Rome and Its Architectural Marvels

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin

In addition to magnificent decorative buildings, Rome built sophisticated structures, just as impressive due to their scale. Roman aqueducts, bridges, walls, sewers, and roads are justly famous, and many of them are still standing tall.

Image of Vatican City, Rome
Detailed art work can be seen in every monument and structure in Rome.
(Image: fabrycs/Shutterstock)

Dynamic Water Supply System

By the early 4th century A.D., the city of Rome was supplied over a dozen aqueducts which were collectively capable of bringing more than 250 million gallons of freshwater to the city, nearly 1,500 public fountains and pools, and almost 900 public and private baths every day.

Fountains were a major part of water supply system in Rome
Water was supplied to several public fountains in Rome. (Image: Tuzemka/Shutterstock)

The water distribution system was overseen by a high-ranking state official who supervised a large staff of specialists including engineers, and it was maintained by 700 well-trained people organized into several divisions.

Aqua Appia, the Aqueduct

The first aqueduct was completed in 312 B.C., by Appius Claudius Caecus. Named the Aqua Appia after its builder, it drew water from springs approximately nine miles outside of Rome, and transported it to the city through pipes and channels.

One of the Aqueducts standing tall in Rome
Aqua Appia drew water from springs outside of Rome and transported it to the city through pipes and channels. (Image: Luis Padilla Fotographia/Shutterstock)

As opposed to the modern Roman aqueducts, this first aqueduct was located mostly underground. Later aqueducts included some sections carried on lofty above-ground arches.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Aqueducts and Roman Architecture

The Romans built aqueducts all across the Empire, and one of them is found in the Spanish city of Segovia. There is a surviving section of Roman aqueduct, right in the center of the city, carried atop an imposing double tier of arches nearly 100 feet high. The Pont du Gard in southern France is an even more astonishing engineering achievement, consisting of a multi-level arcade 150 feet in height built to carry an aqueduct across a gorge. And the city of Vienne in Gaul was served by no less than 11 aqueducts. 

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Unique Characteristic of Public Structures

One characteristic of both monumental public structures and the homes of the upper-class Romans was that the floors and walls were highly decorated. Much of the expense was directed toward ornamenting the structure itself. Walls were plastered and then completely covered with elaborate paintings, while the floors were coated with intricate mosaics.

Roman Wall Paintings

The palette of colors used in Roman wall paintings appeared dominated as those were by large expanses of black, gold, and a distinctive deep blood-red. Those types of wall paintings were divided into four basic styles. The earliest phase, known as First Style wall painting, with panels painted to look like marble blocks, three-dimensional molded cornices, and other architectural details protruding from the wall. 

Painted Columns

Rail of columns gives an idea of their actual appearance
The columns were covered in white plaster. (Image: Aspan /Shutterstock)

The Second Style consisted of columns painted on the wall at regular intervals, between them were increasingly complex illusionistic panels that created the impression of three-dimensionality and depth.

Those views often consisted of cityscapes or architectural vistas of arches, tripods, gardens, and buildings.

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Solid Colors

The Third Style used large, plain rectangles of solid colors within which were smaller rectangular paintings, creating an effect reminiscent of a series of pictures hung on a wall. Mythological scenes and human figures were frequent subject matter for those insets.

Painted Elements in Roman Architecture

The Fourth Style encompassed a variety of forms, such as painted architectural elements rendered in a spindly, attenuated style and small, delicately painted garlands, designs, and figures.

Floor Mosaics

Floor mosaics were made by pressing very small cut pieces of colored stones into wet mortar to create images. The most basic mosaics consisted of simple black-and-white geometric patterns. Others used fairly large, black and white stones to create pictures, ranging from animals to business advertisements.

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Color Stone Mosaics

Color stone mosaics were mostly used on floors in Rome
Color stone mosaics had various themes to tell stories. (Image: GrungyBit/Shutterstock)

The most expensive type of mosaic was made out of colored stones. Some of the tesserae used were small that the finished product looked more like a painting than a mosaic.

The subject matter of those mosaics was extremely diverse, with some of the most elaborate examples depicting historical scenes, mythological stories, wild beasts both exotic and mundane, and sea life rendered so realistically that the species of each fish and crustacean could be identified.

Gemma Augustea

Fine craftsmanship and ornamentation went into producing smaller decorative objects such as jewelry, carved gems, glass containers, bronze cups and vessels, and even more prosaic objects, such as the ubiquitous clay olive oil lamps. A stunning surviving example of how intricate and beautiful such decorative items could be is the Gemma Augustea which was a nine-inch-long cameo carved out of sardonyx now located in Vienna.

The upper panel depicted Augustus enthroned next to a personification of Rome, while a group of gods gazed on approvingly from one side and members of Augustus’ family stood on the other, filled with symbolic imagery, such as the crown of victory held suspended over Augustus’s head and the eagle of Jupiter, perching beneath his chair.

Coins and Roman Art

The last form of Roman art, the most commonly surviving from the Roman world, were the gold, silver, and bronze coins that Roman mints churned out in millions. Those tiny pieces of metal, served as the monetary function. Those were the fine examples of artistic skill, bearing not just Latin slogans, but exceptionally detailed images.

While coins minted during the Republic usually did not depict real people, those of the Empire almost always had a portrait in profile of the current Emperor on one side.

Common questions About Roman Architecture

Q: How did the Roman water system work?

Rome used to get water supplies through a dozen aqueducts, capable of bringing more than 250 million gallons of fresh water to the city, nearly 1,500 public fountains and pools, and almost 900 public and private baths every day from as far away as 60 miles.

Q: What is Roman Mosaic Art?

Mosaic art consists of basic mosaics which are simple black and white geometric pattern to create pictures used on the floor. Another is the most expensive type of mosaic made out of colored stones.

Q: How did Romans make mosaics?

Mosaics were made by pressing very small cut pieces of colored stones which looked more like paintings than a mosaic.

Q: What makes Roman architecture unique?

Ancient Roman art is unique because the floors and walls of both the monuments and homes of upper-class were highly decorated by ornamenting these structures.

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