From amphitheatres to basilicas, from aqueducts to baths, Roman architecture survives to this day, if not in the structures themselves, then in modern construction, through its principles of firmness, function and beauty.
By Priya Narayan
ROMAN architecture surpasses most architectural styles in terms of utility and beauty, and even today the monuments attract over 10 million tourists annually. The principles for this were laid down thousands of years ago by Vitruvius who is also known as the father of architectural acoustics.
He brought about 3 major concepts:
1. Firmitas (firmness) – well-constructed buildings having structure
2. Utilitas (commodity) – creating designs which serve a function
3. Venustas (beauty) – order and arrangement of the structure and its components
Rome has now become a travel destination for most people and is the third most visited city in the European Union. These structures have not only stood the test of time but have also greatly influenced Western architecture. Ask anyone about Rome and they could talk about the Colosseum, the Pantheon or the Trevi Fountains without having even visited the place.
In addition to these monuments, there are thousands of aqueducts, theatres, amphitheatres, basilicas, and baths in and around Rome that not only add to the grandeur of the city but have also come to define it over the years.
Concrete played an important role in building these structures as opposed to fired clay bricks and marble that was previously used in construction. This was because concrete was a strong material that could hold a lot of weight, enabling larger structures and more flexible architectural designs. Moreover, this material was cheap and durable.
An aqueduct is a kind of bridge that enables passage of water over ravines or valleys. They are characterised by huge arches that go up to three tiers at times and add to the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes of Rome. Their main purpose was to provide water to the urban centres in ancient Rome. Pont du Gard near Nimes is one of the famous aqueducts to have survived. These highly impressive structures serve as a perfect example of Vitruvius’ principles that combine utility and beauty.
TEMPLES OF ROME
There are also numerous Roman temples that held significant religious value in Ancient Rome. Enormous columns structured around a single rectangular structure in the centre forms a Roman temple. The interior consists of a large hall that holds the image of the deity. There were religious ceremonies that were held outside the main building and were open to public. The image of the deity would then be brought from inside and an animal would be sacrificed at an open air altar. Maison Carree in Nimes is a famous temple that has survived over the centuries.
Roman baths were scenic with their elegant arches and brilliantly crafted domes and vaults. Public baths were huge complexes that included pools, fountains, libraries and heating facilities. In addition to this, impressive columns and statues made of marble and intricate mosaic designs gave this structure a palatial feel. Such a bath would surely be welcome after a stressful day at work. The Caracalla is one of the best examples of such a bath.
The basilicas were originally public court buildings located adjacent to the Roman market place. They were used for transactions of building or legal matters. Over time, they became associated with Christian buildings and came to be regarded as important churches with ceremonial rights given by the pope. These buildings were usually named after the person who funded the construction of the basilica.
A vast circular dome on top of a square formed out of four arches was the basic architectural formation of a basilica. They are known for their magnificent dome-shaped roofs that are supported by long pillars and comprise large halls and high arches in addition to their elegant structures and intricate details.
The clerestories denoted an upper level of a Roman basilica or of the nave of a Romanesque or Gothic church, the walls of which rise above the roof lines of the lower aisles and are pierced with windows, which allowed light from above to illuminate the nave.
One of the most visited basilicas in Rome is St Peter’s Basilica, which serves as the burial site of Saint Peter, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Two of Constantine’s churches in Rome, the basilicas of St Peter’s and that of St Paul’s have new architectural features.
THEATRES AND AMPHITHEATERS
The Romans were known for their grandeur and this is best depicted in their theatres – a semi-circular structure with a roofed stage in the centre, which often had columns for support and multiple stories, decorated with exquisite sculptures of gods, deities or heroes. The stage faced a massive seating arrangement which was in the form of a slope with steps for sitting. Very few Roman theatres have survived owing to the fact that most theatres were built out of wood initially and were destroyed once the festival for which they were erected ended.
The amphitheatre, however, is a spectacle with its oval or circular-shaped open roof structure with a seating structure similar to that of the Roman theatre. Amphitheatres were famously used for gladiatorial combats that were held during the death of an eminent personality or during state-sponsored festivals. Amphitheaters and the combats represented the power and authority of the rulers and emperors.
The most famous amphitheatre that has been depicted hundreds of times in present day media and art forms is the Colosseum. One can picture the Colosseum with hundreds of thousands of Romans sitting there cheering the gladiators while the emperor sits in an exclusive section of the theatre with his family.
Lastly, the residential houses had well-decorated interiors. Private residences often had an atrium, gardens and fountains, which displayed their wealth and power while the less well-off citizens lived in large apartment blocks, called Insula, often with shops lined on the ground floor of such buildings.
The magnificence and grandeur of Ancient Roman architecture lay not only in the major structures or the materials or the intricate designs, but also in the culmination of all these aspects. Symmetry was of utmost importance in these structures and is evident if one takes a stroll around Rome.
Each building is not only beautiful and elegant but also serves a distinct function. Vitruvius’ principles echo in Roman architecture and the constructions stand as a symbol of power, beauty and a rich historical culture.