Ancient Rome's Urban Blueprint Kristin Holliday

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Roman architecture is quite famous throughout the world. Most people would be able to identify the Coliseum as a distinctly Roman structure, the Circus Maximums captures the imagination, and spirits soar when one considers the Pantheon. These styles have persisted and remained influential throughout the centuries despite the decline of Rome and collapse of the Roman Empire. Even the United States capital, Washington D.C. is inspired in part, by Roman architecture, with its soaring columns, wide avenues, and marble halls. Despite all of this fame and claim to the modern imagination Rome has, there are still many misinterpretations of the uses and inspirations themselves. There is the false claim that all Roman architecture is just a mere copy of Grecian style. Even though the Greeks made create contributions to Western Civilization, the Romans add much to the disciplines of Urban Planning and Civil construction. The urban planners of Rome successfully built the first ordered western urban system. With the continued growth of their urban centers, Romans sought to solve the dilemma of large populations living in close proximity, by establishing a system of public buildings. The interpretation of the archaeological data may also be able to shed light on the persisting popularity of ancient classical architecture in modern political centers.

Public City Structures

The Roman Forum

The roman forum is the main area where Roman civilization developed. It was an area that was important in political, social, and economic transactions. The Forum contains many different buildings like the Curia Hostilia which housed the Roman Senate and the numerous temples and shrines devoted to important figures like Saturn and Romulus (See Iconoclasm & Roman Religion ). Many of the structures within the Roman Forum began to decay hundreds of years before anthropology was a field. However, archaeological research shows that the forum may have been a landfill originally. Archaeologists identified the different soil layers and determined one of the earliest strata to be evidence of landfills. The ground levels dramatically increased over a short period of time which lends to the idea that the Romans filled the area in order to make it more level and less suspect to seasonal flooding.This project would have been a great undertaking and required large amounts of dirt and manpower. This is evidence that the Romans went to great lengths to create important structures for their public.

Bath Houses

Bath houses arose out of the need for cleanliness. Many societies emphasized the importance of being clean and equated it to being holy. It is only natural that Rome responded to the public need of baths and constructed many structures throughout Rome. Roman baths may be distinguished by two features: a gradation of heated water and a heated public pool.# These Roman baths were not just a place for cleansing, but also a social environment much like a community center. However, calling the bath houses public would be misleading as most people were not actually allowed to use them. There were different hours of access depending on one’s sex. Females were only allowed to access them early in the day, and males were able to go from the afternoon to closing. The cost was also twice as high for women as it was for men (See Gender Roles ). There is some evidence that women did bathe with men. These women were considered to be “of the lowest character.” Women who bathed amongst men were considered adulterers or prostitutes (See Roman Sexuality ). These accusations were likely inaccurate and more opinionated than factual. The roles of women in bath houses were limited and they were mostly segregated from the men. The bath houses were a place where social interactions and public policies evolved.
Bath House Layout
Bath House Layout


One of the major issues that arise when a large population is concentrated, is the distribution of resources. The manipulation of water is one of the greatest and most important feats of the Roman Empire. Most of the aqueduct channels ran underground in order to prevent contamination from decaying animals or poisoning by enemies (See Roman Military for more information on defense). There are only about 30 miles of visible structures. The aqueducts were built using the idea of a steady and constant gradient. This allowed gravity to do all of the work while preventing buildup and overflow (see below video). The water reached Rome and accumulated in large cisterns which were connected to pipes throughout the city. This great engineering task allowed for the use of fountains, baths, and private washrooms. The aqueducts were so important to Rome that they assigned people to the tasks of maintaining them. The Curator Aquarum was responsible for overseeing the maintenance of all the Roman aqueducts, and there were positions below him that were in charge of their provincial aqueducts. Also, the aqueducts are also more evidence to the ornate design of the Romans. The aqueducts’ arches are very ornate and symmetrical. They leave an impression on the viewers below, which is what Roman style is all about.

Greek Influence on Rome

The idea that Rome copied its architectural style from Greece seems to be a fact. However, Roman architecture has both a new and old feel to it. The archway is an example of the influence of Greece that led to the creation of the distinctive Roman style. The archway was originally a Greek structure with its columns and pediments, but the Romans took that and added numerous accents such as pedestals. The result was a very new and Roman style. These architectural ingenuities gave Rome a unique and functionally urban style. In the city of Rome, the columns are placed throughout the city and are commonly not used for structural design. The Roman structures are not a mere copy of the Greek style, but an evolution in architecture. “All this came about because the town was the paramount expression or Romanism, and since Romanism embraced Greek lands and much of Greek culture, Greek architectural forms survived.”^

Roman Influence In America

The Roman style has been replicated throughout history in many parts of the world. Many universities, libraries, and city halls have modeled their architecture on that of Rome, specifically the Pantheon. The city of Rome was. The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. is inspired by the Pantheon in its construction. The front center has the distinguishable markers that resemble the Roman Pantheon and there is a large rotunda connected in the back. Another building that takes its inspiration from the Pantheon is the Jefferson Memorial. This one is much more obvious in its mimicked style (see following pictures). The founders and city planners of Washington, D.C. picked Roman architecture as the ideal image of their new state. The classical inspired capital city would give the country a new hope and a hint at the greatness that America could become, a great and powerful republic, much like that of Rome.

Jefferson Memorial
Jefferson Memorial


Many cities throughout the world have architecture that hints at the greatness of ancient Rome. The development of Roman architecture was a very important step in the overall success of the Roman Empire, allowing it to better manage its population and resources. The designs were elaborate and easy on the eyes, but they also served a more functional role. The buildings could be used by the entire population, not just rulers or noblemen. The structures within the city had a larger purpose in that they functioned to maintain the order and power of Rome. For example, the basilicas functioned as town halls as well as religious sanctuaries. This functionality played an important role as it helped maintain civil peace and allowed a religious outlet for the area’s population. Romans went to great lengths to create the structures and ensure that they would be sufficient to the needs of their growing populations. Architecture is one of the reasons why Roman influence has endured far past the destruction of the Roman Empire. The Romans were able to build upon the civil ideals of the Greek and paint them on a much larger canvass. Even today with far great technology many of our public buildings are still based upon the basic blueprint of Roman structures. This goes to show that two millennia later, there is still much to learn from the wisdom of the Romans.

Works Cited

Ammerman, Albert J. "On the Origins of the Forum Romanum." American Journal of Archaeology 94.4 (1990): 627-45. JSTOR. Web. Butler, Howard C. "The Roman Aqueducts as Monuments of Architecture." American Journal of Archaeology 5.2 (1901): 175-99.JSTOR. Web. Evans, Harry B. "Agrippa's Water Plan." American Journal of Archaeology 86.3 (1982): 401-11. JSTOR. Web. Fagan, Garrett G. "The Genesis of the Roman Public Bath: Recent Approaches and Future Directions." American Journal of Archaeology 105.3 (2001): 403-26. JSTOR. Web. MacDonald, William L. "Roman Urbanism." Journal of Architectural Education 41.3 (1988): 29-32. JSTOR. Web. Trabalzi, Ferruccio. "Primavelle: Urban Reservation in Rome." Journal of Architectural Education 42.3 (1989): 38-46. JSTOR. Web. Ward, Roy B. "Women in Roman Baths." The Harvard Theological Review 85.2 (1992): 125-47. JSTOR. Web.