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Roman Architecture: Facts, Characteristics, & Style

Steven Aiken, Cassie Beyer
  • Author
    Steven Aiken

    Steven has recently received his Bachelor's degree in English from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has also taught Fine Art at a shelter for youths for six months at Shannon West Youth Center.

  • 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.

Discover Roman architecture characteristics by examining common features of famous Roman structures. Explore ancient Roman building styles and their materials. Updated: 01/18/2022

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Roman Architecture

Roman architecture was heavily inspired by the design philosophies of Greek architecture. There are three main styles of Roman architecture, first used by the Greeks before they were implemented into Roman style architecture. The types are more easily identified based on the design of the columns:

  • Doric: No base for the column and featured a simple capital (top of the column) with a circular design with little decoration.
  • Ionic: Featured a simple base and fluted shaft, with a capital with a volute (spiral, scroll-like) design.
  • Corinthian: Elaborate base that leads into a fluted shaft, capped with a heavily stylized capital often featuring organic, flower-like designs.

Greco-Roman Architecture

The Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks for many of their cultural facets, from literature and drama to architecture and art. Roman buildings were often built using Greek styles of architecture, such as colonnades. Greco-Roman architecture refers to a style in which Romans borrowed heavily from their Greek counterparts, but also expanded upon their designs to come up with something more characteristically Roman. For example, Romans often used concrete in their designs because of its usefulness, which allowed them to create much larger buildings than could be found in Greece.

Etruscan Architecture

The Etruscans were the early inhabitants of Italy, who flourished from 8th to 3rd century BCE. Unfortunately, very few examples of their architectural style remain, however enough has been uncovered to see that while they too borrowed from the Greeks, they had decidedly different designs. For example, Roman architect Vitruvius wrote that Etruscan temples were placed on higher platforms and were square in design, compared to Greek temples which were lower to the ground and rectangular. Models that have been uncovered show houses with steep, gabled roofs—they show buildings that are either rectangular or circular in design.

Pre-Imperial Roman Architecture

While many architectural characteristics stayed the same throughout pre-imperial and imperial Rome, some features were unique to each period. Much of Pre-Imperial architecture was influenced by the Etruscans, who also borrowed from the Greeks. Temples had cellas that were very frontal, where visitors were only meant to enter in through one point. Concrete was also not used often during this period, though would be experimented with in the late Pre-Imperial period.

Imperial Roman Architecture

The Imperial period brought with it a surge in architectural creativity. It is during this period that some of the greatest baths were created, such as the Baths of Caracalla. The basilica is also unique to this period, as the usage of concrete allowed for huge structures to be built. Although concrete was utilized extensively, materials such as marble were still used for building in order to hark back to Greek architecture.

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  • 1:31 Arches, Domes & Marble Veneers
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Ancient Roman Buildings

There are many buildings that are characteristic of Roman architecture, e.g., temples. There are also functional pieces, i.e., the Aquia Appia, constructed in 312 BCE, one of the first aqueducts ever constructed in Rome. Ancient Roman buildings took on many shapes and sizes and varying degrees of creativeness thanks to innovations happening at the time, resulting in some of the most famous buildings of the Roman Empire.

Aqueducts

Aqueducts are channels that are designed to funnel fresh water across large distances to urban areas. Oftentimes, the nearest source of fresh water would be several kilometers away, so transporting that water by other means would be extremely labor intensive. They also sported arches in as many as three tiers in order to adequately support the structure.

Pont du Gard features a triple tier of arches, and carries fresh water over 50 kilometers.

image of Pont du gard

Amphitheaters

Roman theatres and amphitheaters were inspired by the Greek's theatres, however they featured much more stone architecture as well as a semicircular orchestra. They also incorporated highly decorated stage buildings, called scaenae frons, which used different levels of columns, pediments, and projections.

Baths

Baths are displays of the Roman ability to create stunning interior spaces. These structures utilized arches, domes vaults, and buttresses. They were often built symmetrically and included fountains and even libraries, in addition to the baths. They also utilized interior heating via pipe systems both in the floor and in the walls.

Basilicas

Initially conceived as gathering places or courts of law by the Romans, basilicas were adopted by the church to be used as religious sites. They feature long halls with a roof supported by columns and were often constructed along one side of the forum, or the central marketplace.

Bridges

Bridges were an essential piece of architecture, though were more simply constructed. Though they still sported Roman arches to form a stone base, wooden structures would be built over top of them.

Insula (Apartment Buildings)

Constructed of brick, concrete, and wood, insula were affordable housing arrangements for those that were less well-off. Some even had balconies for residents, and the ground floor typically held shops on the street-facing side. They could also be constructed quite high, with some being as high as five stories.

Temples

Roman temples often combined both the Etruscan and Greek styles, utilizing an inner cella on the rear of the building complete with surrounding columns, all constructed on a raised platform and a stepped entrance. This was often the focal point of the building, unlike Greek temples in which all four sides of the building would be equal in importance.

Triumphal Arches

The key purpose of a triumphal arch was to honor in sculpture a significant event. Often these were events such as military victories, and these arches were typically placed over thoroughfares, but later arches would be separated and protected by steps.

Walls

Walls, also used in commemoration of important figures and events, varied from 18 centimeters in thickness to an incredible six meters. Usage of marble was deemed too expensive for such structures, and as such concrete and brick were often the main material of choice thanks to their inexpensiveness. They could also be shaped in various ways, using irregular chunks of smoothed stone, pyramid-shaped chunks set with the base facing outwards, or a mixture of the two.

Roman Architecture Characteristics

There are several Roman architecture characteristics to make note of:

  • Arches: Pont du Gard Aqueduct, featuring triple-tier arches to support the structure
  • Domes: The Pantheon, Rome, a temple dedicated to the Roman pantheon of gods
  • Columns: Temple of Portunus, Rome, which features columns in the Ionic style
  • Vaults: The Coliseum, Rome, which has vaults that cross perpendicularly to form groin vaults

Ancient Roman Building Materials

The Romans utilized many different materials in their buildings, and even stumbled upon a type of material that could fill large spaces relative ease. Also, this material was cost effective.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main function of Roman architecture?

There are many functions of Roman architecture. Their main purpose, however, would likely be grandeur. Whatever the Romans built, it was often large in scale, as is the case with the Pantheon, as well as the Pont du Gard Aqueduct.

What is the most famous example of Roman architecture?

One of the most famous examples of Roman architecture is the Pantheon. It is a temple with a massive 140 foot diameter dome, and is dedicated to the Roman pantheon of gods.

What are the 4 main architecture inventions of the Romans?

The four main architectural inventions are: concrete, the Roman round arch (not invented by them, but mastered nonetheless), aqueducts, and domes. Concrete is likely one of the most famous and most important, as it led to the ability to create some of their most impressive structures.

What is unique about Roman architecture?

There are plenty of things that are unique about Roman architecture. For example, they were the first to heavily implement concrete in their construction. They also perfected the round arch, which led to the construction of vaults, which are hallways that are a continuous arch.

What are the three types of Roman architecture?

There are three main types, called orders, of Roman architecture that were borrowed from Greek architecture. They are the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian orders.

What were the main features of Roman architecture?

Roman architecture often featured things such as columns and arches in their structures. However, domes were a key feature, as in The Pantheon, as well as vaults.

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