By Mónica Correa, contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
While the Roman Empire bequeathed us many splendid structures, from the Pantheon in Italy to the Maison Carrée in France, there is one architectural wonder that is no doubt, the most famous of all Roman creations. The Colosseum, with its architecture, detailed structural elements and impressive history, manages to inspire awe to this very day.
Also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, it is the largest amphitheater ever built and, interestingly, has only been called “the Colosseum” since eighth century.
Construction started under the emperor Vespasian in AD 72, with the opening ceremonies taking place under his son Titus in 80. The inaugural celebrations lasted 100 days and thousands of men and animals were slaughtered. While the Colosseum was being used it regularly housed massive performances and events that satisfied the Roman taste for savage entertainment.
Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872
The Colosseum’s Construction
The location of the Colosseum is very significant. Vespasian decided to build it on the grounds of Nero’s Golden House as a sign of the emperor’s fall from grace. The spot also had the added benefit of being in the center of Rome.
It took a decade to build the Colosseum and the cost of construction is unknown. However, an inscription found on the site states that funding came from Rome’s military conquests. Although its architects and builders are unknown, some records suggest that workers may have been prisoners of war.
Map of Rome during Antiquity
The inside of the arena measured 278 by 177 feet and was originally surrounded by seating in four separate tiers which could accommodate, according to one late Roman description, 87,000 spectators.
The seating was arranged according to the stratified nature of Roman society. Special boxes providing the best views of the arena were located at the north and south end for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins, respectively. Flanking them at the same level was a broad platform or podium for the senatorial class, who were allowed to bring their own chairs. The names of some fifth century senators can still be seen carved into the stonework, presumably reserving areas for their use.
Cross-section from the Lexikon der gesamten Technik (1904)
Diagram of the levels of seating
The non-senatorial noble class or knights (equites) occupied the maenianum primum, the tier above the senators. The next level up, the maenianum secundum, was originally reserved for ordinary Roman citizens (plebeians). This was divided into two sections, with the lower part (the immum) for wealthy citizens, and the upper part (the summum) for poor citizens.
Later on a gallery was built for women and slaves. Some groups, however, were never allowed into the Colosseum. These included gravediggers, former gladiators and, of course, actors.
The Colosseum’s Expansion
While most of the Colosseum was finished before Vespasian’s death in 79, his sons and successors completed the structure.
Sestertius of Titus celebrating the inauguration of the Colosseum (minted 80 AD).
Titus, the eldest son who ruled from 79 to 81, finished the construction for the grand opening in 80. Domitian, who succeeded him and ruled from 81 to 96, was responsible for the fourth floor, a wooden story mainly used for storage, as well as another seating gallery.
The most significant addition made by Domitian, however, was the Hypogeum, an underground complex beneath the arena. It was designed and built around two years after the Colosseum was inaugurated. Animals, performers and stagehands used this important structure, navigating the tunnels when something or someone was needed in the arena. Workers could use rudimentary elevators and trapdoors covered by sand access the stage. The Hypogeum was dark, lit only by smoky oil lanterns.
The Colosseum arena, showing the hypogeum now filled with walls. The walls were added early in the Colosseum’s existence when it was decided it would no longer be flooded and used for naval battles
Also constructed after inauguration, the awning was added as a canopy that could cover a large section of the bleachers. Its goal was to shade audiences, protecting them from the sun.
The Colosseum’s Deterioration
In 217, the Colosseum was badly damaged by a major fire that was caused by lightning, according to Dio Cassius. The inferno destroyed the wooden upper levels and it was not fully repaired until about 240. It underwent further repairs in 250 or 252 and again in 320, but never again returned to its former glory.
Interior of the Colosseum, Rome (1832) by Thomas Cole, showing the Stations of the Cross around the arena and the extensive vegetation
In the following centuries, earthquakes damaged its structure. The most significant occurred in 134, causing the outer wall on the south side completely collapsed.
The Colosseum’s Modern Symbolism
In the beginning, this structure had one important goal: to be the stage of the gladiatorial games. However, as the society and culture evolved, so did the significance and purpose of the Colosseum.
From 1928 to 2000, a fragment of its distinctive colonnade was displayed on the medals awarded to victorious athletes at the Olympic Games, as a symbol of the modern Games’ ancient reference.
