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6-08-2015, 15:12

Architecture and Art

In 75 CE, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote,
“In great buildings as well as in other things, the rest
of the world has been outdone by us Romans.”1 Two
of the most significant and recognizable contributions
of ancient Rome are its architecture and art. Several
examples endure today. They attest to the Romans’
dedication to craft, culture, and beauty.

Augustus boasted that he had transformed Rome from a city of brick into a
city of marble. Predecessor Julius Caesar began quarrying gleaming white
marble from the mountains of Carrara, located north of the city of Rome in
modern-day Tuscany. When Augustus came to power, he sped up the work,
and the Romans quarried huge quantities of marble from Carrara each year.
The ancient Romans borrowed heavily from Greek architecture but
made their structures bigger and more extravagant. Of particular note is
the column, which the Romans used heavily in their architecture. Columns
can support the weight of other structural elements or simply provide
decoration. The Romans took the Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic styles from the
Greeks. Doric columns are smooth or fluted, with grooves. Corinthian style is
more ornate than Doric, with intricately carved acanthus leaves and scrolls.
The Ionic design features scrollwork at the top. The Doric and the Ionic
feature fluted sides down the length of the columns, though the grooves
are thinner, with 24 flutes to the Doric style’s 20 flutes. The Colosseum has
all three styles, with Doric on the first floor, Ionic on the second floor, and
Corinthian on the third floor.
Roman architects had a broad array of skills. They used elements of
construction engineering, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, urban
planning, and construction management. They were also ahead of their
time in terms of harmonizing various elements of construction planning.
Aesthetics played an important part in Roman architecture. Marcus
Vitruvius Pollio, who lived during the first century BCE, is credited as the
father of architectural acoustics, or the way sound carries in a room’s design.
He wrote a groundbreaking treatise on architecture, and his work helped
transform the art into a professional discipline.

The Dead

Romans buried their dead in tombs. Elaborate
carvings, often depicting the deceased’s profession,
decorated tomb walls. Relief carvings show
physicians working on patients, storekeepers in
their shops, and bakers in front of their ovens. Altars
to the dead and tombstones included carvings
with names, dates, and loving sentiments.
In 2014, archaeologists discovered a cemetery
in an ancient Roman port. The find, which was
unearthed in the town of Ostia, had different
types of funeral rites, including both burials and
cremations. The differences in the burial methods
point to Ostia being a multicultural town. So far,
researchers have uncovered approximately a dozen
tombs, along with lead tablets with inscriptions
carved into them meant to curse any looters. The
cemetery in Ostia, which dates back 2,700 years, is
extraordinary because it shows that ancient people
living in the town had the freedom to decide what
would become of their bodies when they died.


One of the most recognized examples of ancient Roman architecture remains
today. The ruins of the once mighty Colosseum still stand in the center of
Rome. The mammoth arena, officially named the Flavian Amphitheater, was
one of Rome’s finest examples of engineering and architecture.
Emperor Vespasian commissioned the
Colosseum in approximately 70 CE. It opened in
80 CE, during the reign of Titus, Vespasian’s son.
The four-story oval amphitheater measures 620 feet
(189 m) long, 513 feet (156 m) wide, and 157 feet
(48 m) high.2 Made of stone and concrete, with
three stories of arched entrances, it could hold
50,000 spectators.3 Passages and chambers beneath
the arena floor transported and held gladiators
and animals.
The Colosseum was used for gladiator battles,
wild animal fights, and mock naval engagements for
more than four centuries before falling into neglect.
Subsequent residents plundered stones from the
structure for building materials. The Colosseum also
endured earthquakes, lightning strikes, and vandalism. Today, one-third of
the original structure remains.


The Pantheon is the best-preserved building of ancient Rome. More than
2,000 years old, it is a marvel of Roman architecture and construction. This
domed building measures almost 142 feet (43 m) in diameter and 142 feet
(43 m) high.5 The Romans constructed it with brick and concrete in the city
of Rome in approximately the 120s CE to replace a previous Pantheon, which
burned to the ground in 80 CE.
The Pantheon has a series of intersecting arches, piers, and supports.
Additional arches that run horizontally around the Pantheon support the
dome. The arches helped sustain the weight of building materials, and
builders used lighter materials toward the top of the dome to allow the
arches to support the dome’s sheer size. The rotunda is perfectly round,
another architectural feat for ancient Roman builders. Only the front portico,
which serves as an entrance, is rectangular.
The oculus is an opening in the middle of the dome. It is 30 feet (9 m)
in diameter.6 Sunlight pours through the oculus, lighting the Pantheon’s
beautiful interior. Since its construction, the Pantheon has been used as a
temple to the Roman gods, a Christian church, a national shrine, and a burial
place for famous Italians, including the
Renaissance painter Raphael from the
1400s CE.


Romans were quite fond of art and
admired Greek creations. After
conquering Greece in the 140s BCE and
studying Greek styles, sculptors and
painters copied Greek art techniques.
Many artists in Rome were Greeks who
had moved there, where they thrived
due to the high demand for their work.
While Roman sculptors admired
the Greek classical style, they did not
simply copy it. The Greeks strived
for ideal portrayals of their subjects.
Roman sculptors made the Greek style
their own by creating realistic portraits
of their subjects that conveyed facial
details and personalities. Roman
Sunshine streams
sculptors incorporated physical
peculiarities and defects of their
subjects, resulting in truer-to-life
works. Artists worked with
stone, precious metals, glass,
and terra-cotta, saving bronze
and marble for the finest,
most distinguished works.
Sculptors created large pieces
in the likeness of emperors and
important people. These artists
also carved smaller busts and
miniaturized copies of Greek
statues. Sculptures adorned the
homes of the wealthy and public
spaces, such as bathhouses
and fountains.
One famous example is a
bronze statue of Emperor Marcus
Aurelius, which was dedicated
in 175 CE. It is 11.5 feet (3.5 m) high and shows the ruler atop his horse.7 The
statue was originally covered in gold leaf and is in the Capitoline Museums in
Rome. A replica stands in the city’s Piazza del Campidoglio.
Sculptures also depicted historical events. For these, sculptors used
relief carving, a Roman innovation. The technique involves carving away a
flat surface to give the illusion that the scene is raised above or coming out
of the background. These carvings often occupied large public monuments,
columns, and triumphal arches.
Emperors had several statues of themselves made to send to cities within
the empire that were far from Rome. People living in conquered lands could
see what their new ruler looked like. Many of these works of art exist today.


The rich adorned their homes with paintings and mosaics. Archaeologists
have uncovered frescoes in many excavated ancient Roman homes,
including those in Pompeii. Artists painted vivid and realistic scenes on the
interiors of private homes in Roman cities as well as in the country. Pliny
the Elder wrote at the time that the subjects of fresco paintings could be
such things as “villas, porticos, landscape gardens, woods, groves, hills,
pools, channels, rivers, and coastlines.”8 Because most Roman homes lacked
windows, frescoes helped to brighten and enliven the interior walls with
outdoor scenes.
One of the most abundant forms of art that remains from ancient Rome
is the mosaic. Some mosaics were very detailed and often depicted intricate
designs. Both paintings and mosaics helped make Roman rooms seem larger
and more inviting. These works of art also showed off the wealth of the
home’s owner. So many mosaics are known today because floors, which were
often mosaic, are usually the only part of Roman buildings that survive.