Rome Building and Architecture

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do"

Take this as a direction to sit down in a café, enjoy a coffee and take in the atmosphere of Rome! 

In the 1990's I wrote a book on the history of Sydney, Australia under the title of 'Secrets in Stone'.

The book traced Sydney's history in words and photos as revealed through its stonework – mostly sandstone and followed a trail of stonework – from the stone cliffs along the coast through the heads and around Sydney Harbour ; to the ancient stone rock drawings of aboriginal people and then the  stone Government House, sea walls, Cathedrals,  Parliament buildings, churches, Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylons, other bridges, hospitals, warehouses, schools, post offices, gaols, cobblestone streets in the Rocks, town hall, Statues, gardens, War Memorials, docks, fountains, mansions, terraces  and houses that have been built with or used stone in their construction.

The Stone became a trail to reveal the history of Sydney, much like the legendary story of apple seeds that were planted by Johnny Appleseed wherever he travelled, or the breadcrumbs trail by Hansel and Gretel in the Grimm Brother's fairy story.

Following the book's publication a reader wrote to me making the observation that "stone links the architecture to the earth" and I think this is a great way to explain Stone's aura and presence.

Stone has a solidarity and permanence, more so than any other building material.

Stone be it sandstone, marble, ironstone, limestone of other type of stone changes with the light from day to night and seems to have an aura that no other building material has. While timber may burn, rot or be eaten by vermin, glass may break and bricks may tumble, stone has a far greater presence – and nowhere is this more apparent than it is in Rome.

Perhaps this is why God created the Grand Canyon in stone, the Egyptians the Pyramids, the Incas Machu Picchu, the Chinese the Great Wall of China and the Romans created Rome.

While Australia has an ancient history, Sydney since the arrival of the British First Fleet has a modern history dating back a little more than 200 years (1788), New York almost 400 years (1624) and London City from the time of the Romans around 2000 years (43AD). To put this in perspective, the City of Rome has a history dating back to 753 BC – making these other world cities young in comparison.

More than any other city in the world Rome is a 'City of Stone' – a city that has over 2700 years of history.

For many people, it is also the most beautiful city in the world.

I hope you have a great time visiting Rome.

Geoff Stuart

Welcome to Rome!   Benvenuto a Roma!


Every building, column, church, roadway, sculpture in the City of Rome has a story to tell and when you consider that many of these buildings you see here are a thousand and sometimes over two thousand years old, the spectacle of what you are seeing here can be quite amazing.

This is especially so when you consider that you are just one of the billions of people who have down through the centuries walked these same cobblestone streets, seen the Colosseum, St Peter's Square, St Peter's Basilica, The Pantheon, The Forum and all that is Rome. There's a lot to see.

Before discussing some of the main buildings that you see in Rome, I have set down some information on some of the Architectural features that you will see as you look at the different buildings here in Rome.

Ancient Rome took much of its inspiration in building and architecture from the ancient civilisations of the Etruscans, Persians, Egyptians and Greeks when they built their temples and other buildings. Rome certainly wasn't built in a day!

The most obvious example of this is the use of columns in their construction. Columns are the 'pillars of strength' that reflect power and authority and in most cases, but not all, they are round in shape – made up of a base, a shaft and a capital – and in most cases a column will be one of a number of columns set out in a row of two or more to hold the structure above them.

The Greeks developed the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian classic columns with much of this documented by the Roman Architect, Vitruvius Pollio whose books on Architecture helped inspire the development of Roman Architecture.

The Romans designed the Roman Doric, Tuscan and Composite Column styles with an Entablature  - the horizontal section above the columns, connecting columns one to another and sometimes also additional decorative Friezes, Gables, Niches, Architraves, Pediments and cornices. The capitals also might have decorative elements, even sculptural aspects, while vertical grooves might also be see on a column too, also as a decorative feature – what are called Flutes. Columns vary also in their diameter, height and in some cases are in solid granite or other stone, depending on the level of strength needed to support the structure above. In some cases you will also see a column made up of one solid column and at other times made up of shorter column sections (Like barrels stacked on top of each other) bonded tighter to form the overall length of the column. There are also columns constructed from brick and/or concrete or even stucco.

