Roman Concrete Construction: Development & Uses

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  • 0:00 Ancient Roman Construction
  • 0:44 Development of Concrete
  • 2:24 Uses of Concrete
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In this lesson, you will explore the development and use of the most important building material in ancient Rome: concrete. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ancient Roman Construction

Let's talk construction. Specifically, let's talk about the most exciting, most dramatic, and most totally awesome development in the history of construction! Concrete! What, you're not excited about concrete? Well, you should be. Because concrete is awesome.

And the ancient Romans, they knew it. The Romans were some of the most prolific builders in history, creating temples, government buildings, forts, roads, aqueducts, theaters, markets, and monuments numbering in the hundreds all across the Mediterranean world. The secret to their incredible amount of construction, as well as the durability of these projects, is concrete.

Development of Concrete

Concrete was not first invented by the Romans. There are accounts of concrete existing in the Mediterranean, which was used by the people of ancient Macedonia and Minoa in Greece. However, the mixture they used was not truly effective and is rarely found. The Romans developed a new recipe for concrete, using pozzolana, a fine volcanic ash found in Southern Italy, that mixed with lime and water to create a sturdy, resistant form of concrete.

Roman concrete was called opus caementicium, meaning the concrete was mixed with small stones. The stones, held together by the concrete, added strength and meant that less actual concrete was required to fill a space. Roman concrete was also unique in that, due to its chemical composition, it could actually harden underwater, letting the Romans build stronger docks, ports, bridges, and even foundations for towns.

So, now we get to the part about why concrete is awesome. Imagine building a temple out of stone, like the Greeks did. Each slab of stone is large, heavy, and has to be carved into shape before being set in place. Now imagine building with concrete. The materials can be transported to the site and poured into any shape that the builder needs.

Concrete is much cheaper than stone and generally lighter as well. Concrete allowed builders to make buildings of different shapes, with stronger parts that did not require lots of reinforcement. So, it's cheap, strong, durable, and easy to manipulate. What the Romans were able to build increased exponentially, leading to a period of construction and architectural development on such a size and scale that historians call it the Concrete Revolution.

Uses of Concrete

As the Romans expanded their empire, they had a lot of things that they needed to build, from temples to forts to roads. Concrete made it possible to build so much without bankrupting the treasury. One of the notable uses of concrete was to create aqueducts, pipes that brought fresh water from mountains into the cities. Roman aqueducts ran for hundreds of miles, transporting millions of gallons of water every day. Since concrete could be poured into any shape, which is much easier than carving stone into a shape, circular pipes could be created, which resulted in a much more consistent and efficient flow of water. Also, the durability of concrete meant that these pipes were long lasting and did not require frequent maintenance.

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