Roman Architecture: 6 Remarkably Well-Preserved Buildings

The long-lived Roman Empire left behind many majestic buildings, but only a few examples of Roman architecture have reached the present-day remarkably well preserved.

Sep 19, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
tower of hercules roman architecture
The Tower of Hercules, 1st and 2nd century CE, La Coruña, Spain, via CIAV the Tower of Hercules Visitor Service

 

For centuries Rome ruled the world. Its well-trained and disciplined armies conquered vast territories, facilitating the growth of an enormous empire. The multicultural and mostly tolerant Roman society attracted immigrants from far beyond the empire’s borders. Both newcomers and Roman citizens — scholars, statesmen, artists, engineers, bureaucrats, merchants, and soldiers — played their role in shaping Roman society, culture, art, laws and the economy. Roman architecture is the most visible imprint that this powerful civilization left upon the world. Centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, impressive ruins and Roman monuments still stand as a testament to the empire’s former power and glory. Among those imposing structures, however, few were lucky enough to survive more or less intact till today.

 

Here is a list of 6 remarkably well-preserved Roman buildings.

 

1. Maison Carrée: Roman Architecture and the Imperial Cult

roman monuments maison carree
Maison Carrée, constructed ca. 20 BCE, Nimes, France, via the Amphitheatre of Nimes

 

One of the best-preserved Roman monuments stands in the city of Nimes, in southern France. This stunning Roman temple — the so-called Maison Carrée (Square House) — is a textbook example of classical Roman architecture described by Vitruvius. At about 85 feet long and 46 feet wide, the building would have dominated the forum of the ancient city. The temple’s imposing façade, lavish decorations, and elaborate Corinthian columns, as well as the inner structure, have survived up to the present-day almost intact.

 

Besides its high level of preservation, Maison Carrée has significant historical importance. Commissioned by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in 20 BCE, the temple was originally dedicated to the Emperor Augustus’ protective spirit, as well as the goddess Roma. Around 4-7 CE, the building was rededicated to Agrippa’s sons, Augustus’ grandsons, and adopted heirs — Gaius and Lucius Caesar — who both died young. Thus, Maison Carrée is one of the first examples of Roman architecture linked to the nascent imperial cult. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the temple remained in use, serving different functions; it was used as a part of a palatial complex, a consular house, a church, and a museum.

 

2. The Temple of Augustus: One of the Best Preserved Roman Monuments

roman architecture temple augustus
Temple of Augustus, ca. 27 BCE-14 CE, Pula, Croatia, author’s private collection

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Located in the coastal city of Pula, in modern-day Croatia, is another well-preserved temple that still proudly occupies a place in the Roman forum. Like its counterpart in Nimes, the Temple of Augustus was also dedicated in honor of Emperor Augustus and the goddess Roma. However, the inscription (now lost) does not mention the deified Augustus, an honor that was given to the emperor following his death. We can infer from this that the temple was built during the emperor’s lifetime, between 27 BCE and 14 CE.

 

When built, the Temple of Augustus was a part of a temple complex erected in the forum. The largest temple, dedicated to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva), stood in the center. On the rightmost side was its twin building, dedicated to Diana, goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature. Parts of the two now gone temples were incorporated into the medieval communal palace. Unlike its neighboring buildings, the Temple of Augustus continued to function after the Roman period as a church. In a later period it played a less glamorous role as a granary. By the 19th century, the houses erected on the forum had almost wholly concealed the temple. During a Second World War air raid, the temple received a direct hit, and was almost entirely destroyed.  Luckily the building could be reconstructed from the fragments left behind, and now it looks the same as it did at the time of its dedication.

 

3. Curia Julia in Rome: The Center of the Roman World

roman monuments curia julia
Curia Julia, built in 29 BCE, and reconstructed in 94 and 238 CE, Rome, Italy, via Parco Archeologico del Colosseo

 

This modest-looking building in the Forum Romanum in Rome was one of the most important pieces of Roman architecture in the world. The Curia Julia, or the Senate House, was the place that housed the Roman Senate — Rome’s ruling class. It was the third and last building that served such a significant function in Rome. Work on the Curia began under Julius Caesar and was finished by his adoptive son and first emperor of Rome, Augustus. As such, the Curia Julia symbolically marked the end of the Roman Republic.

