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Vitruvius, Pozzolana, and the Magnificence of Rome

The grandeur that was Rome is testified by the remains of many of the great public buildings that stand to this day.

The Pantheon by Giovanni Paolo Panini

In the transition from republican to imperial times, monuments based on Greek and Etruscan prototypes evolved into innovative Roman architecture. Architects may have been inspired by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (c. 80-70 BC - c. 15 BC). His handbook On Architecture combines the knowledge and views of many Greek and Roman writers, on architecture, the arts, and building technology. As the only treatise on architecture to survive from antiquity, it is regarded as the first book on architectural theory. Written in Augustus's reign, the handbook would have even had an influence when rediscovered more than a millennium later by the builders of Renaissance Italy.

Vitruvius covered a wide variety of subjects he viewed that touched on the field of architecture, including those that may seem unrelated such as history, geometry, philosophy, physics, music, astronomy, and medicine. According to Vitruvius, only through a broad understanding of the sciences and arts, would an architect be able to acquire the theoretical and practical knowledge to be successful.

The introduction of concrete by the Romans in the second century BCE had revolutionized ancient building methods, although marble was still widely used in Roman public building projects. Roman concrete proved remarkably durable due to a mix of slaked lime and volcanic ash, known as pozzolana. Combined with volcanic rocks called tuff, this ancient cement formed a concrete that could withstand chemical decay and damage.

The mosaic shows the architecture of early Christian basilicas, 5th century - Louvre, Jacques Mossot, CC BY-SA 4.0

Concrete was a technical contribution that brought about a wave in public building in the early imperial days. One typical structure at the time was the basilica, a large public building used for administrative functions.

Many of the more familiar Roman monuments date from imperial times when rulers had the money for major projects. There was an early surge of construction under Augustus, a golden age extended between the reigns of Nero and Hadrian from 54 to 138 AD, and later revivals under rulers such as Constantine in the 4th century.

The Colosseum by Giovanni Paolo Panini

Yet it is the more grandiose structures that the Romans are best remembered, such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon. The Colosseum, the largest amphitheater in the world for 1900 years, was built with sturdy concrete walls that could stand without outside support. The Pantheon, which was completed in 126 A.D., has a concrete dome that is 142 feet in diameter.

The splendor and grandeur of building projects were unmistakable icons of Roman power that impress to the present day.

Works cited:

Woods, Michael, and Mary B. Woods. Ancient Construction: From Tents to Towers. Runestone, 2001.

Nardo, Don. Roman Roads and Aqueducts. ReferencePoint Press, 2015.

Allan, Tony. Life, Myth, and Art in Ancient Rome. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005.

Magazine, Smithsonian. “The Secrets of Ancient Rome's Buildings.”, Smithsonian Institution, 16 Nov. 2011,


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