The Colosseum lights up in protest to the death penalty.
The Colosseum has also become a symbol of the international campaign against capital punishment. As a gesture on their position against the death penalty, authorities change the color of the Colosseum’s illumination from white to gold whenever a condemned person gets their sentence commuted or is released, or if a jurisdiction abolishes the death penalty.
Today, receiving thousands of tourists from around the world, the Colosseum stands as a powerful reminder of the ancient world, its glory… and gory history.
An important center of Hellenistic civilization, Alexandria was the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, Roman and Byzantine Egypt for almost 1,000 years. The city was founded around c. 332 BC by the Macedonian King, Alexander the Great, during his conquest of the Achaemenid Empire.
Mosaic of Alexander the Great
At one point, Alexandria became the largest city in the world and, for some centuries more, was second only to Rome. It became Egypt’s main Greek city, with Greek people from diverse backgrounds, as well as the largest urban Jewish community in the world.
Estimates of the total population range from 216,000 to 500,000 making it one of the largest cities ever built before the Industrial Revolution and the largest pre-industrial city that was not an imperial capital.
As one can imagine, such an important and large ancient center warranted important and large structures! Fortunately for us, the historian Strabo described the principle constructions, as seen from a ship entering the great harbor.
Artist rendition of ancient Alexandria, Egypt
So without further adieu, here are the 13 Most Important Buildings in Ancient Alexandria, Egypt:
1. The Royal Palaces. They filled the northeast part of town and occupied the ridge of Lochias, which shut in the Great Harbor on the east. Lochias (the modern Pharillon) has almost entirely disappeared into the sea, together with the palaces, the “Private Port,” and the island of Antirrhodus. Unfortunately this is the result of land subsidence and massive sinking which occurred throughout the northeast coast of Africa.
2. The Great Theater. This was used by Julius Caesar as a fortress, where he withstood a siege from the city mob after he took Egypt after the battle of Pharsalus.
Map of Ancient Alexandria, Egypt
3. The Poseidon, or Temple of the Sea God, close to the theater.
The “Cleopatra’s Needle” in London, Cleopatra’s Needle, Central Park, New York City, Cleopatra’s Needle, Paris, France
9. The Gymnasium and the Palaestra are both inland in the eastern half of the town; sites unknown.
10. The Temple of Saturn; alexandria west.
11. The Mausolea of Alexander (Soma) and the Ptolemies in one ring-fence, near the point of intersection of the two main streets.
12. The Musaeum with its famous Library of Alexandria (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and theater in the same region; site unknown.
Illustration of what might have been the Musaeum.
13. The Serapeum of Alexandria, the most famous of all Alexandrian temples. Strabo tells us that this stood in the west of the city. Recent discoveries place it near “Pompey’s Pillar,” which was an independent monument erected to commemorate Diocletian’s siege of the city.
While a few other public buildings on the mainland are known, there is little information as to their actual position. None, however, are as famous as the structure that stood on the eastern point of Pharos island. The Great Lighthouse, another of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stood at 138 meters (453 feet) high. It took 12 years to complete and served as a prototype for all later lighthouses in the world.
Pharos of Alexandria, Egypt
The Pharos lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century, making it the second longest surviving ancient wonder, after the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The 7 Wonders of the Ancient World was a list of must-see sites for Ancient Greek tourists. Compiled by Antipater of Sidon, a poet in 2nd-century-BCE Greece, with later contributions by figures such as the mathematician Philon of Byzantium, the list remains an important piece of intangible heritage today.
Sadly, only one of those ancient wonders is still standing. Fortunately technology has come to the rescue so that modern classics-lovers can have the chance to visit the structures that Antipater first recommended.
Check out the reconstructed the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, so you can see how the ruins originally looked:
A feat of ingenuity and engineering and served as a Rhodian symbol of victory. The Colossus of Rhodes was erected in 280 BCE but was toppled by an earthquake in 226 BCE.
2. The Great Pyramid of Giza
The oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex bordering present-day El Giza, Egypt. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact.
3. Hanging Gardens of Babylon
An ascending series of tiered gardens containing a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and vines, resembling a large green mountain constructed of mud bricks, and said to have been built in the ancient city of Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq.
4. Lighthouse of Alexandria
A lighthouse built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom, during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (280–247 BC), and was estimated to be 100 metres (330 ft) in overall height. For many centuries it was one of the tallest man-made structures in the world.
5. Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
A tomb built between 353 and 350 BC at Halicarnassus (present Bodrum, Turkey) for Mausolus, a satrap in the Persian Empire, and his sister-wife Artemisia II of Caria. The structure was designed by the Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene.
A giant seated figure, about 13 m (43 ft) tall, made by the Greek sculptor Phidias around 435 BC at the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, and erected in the Temple of Zeus there. It represented the god Zeus on a cedarwood throne ornamented with ebony, ivory, gold and precious stones. Lost in the 5th AD.
A Greek temple dedicated to an ancient, local form of the goddess Artemis (associated with Diana, a Roman goddess). It was located in Ephesus (near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey). It was completely rebuilt three times.
The final Photoshop files were sent to motion graphics artist Fractal Motion, who were in charge of creating the animations. This complex process involves dividing up the images, then animating them using a tool in Cinema 4D software called Polyfx before refining it all in After Effects.
Ancient Rome borrowed from ancient Greece for architecture, among other things, but then innovated and invented its own architectural features and building types. Roman architecture made a statement with its imposing public edifices: We are a world power, and we have the wealth, technology and manpower to dominate in culture as well as politics.
The Romans used new construction techniques and materials and their own designs along with existing architectural ideas to come up with a new catalog of structures. They invented the triumphal arch, monumental aqueduct, the amphitheater, basilica, granary building, and residential housing block.
The Pantheon is an iconic example of beautiful Roman architecture.
History of Roman Architecture
The Roman state, both the republic and empire, backed, financed, and organized many such buildings around the Roman sphere of influence around 2,000 years ago. The edifices were built so well, with such durable materials, that many of these beautiful structures still stand.
People still marvel at the Roman architecture examples of the Pantheon, the Roman Colosseum and other such spectacular places, wonderfully constructed aqueducts in Spain and Italy, 200-some amphitheaters in many old cities, and a multitude of other edifices stretching from Spain to Egypt and across northern Africa.
A 4×4 segment panorama of the Colosseum at dusk.
In many of their buildings, the Romans used columns and arches instead of post-and-beam construction. Arches could bear more weight, so the buildings were bigger than their Greek or Egyptian counterparts, for example.
The Romans borrowed the classical orders of the Greeks: Corinthian, Doric and Ionic. The Romans favored Corinthian even very late in the Classical period. Thus, many of their buildings had a classical Greek look. But the Romans would make the capital at the top of the column even more decorative than the Greek capital. They also made more decorative cornices.
Types of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.
The Romans also made a composite capital out of Ionic and Corinthian designs. They innovated the Tuscan column, which fused Doric with a small capital, slenderer shaft and a molded base. The Romans used the Tuscan columns in their homes and verandas.
Roman columns were monolithic. The Greeks, on the other hand, used several stacked drums. Columns were an important aspect of Greek and Roman architecture because they often fronted buildings. When a person approached many structures and monuments, the first thing he saw was an expanse of columns across the front. Romans even used columns when they had developed technology that made them obsolete. An example of this type of building is the Pantheon.
The interior of the Pantheon in Rome, a concrete mausoleum with a beautiful dome and rows of columns.
“It’s been known for a while that the volcanic sand used in Roman concrete and mortar made their buildings last for so long. Now a new study by a group of engineers and engineering researchers has discovered the precise recipe that made the Roman concrete endure much longer than concrete used today.”
Looking at Roman concrete close up.
The Roman Forum
The Romans built many public and civic buildings and monuments around a forum, which was a paved public square. Some larger Roman cities had more than one forum.
An interesting type of public building the Romans built there were the bath complexes, large structures with domes, columns, pools, and open spaces. They also built smaller baths at villas, townhouses and forts. The public baths had three big rooms, the frigidarium or cold bath, the tepidarium or warm bath, and the caldarium or hot bath. Some of the imperial baths or thermae also had steam baths and sauna-like rooms.
View of the Great Bath, part of the Roman Baths complex, a site of historical interest in the city of Bath, England. The baths, based on the local hot springs, were built during the Roman occupation of Britain and have become a major touristic site.
