History Podcasts

Roman Buttress

Roman Buttress

What Were Some Roman Contributions to Western Civilization?

Contributions of ancient Rome to Western civilization include a republican form of government, the spread of Christianity, and basic principles of architecture. In addition, the Latin language has had a far-reaching influence on modern languages, especially on English.

The founders of the United States in large part designed their new government on the principles espoused in ancient Greece's democracy as well as ancient Rome's republicanism. From the Roman republic came the principle of a republican government which allows citizens to elect their leadership, which is in turn responsible to those citizens.

It was through ancient Rome that Christianity spread throughout the Western world. Because the Roman empire was so vast, they created excellent road and transport networks which allowed for the quick spread of goods and ideas. Christianity was able to spread from Palestine to England. Once the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, the religion was able to flourish even more, ultimately reshaping the history of the West.

Roman architecture introduced elements that continues through history and are still seen in modern architecture. Roman architecture used the arch extensively, making possible architecture that hadn't been seen before. The dome and the flying buttress were other architectural innovations that were carried forward into Western civilization.

Although English is structurally a Germanic language, it was heavily influenced by French following the Norman conquest. French is one of the Romance langugages, or modern languages that evolved from Latin, along with Portugese, Italian, Spanish and Romanian. Close to 60 percent of the words in English ultimately derive from Latin or French.

The History and Physics Behind Buttresses

Romanesque style churches tended to be large, castle-like structures with thick walls and small openings for windows and doors. These churches were usually quite small, rarely scaling more than 5 stories, so the buttress design was not too complex. Its main goal was to solidify the foundation of the structure. However, as Europe moved into the Dark Ages, buildings began getting larger and gothic cathedrals became very prevalent. These churches were built much higher than their predecessors, often reaching up to 200 ft. Since the stones to build them were considerably larger and heavier, buttresses were employed even more. In order to negate the outward thrust of the walls caused by the weight of the ceiling and force of the wind, buttresses were built to absorb this thrust and then transfer it to the foundation below.

Buttresses appear in at least five distinct types. Clasping buttresses support two walls as they meet at a corner by making some length of both walls at the corner thicker than the remainder of the wall. Angle buttresses, much like clasping, support walls at the corner by building each wall out beyond the corner, so that the corner resembles a cross shape. A flying buttress are thought of as half, or semi-arches. The upper end of the flying buttress supports the wall, while the lower end is attached to the structures foundation. Flying buttresses have played a vital role in medieval and gothic cathedral design. The flying buttress is perhaps the most noteworthy buttress type, is because it allowed Gothic Cathedrals to develop into massive, airy structures. The flying buttress' design provides for an equal and opposite force to applied to the base of domes and arches spanning interior spaces supporting the weight of the structure. Setback buttresses support walls located near a corner, but are set back from it. Finally, Diagonal buttresses also support walls near corners, but are built diagonally out of the corner of the wall, at a 135° angle with the wall.

In modern day engineering, better reinforcement structures and increased knowledge of structural engineering, along with the emergence of building materials such as steel has limited the use of buttresses, but they are in no way obsolete. They will continually be an integral part of the design of many buildings, and provide a prime example of how structures may be reinforced using principles of physics and engineering.

Ancient Roman Architecture: Rome’s Most Impressive Buildings

The first major temple to be constructed in Rome was dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, “Greatest and Best,” and his companion deities, Juno and Minerva, on the Capitoline Hill. It dates to the late 5th or early 4th century, appearing similar to a Greek temple. Whether ancient Roman architecture copied the Etruscans who had themselves copied the Greeks, or whether they copied Greek architects directly, a Greek-style temple now stood on the summit of Rome’s most sacred spot. However, it wasn’t to the precise canons of Greek architecture.

The first major temple to be constructed in Rome was dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and his companion deities, Juno and Minerva, on the Capitoline Hill. (Image: By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Maquette de Rome (musée de la civilisation romaine, Rome)/Public Domain)

The Maison Carrée and the Parthenon

The Maison Carrée in at Nîmes in southern France, built in 16 BC, stands on a much higher podium than its Greek equivalent, the Parthenon. (Image: By Krzysztof Golik/Public Domain)

Despite the obvious similarities, the Romans conceived of temples very differently from the Greeks. These differences tell us a great deal about the different functions of a temple in both societies. First, a Greek temple can be approached up the steps from any side. Often, the best view is from a corner and that is how many approaches to temples are arranged. A Roman temple, by contrast, looks its best from the front and can be entered only from the front.

