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Roman Engineering and Architecture

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  • 1:14 Building Materials
  • 3:55 Roman Arch
  • 7:05 Aqueducts
  • 8:29 The Dome
  • 10:10 Roads
  • 11:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture covers Roman advances in architecture and engineering. First, Rome's debt to Greece is explored. Next, Roman advances in material science are enumerated: cement, mortar and concrete. After that, we will look at a few distinctly Roman techniques: the arch and the dome.

Rome's Debt to Greek Architecture

It has been said that the Greeks were architects, while the Romans were engineers.

Roman architecture is very similar to Greek architecture, in style at least. When the Romans wanted to build something impressive, they looked to their Greek predecessors. The Romans used the same sorts of columns, the same sorts of sculptural decorations and many of the same architectural forms as the Greeks.

Despite these similarities, no one would confuse a Roman temple with a Greek temple. There are distinct differences between Greek and Roman architecture, but these differences are more practical than stylistic.

In many cases, the Romans slavishly copied Greek forms but used different techniques or materials. These different techniques and materials also allowed the Romans to construct buildings that even the brilliant Greeks would have found impossible to replicate. So, while the Romans clearly took their inspiration from the Greeks, Roman engineering allowed Rome to create an architectural style all its own.

Brick and Mortar Masonry

Rome's distinct architecture was the direct result of five main Roman inventions. The first of these was cement, a blend of lime, volcanic ash or pulverized stone, and water. Cement is, essentially, liquid rock, which dries into a solid. Cement also bonds to any materials touching it.

Equipped with this rocky glue, it was just a small step for the Romans to make their next big invention: brick and mortar masonry, a building technique in which small, fired bricks are held together by mortar. All previous architectural styles - from the Sumerians to the Greeks - depended on friction and gravity to hold their structures together. If a Greek wanted to build something huge, he had to use huge blocks of stone to build it. These huge stone slabs were expensive to make and difficult to transport. By contrast, brick and mortar masonry allowed the Romans to build large, durable structures out of small, cheap, local materials.

Concrete

Brick and mortar masonry was only one of the uses the Romans had for cement. The other was concrete, a mixture of cement and gravel, which can be poured into forms. Once dried, concrete was as strong and durable as stone.

The Romans are recognized for their long-lasting concrete structures.
Rome Concrete Usage

The implications of concrete are massive. With concrete you can, essentially, make a stone of any shape and size you want. Best yet, you can make it out of miniscule materials. This is huge!

Say you wanted to build a gigantic solid structure, like the Hoover Dam. You can't build the Hoover Dam using masonry; the water pressure would tear it apart. It must be one solid piece of stone. Without concrete, you'd have to find a stone larger than the Hoover Dam, carve it into shape and drag it into place. In short, it is impossible.

But with concrete, you can build almost anything, and it will be water-proof, strong and practically permanent. Indeed, many Roman structures are still standing a thousand years later. This is partially because Roman concrete, with its high volcanic ash content, is actually more durable and resistant to weathering than the concrete we make and use today.

Thus we've seen how Rome's mastery of cement and its children (mortar and concrete) allowed the Romans to build massive structures out of the tiniest particles. Yet the Roman architectural achievement was not limited to material sciences. With these new materials at hand, the Romans began exploring new architectural techniques.

The Roman Arch

The greatest and most distinctly Roman of these is the arch. To appreciate the arch, we must look at what preceded it.

Before the arch, all doorways, windows and bridges (pretty much every structure people could pass through) were built along the same lines: two posts and a lintel. Those posts might be mudbrick walls, marble columns or anything in between. But the lintel had to be made of tougher stuff. To span the gap, a lintel had to be long and solid. To hold what lay above it, the lintel had to be tough and thick. For small openings, a wooden beam might serve, but large openings required stone, and larger openings, like gates, required ever larger stones. The reason for this is clear: though the lintel stone is long and thick, all of the pressure of the building rests on these two points, where the lintel meets the post. The weight above is constantly trying to break the lintel off at these points.

This diagram shows the structure of ancient door openings.
Structure Ancient Door Opening

To hold up to this, the lintel had to have a very strong shear strength, or resistance to being broken off on a plane parallel to the force. When you cut something with a knife or break it over your knee, you've overpowered its shear strength. Stone is not well known for its shear strength. The only way to make a stone lintel stronger was to make it thicker. The result was that, of all the pieces of a building, the lintel stones were often the largest and most expensive.

The arch overcomes all the problems of the post and lintel construction method.

First, arches redistribute the weight of the load they're bearing. Instead of all that force resting on two points, the force is spread over a larger area. The force is also passed from stone to stone, all the way down to the posts. Thus, rather than depending on the shear strength of stone, the arch depends on its compressive strength, or how well it holds up to being crushed. While stone's shear strength is negligible, its compressive strength is excellent. You can crack a rock easily with a well-aimed blow, but it is not nearly so easy to crush a rock. The Roman arch was incredibly strong and durable. In fact, arches are often the only thing still standing in a Roman ruin.

The arch also relieved some of the expense of building. You no longer needed a massive lintel stone to build a massive door. You just needed more little blocks. Just as with cement, concrete and brick and mortar, the Romans had found a way to use small, local materials to construct massive structures.

Now, the Romans did not exactly invent the arch. People had been using arches to hold up ceilings in tunnels and tombs for quite some time, and there may be evidence that some cultures may have used the arch to build gates in their walls. What the Romans did was to perfect this underground technology and make it mainstream.

Arches redistribute the weight so a large lintel is no longer needed.
Roman Arch Weight Distribution Diagram

Aqueducts

The Romans used arches everywhere. Their most obvious application was the aqueduct. These huge, elevated channels could carry water hundreds of miles across rolling terrain, while maintaining a steady, gradual slope from their source to their destination. This scale of engineering would be impossible without the material-saving inventions of masonry and the arch.

Aqueducts brought fresh running water to Roman cities, allowing the Romans to build fountains and baths even in the driest regions. Roman aqueducts are among the most enduring legacies of their mighty Empire. There are many European cities that still depend on Roman aqueducts for their water.

The Roman arch reached its apex in the Colosseum, a massive amphitheatre covering over six acres of land, over 150 feet tall and capable of seating over 50,000 spectators. The Colosseum demonstrates just how far the Romans were able to take the arch.

Yet the Romans were not done with the arch. No, one day it occurred to some clever Roman that the same shape that worked in two dimensions could also work in three. From this observation, the dome was invented.

The Dome

Behold! The Pantheon. One of the most amazing structures ever built.

Its massive dome, weighing nearly five-thousand tons, spans 150 feet unsupported and rises almost as high in the air. The interior could house a sphere 142 feet in diameter. At the height of the dome there is an oculus, a hole nearly 30 feet in diameter, which let in light to relieve the darkness of this massive, enclosed space.

After the fall of Roman Empire, later generations of architects would go mad trying to replicate this engineering marvel. A Roman could have explained it easily. Take an arch, then spin it around 360 degrees. That is a dome. Yet, even if the architects of the Middle Ages could have grasped this concept, they were missing the key element: concrete. The dome of the Pantheon was literally poured into place.

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