On our historic tour of architecture, we’re starting with the Roman empire.

Because time frames and styles often run together, quite a lot of Roman architectural elements are taken almost directly from the Greek styles.  However, with a few changes and some innovation, the Romans were able to significantly change the floor plans of their buildings.  Ever think that the “open concept” floor plan is a modern invention?  In actuality, it can find its roots in ancient Roman architecture, typically classified as starting about 750 BCE and ending about 650 AD.  

Greek Influence

Picture the quintessential Greek temple.  Large colonnades support a heavy entablature and pediment with typically low-sloped wood roofs.  Greek temples also followed one of the three orders of style, Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian.  The widespread use of stone limited the Greek temple to a relatively small floor plan dominated by lots of closely positioned columns.  

three examples of ancient Greek architecture
Left to Right – Temple of Hephaestus (Athens, Greece), Parthenon (Athens Greece), and Temple of Concordia (Agrigento, Sicily).  Though there were variations on the floor plans for Greek temples, most featured a common set of elements, mainly the pediment, the entablature (made up of the cornice, frieze, and architrave), and columns of the peristyle (colonnade around the entire building).  Photos from Pixabay.

 Roman Innovation

While some Greek elements like the use of the entablature, pediment, and style orders transitioned to Roman design, the Romans began to innovate on some of these ideas.

examples of ancient Roman architecture
Left to Right – Comparison of Greek and Roman orders of style, Temple of Jupiter (Baalbek, Lebanon), and Pantheon (Rome, Italy).  The three orders of style (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) were very similar between Greek and Roman architecture.  The basic shape of temples also stayed the same with a central open area for gathering surrounded by a colonnade.  Even when the Romans began to change the shape of temples, they often continued to incorporate pediments and entablature on the porticos. Photos from Wikimedia and Pixabay.

Arches and domes started to be widely used in designs.  Concrete also began to be used as a primary building material.  When asked to picture Roman architecture most people will think of the Pantheon and the Colosseum, which both used these elements. 

Ancient Modern Romans

collage of images including the Collesium and Panteon in Rome
Left to Right – Colosseum (Rome, Italy), Pantheon (Rome, Italy), and Pont do Gard (River Gardon, France).  Roman architecture took advantage of the ability to span larger distances with fewer columns, creating incredible arched public venues and aqueducts.  The Pantheon’s large central room with its forty-three-meter rotunda was only able to be built from Rome’s advances in the concrete formula and an in-depth understanding of arched structures (the entire dome of the Pantheon is constructed of progressively thinner concrete). Photos from author and Pixabay.

The open floor plan was a benefit from the Roman use of these elements.  

The arch for instance, when compared to the Greek lintel, allowed masons to use readily available smaller stones and the strength of the arch allowed wider and taller buildings while using fewer columns.  The use of the dome also meant that interior spaces could increase in size since the dome could span over large distances without the need for supporting columns.

The creation and eventual perfection of a concrete formula furthered the Roman’s ability to increase the size of interior spaces.  Concrete could be lighter than the previously used solid stone, but could also be stronger.  This allowed buildings to be even taller and larger than ever before with wide-open modern interior spaces. 

Fall of Rome 

With the fall of the Western Roman empire many of the innovations of Roman architecture were lost (the formula for concrete was only rediscovered in 1710 by a French engineer).  However, the Eastern Roman Empire took over as the next primary architectural style.  So stay tuned as we move on to Byzantine architecture next!

Church of St. Irene in Istanbul
Church of Saint Irene in Istanbul, Turkey.  Photo By: Dosseman / CC BY-SA (


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