One of the other most notable Architectural elements that you will see in Rome are Arches, a semi-circular shape, attached to columns and at other times forming an opening in a wall or built over a window or doorway. While the Romans didn't invent the Arch (It is thought to be the Etruscans), the Romans did make wide use of it throughout their Empire – the best examples being in the Pantheon and in bridges, aqueducts and many of their other buildings. The Arch was also a good way to save on Stone while since maintaining the line of a wall, creating internal light into a Colonnade covered walkway and creating and defining an entranceway to a roadway, arena or other building.

The width of the opening, what is called the Span may vary, with the arch width itself dependent on the width of the span. The vertical sides below the Arch are called the Springers and these ultimately carry the weight of the arch and structure above.

An Arch is initially constructed using a temporary archway made in timber to support its construction, with the timbers removed when the Arch is completed. The arch is then made up of wedge shaped stone blocks called Voussoirs that point inwards to create the arch shape, with a Keystone at the top of the Arch locking the stones in place. The weight and pressure caused by the weight above transfers downwards through the arch to the vertical Springers below. The keystone being at the crown of the Arch is the most critical of all the stones used, as it locks the left and right side of the Arch together, and many times you might also see the keystone used with a decorative features so that it stands out, or even with a sculptural element – a lion's head or sculpture.

Since Roman times there have been many types of Arches designed and built, the most visibly interesting ones being those used on Church Buildings where the Arch has a pointed head to it, rather than a semi-circular shape. This style of Arch is mostly seen in church Architecture, particularly Gothic Architecture and sometimes using finely cut stone Tracery and a combination of arches – side by side Arches linked together as a twosome of threesome with glass leadlight making up the windows – depicting saints and other biblical scenes.  Some of these windows can be very detailed and intricate with smaller arches created within an overall larger arch, making the overall window quite beautiful. The stone used is often called Tracery – as it is shaped and moulded to fit into the spaces involved.

Stone varies in colour, texture, strength and hardness with the best quality stone able to be cut to a shape. The best example of this is Marble and you will see many statues and fountains in Rome – and elsewhere in the world that are carved from marble – particularly white Carrera Marble that has been quarried and still is quarried in Italy. Many other stones are used – depending on the application involved.

Stones used in Rome include different colours of Marble and Granites, Travertine, Limestone, Breccia, Porphyry, Basalt, Tufo – a Volcanic Rock and also Alabaster – all sourced from quarries on the Italian Peninsula but also from places as far away as Greece, North Africa, Egypt and Turkey.

In most cases the best stone is used for facing a building or where there is intricate fine work involved, whereas the lesser stone will be used in broad walls and as fillers. When looking at different walls built by the Romans – you will see most important walls built using rectangular blocks of stone – what are called Ashlar blocks, laid out like brickwork in horizontal courses. Smaller walls and buildings, walled gardens, cottages or fences use offcuts and broken pieces of stone and more often than not this stone is quarried on-site or comes from demolitions or as discarded stone from other constructions. Sometimes the ruins of a building would also form an instant quarry for stone, be that purchased or stolen, and in dating buildings it can sometimes be difficult to do so when there is stone that has been re-purposed. This stone is described as Spolio.

While most larger buildings and structures use Ashlar blocks, there is also use of  'Random stone'-  oddly cut stone or rocks that can still be used in places such as a drystone wall or built using a mortar and set in place using the different size and shapes of each stone. There are also random coursed stone walls – where the random stone and rocks are used but built up to a fixed level or levels within an overall wall structure. The random shape and colours of the stone can be equally attractive to use of ashlar blocks of stone.

When you're in Rome and look across the skyline you will also see many domes. This vaulted domed roof shape can be seen on a number of buildings, with the dome shape also used on other important world buildings such as the Capital Building in Washington DC. 

The most amazing of these Domes in Rome is in the Pantheon – where the dome is 43.3 metres in diameter (142Feet) across. This dome is the biggest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world. It was a remarkable design and engineering feat at the time and still is today. Most use of concrete today also relies in its reinforcing for a lot of its strength – usually using a matrix of steel rods and mesh.

