20 March 2005
Ancient Rome was the most powerful civilization in the recorded history of the world. Its legacy still remains today in many forms: elements of its culture, its political ideals, its military strategy, but perhaps most noticeably its architecture have not faded much in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman empire. Roman structures were functional, well-built, and impressive to look at, and many of the same design principles they applied are still used today. Let’s look at Rome’s aqueducts, Colosseum, and Pantheon, as three examples of the architecture that made Rome great.
Still standing today, ancient Roman aqueducts serve as fine examples of the architectural and engineering accomplishments of this great civilization. Ancient Rome was a bustling metropolis that needed a steady water supply like any other big city in ancient or modern times. Several aqueducts were built for this purpose. The first aqueduct, Aqua Appia, was built in 312 B.C. After that, ten more were built as time went on and the need for water grew. The names of the other aqueducts are as follows: Aqua Anio Vetus, Marcia, Tepula, Julia, Virgo, Alsietina, Claudia, Anio Novus, Traiana and Alexandrina. These aqueducts supplied Rome with water for its public baths, fountains, government buildings, gardens and even private households. Aqueducts were not only prized for their civic importance, but also for their political and economical value. Businesses and citizens that had access to private lines had to pay a quota and water taxes. This of course had economical significance. Emperors used the construction of aqueducts in their favor, as it credited their reigns with growing prosperity and civility.
The materials used for building aqueducts were Roman inventions: cement and backed bricks (Hocker 96). Wood was also used to construct scaffolding and as a building material for heavy lifting devices like the “goat,” and an excavating contraption called “the sheep.” “The goat” was used for heavy lifting and it was man-powered by slaves that walked inside a giant wheel. “The sheep” was used to drive poles through the ground. Aqueducts were largely subterranean, so these machines where used to dig holes, allowing the construction of tunnels and the clearing of the surrounding construction site.
Before explaining how the aqueduct works, an understanding of how they were built is necessary. Engineering is the main science behind the construction of aqueducts. First surveyors had to plan out the route. Without modern engineering tools the ancient Romans had a tough job before them. Three very important tools used for calculations and measurements were the groma, the dioptra and the chorobate (Woods par. 3 and 12). The groma was used to calculate right angles. The dioptra was used to calculate a straight route for the aqueduct. The chorobate was used as a level. These mathematically driven tools were primitive but effective, the most practical technology available to the ancient Romans to do what they needed.
To start building an aqueduct the Romans first had to locate a natural water source such as a spring, a well or a river. The countryside surrounding Rome was rich in water sources. Once the body of water was identified, a catch basin was constructed. The catch basin is a structure very similar to a dam where a volume of the water is gathered while the rest ran its natural course. From the catch basin a closed conduct was constructed.
A closed conduct’s function was to channel the water to the city. The closed conduits can be described as tunnels, usually subterranean. At times the topography of the region made it impossible for the conduits to be underground. When this was the case bridges and raised arches were constructed to carry the water. These conduits emptied into piscinae and cisterns that served as holding and settling tanks. In these the water was rid of impurities. The water was also cooled because the settling tanks were underground. From the settling tanks, conduits channeled the now clean and cool water to castellums or distribution tanks in the city itself. From the distribution tanks, lead or tile pipes conducted water to public baths, public fountains and private residences (Moyer sec. 2).
The common citizens depended on the public fountains for all of their water needs. Citizens had to carry jugs to collect water to take home. Rich citizens, on the other hand, had more commodities. They could afford to pay for private lines to be installed from the distribution tanks, directly to their houses, a similar arrangement to what we use today. Ancient aqueducts are a standing testament to the ingenuity and might of the Roman civilization, and the endurance of its architecture.
Construction of the Colosseum began in 70 AD under the emperor Vespasian and was completed by 80 AD. Vespasian emerged as emperor from a bloody Roman civil war and began construction of the Colosseum as a gesture of goodwill towards the Roman people with the purpose of creating favorable opinion through it. Vespasian chose to build the Colosseum on the ground Nero, the emperor prior to Vespasian, built his elaborate and lavish palace, the “Golden House,” on land in the very center of Rome. This was public land that Nero had taken from private owners, and naturally this angered many Romans. By putting the Colosseum here, Vespasian hoped to give back to the citizens of Rome.
