Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450)

Forum Romanum, Roman Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher) pg 127, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy, Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
Forum Romanum, Roman Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher) pg 127

The great Roman architectural innovations were the load-bearing arch and the use of concrete, brick, and stone

Construction of Walls and Arches, Roman Architecture, History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 127, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
The Baths of Caracalla (reconstruction), Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Viollet le Duc)
Comparative Greek and Roman Orders, Greek Architecture, History of Architecture, pg 160, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
Column of Marcus Aurelius plan, elevation, and section from History of Architecture (Fletcher) pg 105, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy, Italy. (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)

The Romans made use of certain Greek innovations, particularly architectural ideas. The first to be adopted was post-and-lintel construction—essentially, a weight-bearing frame, like a door. Later came adaptation of Greek columns for supporting buildings, following the classical orders of Doric column capitals (the plain ones) on the ground floor, Ionic capitals (with the scrolls on either end) on the next level, and Corinthian capitals (flowering with acanthus leaves) on the top.

Romans thrived on huge complex problems for which they could produce organized, well-crafted solutions. Roman builders became inventive engineers, developing hoisting mechanisms and a specially trained workforce. They designed towns, built civic centers, raised grand temples and public baths, and developed the basilica, a rectangle supported by arches atop columns along both sides of the interior and with an apse at one or both ends.

Basilicas were used for courts of justice, banking, and other commercial structures. The design was repeated all over the Roman world, beginning around the AD 1C. Later, early Christians adapted the architectural style for the first grand churches, still called basilicas. 

Although marble is traditionally associated with Roman architecture, Roman engineers could also do wonders with bricks or even prosaic concrete.

Where to find Roman buildings

One of the best places to see Roman architecture, of course, is Rome itself, where examples of most major public buildings still exist. These include the sports stadium of the Colosseum (AD 1C), which perfectly displays the use of the Classical Orders; Hadrian's marvel of engineering the temple of the Pantheon (AD 1C); the public brick Baths of Caracalla (AD 3C); and the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum (AD 4C; these basilica buildings were rectangles supported by arches atop columns along both sides of the interior, with an apse at one or both ends, and served as law courts, but the style was also adopted by early Christians for their first grand churches).

The Colosseum isn't the only well-preserved Roman amphitheater. Other notables are in Verona (still used for concerts), Santa Maria Capua Vetere and Pozzuoli (both near Naples), and at Pompeii and Ostia Antica

You can also still see many Roman private dwellings, from the Architect-Emperor Hadrian's Villa Adriana summer palace in Tivoli just outside Rome, to the mosaics of Villa Aremerina in Sicily.

But the best places to see Roman houses, public buildings, and all the rest mroe or less frozen in time for nearly 2,000 years is at the ancient Roman ghost cities:

Where to see entire Roman ghost towns 

Three Roman cities have been preserved with their street plans and in some cases even buildings and villas intact, including the famous Pompeii and its neighbor Herculaneum (both buried by Vesuvius's AD 79 eruption), as well as Rome's ancient seaport Ostia Antica.

Where to find Roman street plans

Their urban planning still stamps the street layouts of cities from Florence (whose central street grid is so rigidly east-west/north-south it doesn't bother following the actual flow of the Arno River, which is a few degrees off east-west) to Aosta (which preserves a gate and theater stage) to Brescia (with an ancient temple and theater remaining in the city center) to Verona (which preserves a magnificent ancient amphitheater still used for performances).

Identifiable Classical architecture features

  • Classical Orders. Usually simplified into types of column capitals: Doric (plain) on the ground floor, Ionic (with the scrolls on either end) on the next level, and Corinthian (flowering with acanthus leaves) on the top.
  • Brick and Concrete. Although marble is traditionally associated with Roman architecture, Roman engineers could also do wonders with bricks or even prosaic concrete[md]concrete seating made possible such enormous theaters as Rome’s 6-acre, 45,000-seat Colosseum.
Photo gallery
  • Forum Romanum, Roman Architecture, from History of Architecture (Fletcher) pg 127, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Construction of Walls and Arches, Roman Architecture, History of Architecture (Fletcher), pg 127, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • The Baths of Caracalla (reconstruction), Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy (Photo by Viollet le Duc)
  • Comparative Greek and Roman Orders, Greek Architecture, History of Architecture, pg 160, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)
  • Column of Marcus Aurelius plan, elevation, and section from History of Architecture (Fletcher) pg 105, Ancient Roman architecture (125 BC–AD 450), Italy (Photo by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher)

Where to find Ancient Roman architecture in Italy

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The Arch of Septimus Severus flanked by the three columns of the Temple of Vespasian and Titus on the left, and the eight columns of the Temple of Saturn on the right. Just to the right of the arch are the Umbilicus Urbus and the broken, curving bits of stone marking the Rostra. (Behind the arch: the brick cube of the Curia; that dome and facade are the Santi Lucia e Martina church designed by Pietro da Cortona, just outside the Forum) (Photo by Bert Kaufmann)
Roman Forum
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