The Romans used Concrete between 300BC and 476AD to construct many of their buildings, the concrete made using Pozzolana (a Pozzalanic Volcanic Ash), water, lime, sand and aggregate, but at certain times they also used pumice stone, even blood and horse hair in the mix. The speed and flexibility in the use of Concrete, when compared to using stone, led to the Romans widespread use of concrete throughout the Empire.

When you look at a Dome roof from the outside – you might see it covered in ceramic tiles or copper sheeting, but more often it is the concrete you see. Originally some may also have been covered in gold. The design of a Dome takes a number of forms – the dome shape itself called the Drum, the vault being the height of the drum and either a lantern or Cupola or even a Bell-tower on top with maybe a statue on top of this too or some other crowning feature. Some domes also have what are  called an Oculus on top of the Dome, a circular open roof space that allows light and air to penetrate the interior of the dome. There is an Oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.

Many domes are built on a perfectly round circular base, others have an octagonal shaped base, and there are also domes that rise from a circular base linked to a rectangular building below it and in a church this would be at the point of a church or Cathedral where the nave crosses over the transepts.  Maybe you have or haven't noticed that western Christian churches are traditionally designed in the shape of a Christian Cross.

There is extensive use of domes also in Eastern Orthodox Christian churches too, and the Russian Orthodox churches have a distinctive shape too – what are called the Onion shaped domes with their multi-coloured sides. Some of the churches in Russia have up to 15 domes, domes symbolizing God, Christ, the Holy Trinity and Apostles.

Many dome structures have rib braces that rise from the base of the dome to the top of it, or to the tower or oculus. Sometimes there are also windows on the sides of the dome too, providing light to the interior of the building. In more recent centuries there have also been domes built using cast iron and stained glass – and you can also see a fabulous one in the centre of Milan in the Victor Emanuele II shopping street arcade built between 1865 and 1877 near the Duomo (Cathedral) and an equally beautiful one in the Galleries Lafayette Department Store in Paris.

It is inside a building with a dome above you where you see the skill of those who built it and also get to enjoy the atmosphere created through the use of light, colour, textures, sound and materials.

From patterned and coffered ceilings, to niches with statues, frescoes, marble floors, columns and other structural and decorative features, these dome top buildings may be all different, but they all have great atmosphere and a sense of grandeur.

As much as the Romans built Rome, they also built roads, bridges, aqueducts, baths, town walls, arenas, circuses and other buildings across the Empire. Besides stone and concrete, mosaic tiles and bricks fired in kilns to give them strength and durability were widely used by the Romans.

The Roman Bricks were moulded and fired in square, rectangular and even triangular and round shapes, depending on their usage and the measurements made in Roman feet and inches, with the maker sometimes stamping the brick with their mark. Many Roman brick walls still exist, sometimes a mix of both bricks and stone courses, with the bricks also a mix of stretchers and headers, where each brick is centred over the join of the brick below with the bricklayer running a course of bricks – a technique that is still used today.

When they say that 'Rome wasn't built in a day' they could equally say the same about the Roman Roads that were built throughout the Empire including in Britain. They are thought to be some 55,000 miles (88,500 Kilometres) of roads built by the Romans, with the most famous road being the Appian Way built in 312BC from Rome to Capua (St Maria Capua Vetere) that is 16 miles (25km) north of Naples.

Capua itself dates back to 803BC when it was first founded by the Etruscans, 50 years before Rome. 

Very close to the ancient city of Capua is the Royal Palace of Caserta (Reggia di Caserta) built in 1752 (Viale Douhet 2/a Caserta  Tel: +39 0823 277468). The 1200 room Palace with its magnificent Honour Grand staircase, State Apartments, Throne Room, King's Bedroom, Library, gardens, fountains, statues and the Caroline Aqueduct were built for King Charles II of Naples and the Palace rivals Versailles in its grandeur.  It is open year round to the public, but closed on Tuesdays. It is well worth seeing if you get the chance.

