Romans: Architecture

The typical building of pre-Roman Britain was the timber and thatch roundhouse. The Romans introduced the idea of rectangular plans, which were more suitable for packing buildings closely together along street frontages and in planned cities.

A recreated Roman town house at Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire

A recreated Roman town house at Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire

VILLA DEVELOPMENT

In the countryside, rectangular farmhouses began to appear alongside traditional roundhouses. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries the addition of a portico and projecting wings at either end turned many of these simple farmhouses into ‘winged-corridor’ villas.

Larger, more luxurious villas were elaborated over time, especially in the 4th century – at North Leigh, Oxfordshire, for example, wings were added to enclose a court, and at Lullingstone in Kent a fine apsidal dining room was added.

Aristocratic houses in British cities had a rather rural look. Unlike the compact peristyle houses, built around open courtyards, of Mediterranean cities, they often developed rambling plans thanks to gradual additions, like their counterparts in the countryside.

Cornucopia from Corbridge

This well-preserved cornucopia was discovered at Corbridge Roman Town, near Hadrian’s Wall. Cornucopias were symbols of wealth and plenty in the Roman world: this probably formed an architectural decoration in a private house.

CITY PLANNING

The ideal Roman city plan was based on a regular grid of streets, dividing up square building plots or insulae. In the central insula was the forum, or market square – with a basilica, or great hall, running the length of one side of the square, and the council chamber and civic offices adjoining it.  

In forts like Chesters and Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, the central headquarters building was a small-scale version of the civic forum-basilica. Here, soldiers collected or banked their pay, the administration of the unit was carried out, and the commander could address his troops.

By the mid-2nd century AD, many of the 22 Roman towns in Britain had a full set of the public buildings that defined Roman settlements elsewhere: not just the forum and basilica but also bathhouses, temples and amphitheatres, as well as shops and offices.

The wealth and enthusiasm of British town councillors did not always live up to the Roman ideal, however. Not all street grids were filled with buildings, and public edifices were not always maintained in the later Roman period. Indeed, the rich seem to have preferred to move to the country and develop large private estates, rather than invest in urban public buildings. While great defensive walls were built around the cities, inside them the buildings were crumbling.

Roman building tools from Corbridge

A selection of Roman tools found at Corbridge Roman Town, near Hadrian’s Wall. They include a chisel (top left), a mason’s hammer (centre) and a slater’s hammer (bottom).

TEMPLES

Classical temples of conventional form, with pediments, columned porticos and podia, did exist, such as the temple of the deified Claudius at Colchester and that of Sul Minerva at Bath. Architectural fragments found at Corbridge south of Hadrian’s Wall show that there was a series of small classical temples at this northern frontier town.

But much more common were the ‘Romano-Celtic’ shrines based on pre-Roman and Gallic prototypes. These were square, round or polygonal in form, with a central roofed chamber surrounded by an ambulatory (as at Maiden Castle, Dorset).

Roman walls at Portchester

The late 3rd-century Roman walls at Portchester Castle, Hampshire, are among the most complete in Europe, standing almost to their full height (over 6 metres). The walls were built up with layers of flint and rubble, which are still clearly visible.

IMPERIAL PROJECTS

Roman engineering ingenuity was displayed in special projects that proclaimed imperial power, such as stone-arched bridges. These were mainly confined to the northern frontier zone – most bridges in Roman Britain were built from timber.

Imposing remains of the stone bridge that once carried Hadrian’s Wall across the North Tyne survive at Chesters. Where most Roman public buildings were constructed out of mortared stone, the massive unmortared blocks of such bridges were locked together with tight, finely worked joints and iron clamps, lowered into position by crane.

Other special imperial building projects include the great stores building at Corbridge, and the massive triumphal arch at Richborough in Kent, gateway to the province of Britain.

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