The Greeks and the Romans were ambitious and skillful builders.
Their elegant and massive temples, palaces, and public buildings are some of the most familiar images of ancient Greek and Roman culture. Even though most ancient buildings that survive today are in ruins, the structures are still impressive. The Greeks and the Romans also built humble, everyday structures, such as houses and apartment buildings. By studying ruins and ancient writings, scholars have learned much about how the people of Greece and Rome constructed their buildings.
Early Greek Building Techniques. The Mycenaeans and the Minoans, the very early peoples who lived in Greece and on the nearby island of Crete, mastered sophisticated building techniques and constructed large palaces. By about 1100 B.C., however, these civilizations had disappeared, and many of their construction techniques were lost. From then until 700 B.C., Greek construction was more modest, consisting mostly of houses and a few temples and city walls.
Greek builders used materials found locally. In many areas, the standard material for walls was mud-brick, made by mixing clay with water and straw, pressing the mixture into rectangular wooden forms, and letting it dry. When constructing a wall, builders started with a few layers of stones to raise the mud-bricks off the ground, then continued with rows of mud-bricks. Sometimes, they used timber beams to strengthen the walls. In some parts of Greece, stone was more common than clay. In these areas, people built with rubble masonry—small blocks of limestone roughly chipped from quarries. Walls consisted of stacks of these stones, with smaller stones and mud filling the space between. Both mud-brick and stone houses had dirt floors that were stamped flat.
Whether made of stone or mud-brick, a house had either a flat, clay roof or a steep, thatched roof. A clay roof began with crossbeams, a frame of timbers resting on the tops of the walls. The builder laid reeds across the crossbeams and covered them with clay. A thatched roof was made of bunches of straw woven together into a tight pattern and supported by a framework of poles inside the house.
For centuries after 700 B.C., the Greeks built houses, sheds, workshops, and other modest structures of mud-brick and rubble masonry. They also used these materials for a few public buildings. In the mid-400s B.C., for example, the Athenians built a mud-brick council chamber. By that time, however, they had largely turned to a new kind of construction, called monumental construction. The new construction methods produced buildings that were bigger, more impressive, and longer-lasting than earlier ones—buildings that were monuments.
Remember: Words in small capita letters have separate entries, and the index at the end of Volume 4 will guide you to more information on many topics.
Greek Monumental Construction. Monumental construction included all the elements we now regard as characteristic of Greek architecture, such as columns, stone platforms for large buildings, shallow peaked roofs, and decorations of statues or carved panels. The Greeks introduced this style in the 600s B.C., having invented new building techniques and designs, as well as borrowing others from the Egyptians. The Greeks first applied this style to temples, but by the 400s B.C. they also used it for other public structures, including treasuries, council halls, and walls of cities.
Stone, especially marble, was the main material of monumental architecture, and the Greeks became experts at building with finely cut stone. Stonecutters carved blocks of different sizes and shapes from quarries: rectangular blocks for paving, square ones for building walls, and thick cylinders that formed columns when stacked on top of one another. From the Egyptians, who had been building large stone monuments for centuries, the Greeks learned how to move large, heavy blocks of stone using rollers and ramps. Each block was delivered to the building site a little larger than necessary, in case the stone was chipped during transport. Masons at the site trimmed the blocks to exact size.
Greek builders developed techniques for fastening blocks of stone together. Dowels (thin rods of wood or metal) secured sections of columns. Builders also used wooden pegs or metal clamps to lock each block of stone in a wall to the blocks around it. The clamps, sunk into the centers of the blocks, were invisible when the wall was finished.
The roofs on monumental structures were made from tiles of terracotta, baked clay that was usually reddish-brown in color. These tiles, which may have been a Greek invention, are still used throughout the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Laid in overlapping patterns, with channels to carry off rainwater, they create a sturdy, waterproof roof.
Although Greek architects and builders knew how to construct arches, they made little use of them, preferring their traditional architecture of columns topped by flat crosspieces. While the Romans developed a style of monumental construction based on arches, the Greeks continued to build in their own style during the Roman Empire.
Roman Construction. Early Romans constructed buildings using the wattle-and-daub method, in which walls made of interlocking sticks (wattle) were coated (daubed) with mud. While easy to make, especially in the country, wattle-and-daub structures presented a fire hazard in a crowded city. As the Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio wrote, they were “like torches ready for kindling.”