"All roads lead to Rome" and during the years of the Roman Empire the roads were all measured by the distance to or from Rome, with the Golden Milestone where the roads were measured from being located in the Forum in Rome. The roads were constructed using much the same technique as we use today, with Roman Surveyors (Gromatici) using sighting poles to determine a straight direction for the road to follow, and then the road bed dug out and then constructed in multiple layers of rocks and earth for strength and durability with drainage and ditches to the sides.

The Roman Roads enabled the Romans to move their Legions of soldiers along the roads and create a vast Military and trading network, with Post Houses, tolls and inns along the way and bridges, aqueducts and tunnels constructed where needed. There was even a large map, over 6 metres wide that was drawn of the road network, and a 13th Century copy of that map on parchment is located in the National Library of Austria in Hofburg, Vienna– called the Tabula Peutingeriana, named after Konrad Peutinger, who it was first bequeathed to in 1508.   

In building the roads across Europe and Britain, the Romans encountered many obstacles including mountains and rivers that they needed to cross.  They became great bridge builders and using the arch form that they had perfected they were able to build some of the most beautiful stone bridges in the world. In Rome there are a number of Bridges that cross over the Tiber and some of these relate back to the early days of the Empire.

Many of the world's great cities and also towns and villages are located next to waterways, with water being essential to sustain life. Water is used for drinking, cooking, bathing, cleaning and in toilets and the Roman use of water can be seen in the Bath houses they constructed, in the supply of water through aqueducts and in the sewers they built.

Aqueducts were first built in the Middle East as early as 700BC, but it is the Romans who built them in Rome and elsewhere throughout their Empire. Aqueducts are a channel to allow water to flow and they rely on the natural downhill flow of water. While they have been built below ground and at ground level, it is the above ground Aqueducts that are most visible and notable architectural achievements. There were about 11 Aqueducts built to bring water to Rome, built between 312BC and 226AD and some travelled a distance of up the 50 miles or more. There are parts of the Viaducts that can still be seen in Rome just as archways over some of the roadways.

The best preserved Aqueducts are not in Rome – probably one of the best to see being the Nîmes Aqueduct Bridge over the Gardon River in France near the small town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard (near Nîmes) where there is the Pont du Gard Aqueduct. Nîmes was a significant Roman Town called Nemausus.

The Aqueduct was built by the Romans about 40-60AD and ran for about 50 kilometres (30 miles)– dropping just 17 metres over this length, with the bridge here, constructed in Limestone with three levels of arches, with a tollway road on the top level. It was and is a remarkable engineering and design achievement.

In Rome, as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, they built Roman Bath Houses – designed to accommodate large numbers of people. The Baths of Diocletian in Rome for example, built and used from 298AD to 306AD could accommodate up to 3000 people at a time – with hot, warm and cold baths all here along with shops, gymnasiums and other facilities for the bathers. These baths now form part of the Museo Nazionale Romano that opened in 1889.

Another large Bath House Complex was the Roman Baths of Caracalla in Rome – used from 200AD to 299AD. Here again the Baths were designed for a large number of bathers and today you can see the Ruins of the Bath House and also see under the Bath House the tunnels, corridors and rooms used to keep the baths hot, warm or cold ( Caldarium, Tepidarium, or Frigidarium). Here too the foundations of the Temple of Mithras can be seen.

Roman Baths can be seen in many locations within the old Empire, with one of the more famous ones being the ones in Bath in England – where the whole town is named after the Baths, with the Baths also still operating. (See England section of this website).

The more that you see of Rome, the more you appreciate how advanced in many ways the Romans were in terms of building and society. While it was no doubt Military Power that enabled them to maintain and protect the Empire, they also left a huge legacy in the building work that was left behind.

Right across Europe, Britain and North Africa there are the ruins of great buildings from the time of the Roman Empire – and even today these Arenas, Theatres, Bridges, Roads, Aqueducts and even the areas used for Chariot races (The Circuses) can still be seen in many locations.

As they say, "Rome was built for Eternity".

Hopefully the words I have written here will help you understand more about the building and architecture of Rome.

Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart 

Happy Traveller

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