he build several structures, but he also traveled extensively around the Mediterranean and studied architecture from a theoretical perspective. The result was a major text entitled De Architectura, written between 30 and 20 BCE.

De Architectura was the first major Roman treatise on architecture, and in it Vitruvius tackles several issues. For one, he outlined the architectural styles of the Greeks, and organized them into what we call the Greek orders of architecture. He discussed building in terms of math and science, as well as philosophy, arts, and social welfare. He saw architecture as a unification of arts and sciences, in which the final product could help create a more ideal society.

Most famously, perhaps, Vitruvius outlined the elements of architectural theory, starting with the three elements of a good building: stability, usefulness, and beauty. We call these the Vitruvian Triad. Vitruvius' works are the best source we have on ancient architecture. He essentially founded the theoretical approach to architecture, solidified it as an academic and artistic career in Rome, and helped define the foundations for Western architecture still embraced by architects today.

Apollodorus of Damascus

After Vitruvius, there were many architects who helped Rome grow. Only one, however, can really be said to rival Vitruvius's fame. Apollodorus of Damascus was a 2nd century CE architect from Damascus, then part of the Roman Empire (today part of Syria). Apollodorus was the favored architect of the emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 CE. Under Trajan, Rome stretched its imperial borders further than ever before. Trajan celebrated the success and wealth of Rome by commissioning a large number of building projects, most of them executed by Apollodorus.

While Apollodorus of Damascus built structures and monuments across the Roman Empire, there are two in Rome that really defined his career. First is Trajan's Column, a 98-foot tall monument celebrating Trajan's victory over the Dacians. The column, the first monument of its kind, is covered from bottom to top in reliefs depicting the events of the war.

Relief from the column of Trajan, attributed to Apollodorus
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Apollodorus' other major project in Rome was Trajan's Forum, a major public square that surrounded Trajan's Column. The fora were important symbols in Rome, built by the emperors to demonstrate their respect for the rights and traditions of the Roman people. Trajan's forum, designed by Apollodorus, contained public markets and meeting places, temples to the Roman gods, statues of Trajan, and of course, Trajan's Column. It was the last of the great fora to be built in ancient Rome, representing a system of urban renovation that demonstrated the emperor's continued commitment to his people.

The column of Trajan in his forum
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Emperor Hadrian

The last architect we'll talk about today is actually an amateur architect, partly because he had another day job. Hadrian was emperor of Rome from 117 to 138 CE. So, why are we talking about him? Emperor Hadrian took architecture very seriously and wanted to be an architect himself, which shows us how venerated the profession had become. To Hadrian, architecture represented education, intellect, and sophistication, demonstrating that one was versed in the highest theories of art and science.

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