This is a transcript from the video series Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Second, a Roman temple stands on a much higher podium than its Greek equivalent. Consider, for instance, the Maison Carrée at Nîmes in southern France, built in 16 BC, one of the best-preserved Roman temples, and compare it to the Parthenon.

Parthenon (Image: By Steve Swayne/Public Domain)

The Maison Carrée is far more elevated. One explanation for the extra height is that the Romans wanted to emphasize the separation between the priesthood and the people. Another is that Roman temples had a secular as well as a religious role. They were designed to convey a sense of pomp and circumstance that was alien to the spirit of a Greek temple. Meetings of the senate, for instance, were sometimes held inside, or speeches to the public might be delivered al fresco from the podium.

Beyond Post-and-Lintel

Although Roman architecture preserved the architectural conventions invented by the Greeks, it also developed them in completely new ways, notably after the introduction of concrete—that’s to say, mortared rubble. Concrete is much stronger than ashlar—masonry made out of blocks of hewn stone—and can be used to span much wider areas. It allows for much bigger floor space and reduces the likelihood of fires.

The Greeks had largely limited themselves to the post-and-lintel system, which permits only a narrow interval between the uprights. With concrete, the Romans were able to span much larger areas by the use of the arch, the vault, and the dome. The vault and the dome had already been employed by the Mycenaeans in the 13th century BC, but there’d been a break in the architectural tradition. The Greeks first used the vault in the 5th century BC, but they did not regard it as aesthetically satisfying and only employed it where it wasn’t conspicuous, as in the subterranean tomb-chambers of Macedonian nobles and kings. The Romans had no such inhibitions.

The Pantheon (“temple of every god”) is a former Roman temple, now a church, in Rome, Italy. (Image: By Roberta Dragan/Public Domain)

“The Physical Embodiment of the Universal Cosmos”

The most spectacular use of the dome by the Romans is in the Pantheon, which was constructed in Rome during the reign of—and perhaps under the watchful eye of—the emperor Hadrian from 117-138 CE/AD. The Pantheon (the word, which is Greek, means “all the gods”) is an extraordinary building. When you approach it from the front, it looks like a conventional Greek-style temple. A low podium leads to a porch that is entered through Corinthian columns. The only oddity is the height of the pediment in relation to its width most pediments are much lower. The height is to conceal the circular building to the rear, a whopping 43 meters in diameter. Above the circular space is a dome, also 43 meters high. The only source of light comes from an oculus or “eye,” nine meters in diameter, set in the ceiling.

The interior of the Pantheon in the 18th century. Painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini. (Image: By Giovanni Paolo Panini/www.nga.gov)

To carry the weight of the dome, which is entirely self-supporting, the building materials become progressively lighter. The lower sections are made of stone, the middle sections of brick, and the top section of concrete. The whole building is a masterpiece of Roman engineering. At the same time, it represents a perfect blend between traditional Greek architectural forms and Roman inventiveness. It presents us with something entirely new in the history of architecture—a vast, uncluttered, interior space, which, in the words of Frank Sear, “creates the physical embodiment of the universal cosmos.”

Sadly, we don’t know the name of the architect. In general, few names can be attached to even the most important Roman buildings, which suggests that architects did not enjoy high status in the Roman world. The design of the Pantheon has been copied repeatedly, notably in the Capitol building in Washington, DC, and in most other state capitol buildings all over the United States.

Secular and Practical Accommodations

The Romans used architecture in a manner and on a scale that was foreign to the Greeks in many ways. First, whereas the classical and Hellenistic Greek state, by and large, did not see one of its principal functions to provide basic amenities for the public, the Romans emphatically did. Second, the Romans placed much more emphasis upon secular and utilitarian buildings than did the Greeks, who devoted most of their resources and ingenuity toward the construction of temples. Third, the Romans used architecture to serve the needs of, and often to accommodate inside, vast numbers of people. The chief exception to this rule was aqueducts, which the Greeks did regard as essential. One of the most striking examples is a rock-hewn tunnel three-quarters of a mile in length that was cut into a hill on the island of Samos. It’s dated to the 6th century BC.

