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Republican Roman Construction
by J. A. Geary

The image to the right is a view into an atrium in Pompeii. The roof is missing, but you can see the impuvium and the way the house is arranged with a long axis. The iron gate is modern.
-- Photo by J. A. Geary.

"I found Rome a city of mud bricks, and left her clothed in marble." Perhaps the report of Augustus' (33 BCE - 14 CE) boast is accurate, but the Roman ruins and the remaining structures we see today are not like the enduring mud-brick pueblos of the Navajo Indians, nor are they often marble, if they are as old as the Republic. What happened to those marble buildings? What were Roman buildings really like before the Empire?

Temples and public buildings from the Republic and the early empire, aside from those that have been incorporated into Christian Churches and so preserved, are often identified by only a column or two. Others are masses of crumbling stone blocks, like a giant's building blocks, their featureless faces mysteriously pockmarked. What happened to them? And what of the thousands of other structures that were home to the early Romans?

Augustus' reign is called "the principiate" and marks the juncture of the Roman Republic and the Empire, so we're looking for what buildings were like at that time. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who served as an engineer with Augustus' uncle Julius Caesar, wrote a treatise on architecture during the principiate. Vitruvius quoted earlier authors and defined his ideal in architecture and building, though most buildings of the time fail to meet his standards. Vitruvius' work and modern archaeological discoveries give us a starting place for our search.

Early Roman houses were huts, of course, much like primitive people's everywhere. Tourists to the city of Rome in the time of the Republic were shown a round hut made of branches which was supposed to be the home of Rome's founder, Romulus. Modern archaeological excavations have revealed foundations of similar huts dating to the eighth century BCE, so it's possible they were correct.

What is generally considered the typical Roman house, or domus, was a plan adopted from the Etruscans, the people who dominated central Italy before the Romans. The Eturscans may have received elements of their style from Greece and Mesopotamia, or they may have developed it independently. The house of a wealthy man might consist of a dozen or so rooms arranged around a partially roofed court, one or two stories high, called an atrium. A rectangular opening in the center of the atrium roof was positioned over a pool, the impluvium, and surrounded by a peaked roof covered with terra cotta tiles. The arrangement allowed rainwater to be collected for household use, as well as providing a pleasant interior space. Water was vital to the lifestyle of the Romans, as witnessed by the aquaducts that remain from the time.

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