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Roman Architecture - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )



I. Geographical.—The comparative simplicity of the long coast-line of the Italian Peninsula forms a strong contrast to the complexity of the indented coast-lines of Greece and the innumerable islands of the Archipelago. Italy has few natural harbours and few islands along her shores. The great chain of the Apennines runs like a spine down the centre of Italy and much of the country is very mountainous, but it is not broken up into isolated little valleys to the same extent as is Greece. These clearly marked geographical differences between the countries of the Greeks and the Romans have their counterpart in equally clearly defined differences of national character. The central and commanding position of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea enabled Rome to act as an intermediary in spreading art and civilisation over Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. In their Empire-building the Romans proceeded logically : they conquered first by war, dominated by force of character, and then ruled by laws and civilised by arts and letters. It was also natural that, under different geographical conditions, the methods adopted by Rome for extending her influence should have differed from those of Greece. The Romans were not a seafaring people like the Greeks, and did not send out colonists in the same way to all parts of the then-known world : they depended for the extension of their power, not on colonisation, but on conquest. The Roman power was built up, first of all in Italy itself, by a gradual absorption of little States, at a time when there were few rival cities and when small towns were not over-tenacious of their separate independence ; whereas neither Athens nor Sparta was able to carry out a similar process of absorption, owing to the fierce independence of the small Greek cities, protected as they were in their isolated and well-nigh impregnable valleys. The Roman Empire was ultimately not confined geographically to Italy, but, as shown in the map (p. 129), included all those parts of Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia which constituted the then-known world.

II. Geological.—The geological formation of Italy differs from that of Greece, where the chief and almost the only building material is marble ; whereas in addition to marble the Romans could procure terra-cotta, stone, and brick, all of which they used, even for important buildings. In the neighbourhood of Rome there was travertine, a hard limestone from Tivoli ; tufa, a volcanic substance of which the hills of Rome are mainly composed ; peperino, a stone of volcanic origin from Mount Albano ; lava from volcanic eruptions, besides excellent sand and gravel. The building material, however, which led to great structural innovations was concrete formed of pozzolana, a clean, sandy earth found in thick strata, which has the peculiar property, when mixed with lime, of forming exceedingly hard and cohesive concrete which rendered possible some of the finest examples of Roman architecture. Not only domes and vaults but also walls were frequently formed of this concrete, and they were faced with brick, stone, alabaster, porphyry and other marbles, hewn from countless quarries by armies of slaves. Pliny records that enormous quantities of white and coloured marbles were imported from- all parts of the Empire to special wharves on the Tiber and were then worked up by gangs of slaves and convicts. Roman architecture, as it spread over the whole of the then-known world, was naturally variously influenced by the materials found in the widely differing localities where it planted itself ; but concrete, which in conjunction with brick and stone casing was the favourite material, helped to give uniformity of style to Roman architecture throughout the Empire, and thus local geological influences were to a certain extent at a discount. In Syria, however, as at Baalbek, also in Egypt, as at Philae, the yield of the quarries was so unlimited that enormous stone blocks took the place of Roman concrete, and thus the traditional usage of those countries prevailed.

III. Climatic.—North Italy has the climate of the temperate region of Europe, Central Italy is genial and sunny, while the south is almost tropical. This variety of climatic conditions is sufficient to account for diversity of architectural features and treatment in the peninsula itself, while the differing climates of the various Roman provinces from England to North Africa, and from Syria to Spain, produced local modifications in details, though Roman architectural character was so pronounced and assertive as to leave little choice in general design.

IV. Religious.--The religion of ancient Rome was part of the constitution of the State, and even the worship of the gods, which were adopted from the Greeks (p. 66) under Latin names with attributes to suit Roman religious requirements, was eventually kept up only as a matter of State policy. The Emperor ultimately received divine honours and may almost be described as the head of the Pantheon of deities of the various provinces which came under the tolerant and wide-spread Roman rule. Religious feeling had not so strong a hold on the Romans as on the Greeks and did not enter in the same degree into the life of the people ; nor do we find that it formed the bond of union among the different provinces of the Empire. The position of the Emperor as Pontifex Maximus is rather indicative of the glorification of the Empire than of religion, and officialism stamped its character even on temple architecture. The principal buildings are not only temples, as in Greece, but also public buildings which were the material expression of Roman rule and Imperial power. Sacerdotalism had no place in Roman religion and the priests were not, as in Egypt, a powerful and privileged class, but only performed the sacrifices, while Augurs ascertained from omens the will of the gods. Every house, whether palace, villa, or " domus," had an altar to the Lares or family gods, and ancestor worship was a recognised part of religious rites ; so it came about that Vesta, goddess of the hearth, was exalted to a high position in the Roman pantheon of gods, and vestal virgins, attached to the temples of Vesta, were of greater importance than the ordinary priests of sacrifice.