The Colosseum was built for the purpose of gladiatorial contests and wild beast hunts. As it is commonly known, the Romans had an insatiable thirst for blood as sport. Watching violent combat was a major form of entertainment for that society. These games were an entertainment business, similar to today’s motion picture or music industries in principle, but not execution. Gladiators were slaves whose owners could possess as many as they had money to purchase and care for. There were training camps for gladiators where they received many months of intense training before fighting in the games, and animals for hunts were shipped in from all over the empire. To the people of Rome gladiators were similar to professional athletes of today. Many people had favorite gladiators they cheered for and women often elevated these warriors to a status of sex symbols.
The Colosseum was not only used for entertainment but also in politics, and it resembled Roman society. The emperor and politicians, among other important men, would sponsor events at the Colosseum in order to gain public support or popularity. The seating at the Colosseum was designated according to social class, determining where one was permitted to sit. As expected, those of highest social rank sat up front, such as the emperor and senators. Those of lowest social rank, like the poor, slaves, freed slaves, or foreigners, sat up top in the back. The only exception to this structure lies with the important women of Rome who sat at the very top, farthest away from the bloodshed in the arena and in the shade to maintain their fair complexion.
The Colosseum is significant because it shows that the Romans had to apply a great degree of technology which was quite advanced for their time, in order to construct this building. It was built with 80 entrances, which are within the arches along the ground level, 76 for the Roman people and 4 for the emperor and VIP’s, and could seat approximately 50,000 spectators. Each entrance had a number engraved above it corresponding to the number on the ticket held by a spectator.
This, along with a series of halls, passages, and staircases, provided for a quick flow of people entering and exiting the building. Along the ring of the fourth level was a series of masts. D.L. Bomgardner says that “these masts secured the rigging for the vast awning,” which is similar to a tarp or canvas, “that protected the audience from the scorching sun or pouring rain” (6). Underneath the arena is a series of passages and holding pens where the gladiators and animals were held. This subterranean part of the Colosseum consisted of ropes, pulleys, and elevators that would raise the gladiators and animals up to the arena. There was also a system of tunnels under the Colosseum providing entryways leading to the holding area under the arena. Also there are four water tunnels, which are believed to have been used to flood the arena for mock naval battles.
The architectural ingenuity found in the Colosseum makes it a wonder. It is amazing that a people in the later half of the first century were capable of constructing a structure such as this. Considering the time period, the Romans completed the Colosseum in a relatively quick amount of time as well it only took a decade. The Colosseum was a massive monument unlike anything before its time and for centuries after its completion. It truly is an architectural and engineering feat of the ancient world. It shows Roman mastery of building and construction. The sheer size of the Colosseum alone was bewildering to those newly acquainted with it. The Colosseum acted as a true symbol of Rome’s power, prestige, and extravagance and also reflected Rome’s society and rigid class system. Through its use of science and technology Rome was able to portray itself in this building.
The Roman Pantheon is the third ancient Roman structure under our examination, a lesser-known structure but also one of the most intriguing. It was built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 A.D. as a temple for all the gods of Roman mythology. Its name is taken from the Latin words pan, meaning “all,” and theios, meaning “gods,” its name serving as a quite literal description of what it was (Online Etymology). The Pantheon was destroyed by fire in 80 A.D. but completely rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in the year 125. In 609 A.D., the building was converted into a Christian church by Pope Boniface IV, and it continues to be used for that today.
The building’s layout is an interesting one, shaped almost like an old-fashioned keyhole when viewed aerially. It is composed of a large round rotunda with a square portico extending from the front. The rotunda is indoors, housed in a giant concrete dome. The portico is a glorified covered porch, supported by three tiers of Corinthian-styled columns.
The dome atop the rotunda is worthy of special mention because of its size and its manner of construction. With a diameter of 142 feet, it is the largest dome surviving from antiquity. It was the largest dome in the entire world until Brunelleschi completed the dome of the Duomo in Florence in 1436. Also interesting is the large hole in the top of the dome. Called an oculus, this hole allows light into the Pantheon and the beam cast on the interior walls of the building functions as a sundial to tell the time. The oculus is 28 feet in diameter. Even with a giant whole in the roof, surprisingly little rain makes its way into the Pantheon, due to the fact that rain rarely falls straight down and cannot enter the perfectly horizontal opening. There is a drainage system in the floor to remove what water does get in, though.