Fantastic Structures of Ancient Rome
The fantastic structures of ancient Rome have been a testament to their people’s power and wealth. Roman architecture was meant to convey Rome’s dominance and cultural superiority. Rome was saying it had the wealth, technology, and manpower to build such huge, wonderfully constructed edifices. The Romans built audacious structures that no modern architect or construction company would attempt and no government agency would approve.
What’s in a column? To the Ancient Greeks, the standing pillar was more than just a way to hold up the roof. Every section, from capital to base, was integral to the entire structure. It was a piece of art that followed very detailed specifications, an architectural order. In fact, you only need a fragment of molding to recreate a whole building.
The ancients weren’t just constructing a safe place in the rain, they were attempting to achieve perfection in architecture.
This meant nothing was left up to chance. It was never, Kyriakos – the average workman and heavy, choosing to put the pediment a “little the right”. The buildings were carefully designed using principles in harmony and symmetry and all overseen by a respected architect. The man in charge presided over every detail, from materials selected to choosing expert sculptors.
The order of the universe, believed so fervently by the Ancient Greeks, was reflected in the buildings themselves.
In fact, this is no exaggeration. The proportional ideals employed by these mathematical architects was the so-called Golden Mean, a ratio also found in natural spiral forms like Nautilus shells and fern fronds.
Here is the actual formula cherished by those men of yore:
Creating a perfectly proportional building had other desired consequences. It created an optical illusion. The end goal was, after all, how the building looked. They wanted perspective and concave results. Consequently, the major lines in the structure were rarely straight. This is most obviously seen in all the different columns’ profiles, whether they be Doric, Ionic or Corinthian.
But let us quickly review those three, very distinctive, major architectural systems, called orders.
Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders
The first and most primitive order is termed ‘Doric’. It is the serious, manly system that originated from wooden structures. It follows basic rules of harmony. Each column has to bear the weight of the beam laid across it. All the Triglyphs, or vertically channeled tablets, are arranged regularly. The columns themselves, short and stocky, stood initially without a base, and at a height of about six or seven times the diameter. The capital on the top of the pillar is basic.
The next architectural order is referred to as Ionic, due to its origination in Ionia (present day Turkey) in the mid-6th century BC. The southwestern coastline and islands of Asia Minor had been settled by the Ionic Greeks, who were distinguished from the Doric greeks by their Ionian dialect.
The Ionians’ more effeminate column design, however, proved popular amongst all the Greeks as evidenced by their construction on the mainland in the 5th century BC.
Ionic columns are most often fluted, and usually numbered at 24. This standardization was quite handy as it kept the fluting in a familiar, almost fragile, proportion to the diameter of the column… and at any scale. The system as a whole is characterised by its continuous freezes, and the scroll-like capitals, called volutes.
The third and final architectural order is termed Corinthian, from the ancient city of Corinth. It is the most elaborate and engraved system of architecture, distinguished by the stylized acanthus leaves and stalks found in the Corinthian capitals. These columns appeared much later and were more popular in subsequent periods than its own.
Overall, the disciplined and ordered approach to architecture was clearly effective … as it has been a major influence for the past two millennia. All three major architectural orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian can all still be seen in buildings, both public and private, throughout the world today.
But these systems of architecture did more than just beautified edifices globally. The western world also inherited from those brilliant mathematical architects the idea of a building as more than a space to live or worship. It can have another function: To be beautiful through harmony, balance and proportion.
I can hear some of you thinking now: Concrete? Is she really writing about concrete?
Believe me, reader, the same sort of thoughts passed through my mind when I began to do my research for this article–but let me ask one question (especially to those of you lucky ducks who have gotten to visit Italy): Is there anything more impressive than to turn a corner in Rome and come face to face with an incredibly ancient structure that, somehow, is still standing after thousands of years?
There’s just no doubt: Ancient Roman architecture holds a gold medal for durability. Despite some crumbling here or there, there are so many structures–particularly harbors–that continue to stand soundly unbroken and un-ruined after two thousands years or more. They’ve largely withstood wars and earthquakes and encroaching modernity. But how?
One of the reasons is simply that many of these structures were made entirely or partly out of concrete–but it’s not just the presence of concrete that helped. We know from experience in modern times that concrete is strong but not infallible, and certainly not capable of withstanding two thousand years of wear and tear! No, it wasn’t the presence of concrete necessarily–instead, it was the type of concrete.
