XXX things you might not have known about Roman architecture

  1. The secret of the longevity of Roman buildings like the Colosseum and Pantheon is Roman concrete. It owes its strength to volcanic ash – pozzolana. Its secrets wouldn’t be revealed or replicated until the modern era.
  2. The Pantheon’s dome – made of gradually thinner concrete – would be unmatched as the largest dome for over 1000 years.  It’s still the largest unsupported dome.
  3. The concrete in the Pantheon’s dome contains pozzolana from Vesuvius.
  4. That dome is actually cracked and may have been covered up by decorative elements.
  5. Someone also made a mistake with the sizing of the columns in the Pantheon porch – they’re not quite the right size.
  6. No-one quite knows how the Pantheon was used – it may have been a temple to all the gods, but few would have seen inside as temples weren’t open to everyone in the same way churches are today. It’s likely that it was an audience hall used by Hadrian.
  7. Nero’s Domus Aurea contained the world’s first rotating dining room.  It covered a massive area stretching from the Roman Forum to the Esquiline and Oppian hills.
  8. The Domus Aurea was rediscovered when a young boy fell through a hole on the Esquiline Hill in the 15th Century.  Later, artists including Rafael would abseil down to get a closer look and get inspiration from its fantastically-preserved frescoes.
  9. The Colosseum was built over the Domus Aurea’s lake area.  It gets its name from the colossal statue of Nero which stood outside. It was really called the Flavian amphitheatre.
  10. The Colosseum could hold 50,000 and was able to empty in 15 minutes. It forms the blueprint for many modern stadia while the word for sand gave us the modern term arena.
  11. There are the remains of over 200 amphitheatres around the world. London’s was only discovered in the 1980s and its remains can be visited under the Guildhall Art Gallery.
  12. The Circus Maximus could hold a quarter of a million people.
  13. The Arch of Constantine is recycled – it contains material from monuments associated with Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian.
  14. Rome was likely the home to the ark of the covenant until it disappeared with the Goths. It may have been housed in the Templum Pacis, a Forum space built by Vespasian.
  15. Family houses (Domus) didn’t have windows fronting onto the street.
  16. Modern basilica churches are based on the basilica format that was used for law courts and markets.
  17. St Paul’s Outside the Walls is one example of an ancient church that may have been built to replicate the Basilica Ulpia in Trajan’s Forum.
  18. Trajan’s Column is actually a tomb.
  19. The column, like many other monuments and sculptures, was originally brightly coloured.
  20. The height of that column (34 metres) is actually a representation of the height of the Quirinale Hill that had to be removed to build the neighbouring Trajan’s Markets. While the markets contain shops and offices, no one quite knows exactly how they were used.
  21. Both column and markets were built by Apollodorus of Damascus a skilled engineer who may have been killed by the Emperor Hadrian for daring to criticise his use of pumpkin domes. Apollodorus was known for his domes and his attention to symmetry – he may have built the Pantheon and was certainly responsible for building the previous biggest dome at the Baths of Trajan.
  22. The emperor Hadrian fancied himself an architect. As well as those pumpkin domes, his travels across the Empire provided inspiration for Greek and Egyptian buildings at the Villa of Tivoli.
  23. Sites like the sprawling Villa at Tivoli contained underground networks of tunnels so that slaves couldn’t be seen (such a tunnel was a cryptoporticus).
  24. Castel Sant’Angelo was also a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian and his family.  With a few additions in place, it has acted as a castle, a papal fortress and a museum. The angel comes from the angel Michael who reputedly saved the city from a plague in the 5th century
  25. The oldest building still intact in Rome is the Temple of Hercules Victor in the Forum Boarium. It dates from the 2nd Century BC and still exists because it was converted into a church.
  26. The oldest bridge still intact is still in use today. The Pons Fabbricus dates from the 1st Century BC and is still used to give pedestrian access to Tiber Island.
  27. Julius Caesar’s temple of Venus Genetrix was dedicated to his ancestress, the goddess Venus. It was also home to a massive golden statue of Cleopatra.
  28. Roman Baths were centres of exercise as well as learning and culture. Rome’s biggest was the 4th Century Baths of Diocletian.  The baths give their name to Rome’s Termni area (and the station).
  29. The modern day city of Split is built in the remains of the Palace of Diocletian. The famously anti Christian emperor was first to retire (to grow cabbages in peace). He may not have been so happy to find out that his tomb is now a church.
  30. A church near Dover Castle in England incorporates one of the only 2 existing Roman era lighthouses. The other is at A Coruna in Spain.

Of course, there are many more tidbits that could be added to this list – what’s your favourite fact?


  1. Fascinating, my folder on hints on Rome gets bigger and bigger with each article you post.

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