In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Architecture

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Vitruvius
  • Architects and Design

Classics Roman Architecture
Janet DeLaine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0112


Architecture is the quintessential Roman art, and the well-preserved remains of Roman buildings dominate our vision of the Roman Empire. Alongside the temples and houses common to many societies, the Romans developed a wide range of new forms to meet the increasingly sophisticated and diverse needs of their society, such as baths, amphitheaters, and basilicas. Roman architecture is famous above all for its technological innovations and achievements, which found their greatest expression in wide-span buildings such as the Pantheon. They used arches and vaults widely from an early period, were highly skilled in timber construction, and developed concrete as a basic building material of wide-ranging application. The main evidence is the buildings themselves, many thousands of which survive to some degree, but ancient texts, especially the On Architecture of Vitruvius, and inscriptions provide much of the interpretative framework. Excavations and standing building surveys are constantly increasing our knowledge and understanding, sometimes confirming earlier hypotheses but also often requiring major reevaluations of established theories. Although Roman architecture has been studied since the Renaissance, it is only since the middle of the 20th century that it has come to be appreciated for the developments in concrete construction, which led to a revolution in the treatment of interior space. More recently, the emphasis has shifted to the processes of design and construction rather than the finished effect, and the role of architecture in society. Regional studies are also increasing, often tied to wider historical debates on identity and acculturation in the Roman Empire.

General Overviews

The traditional approach to Roman architecture is fundamentally historical, presenting a linear chronological narrative of the architecture of the city of Rome (Hesberg and Zanker 2009) and central Italy, but with sections on provincial developments in the imperial period (Boethius and Ward-Perkins, 1970, Sear 1982). Alternative approaches examine the different trajectories of individual building types in time and space, and their function in society (Gros 1996–2001, Hesberg 2005). Thomas 2007, although focusing on the Antonine period, provides broader insights into the meaning of architecture in Roman society.

  • Boethius, Axel, and John B. Ward-Perkins. 1970. Etruscan and Roman architecture. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    Arranged chronologically, and by region; Boethius focuses on Italy under the Roman Republic, while Ward-Perkins covers the whole Roman Empire from Augustus to Constantine, with roughly half on Rome and Italy, and half on the provinces, arranged geographically. Available more readily in two volumes: Axel Boethius, Etruscan and Early Roman Architecture, 2d ed., revised by Roger Ling and Tom Rasmussen (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1978); and J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture, 2d ed. (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981).

  • Gros, Pierre. L’architecture romaine: du début du IIIe siècle av. J.-C. à la fin du Haut-Empire. 2 vols. Paris: Picard, 1996–2001.

    A magisterial work by the greatest living authority. Copiously illustrated, detailed typological study of Roman buildings from the mid-Republic to the end of the 3rd century BCE, focusing on Rome and Italy but with examples from all over the Empire, and stronger on the western provinces. Volume 1 examines public buildings, including temples, fora, buildings for spectacles, baths, and markets; Volume 2 (2001; 2d ed. 2006) looks at houses, palaces, villas, and tombs.

  • Hesberg, Henner von. 2005. Römische Baukunst. Munich: Beck.

    Focuses on construction projects and building types in relation to society as a whole; strong on public buildings with little on domestic architecture. Also includes building materials and architectural ornament, and a discussion of builders, patrons, and users. Usefulness limited for those not already familiar with the material because of the small number of illustrations.

  • Hesberg, Henner von, and Paul Zanker, eds. 2009. Storia dell’architettura italiana: Architettura romana I grandi monumenti di Roma. Milan: Mondadori Electa.

    Introductory essays by leading scholars, all in Italian, on the architecture of the city of Rome from its origins to Constantine, including single buildings, historical overviews, and typological surveys. No notes, but excellent bibliography and chronological table linking buildings and historical events.

  • Sear, Frank. 1982. Roman architecture. London: Batsford.

    A basic introduction, clearly written but out of date in places. Still useful as an introductory text for undergraduates.

  • Thomas, Edmund V. 2007. Monumentality and the Roman Empire: Architecture in the Antonine age. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Examines the meaning and significance of buildings as monuments and architectural forms, focusing on the architecture of the period from Antoninus Pius to Commodus. Intelligent and stimulating.

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