The Roman Arch: Definition, Construction & History

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  • 0:00 Definition Of Roman Arches
  • 0:40 Basic Construction Of Arches
  • 1:49 History Of Roman Arches
  • 2:49 Bridges And Aqueducts
  • 3:40 Buildings
  • 4:20 Displays Of Wealth And…
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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.

Explore the history, design, construction, and significance of the Roman arch and test your understanding of ancient Roman culture, architecture, and influence.

Definition of Roman Arches

Admit it, you take arches for granted. It's okay, we all do. After all, they're pretty much everywhere these days, from bridges to fast food logos. So what's so special about an arch? Actually, the arch is one of the single most important architectural discoveries in human history, and we have the Romans to thank for it.

The Roman arch was the foundation of Rome's architectural mastery and massive expanse of building projects across the ancient world. It allowed the Romans to make bigger buildings, longer roads, and better aqueducts. The Roman arch is the ancestor of modern architecture.

Basic Construction of Arches

An arch is an architectural form that controls the pressure from the weight of a building in a specific way. The arch directs pressure downwards and outwards, creating a strong passage underneath it that has the ability to support heavy structures. This is called compressive stress, because the pressure of the weight is compressed by the shape of the arch. Because the stress is directed both down and outwards, walls or other structures were often required to reinforce the arch. The arch allowed ancient builders to make larger, more complex buildings that could hold more space and people.

The central feature of an arch is the keystone, or the wedge-shaped stone at the very top of the arch. It is the last stone placed during construction, and it locks all the other stones of the arch into position. The keystone bears almost no weight, but is the center of redirecting the weight of the structure down and outwards. The Romans used arches with circular tops, called rounded arches, which were made of stone. A series of rounded arches side by side is called an arcade.

History of Roman Arches

The arch was first used in the Mediterranean world by those in Mesopotamia, Greece, Persia, and ancient Italy. While these cultures had the arch, they rarely used it except for underground tunnels and drainage systems, where the force of the earth around it provided natural buttressing, or reinforcement.

The Romans learned the arch from the Etruscans of Tuscany and were the first people in the world to really figure out how to use it. Romans in the first centuries BC discovered how to use arches in the construction of bridges, aqueducts and buildings. The Roman arch is largely responsible for the expansion of infrastructure across the Roman Empire.

You may know about Rome's famous roads and aqueducts that crisscrossed from Britain to the Middle East. Without the arch, these constructions would probably not have been possible. The Roman arch became a foundational aspect of Western architecture and generated new systems of building across Europe.

Use by the Romans: Bridges and Aqueducts

One of the foremost uses of the arch in building was for bridges and aqueducts. When roads or pipes needed to cross an area without level terrain, say a valley or river, an arcade of arches gave them the support they needed to sustain their weight off the ground. This was extremely important in the development of Rome. Without bridges to connect their roads, the Roman army would not have been able to march across Europe, expanding the Empire.

Aqueducts required a consistent, gradual slope so that the water could flow through them naturally. This slope had to be consistent for possibly hundreds of miles, which would have been impossible if the Romans could not elevate and support the aqueducts. Rome alone required hundreds of miles of aqueducts to provide enough fresh water to its massive population.

Used by the Romans: Buildings

Romans also incorporated arches into their buildings. The Romans were very fond of using massive buildings to house certain events or facilities. For example, the basilica was an indoor temple, meeting place, and court of law. Roman basilicas had to be large enough to hold hundreds of people, often had multiple levels, and were tall enough to still feel airy and spacious inside. In buildings, the arch allowed for the construction of domes to cover wide areas and vaulted ceilings to add height. Not only did the arch become a prominent feature of state buildings, but it was a cheap way for average people to build stronger and better homes for themselves as well.

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