Technology and Methods - Rome/Roman World
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0043
- LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0043
The Romans are known for their advanced building technology, and since the rediscovery in the early Renaissance of the manuscripts of the Roman architect Vitruvius and the Roman water commissioner Frontinus, the materials and construction methods of the Romans have been of interest to later architects and builders. In the 19th century most of the writers on Roman construction techniques were architects and engineers, often with the goal of learning techniques that would be of use in their own designs. During the first half of the 20th century archaeologists began to take an interest. They were at first particularly concerned with establishing a method of dating through the careful observation of walling techniques, though this has since proved to be more optimistic than effective. In the decades after World War II, the study of construction and Roman technology in general was neglected, in part, due to the influential writings on the ancient economy by M. I. Finley, who downplayed the importance of technology in the ancient world. More recently the view of the Roman economy has broadened, and the role of building construction has taken on new relevance. Many scholars are now going beyond the descriptive and using data from building sites to explore the economic and social implications of building projects. New approaches include the analysis of the logistics and organization of building sites, the quantification of materials and labor, the regional and long-distance trade networks of building materials, and the interrelationship of different types of processes involved in the building industry (the French chaîne opératoire, or operational sequences). Another change in mindset affecting the study of construction is the postcolonial shift away from a Rome-centric view of the empire. The builders in the provinces are now recognized as actively innovating rather than passively absorbing knowledge from the capital city. The Roman army played a role in the spread of building techniques; however, those they employed were often not developed in Rome but rather in lands where the military units were stationed and where they often encountered different and sometimes new ways of building. In the 21st century, the study of building technology is stretching beyond Rome itself and is becoming more integrated into broader historical narratives, albeit the study of some regions is further along than others.
The first modern treatise to provide an overview of Roman construction was that of the French architect Auguste Choisy, and it is still worth consulting (Choisy 1873). However, the best contemporary overviews of Roman materials and techniques are Adam 1994 and Giuliani 2006. Wright 2000–2009 treats a broad chronological range from Neolithic to Late Antiquity throughout the Old World and is a useful starting point. More focused discussion is provided in Yegül and Favro 2019, which includes a chapter dealing with Roman construction technology. Handbooks on both architecture (Ulrich and Quenemoen 2014) and on technology (Oleson 2008) have chapters related to construction and the building industry. The catalogue of the exhibit, Homo Faber held at the Naples Archaeological Museum in 1999 (Ciarallo and De Carolis 1999), is well illustrated and accompanied by essays on a variety of finds from Pompeii, many of which are widely representative of construction tools in general. In recent decades, scholars have become more interested in the building process as a whole and the people involved (Giuliani 2006; Taylor 2003; see also DeLaine 1997 (cited under Rome: Major Monuments and Lancaster 2005 (cited under Rome and Environs: General Works).
Adam, Jean-Pierre. Roman Building: Materials and Techniques. Translated by Anthony Mathews. London: Batsford, 1994.
Extensive examination of Roman construction organized according to material and building technique. The excellent drawings make it a user-friendly resource. The examples are mainly from Rome, Pompeii, and Roman Gaul. Originally published as La construction romaine: Matériaux et techniques (Paris: Picard, 1984). This English translation (1994) is updated with some new bibliography. Essential reference and good for undergraduates.
Choisy, August. L’art de bâtir chez les romaines. Paris: Ducher, 1873.
Organized according to material and building technique with an interpretive essay at the end. Beautifully illustrated with Choisy’s own drawings, although they are sometimes idealized. His observations on construction are still valuable, but his interpretations of the motivations of ancient builders were colored by his desire to find construction methods that could be adopted in his own times.
Ciarallo, Annamaria, and Ernesto De Carolis, eds. Pompeii: Life in a Roman Town. Translated by Eric De Sena. Milan: Electa, 1999.
Catalogue of exhibition with many examples of building tools and discussions of building materials and processes. Originally published in Italian as Homo Faber: Natura, scienza e tecnica nell’antica Pompeii (Milan: Electa 1999).
Giuliani, Cairoli Fulvio. L’edilizia nell’antichità. 2d ed. Rome: Carocci, 2006.
Focuses mainly on Rome and Italy. Fundamental work for students. Extensive illustrations make it accessible also to non-Italian-language readers. Early chapters are divided according to building parts from the top down. Later chapters deal with materials and their properties, wall construction techniques, and aspects of the building sites, such as lifting and scaffolding. Has bibliography for further reading but no notes. First edition in 1990 followed by revised second edition released in 2006 with a CD Rom of additional illustrations.
Oleson, John P., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Edited volume covering a broad range of technologies with some chapters related to construction: quarrying, lifting machines, engineering construction, hydraulic engineering and water supply, metal working, woodworking, and fortification. All chapters have an extensive bibliography.
Taylor, Rabun. Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Organized according to the building process from ground to roof. Gathers together useful sources and provides reader with a framework to think about the building process. Sometimes the scenarios of how tasks could have been accomplished go beyond what one can glean from the evidence and must be approached with caution.
Ulrich, Roger, and Caroline K. Quenemoen, eds. Blackwell Companion to Roman Architecture. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
Edited volume on Roman architecture that includes chapters on measurement, materials and techniques, and labor force. Bibliography has emphasis on English sources. Online version available.
Wright, George H. R. Ancient Building Technology. 3 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000–2009.
Series covers from Neolithic to Late Antique periods in the Old World, so treatment is fairly general. Volume 1, Historical Background, is arranged by period. Volume 2, Materials, is arranged by material. Volume 3, Construction, treats organization of the work site and building techniques. Well-illustrated volumes but figures are not integrated into text. Good resource for students.
Yegül, Fikret, and Diane Favro. Roman Architecture and Urbanism: From the Origins to Late Antiquity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Includes extensive chapter on “Technology of Building” with discussions of materials and building techniques as well as road, aqueduct, and harbor construction. Not as in depth as Adam 1994 but covers a greater geographical range. For the provinces, discussions of building techniques are also included in other chapters on particular regions. Excellent illustrations with many of the authors’ own photographs. Self-contained bibliography at the end of each chapter.
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