 

The building one can see today is not a wholly original structure. It is thought the Curia Julia may have been afflicted by the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE during the reign of Emperor Nero. The building was restored by Domitian in 94 CE, only to be destroyed once again in the fire of 238 CE. A final reconstruction was completed under Emperor Diocletian. It is that building that still stands today. The structure was converted into a church in the 7th century, its transition ensuring its survival. While the marble slabs covering the exterior are gone, its original porphyry and serpentine floor, the low, broad steps that accommodated the senators’ seats, and the three large windows are still part of the structure.

 

4. The Tower of Hercules: The Beacon at the Empire’s Edge

roman architecture tower hercules
Tower of Hercules, built between 1st and 2nd century CE, La Coruña, Spain, via CIAV the Tower of Hercules Visitor Service

 

Located near the entrance into La Coruña harbor, the Tower of Hercules served as a lighthouse from its construction in the 1st century CE. Rebuilt by Emperor Trajan in the 2nd century, the Tower of Hercules played a vital role in maritime navigation for ships traveling towards the Bay of Biscay and further to the English Channel. Besides its practical function, the lighthouse had a sacred link. According to myth, the area of its construction was the place of one of Hercules’ greatest achievements — his victory over a giant tyrant Geryon.

 

In historical terms, the edifice was built on the foundations of a similar Phoenician structure. Its design was probably inspired by the Pharos — the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria. While it fell into disrepair during the middle ages, the lighthouse was put back in action in 1788, when commercial activity with America intensified. The tower was not only renovated, it was extended with a new story. Nowadays, the 180 foot tall Tower of Hercules is the only Roman lighthouse still in use. It is also the oldest functional lighthouse in the world.

 

5. Pantheon in Rome: The Revolutionary Roman Monument

pantheon agrippa roman monument
The Pantheon (current building), ca. 113-125 CE, Rome, Italy, via Nat Geo

 

The largest exceptionally well-preserved piece of Roman architecture, the Pantheon, is undoubtedly the most famous structure on this list. An original Roman monument, now lost, was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, whose name is still visible on the frieze. When the older building burned down, the Pantheon was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian, who gave it its iconic form. The Pantheon caused a revolution in Roman architecture, since its massive circular dome broke with the tradition of the rectangular layout, emphasizing the lavishly decorated interior instead of exterior. The Pantheon’s dome was the largest in the world till the Renaissance. Furthermore, it remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome to this day.

 

Traditionally, scholars believed that the Pantheon was constructed to be a temple to all the Roman gods. However, more recent research suggests that instead of a traditional temple, the building was a dynastic sanctuary linked to Emperor Augustus and his family. Later emperors continued to use the building to further legitimize their right to rule over the empire. Whatever its original purpose, the Pantheon became primarily associated with the power of the emperors and their divine authority. Like most Roman architectural masterpieces, the Pantheon survived the post-Roman period due to its conversion into a church. Beside a few minor modifications, the building preserved its original shape up to the present day. Its unique design became an inspiration for many similar buildings built all around the world.

 

6. The Aula Palatina: Late Roman Architecture

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The Aula Palatina (Konstantinbasilika), photograph by LaMiaFotografia, ca. 310 CE, Trier, Germany, via Reisemagazin-online.com

 

The Aula Palatina, a piece of late Roman architecture also known as the Basilica of Constantine, is the best-preserved Roman palatial building. Built around 310 CE, the Aula Palatina was initially an integral part of a much larger palace complex — the residence of Emperor Constantine the Great during his stay in Trier. Its original form had several smaller buildings attached to it and it could have functioned as an imperial audience hall. Measuring 220 feet in length and 85 feet in width, the Aula Palatina is the largest surviving single-room structure from antiquity.

 

A prime example of palatial Roman architecture, the Aula Palatina had a floor and wall heating system — a hypocaust. While the rest of the complex did not survive the aftermath of Roman rule, the Aula Palatina was repurposed and served as the residence for the bishop of Trier. The Roman monument retained this function until the 19th century. In that period, the Aula Palatina was returned to its original state, becoming a protestant church in 1856. However, during the Second World War, the building was heavily damaged in an air raid. The 19th-century interior decoration was never repaired after the war, leaving the brick walls visible from the inside. Today the building evokes its past imperial glories and continues to function as a Christian basilica.



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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.