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Roman Architecture - Chief Characteristics

( Originally Published 1915 )

We have already spoken of the arch as the one great characteristic of the Roman style. We all know what an arch is, but, could we define it in words? Put in the simplest language, an arch may be described as a vertical segment of wedge-shaped stones which support each other over an opening; or, another description is: that the arch is a method of supporting materials above a void or, of making the materials support each other by their mutual compression. Figure 18 shows arch construction over piers in an aqueduct. Aqueducts of masonry were very common in Roman times, for the Romans did not know that water might be carried in pipes, and would (Piers of an aqueduct.) rise to the level of its source, and they often built these immense structures, many miles in length, to supply cities with water.

This arch feature has been used in subsequent styles, especially in the Romanesque ; and we must try to find some easy way of distinguishing the older style, that is, the Roman. We shall find this partly in the use to which buildings were put, for it is easy to see the difference between a great amphitheater, like the Colosseum, and a great Pagan temple, from their very shape and general appearance. All the buildings of the Roman style were Pagan, that is, they were for the worship of the heathen gods, in whom nobody now believes. The Romans had some of the same ancestry as the Greeks, but were of more mixed descent, and different in character, being warriors and practical men rather than artists and poets. When Rome conquered the Greek cities, Athens, Corinth, Syracuse, and the others, and enslaved their inhabitants, she was ready to learn their arts, and absorb some of their culture. " It is an unfailing rule, that, with the changes due to progress, the structural forms employed in the architecture of one age become the decorative features of the succeeding age," says Hamlin. Columns were very freely used in the Roman buildings and, so we see the columns used as the real support of a Greek temple adopted by the Roman as an ornament and often used to support nothing whatever, but merely a pleasing decoration. This was not so marked with them as in the Renaissance that developed from the Roman centuries afterwards. The Roman and Greek were the two great columnar styles, and we must soon study how the Romans made over the three Greek orders and improved upon them. The Roman arch made possible the impressive effect of great interiors unincumbered by columns or support such as in the Pantheon, the noblest antique example of all.

In connection with Roman, we often hear of Etruscan architecture, and we should know something about it. It was the architecture of the Etrurians of northern Italy who had a higher and earlier civilization than the Romans themselves. Little is now left of their architecture except remains of their giant masonry as at Perugia and their tombs, but we know that they used the true arch, and built circular buildings which the Romans imitated as in the Pantheon and the Castello St. Angelo.

When an architect wishes to build, he must first draw his plans, and specify every article that the builder is to put into the structure, the quantities of each, and how they shall be installed. It is easy to see what great knowledge and skill are required to do all of this accurately. But, much greater is the knowledge and skill required to conceive, in the mind, the structure before it is begun. This sort of thing had all been done before Roman times, but the Romans went far ahead of all their predecessors in the planning of their buildings.

Theirs was the pioneer ability in conceiving a logical plan without which all later developments of architectural art would have been impossible.

The Roman orders are merely modifications of the Greek orders which have been fully described on pages 35 to 38. It is interesting, however, to compare the two by looking at the pictures. The Roman orders were five in number instead of three.


The Tuscan was the name of the first or most simple. Figure 21 shows us a column of this style, with all parts clearly indicated. The Tuscan column admits no ornament and is never fluted, and it differs so little from the Roman Doric that it is generally regarded as being a variety of the latter.


This order was so similar to the Tuscan as to be practically the same thing and takes its place between the Tuscan and the noble, simple Doric order of the Greeks.


The Roman form of the Ionic order is similar to the Greek, but it gives to the capital four diagonal volutes and the sides of the abacus are curved. This is a very important difference, especially in determining whether a given capital is Greek or Roman.


The Roman Corinthian differed little from the Greek . It was the most ornate and slender of the five Roman orders, and bears the garlands of acanthus leaves as its distinguishing feature.


This was a distinctively Roman or-der, although its features were copied from the Greek. It was because the capital which characterizes it is a compound of those of the other orders. It borrows the quarter-round molding from the Tuscan and Doric, a rank of leaves from the Corinthian, and volutes from the Ionic period.

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