Ancient Roman Architecture: Rome’s Most Impressive Buildings

From a LECTURE SERIES BY Professor Professor Robert Garland, Ph.D.

Whereas the Greeks had largely focused on simple temple architecture, ancient Roman architecture boasted grandiose public buildings by exploiting the arch, the vault, and the dome.

Painting of Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens, Leo von Klenze, 1846
Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens, Leo von Klenze, 1846

The first major temple to be constructed in Rome was dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, “Greatest and Best,” and his companion deities, Juno and Minerva, on the Capitoline Hill. It dates to the late 5th or early 4th century, and it looked very much like a Greek temple. Whether ancient Roman architecture copied the Etruscans who had themselves copied the Greeks, or whether they copied Greek architects directly, a Greek-style temple now stood on the summit of Rome’s most sacred spot. I say “Greek style” because, in fact, it wasn’t to the precise canons of Greek architecture.

 The Maison Carrée and the Parthenon

Despite the obvious similarities, the Romans conceived of temples very differently from the Greeks. These differences tell us a great deal about the differing functions of a temple in both societies. First, a Greek temple can be approached up the steps from any side. Often, the best view is from a corner and that is how many approaches to temples are arranged. A Roman temple, by contrast, looks its best from the front and can be entered only from the front.

Second, a Roman temple stands on a much higher podium than its Greek equivalent. Consider, for instance, the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in southern France, built in 16 B.C., one of the best-preserved Roman temples, and compare it to the Parthenon.

Image of the West side of the Maison Carrée
The Maison Carrée. An archetype of Ancient Roman Architecture.

The Maison Carrée is far more elevated. One explanation for the extra height is that the Romans wanted to emphasize the separation between the priesthood and the people. Another is that Roman temples had a secular as well as a religious role. They were designed to convey a sense of pomp and circumstance that was alien to the spirit of a Greek temple. Meetings of the senate, for instance, were sometimes held inside, or speeches to the public might be delivered al fresco from the podium.

 Beyond Post-and-Lintel

Although Roman architecture preserved the architectural conventions invented by the Greeks, it also developed them in completely new ways, notably after the introduction of concrete—that’s to say, mortared rubble. Concrete is much stronger than ashlar—masonry made out of blocks of hewn stone—and can be used to span much wider areas. It allows for much bigger floor space and reduces the likelihood of fires.

The Greeks had largely limited themselves to the post-and-lintel system, which permits only a narrow interval between the uprights. With concrete, the Romans were able to span very much larger areas by the use of the arch, the vault, and the dome. The vault and the dome had already been employed by the Mycenaeans in the 13th century B.C., but there’d been a break in the architectural tradition. The Greeks first used the vault in the 5th century B.C., but they did not regard it as aesthetically satisfying and only employed it where it wasn’t conspicuous, as in the subterranean tomb-chambers of Macedonian nobles and kings. The Romans had no such inhibitions.

View of the Pantheon in the morning.
The Pantheon (“temple of every god”) is a former Roman temple, now a church, in Rome, Italy.

 “The Physical Embodiment of the Universal Cosmos”

The most spectacular use of the dome by the Romans is in the Pantheon, which was constructed in Rome during the reign of—and perhaps under the watchful eye of—the emperor Hadrian from 117-138 CE/AD. The Pantheon (the word, which is Greek, means “all the gods”) is an extraordinary building. When you approach it from the front, it looks like a conventional Greek-style temple. A low podium leads to a porch that is entered through Corinthian columns. The only oddity is the height of the pediment in relation to its width; most pediments are much lower. The height is to conceal the circular building to the rear, a whopping 43 meters in diameter. Above the circular space is a dome, also 43 meters high. The only source of light comes from an oculus or “eye,” nine meters in diameter, set in the ceiling.

Painting of The interior of the Pantheon in the 18th century.
The interior of the Pantheon in the 18th century. Painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini

To carry the weight of the dome, which is entirely self-supporting, the building materials become progressively lighter. The lower sections are made of stone, the middle sections of brick, and the top section of concrete. The whole building is a masterpiece of Roman engineering. At the same time, it represents a perfect blend between traditional Greek architectural forms and Roman inventiveness. It presents us with something entirely new in the history of architecture—a vast, uncluttered, interior space, which, in the words of Frank Sear, “creates the physical embodiment of the universal cosmos.”

Sadly, we don’t know the name of the architect. In general, few names can be attached to even the most important Roman buildings, which suggests that architects did not enjoy high status in the Roman world. The design of the Pantheon has been copied repeatedly, notably in the Capitol building in Washington, DC, and in most other state capitol buildings all over the United States.

 Secular and Practical Accommodations

This is a transcript from the video series Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean. It’s available for audio and video download here.

The Romans used architecture in a manner and on a scale that was foreign to the Greeks in a number of ways. First, whereas the classical and Hellenistic Greek state by and large did not see as one of its principal functions to provide basic amenities for the public, the Romans emphatically did. Second, the Romans placed much more emphasis upon secular and utilitarian buildings than did the Greeks, who devoted most of their resources and ingenuity toward the construction of temples. Third, the Romans used architecture to serve the needs of, and often to accommodate inside, vast numbers of people. The chief exception to this rule was aqueducts, which the Greeks did regard as essential. One of the most striking examples is a rock-hewn tunnel three-quarters of a mile in length that was cut into a hill on the island of Samos. It’s dated to the 6th century B.C.

Let’s keep with this third point. Most of the largest architectural structures in the Greek world were theaters, some of which could hold 20,000 to 40,000 people, depending on whether you counted the people who sat on the grassy slopes above the level where there was permanent seating. That’s peanuts compared with what the Romans built.

Image of The Circus Maximus in Rome, Italy
The Circus Maximus (Latin for greatest or largest circus, in Italian Circo Massimo) is an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue located in Rome, Italy

The Circus Maximus, where chariot races took place, could hold about 250,000. Moreover, the Romans sought to accommodate vast numbers of people within the interior of the buildings. They had a totally different concept of size and number from the Greeks. All this was reflected in the type of buildings that the Romans put up—“crowd containers,” as Lewis Mumford described them.

From the lecture series Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean
Taught by: Professor Robert Garland, Colgate University