Just Add (Salt) Water
For many years, the durability of Roman concrete baffled historians and scientists alike. In particular they were perplexed by the concrete that had been used to construct ancient harbors–even after two thousand or more years of being pummeled by saltwater, the harbors were largely intact.
To put this into perspective, Portland cement, which is the most commonly used concrete blend today, is serviceable for only about fifty years if exposed constantly to saltwater. Not a small difference!
What, then, made Roman concrete so different? The answer wasn’t found until recently, when, a few years ago, researchers began to take an interest in the subject. Research teams led by both Italian and American scientists collected samples of ancient Roman concrete from a breakwater in Pozzuoli Bay, Italy. The concrete was analyzed in state-of-the-art facilities in Italy, United States’ U.C. Berkley, Germany, and even Saudi Arabia, where Advanced Light Source technology allowed researchers to analyze the structure of the concrete at a miniscule scale.
Sample of Roman concrete
What they found was incredibly exciting: instead of fighting to create a substance that could withstand the eroding force of the sea, ancient Romans had harnessed that force and incorporated it into their concrete making process. They mixed lime and volcanic ash and, after packing the mixture into wooden molds, they submerged it all in seawater. The saltwater then set off a chemical reaction–it hydrated the lime in such a way as to make it react with the ash, which ultimately formed an incredibly sturdy, solid bond.
(For all you chemists out there, this was apparently a C-A-S-H bond, or calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate)
It’s largely for this reason that ancient Roman concrete was so incredibly durable–especially when exposed to saltwater.
A Better Alternative?
One of the most important aspects of this super-strong ancient concrete, besides its durability, is its overall carbon footprint.
Though Portland cement–our modern concrete–has been in use now for nearly two centuries, it can’t really hold a candle to Roman cement when it comes to the issue of environmental impact. The cement industry (cement being a major component of concrete) is, worldwide, a primary producer of carbon dioxide, which is an atmospheric pollutant and greenhouse gas. Apparently, the cement industry alone accounts for approximately five percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, which is a staggering amount for one industry.
Much of this cement is produced specifically for the manufacturing of Portland cement concrete mix. In fact, according to researchers, roughly nineteen billion tons of Portland cement are used every year.
The biggest problem with the production of this cement is really the production methods themselves. To make the cement, a mixture of limestone and clays has to be heated to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit), and it’s this process–which burns up so much fossil fuel and burns it so hot–that produces the majority of the carbon dioxide.
Roman concrete, on the other hand, because of its unique ash mixture, uses far less limestone and only requires that the limestone be baked at 900 degrees Celsius (1,652 degrees Fahrenheit)–which uses only a fraction of the fossil fuels used to make Portland cement and results in fewer carbon dioxide emissions overall–and the finished product is hundreds of times stronger.
Clearly, the carbon footprint of our modern concrete is not so great–at the end of the day, we are causing more environmental damage to produce a concrete that just doesn’t bind nearly as well as Roman concrete.
Can we bring this dead secret back to life?
The question is: has all this new research led us to a grand solution for the issue of carbon emissions in the cement/concrete industry? Could it revolutionize the way we build, and the durability of our structures?
The tentative answer is yes…and no.
The famous Duomo is a solid shell of Roman concrete
According to experts, it’s a complicated issue. While the obvious answer seems to be that Roman concrete is a better, stronger, more environmentally-friendly option, many experts believe that it would be impractical to begin using it again, largely because of the setting time. In the modern world of construction, concrete needs to harden quickly and efficiently–something that seawater concrete can’t do (and we all know how our modern society values convenience and speed).
However, the discovery of this ancient “secret” to concrete production is having some positive benefits. Inspired by the ancient Romans’ use of volcanic ash, scientists have been experimenting with the use of fly ash (a waste product of coal-burning, which is readily available in large quantities in many countries) and even, again, volcanic ash (in those countries where fly ash is not so available) to produce stronger, greener forms of concrete.
According to some experts, a successful outcome to these experiments could lead to concrete mixes that utilize local resources intelligently and replace at least forty percent of the worldwide demand for Portland cement.
It’s just one more way in which our society is learning to look to the past, and learn from our ancestors. Sometimes, modernity doesn’t have all the answers after all–sometimes the answers were discovered and perfected long ago. All we have to do is rediscover them.