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Did the Roman invention of concrete change the world?

The Roman invention of concrete - opus caementicium - allowed significant structures including, most famously, the Pantheon and the Colosseum to be built. Its creation allowed for the development of new building techniques which are still in use today. Whilst early forms of concrete existed before the Romans, they vastly improved the ‘recipe’ for it, and by 200 BC utilised it in the majority of all construction projects. Consequently, this invention directly influenced the infrastructure of cities around the world in the following centuries, even after the fall of the Roman Empire. In addition, it served as an excellent preserver, giving modern archaeologists valuable insights into Roman life.


The incorporation of concrete into Rome and its Empire, allowed both public and private buildings to greatly advance. Whilst the architecture of temples was first to change - adding monolithic domes, stronger foundations and semi-engaged columns - Roman city architecture quickly followed and many citizens began to incorporate domes and arches into their homes as well. The most famous example of this is the Domus Aurea, Nero’s palace, which included a large, golden dome as part of its frontal façade. Concrete allows circular shapes to be built without the danger of the entire structure being dependent on a keystone and collapsing if this singular stone falters, which is part of the reason many Roman buildings are still standing today.


Greek temples were constructed using the post and lintel technique and therefore required immense precision and balance to allow the structure to be stable. Whilst the Greeks were highly successful with this technique, it is unfortunately not as structurally sound over a longer period of time. This can be observed in some of the classical Greek free-standing structures, namely the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion and many others which have now collapsed due to earthquakes, storms, or simply neglect. In contrast to this, there are many more surviving freestanding Roman structures, which were strengthened by concrete between each brick and can therefore still be seen today, such as the Temple of Hercules and the Temple of Augustus and Livia. Concrete allows buildings to withstand natural disasters better due to its reinforced nature ensuring that buildings can be preserved for longer.


Compared to Hellenistic building materials, concrete allowed a lot more flexibility in the shape of the buildings, making the infrastructure within the Roman Empire more distinct and individual. For example, in the Pantheon, instead of the typical Hellenistic temple roof of a triangular gable, the Romans were able to create one of the world's first large domes. Through their invention of opus caementicium, they not only produced a new building material but also irrevocably changed European architecture, increasing both its longevity and its diversity. Concrete also allowed arches and domes to replace the Hellenistic rectangles and triangles as architects were not tied to the large raw stones that were difficult to shape but had more freedom in the form of their buildings. This means that complex urban planning can occur as architects no longer have to conform to the landscape around them in the way that the Greeks had been forced to, something that can famously be seen in the Colosseum.


The Colosseum, originally named ‘the Flavian amphitheatre’, was built over a period of ten years under the rules of the emperors Vespasian and his sons Domitian and Titus. It was built using layers of varying materials - including concrete, local travertine limestone, and marble - and remains standing today due to its solid concrete foundation. This foundation was built on a large marshy area, the remnants of Nero’s personal lake, and concrete allowed the new emperors to offer the land back to the citizens of Rome by constructing a magnificent building for public use to cover up the remains of Nero’s palace. Compared with the previous amphitheatres which were often built into the sides of hills to provide extra support, the Colosseum is a wonder in architecture as well as being more efficient as it could seat more people and was constructed in a very central part of Rome that otherwise would not have been accessible. Today, the Colosseum is still an emblem of Rome, proving the importance of the Roman invention of concrete, serving a reminder of world-wide romanisation.


Romans conquered much of the western world, using their military and political power, but the reason they were able to maintain control of this vast empire is due to their technological advancements such as concrete. The countries they invaded wanted to emulate the Romans, as they brought with them many adaptations that allowed these other places to further advance through larger construction projects, cheaper building techniques as well as other architectural developments, such as Baths. This emulation, used as a positive incentive to cooperate with the Roman Empire, resulted in a process known as romanisation, causing Western Europe through to the Middle East to dramatically change the landscape of their cities, highlighting the impact that the Roman invention of concrete had around the globe.