V. Social.—In early times Etruria in the centre of Italy was occupied by the Etruscans, probably an Aryan people who appear to have settled there before authentic history begins, and who were great builders (p. 133). The Greeks had colonies in the south which were included under the name of " Magna Graecia." Italy was not inhabited by one race only, but by many races. In Cisalpine Gaul there were Ligurians, Umbrians, and Etruscans. The remainder of Italy was originally occupied by Pelasgians or tribes of the Aryan race who had separated from the Celts, Teutons, and others, and who had been part of the same race that originally inhabited Greece. The early form of government in Italy resembled that of Greece, and towns or districts were joined together in leagues. The government of Rome was at an early period carried on by chosen kings (B.C. 750–500) aided by a popular assembly, but about B.C. 500 Rome became a Republic. On Pompey's defeat at Pharsalia, Julius Caesar remained without a rival, but was murdered in B.C. 44, when there followed a period of great confusion. Then came the Triumvirate, consisting of Marcus Antonius, Caius Octavius (great-nephew of Julius Caesar), and Marcus AEmilius Lepidus, who were opposed to Brutus and Cassius and eventually defeated them. On the defeat of Marcus Antonius at Aktion (B.C. 31) Caius Octavius commenced to reign, and when the need for centralised government of distant provinces resulted in the formation of the Empire he received the title of " Imperator " and in B.C. 27 that of " Augustus," afterwards used as a surname by all Roman Emperors. The Augustan age was one of the great eras in the world's history, like the Periclean age in Greece, the Elizabethan age in England, and the nineteenth century throughout Europe. At such epochs a new spring seems to well up in national and individual life, vitalising art and literature. It was indeed the boast of Augustus that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. The poets Virgil (B.C. 70-19), Horace (B.C. 65-8), Ovid (B.C. 43—A.D. 17), and Livy the historian (B.C. 59—A.D. 17), all flourished during this great period. The verses of Virgil and Horace show that the population flocked into the cities and disliked rural life, so that the land gradually went out of cultivation and the people depended on imported corn. Following Augustus, who died A.D. 14, came a line of famous Emperors, of whom Nero (A.D. 54–69), Vespasian (A.D. 69–79), Trajan (A.D. 98-117), Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), Septimius Severus (A.D. 192—21 I), Caracalla (A.D. 211—217), and Diocletian (A.D. 284–305) were the greatest patrons of architecture. The " Building Acts " of Augustus and of his successors, Nero and Trajan, show the controlling influence of the State on architecture. Then ensued a period when a turbulent populace within the Imperial City, and the huge armies required to keep in check the barbarian tribes on every frontier, dominated the government. Emperors were no sooner chosen than they were murdered, and social chaos weakened the political power of the Empire. The social life of the Romans is clearly revealed in their architecture—there were thermae for games and bathing, circuses for races, amphitheatres for gladiatorial contests, theatres for dramas, basilicas for law-suits, State temples for religion, and the " domus " for the family life, while the Forum was everywhere the centre of public life and national commerce. Amidst all this diversity of pursuits there is one consistent trait running through all Roman life, and this is that capacity for obedience which was the basis alike of society and the State. The patria potestas, or supreme power of the father, was the foundation-stone of family life, and out of their obedience to authority, whether to the head of the household, or to censors in the State, the Romans developed their capacity as law-makers, and through this one characteristic they have left a special mark on the world's history. In the Roman social system there were only patricians, plebeians and slaves, and no middle class. Roman women were held in high respect, family life was protected, and the Temple of Vesta, the most sacred spot in Rome, has recorded for all time the sacredness attached by the Romans to their family hearth.

VI. Historical.—The foundation of Rome is of uncertain date, but is generally taken as B.C. 750, and until B.C. 500 its development and destinies were in the hands of the early kings. The Republic which followed engaged in many wars, conquering several Etruscan cities, but was defeated in B.C. 390 by the Gauls, who continued for some time to hold the northern part of Italy. About B.C. 343 began the Roman con-quest of Italy, which in about sixty years resulted in the dominion of one city over many cities. Then came wars with peoples outside Italy, and Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, was the first to be subdued. The first Punic war (B.C. 264–241) against Carthage brought about the annexation of Sicily as the first Roman province. The second Punic war (B.C. 218–201) was the most severe struggle in which the Romans had engaged ; for Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, entered Italy from the north, defeated the Roman armies, and maintained himself in Italy until recalled to meet a counter-attack of the Romans, under Scipio, upon Carthage itself. The third Punic war (B.C. 149–146) ended in the destruction of Carthage, which with its territory became a Roman province in Africa. The conquest of Macedonia (B.C. 168) and of Greece (B.C.. 146) added two more provinces to the Roman Empire, and also stimulated the importation of Greek artists and art into Italy. Greece, in its turn, formed a stepping-stone for the Romans to Western Asia, which was gradually subdued till in B.C. 133 it also became a province of Rome. With the conquests of Syria (B.C. 190) and Spain (B.C. 150) the Roman Empire extended from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, while Caesar's campaigns in Gaul (B.C. 59) made the Rhine and the English Channel its northern boundaries, until in B.C. 55 Caesar conquered Britain, and in B.C. 30 Egypt too was added to the Empire. Then later, when the Empire had reached its greatest extent, discontent at the centre and barbarian attacks on the frontiers led to that weakening of authority which resulted in its decline and final fall. Constantine (A.D. 300–337) removed his capital to Byzantium in A.D. 324 as a more convenient centre for the extended Empire, but in A.D. 365 the Roman Empire was divided into East and West with two Emperors, and the year A.D. 475 marks the end of the Western Roman Empire by the election of Odoacer as the first King of Italy.



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