Downtown Ancient Rome: The Roman Forum (Foro Romano), Palatine Hill, temple of the Vestal Virgins, Roman Senate, and Triumphal Arches of Titus and Septimius Severus

 
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The Colosseum at sunrise (Photo by picmasta)
The Colosseum
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

Rome's Colosseo still ranks as the world's most famous sports arena, site of gladiator combat and the wholesale slaughter of wild beasts to amuse the public

 
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Inside the Pantheon (Photo by Rodney Campbell)
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The Pantheon
Rome: Tiber Bend

The glorious Pantheon is Rome's only intact ancient Roman temple

 
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Piazza Navona at sunrise (Photo by Giuseppe Moscato)
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Piazza Navona
Rome: Tiber Bend

Bernini fountains, caffés, street performers, artists, and a carnival of life crowd Rome's famous Piazza Navona

 
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The Stadium of the Palace of Domitian garden on the eastern side of the Domus Augustana (Photo by Markus L)
Palatine Hill
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The birthplace of palaces is the Palatine Hill above the Roman Forum

 
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AD 2C equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (Photo by schizoform)
Capitoline Museums
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

These museums atop Rome's Campidoglio connected by the Tabularium house iconic ancient statues (she-wolf, colossal statue of Constantine, Lo Spinario, Dying Gaul, etc.) and great art by Caravaggio, Titian, and Rubens

 
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Colombario VIII from the age of Nero, perhaps for members of a funerary collective (Photo by Sailko)

The Vatican Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis is a series of Roman-era tombs excavated under the Vatican Gardens

 
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 (Photo by Adam Burt)

The remarkably preserved ruins of an ancient Roman ghost town

 
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The Macellum, or Tempio di Serapide (Photo by ho visto nina volare)
Pozzuoli
Pozzuoli

One of the world's best preserved Roman amphitheaters and a piazza that rises and falls with the volcanic activity in Sofia Loren's hometown

 
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The long, tunnel-like atrium of the Cave of the Cumean Sybil (Photo by Nik893)
Cuma
Cuma

Learn your ABC's about the myth-shrouded Cave of the Cumaean Sibyl at Cuma

 
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The Forum and The Capitolum (temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva), at the intersection of the Cardo Maximus (main north-south street of any Roman town) and the Decumanus Maximus (main east-west street) (Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)
Ostia Antica
Rome: Outside the walls

Like Pompeii, Ostia Antica is an ancient Roman ghost town—but this one lies just a subway ride from downtown Rome and comes with virtually no crowds

 
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The ancient Roman theater of Fiesole (Photo by Szilas)
Archaeological Area
Florence: Fiesole

The complex includes a 4C BC temple, a 1C BC theater (which hosts summertime concerts under the stars), a few arches remaining from some AD 1C baths, and a small museum

 
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The Macellum, or Tempio di Serapide (Photo by Norbert Nagel)
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The Romantically half-flooded columns of the ancient Roman market

 
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 (Photo )
Pompeii
Pompeii

The amazing ruins of a Roman port city

 
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 (Photo by Marc Biarnès)
Hadrian's Villa
Outside Tivoli

Emperor Hadrian would have made for an excellent architect, had he not been busy ruling the empire—but he did build this country retreat

 
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The ruins (Photo by Mister No)
Villa Jovis
Near Capri Town

The ancient villa of Tiberius

 
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The amphitheater of Capua (Photo by BARBARA ZOLI)
Amphitheater
Santa Maria Capua Vetere

Italy's second largest ancient Roman amphitheater, where Spartacus started his revolt, is the Anfiteatro Capuano

 
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Castello Aragonese, now home to the Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei (Photo © Ra Boe / Wikipedia)
Baia
Baia

Loads of Roman ruins—both around town and underwater—and the best little museum in the Campi Flegrei

 
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The amphitheater (Photo by Wojtek-Rajpold)

One of the oldest ancient Roman amphitheaters in Italy

 
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Dioniso, Ninfeo di Punta Epitaffio in the submerged remains of Emperor Claudius' nymphaeum (Photo by Ruthven)

The "Submerged Park of the Protected Baia Marina Area" is an underwater archaeological park of Roman ruins and statues

 
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The Imperial Fori of Rome (Photo Public Domain)
Imperial Fori
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The Fori Imperiali represent Rome's first major urban expansion of public areas beyond the Forum—most importantly the Forum of Caesar, Forum of Augustus, and Forum of Trajan

 
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The Ara Pacis (Photo by Damian Entwistle)
Ara Pacis
Rome: Tridente

Emperor Augustus' ancient Altar of Peace in Rome, Italy

 
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The Markets of Trajan, the world's first multi-story shopping mall (Photo by Jebulon)
Trajan's Markets
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The world's first multi-level shopping mall gives unparalleled insight into the daily life of Ancient Rome