Let’s keep with this third point. Most of the largest architectural structures in the Greek world were theaters, some of which could hold 20,000 to 40,000 people, depending on whether you counted the people who sat on the grassy slopes above the level where there was permanent seating. That’s peanuts compared with what the Romans built.

The Circus Maximus (Latin for greatest or largest circus, in Italian Circo Massimo) is an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue located in Rome, Italy. (Image: By Di Gregorio Giulio/Shutterstock)

The Circus Maximus, where chariot races took place, could hold about 250,000. Moreover, the Romans sought to accommodate vast numbers of people within the interior of the buildings. They had a different concept of size and number from the Greeks. All this was reflected in the type of buildings that the Romans put up—“crowd containers,” as Lewis Mumford described them.

Common Questions About Ancient Roman Architecture

Ancient Roman architecture was important to the building of the Roman empire as it helped solidify the imagination of Rome’s inhabitants and the intimidation of Rome’s enemies with systematic and unifying structures such as the balance of the columns and the social scene of the Roman baths respectively.

Ancient Roman architecture was influenced largely by the early kings of Rome, the Etruscans , who themselves were influenced by the Greeks who came before them.

Tall Ceilings And Stained Glass

It is the load transferring capability of the flying buttress that made it so successful in Gothic Europe. Stonework created solid, safe, and long lasting structures when properly executed. But it was also very massive and costly to construct. Stonework is so heavy that the simple masonry building techniques of the period could not create tall, thin walls without fear of the structure tilting, leaning, or otherwise collapsing on the inhabitants. Attempting to incorporate a ceiling across a large span put additional compressive and lateral stresses near the top of an already unstable structure. Creating window and door openings presented further structural challenges, as headers were limited in size again by the weight of the stone materials. By utilizing the principle of “thrust through the arch”, the stability of tall, load bearing stone walls was greatly increased without requiring incorporation of massive individual stones into the wall. The required mass could now be placed into the external pillar support of the buttress, away from the interior vaults. Less load bearing on the wall also allowed placement of more windows and doors without compromising structural integrity. Some examples of Gothic structures utilize 70% or more of the available wall space for doors and stained glass windows, an astonishing figure for stonework at the time.


In addition to flying and ordinary buttresses, brick and masonry buttresses that support wall corners can be classified according to their ground plan. A clasping or clamped buttress has an L shaped ground plan surrounding the corner, an angled buttress has two buttresses meeting at the corner, a setback buttress is similar to an angled buttress but the buttresses are set back from the corner, and a diagonal (or 'French') buttress is at 135° to the walls (45° off of where a regular buttress would be). [3] [4]

The gallery below shows top-down views of various types of buttress (dark grey) supporting the corner wall of a structure (light grey).

Architectural Basics: The Roman Arch

The ancient Greeks bequeathed a lot to the Roman Empire, including their pantheon of Gods and mythological stories. In architecture, the Greek ‘Orders’ were taken on by the Romans as the basis for their temples and state buildings. Columns, pediments and cornices intrinsic to the Classical Orders were employed all over the Roman Empire.

However, there was one key architectural innov a tion that the Roman’s developed for themselves, namely, the arch. From the Pantheon to the great arena of the Colosseum, and from the Basilica of Maxentius to the Thermae of Caracalla — now both in ruins in the city of Rome — the arch became the fundamental unit of structure for Roman architects.

From the arch, buildings can be expanded on into tunnels, domes and arcades. It became important component of Roman architecture, and together with the use of strong concrete, enabled the Romans to build massive structures, from as aqueducts to triumphal arches to domed temples.

The arch is a simple way of spanning a wide area with smaller stones. Wedge-shaped stones fill the space in between two outer columns or abutments. In the construction, a temporary wooden arch is used to hold the stones in place once the central keystone is in position, the timber support can be removed. The weight of the stones themselves keep the integrity of the arch in tact.

If a series of arches are built side-by-side, then the resulting structure becomes a tunnel. The semi-circular roof is known as a tunnel vault or a barrel vault. A more complex arrangement would be to build a number of arches criss-crossing over a circular space, thereby creating a dome. You can understand this better if you think of a cross-section of any point of a dome, which is of course an arch.