ROME’S FIELD OF MARBLE
During its imperial building phase, Rome imported marble from all over the Mediterranean world. Shipments of marble came up the Tiber River to the Marmorata, the marble yards located on a plain next to the river. Marble was stored there until it was needed—sometimes for years or even centuries. In the A.D. 1800s, archaeologists uncovered the Marmorata and found marble blocks and columns that had never been used. American millionaire J. Paul Getty later bought this marble and used it in the Roman-style villa he built in Malibu, California. The villa is now the). Paul Getty Museum.
Buildings made with mud-brick walls proved more durable, and the Romans built their first temples with this material. The Romans soon turned to stone slabs instead of mud-bricks for temples, city walls, and public buildings. They probably learned how to quarry, transport, and build with stone from the Etruscans, a neighboring Italian people whom the Romans later conquered. The Etruscans may have learned their stoneworking techniques from the Greeks.
The first stone the Romans used for building was tufa, a stone found in and around the city. For centuries, tufa served Rome’s builders well. By 100 B.C., however, the Romans wanted to copy the precise edges and hard, smooth surfaces they saw on Greek marble buildings. Rome was becoming the capital of an empire, and the Romans felt that only marble was grand enough for their public buildings. They imported marble from all over the known world—white marble from Greece and northern Italy, purple and golden marble from North Africa, and white marble with purple veins from central Turkey. Roman builders used these expensive marbles for columns and veneers, or thin outer coatings, on walls of coarser stone.
The Romans also built with concrete, which they made by mixing crushed stone or gravel with lime and sand. To protect the concrete from the weather, they covered the walls with rows of small stones or bricks. Brickmaking became such an important industry that in the A.D. 200s the government established imperial* brickyards to manufacture bricks, roof tiles, and terra-cotta* pipes for plumbing.
Wood remained in use as a construction material throughout imperial times. The walls of many apartment houses were wooden frames filled with concrete or stones. Houses of better quality had walls of concrete faced with brick, but their floors, door and window frames, and shutters were wood. Fire was an ever-present danger in Rome. It spread quickly in districts where buildings stood close together.
Rebuilding Rome. Around 30 B.C., Rome’s rulers began rebuilding the city on a large scale. For the next three centuries, each emperor tried to make a permanent mark on the city by erecting temples, arenas, forums*, public bathhouses, or other magnificent structures. Caesar Octavianus Augustus, the first emperor, boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. After a devastating fire destroyed much of Rome in A.D. 64, the emperor Nero rebuilt the city—and took the opportunity to build a luxurious palace for himself in its center.
Later emperors continued to build new monuments, such as the Temple of Peace and the Colosseum, which were built by Vespasian. People in the ancient world, however, regarded the Forum of Trajan, built in the early A.D. 100s, as the most remarkable of Rome’s monumental buildings. One writer in the A.D. 300s called it “a construction unique under the heavens ... and admirable even in the unanimous opinion of the gods ... a gigantic complex beggaring descriptions and never again to be imitated by mortal men.” The Forum of Trajan was a series of courtyards and multistoried buildings that included a law court, Greek and Latin libraries, a temple, and a huge marketplace. When finished, it was a showcase of Roman construction techniques, with columns, statues, pavements, carved decorative panels, and marble veneered walls, all of the finest materials and workmanship.
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* terra-cotta hard-baked clay, either glazed or unglazed
* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings
The construction of the Forum required experts and skilled workers in dozens of crafts: demolition, stonecutting, marble working, iron-smithing, paving, plastering, painting, and many more. These and other imperial building projects gave rise to a large and diversified construction industry. An imperial department of public works, with a large staff of supervisors and clerks, kept track of the supply of building materials and coordinated the work of architects and construction workers. Rome’s apartment houses, mansions, country villas, temples, theaters, and even tombs were the achievements of a vast number of highly skilled craftsmen who were organized into a disciplined and effective workforce. At the command of the emperors, these men transformed Rome. Their buildings survived for centuries. Even in ruins, they continue to inspire architects, painters, and scholars today. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Churches and Basilicas; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Mining; Rome, City of; Temples.)