Ancient Roman Architecture: Facts, Style & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Roman Architecture
  • 1:31 Arches, Domes & Marble Veneers
  • 3:02 Concrete
  • 3:43 The Pantheon
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Roman architecture and the major facets of Roman engineering, including the arch, dome, marble veneers and concrete. The best-engineered building ever made by the Romans, the Pantheon, will also be covered.

Roman Architecture

From the beginning of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE to the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 CE, Roman culture has been a powerful force in shaping the styles and history of Europe and beyond. At its height, Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean, with its borders extending as far north as England and as far east as Mesopotamia.

Everywhere the Romans went, they brought their architectural designs with them, the ruins of which can still be seen today. These architectural designs included:

  • Basilicas, which were used as administrative centers. Christianity would eventually adopt this design for its major churches.
  • Aqueducts, which were used to carry water for many miles to overcrowded cities. The first was built in the 4th century BCE, and a few continue to be in use today.
  • Amphitheaters, which were created to provide entertainment. The most famous is the Coliseum in Rome.
  • Temples, which were created to worship and honor the gods.
  • Triumphal arches and columns, which were used to tell the stories of great battles.
  • Bathhouses, which served as meeting places as well as a place to get clean in warm water.

While we can't address every Roman engineering development, certain features, such as the arch, the dome, marble veneers, and concrete, are considered central to any understanding of Roman building techniques. Let's take a look at each of them.

Arches, Domes & Marble Veneers

While other cultures had made limited use of semi-circular arches, the Romans were the first to take wide advantage of them through the creation of buildings and infrastructure. These arches are such an essential part of Roman architecture that they are sometimes referred to as Roman arches.

The way arches distribute weight are what made them so popular. To explain, the weight of a building bears down equally at all points. This requires the use of many columns for large spaces to help support a large roof. Arches, however, direct the weight so that it is concentrated on the upright supports. This means fewer columns are needed and larger open spaces can be created. Perhaps the best examples of Roman arches come from their famous aqueducts.

The Romans' knowledge of arch building eventually allowed them to create the world's first true, half-spherical dome. The use of domes meant that huge amounts of space could be spanned without the use of interior columns, creating spacious, uncluttered areas.

Another integral part of Roman architecture was marble veneers. The first Roman emperor, Augustus, once said: 'I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.' Marble is a highly attractive but expensive stone. Building an actual city of marble would be impossible. Instead, what the Romans did was build structures out of brick or concrete and then cover the visible surfaces with marble, giving the illusion of a solid marble building.

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