The weight distribution inherent to the arch means that the thrust is always outwards. In the Muslim world, whose innovation with the arch created the horseshoe, multi-foil, pointed and the ogee arches, they had a saying that ‘the arch never sleeps’. To counteract this force, any arch, vault or dome must have a thick wall or buttress. In later styles, such as the Gothic, the buttress became an important stylistic feature in itself, as seen in the flying buttress. The Roman’s had not conceived of a decorative aspect to the buttress, and so tended to conceal these parts of the structure within the building.

So it was, a lot of Roman buildings based on the arch tended to have thick, heavy walls that were not good at letting in light. That is, until the skillful innovation of the groin vault.

The groin vault consists of two intersecting tunnel vaults over a square space, where the weight of the roof is concentrated at the corner points. This makes it possible to do without the heavy walls of the tunnel and open out the spaces beneath the aches into bays.

The groin vault also meant, as the technology developed, that windows could be inserted high up under the arches of the vaults, which led to the soaring clerestories of later cathedrals. In fact, all of the structural elements of the cathedrals of Europe, including the nave, aisles, vaults, as well as the clerestory windows, were enabled by the invention of the groin vault.

From the mere arch to the groin vault arcade, the Roman arch changed Western architecture forever. As the historian R. Furneaux Jordan put it, the arch was “Rome’s precious gift to the world.”

Christopher P Jones writes about art and other things at his website. All images by the author.

5. Roman Numerals

As the name already suggests, Roman numerals originated in ancient Rome. Constituting one of the most popular numbering systems still in use today, the first use of these numbers dates back to somewhere between 900 and 800 BC. Back then, the existing counting systems could not keep up with the need for ever complex calculation requirements. Roman numerals were developed to serve the purpose of delivering a standard counting method that could be efficiently used in communication and trade. However, these Roman numbers came with their flaws such as the absence of the number zero and the inability to calculate fractions, among others. Despite this, these numbers survived even after the fall of the Roman Empire. Their use in movie titles, books, and many other popular and cultural spheres today shows the long-lasting legacy of this ancient numerical notation.

National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Harvey Meston/Staff/Getty Images (cropped)

Even when construction methods and materials advanced to make the buttress unnecessary, the Gothic look of the Christian church was ingrained in society. The Gothic Revival house style flourished from 1840 until 1880, but reviving Gothic designs never became old in sacred architecture. Built between 1907 and 1990, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is more commonly called the Washington National Cathedral. Along with buttresses, other Gothic features include over 100 gargoyles and over 200 stained glass windows.

Roman Architecture

Romans were famous for their advancement in architecture and engineering. Before the Romans, the most commonly used building style was the post and lintel. This way of building was of course limited in the weight it could carry and therefore the span between the supports.

The Romans changed all this and advanced this by introducing new methods of architecture The Columns and The Arches. With these methods the romans were able to construct bigger temples and buildings than ever before.

Roman architects used three types of columns through out their long history. The first and most basic type was called the Doric Style. It's plain features where not as attractive as its futures forms but it served a great purpose - to hold up huge and heavy buildings.

The Ionic Style, with its more decorative base and top, was the next type to be used. It still had the same purpose as the Doric style but it futher increased the awe power of the building it was used with. The Cornithian type was the King of all Columns. It's fine details and size made the other two types look like rather ordinary.

Arches were used not just for their immense support capabilities but aswell for their power to amaze and glorify. The extension of the arch idea lead to the development of domes. The largest dome built for 18 centuries was the Pantheon. The idea of the arch was further extended in the middle ages with the barrel vault and other types of vaults which became the central theme of the Romanesque and Gothic Cathedrals.

Cement was used to supplement arch construction which again allowed the Romans to expand buildings. For example the Coliseum used the arch system, along with concrete, to build a four story high stadium to seat over 50,000 spectators. In addition the Romans developed over 500 KM of aqueduct to bring fresh water into the capital city. This along with over 50,000 miles of roads show the size and strength of the empire's architecture.

Watch the video: EINE KURZE GESCHICHTE SPANIENS (January 2022).