Humanities Courses / Course / Chapter

Ancient Rome Architecture

Gustavo Ramirez, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Gustavo Ramirez

    Gustavo Ramírez is a Biologist and Master in Science specialized in Physiology and Ecology of mammals by Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. He has taught subjects such as Biology, Biochemistry, Human Physiology, Ecology and Research Methodology in high school and college levels and participate as private tutor for high school students and science professionals

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Learn about ancient Classical Roman architecture. Discover the people who built Rome and who created some of the most important buildings of the Roman Empire. Updated: 05/21/2022

Who Built Rome?

Ancient Roman architecture is considered, along with Greek architecture, as the Classical architecture of history. The design of Rome's buildings and the layout of its cities can be seen in different archaeological sites in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The architecture of Rome even influenced the design of modern buildings in places as distant as the American continent.

Roman architecture is famous for its robust designs and great attention to decorative and sculptural detail. Some of the people who helped build ancient Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, were Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Apollodorus of Damascus, and Emperor Hadrian. In the present, many of the buildings they designed are preserved and are tangible examples of classical Roman architecture.

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

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman architect and engineer famous for his multi-volume De Architectura, an architectural treatise he wrote for his patron, Emperor Caesar Augustus. This work functioned as a guide for the construction of buildings, influencing the design of future constructions of the Roman Empire. Vitruvius established that architectural design should consider three fundamental aspects, named the Vitruvian Triad after him: stability, usefulness, and beauty.

The world rediscovered the work of Vitruvius in the 15th century; since then, many architects have used his concepts and architectural designs when constructing buildings in several of the most important cities in the world. In particular, the architectural designs of the Roman Empire have influenced the construction of civic buildings, as architects wished to enhance the buildings' solemnity and magnificence.


Vitruvius is considered the first great architect of Rome and responsible for the characteristic style of the buildings of the Roman Empire.

Drawing of Vitruvius discussing De Architectura to the Emperor


Apollodorus of Damascus

Apollodorus of Damascus was an architect and engineer born in Damascus, Syria. He was one of the most famous architects of his time due to his innovations in Roman building design. For example, Apollodorus is responsible for introducing the element of the dome as a recurring element of Roman architecture. Among the most outstanding works of Apollodorus, which he carried out under the patronage of Emperor Trajan, were the Forum of Trajan and the column of Trajan.

The fora or public squares were a tradition of great importance in ancient Roman architecture. A forum could include temples, markets, meeting buildings, and public spaces. Apollodorus of Damascus designed this type of space for the use of the population of Rome while he was also in charge of building a stadium within the capital and Trajan's triumphal arches in Benevento and Ancona.

Example of Damascus Ancient Roman Architecture

Damascus was one of the most important capitals of the ancient world; it represented a strategic point for the Greek and Roman Empires due to its intermediate location between Asia and Africa. In 64 BC, the Roman general Pompey annexed a portion of Syria to the Roman Empire and eventually occupied Damascus, which became one of the cities integrated into the Roman Empire. Apollodorus of Damascus incorporated various elements of the Syrian architectural style into the design of the public squares, such as with the Forum of Trajan. Perhaps the most outstanding of these was his incorporation of the dome in public buildings and temples.


The Forum of Trajan is an example of the influence of the Damascus architectural style applied in the construction of buildings in Rome.

panoramic photo or Roman Forum


Emperor Hadrian

Hadrian ruled as the Roman Emperor between the years 117 and 138. During his regime, Rome produced many important engineering works and constructions, in which he directly participated as an architect. Some of the most representative of Hadrian's works of architecture were the Pantheon and the Temple of Venus and Roma. These monumental buildings included the pumpkin dome, which was an innovation that Hadrian introduced into Roman architecture. As its name indicates, this type of dome has a shape reminiscent of a pumpkin as it has a ribbed vault topping the roofs of the buildings.

Example of Hadrian's Famous Roman Architecture

One of the most prominent examples of the architecture of the Roman Empire was the Temple of Venus and Roma, which Hadrian designed. Historians believe that this was possibly the largest temple from ancient times.

The Temple of Venus and Roma was located in Rome, near the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. The temple is known for its monumental structure. It had four giant columns to support its structure and a pumpkin dome at the highest part. The temple housed two monumental statues, one of the goddess Venus and another of the goddess Roma, sitting on thrones.


The Temple of Venus and Roma was one of the monumental works that were built under the regime of Hadrian.

drawing of the original design of the Temple of Venus and Roma


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
null

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
null

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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Additional Info

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
null

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
null

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a famous example of Roman architecture?

One of the most famous examples of ancient Roman architecture is the Forum of Trajan, which includes various buildings and the column of Trajan. Other famous buildings are the Temple of Venus and Roma, the Pantheon, and the Roman Colosseum.

What are two characteristics of Roman Empire architecture?

Roman architecture is characterized by two main elements; these are the use of the dome as a recurring structure in the construction of temples and the construction of fora or public squares. These two elements can be seen in the design of the Temple of Venus and Roma and in the Forum of Trajan.

What is the Vitruvian Triad in Roman architecture?

The Vitruvius Triad are three concepts that Vitruvius stated that every building should meet: stability, usefulness, and beauty. The Vitruvian Triad influenced the construction of buildings and public places in the Roman Empire for several centuries and has given Roman architecture its classic status.

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