 
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The octagonal room was once a banqueting hall (Photo by Andy Montgomery)
Domus Aurea
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The Domus Aurea—Nero's personal pleasure palace across from the Colosseum—offers a rare glimpse into the privileged world of a Roman emperor

 
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Panorama of the Thermae of Caracalla (Photo by Chris 73)
Baths of Caracalla
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The Terme di Caracalla is vast ancient baths complex and spectacular setting for opera under the stars

 
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The ruins at Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome (Photo by Jakub Hałun)
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Largo Argentina
Rome: Tiber Bend

The sunken ruins of Largo Argentina in Rome, Italy, where Julius Caesar met his assassins and now cats nestle like easter eggs amongst the tall grasses

 
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Via dei Fori Imperiali (Photo by Alexander Gorlin)
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Via dei Fori Imperiali
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

Mussolini's grand Via dei Fori Imperiali, central Rome's would-be grand Archaeological Park

 
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Arco di Constantino (Photo by Mike)
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Arch of Constantine
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

This triumphal arch celebrates the battle that made Christianity the religion of Rome

 
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A detail from Pietro Cavallini's amazing late 13C frescoes, hidden in the nun's cloistered loft (Photo Public Domain)
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This Trastevere church looks like nothing much... until you pay the nuns to sneak downstairs to see remnants of ancient Rome, or upstairs to see precious frescoes by medieval master Pietro Cavallini

 
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A basement dining room inside an ancient Roman hallway (Photo courtesy of the restaurant)
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Da Pancrazio
Rome: Tiber Bend

Dine in the buried arcades of an ancient Roman stadium

 
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The Mithraic temple (Photo by Nik893)
The Mithraeum
Santa Maria Capua Vetere

A frescoed temple to an ancient Persian blood cult

 
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Excavations of the Roman Baths (Photo by Lamberto Zannotti)

The Baia archaeological park and other ruins

 
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The loggia
Baths of Diocletian
Rome: Termini train station

Rome's Museo Nazionale Romano branch in the ancient Baths of Diocletian

 
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The columns of the Basilica Ulpia backed by Trajan's Column (and a pair of baroque church domes— Santa Maria di Loreto on the left and Santissimo Nome di Maria on the right) in the Forum of Trajan, part of Rome's Imperial Fori (Photo by Ade Russell)
Trajan's Forum
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The Forum of Trajan's is home to Trajan's Column, a massive carved marble comic strip of the emperors accomplishments

 
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The Forum of Caesar, also known as Forum Iulium or Forum Julium, Forum Caesaris, is a forum built by Augustus Caesar in honor of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, near the Forum Romanum in Rome in 46 BC (Photo by Ade Russell)
Forum of Caesar
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The Forum of Caesar, part of the Imperial Fori in Rome

 
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 (Photo by Mikhail Malykh)
Forum of Augustus
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The Foro di Augusto was built by Augustus Caesar

 
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The Mausoleum of Augustus as it was in 2016 (ongoing works are transforming it so it can open to the public) (Photo by Ethan Doyle White)
Mausoleo di Augusto
Rome: Tridente

The tomb of the emperor Augustus

 
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An arch from the Stadium of Domitian visible from the street (Via di Tor Sanguigna) (Photo by Lalupa)
Stadio di Domiziano
Rome: Tiber Bend

The ancient Stadium of Domitian echoed by Piazza Navona above

 
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Bastione di Parsano
Downtown Sorrento

Medieval walls and a Greco-Roman arch.

 
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Ancient statues in the Aula Ottagona (Photo by Rene Boulay)
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Aula Ottagona
Rome: Termini train station

The Aula Ottagona is both the most atmospheric branch of Rome's Museo Nazionale Romano and the only one that's admission-free. Sadly, it's usually closed.

 
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Transept (Photo by Fczarnowski)
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Santa Maria degli Angeli
Rome: Termini train station

Rome's Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri is a church designed by Michelangelo to inhabit the remains of an ancient Roman bathhouse...you'd think it'd be more famous

 
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 (Photo courtesy of the restaurant)
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Teatro di Pompeo
Rome: Tiber Bend

The remnants of Pompey's Theater are hidden away in the basement of an unassuming restaurant near Campo de' Fiori

 
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The Forum Boarium, with the round Temple of Hercules Victor on the left and the rectangular Temple of Portunus on the right (Photo by Carole Raddato)
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Foro Boario
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

Fraternal twin temples and the world's first sewer on lovely little "Cow Forum" by the Mouth of Truth

 
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The Teatro di Marcello and trio of columns of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus (Photo by Joadl)
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Teatro di Marcello
Rome: Tiber Bend

Marcellus's Theater was the Colosseum 1.0, the original Roman amphitheater

 
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 (Photo by Anthony Majanlahti)
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Ponte Milvio
Rome: Outside the walls

The ancient Roman bridge where Constantine converted

 
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