The portico in the front of the Pantheon is nearly as impressive as the rotunda. 16 massive columns hold aloft a giant gradually sloped gable called a pediment, which covers the entrance leading into the building. Across the pediment is inscribed a phrase in Latin which means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built this.” It stands as a testimony to the Romans and a memorial even to the greatness of that leader’s consulship.
The concrete from which this building is formed is a remarkable thing in itself. Its composition is unknown, but it was likely made from lime and pozzolanic ash taken from nearby volcanoes, forming a mix that contained fist-sized chunks of rock. It was effectively very similar to modern concrete (“Pantheon, Rome”). This concrete was added one layer at a time, slowly, to form the building and dome of the Pantheon, with great care taken at each stage to remove excess moisture. Building in this way prevented air bubbles from forming in the concrete and strengthening it dramatically. If the Pantheon’s dome were to be constructed using modern materials and techniques, it would collapse under its own weight. The fact that this ancient structure still stands strongly today is an amazing legacy of the Romans. The Pantheon is the best-preserved remnant of their civilization today.
The Romans were brilliant city planners, engineers, and builders. Their standards of hygiene and convenience were unparalleled in the ancient world, and the way they made the most of the technology available to them is no different from how we use ours today. Will our cities still be standing in a thousand years or more? Rome left behind a legacy of structural feats that has often been duplicated. Many Roman architectural principles are still in use in the modern world; when everything else fades away, as any historian will agree, that is the mark of true greatness.
Bomgardner, D.L. The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre. London: Routledge, 2000.
This source provided the bulk of information about the Colosseum from research. The book contained background information, significance of Colosseum’s location, and discussed the setup of the building and its features. This is a scholarly source which appears to have required a significant amount of research.
Hocker, Christoph . Ancient Rome Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1997.
This book deals with important aspects of ancient Roman Civilization. It has information about Roman history and culture. It also has a section about architecture science and technology. This is a great book with lots of information about building technology. It also has information about the tools and materials invented by the ancient Romans.
Moyer, Jason. The Roman Aqueducts and Water Systems. 1997.
This is a great web site owned by professor Jason Moyer of Bowdoin College. This website offers detailed information about how ancient aqueducts work. It also names the eleven Aqueducts of Rome and relevant information about each one of them.
Online Etymology Dictionary. November 2001 <http://www.etymonline.com/>.
This resource offers a great deal of information on the roots of English words and their meanings. It was compiled by Douglas Harper, a scholar of history and language, and contains many well-documented sources. It is concise and informative.
“Pantheon, Rome.” Wikipedia. 15 March 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantheon%2C_Rome>
This is an extremely comprehensive article on the subject of the Roman Pantheon. It discusses the history, design, and composition of the building. It contains many pictures and links to more information and is quite thorough. Wikipedia is a free, open encyclopedia edited by its readers. It is heavily moderated, and can be recognized as a reliable resource.
Portella, Ivana Delia. Subterranean Rome. Konemann 2000.
This book has information about several underground archeological sites in Rome. One of the sites featured in the book is a Roman Cistern. Cisterns are an important component of the ancient aqueducts. This book gives information on how the aqueducts worked and the role of the cistern.
This web site was used to check the information gathered from the The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre. The information matched up with the book and this site can be considered a legitimate source because it contains a long list of resources used.
Szasz, Colin. The Influence of Roman Engineering and Architecture. 13 January 2003<http://www.arch.mcgill.ca/prof/sijpkes/arch304/winter2001/cszasz/u1/roman.htm>.
This essay was written by a student at McGill University’s School of Architecture, and has a lot to say about the strength of the Roman empire. It discusses building styles and the reasoning behind them, as well as how these things apply today. Though it was written by a student, it seems well documented and I have no reason to discredit the information it presents.
Woods, Robert O. Finite Elements, Roman-Style. Mechanical Engineering . New York: Sep 2003. Vol. 125, Iss. 9, p. 58-60.
This article deals with the engineering behind ancient Aqueducts. In this article the author explains how the Romans surveyed the land, made measurements and calculations using machines developed in ancient times. The author explains how the Aqueducts were built. He has a great understanding of the topic because he is an engineer, so he knows what he is talking about.