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Roman Architecture by Nigel Rogers

Book Review by Ursus

Architecture is the most visible legacy of any culture, and often survives other elements of the culture that have sunk into oblivion. One could rightfully extol Rome’s contributions to law and government, language and literature, religion and philosophy. Yet all those attributes would require lengthy discourse and study to appreciate; a simple aqueduct wordlessly conveys a more manifest appreciation of Roman imperial grandeur, especially if that aqueduct is still in use after some twenty centuries. Throughout the classical world the Empire of the Romans was littered with enduring monuments to their gods and military leaders, even the ruins of which still possess the capacity to awe their observers. In an era where pagan deities are blasé and military triumph eschewed, those monuments have instead become hallowed testaments to the engineering skill of the architects who designed them. Indeed, the Roman legacy has dominated Western architecture until fairly recently. Nigel Rogers and Hazel Dodge provide in their Roman Architecture a delicious visual survey of the subject.

As an introductory note, I would like the reader to ponder the architectural achievements of other cultures. Consider the Taj Mahal, considered the most beautiful building in India and perhaps the world, built by a prince as a glorified tomb for his lost queen. Or consider the Pyramids, those imposing structures meant to help a Pharaoh’s soul ascend to Ra. Magnificent? Certainly in their own ways. But does the average person really care about some Indian prince’s pampered wife, or if some Egyptian ruler finds his way to his solar deity? Not likely. This is what makes Rome as an empire and an aesthetic ideal different than most powers before or since. The Romans were first and last a practical people, and their engineering feats were meant to actually run an empire. Sewers, aqueducts, temples, baths, markets, for a, amphitheaters; they were all meant for use by the people. As Rogers and Dodge note, people in Rome’s own times, such as Strabo and Frontinus, noted this thoroughgoing pragmatism that underpinned imperial society.

Rogers and Dodge admit that the Roman architects were fortunate to be surrounded by a Hellenic and Etruscan legacy, and thus had a conducive environment in which to ply their trades. However, contrary to what is commonly opined, the Romans were not mere apes carrying the glories of Hellas on their backs. They improved Greek and Etruscan designs to create edifices suited to their own Italian, and later Imperial, needs. This Greco-Etruscan-Roman fusion stands at the heart of the Western tradition.

Conceptually, Roman architecture revolves around the vault, the arch, and the dome. It also involved the use of four distinctive pillars. Logistically, Roman architecture in the imperial era depended on the use of an amazing new building material: concrete. Economically, Roman architecture owed to the empire’s ability to organize large labor groups with the same efficiency as they organized their legions (indeed, in the provinces it was often the legions responsible for construction. In Rome proper, however, colleges of skilled labor were employed). Rogers and Dodge spend some time elucidating each of these three concepts, providing a crash course on architecture for those layman like me who would otherwise be lost to the more technical aspects.

A brief survey of architecture as defined by political eras is offered. The Monarchy and Early Republic grew in the shadow of Greece and Etruria, as has been stated, but the various early temples as well as the famous Roman Forum point to uniquely Italian traits. The late Republic offers us Pompei’s theatre, conveniently disguised as a temple to Venus, as well as Caesar’s grand (if ultimately aborted) attempts in reshaping the Roman architectural landscape.

Augustus and his right hand man Agrippa inaugurated the empire, and the age of Roman architecture in general, by making good on Caesar’s visions. The Julio-Claudian successors to Augustus built comparatively little, though Nero’s Golden Palace is of obvious note. The Flavians gave imperial Rome perhaps its two most symbolic statements; the amphitheater for the masses, and a palace for the emperors. Trajan’s market and Hadrian’s pantheon were Rome’s odes to its economic and religious spheres, respectively. The Severans built temples to house Eastern gods as well as baths to wash the populace.

The military anarchy of third century placed a damper on Roman architecture. Aurelian managed to build an improved wall around Rome (which survives in part) and a Syrian style temple to his patron god Sol Invictus (which does not survive). Order is not fully restored until Diocletian arrived, and his chief monuments are a fortified palace and a gigantic bath complex. Constantine left Rome with a magnificent arch, as well as a new religion. The Christians frowned on Rome’s pagan past, and pagan architecture was closed, destroyed and cannibalized over the successive centuries. Rome found itself no longer even the center of a united empire, but before the final collapse of the West some old fashioned Roman engineering managed to leave some beautiful churches to posterity.

The vast bulk of the book then surveys in turn: the various public buildings of the empire; imperial palaces; housing for rich and poor; and finally the cities of the empire in several provinces. Roman Architecture is a visual feast of the subjects under study, with beautiful photos and illustrations. The authors’ prose is intelligent without being especially laden with technical jargon. This was an enjoyable read, currently offered by Amazon.com at a cheap price. One note of caution, though: the 14 inch by 12 inch text published by Southwater is meant to be displayed on your coffee table rather than conveniently fitting within the shelves of your bookcase.

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