However, Roman power did not reach all over the world; some areas such as North and South American were entirely uninfluenced by Romans when Rome was at the height of its power. Consequently, the Native Americans style of constructing and living was completely separate, and they developed their own building techniques and ways to thrive. When Western powers did reach America, roughly 2 millenia later, they brought their inventions and adaptations - such as Roman concrete - with them, and still influencing America. These inventions were utilised across the Atlantic ocean as well, resulting in buildings such as the White House, an emblem of American power, directly derived from neoclassical architecture using concrete.


Concrete not only allowed for more versatility in the shape of the buildings but also in the location. As it was able to be laid underwater, concrete could easily be used to construct bridges and harbours, such as the caesarea maritima. This was a large port on Israel's Mediterranean coast and a central and affluent trading centre, constructed using entirely artificial means. It was built in an area that had no previous natural harbour but despite this its builders created an approximately 100,000 m2 large complex port built on solid underwater foundations. This impressive advance in the use of concrete further highlights the importance of this Roman invention, as this means previously unattainable land can now be constructed and developed upon, expanding the land cities can claim.


The influences of this new architecture, utilising domes and arches, can still be seen today, all over Western Europe in cities through chapel and churches built in the wake of the reign of Rome. Many neoclassical-style buildings, built after the Renaissance in large cities such as London, Barcelona, and even Washington, include features such as columns, domed roofs or arches - and of course concrete. When walking around modern cities, neoclassical architecture is still identifiable in many houses and larger buildings, a clear demonstration of the influence that Roman architecture still has as well as proving the importance of concrete in modern architecture.


Furthermore, concrete not only allows for more efficient urban planning but also means cities can be built more quickly and more cheaply. As previously mentioned, Roman concrete was often composed of recycled materials, which would have been more economically viable than buying new materials, as no imports were required. In addition to this, due to how concrete is laid using moulds and forms, less experienced and less educated workers can be tasked with using the material. Concrete can be easily poured and requires little construction skill, as opposed to the highly demanded sculptors often sought out in Roman times. This means that the workers using concrete receive a lower wage, making the overall building process even cheaper, increasing its demand still today.

However, whilst cheaper and faster building was an advantage, it also caused later issues such as rapid urbanisation and unsustainable city growth. Modern concrete, directly derived from the Roman invention, is now used in almost every building, swiftly speeding up the building process compared to the previous techniques of using raw materials. Manufacturing buildings is now faster, cheaper and easier allowing cities to rapidly and greatly increase in size. As a result of this urban sprawl, the population within cities has greatly increased, resulting in further problems such as food and energy shortages and excess waste. These shortages can lead to both food poverty and malnourishment, resulting in millions of deaths annually worldwide; as well as causing increasing and unmanageable prices for simple household needs. Much of the excess waste produced in overpopulated cities is transported across the globe, heavily impacting climate change and developing countries, as an indirect result of the invention of concrete. Whilst the invention of concrete diversified Roman architecture with its domes and arches, the modern way of using it has a tendency to cause monotonous buildings to be mass-produced in cities around the world. This process is known as economies of scale and contributes to extreme urbanisation and overpopulated cities.


In addition to being versatile in its architectural uses, Roman concrete has also been used to discover more about the Roman World, having changed not only building techniques but also our understanding of history through complex archeological studies. This is because opus caementicium was often made using larger pieces of stones, and unlike modern concrete was therefore laid, not poured, due to its coarser nature. These larger pieces of stone can reveal important information to modern-day archeologists, with the different rock types implying details about the area in which the structure was built. If a building contains many traces of stones that are not native to that area, archeologists can infer that this area was therefore well connected and able to import materials, suggesting that it might have been economically powerful or important in Roman trade. Some of the fragments included were not simply rocks, but broken shards of discarded pottery, repurposed, and these can further inform archeologists about everyday Roman objects and their uses.


In conclusion, the Roman invention of concrete did dramatically change architecture, construction techniques and classical history, strongly influencing the majority of the world over centuries. Concrete caused cities to rapidly diversify through providing opportunities for more expansive urban planning, a variation in methods of construction and allowing architects to move away from the simple Hellenistic building techniques. These dramatic changes can be clearly seen in examples such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon, as well as by comparing post and pre-opus caementicium. The extent of Roman influence in the form of concrete can be seen all over the globe, and although it is not always a positive influence it is constantly prevalent.


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