The buildings of Iron Age Italy (ca. 900 BCE)
influenced the structures of the early period, made either
of wood or of mud and brick, the latter being more durable
and less prone to fire. By the second and first centuries,
limestone and other stone materials were used. White
marble and granite were prized for decorative purposes.
Perhaps the most important development the Romans made
in construction was the invention of concrete (first known
use in Palestria, Italy in 200 BCE). Vitruvius (ca. 100
BCE) in his book on architecture describes it as crushed
stone, lime and sand, with pozzolana (the volcanic sand
from the Baia region in Italy) being the best choice for
the last ingredient.
Concrete was important in the making
of Romes famed vaults and arches, which would require
exceptional skill in shaping stones otherwise to make them
fit perfectly. And of course, concrete is perhaps the most
influential of all inventions in the history of
construction. A world without concrete would be very
different from what it today. It is used in virtually
every construction project, from skyscrapers to bridges to
Along with concrete, the stones were locked together
with iron pegs which fit into sockets in adjacent blocks
and were held in place with molten lead, acting as dowels.
The lead was poured into the sockets through a previously
made channel after the stones were positioned.
Wood was also common in construction, some walls being
made of a wooden frame filled with concrete and stones. It
was also used as flooring, roofing and in frames for doors
and windows. Bronze was another material used extensively;
it found place in hinges, handles and keys, as well as in
gilded tiles and sheaths for beams. Bronze sheets were
used to decorate doors and adorn ceilings.
To transport water throughout its empire, the Romans
built aqueducts, man-made channels of water connecting
streams to water tanks in the urban areas. The most
challenging aspect of building one was to keep it
perfectly level so that water would continue to flow in
the right direction. To do this, they used a column of
water as a spirit level of sorts.
Water channels were
supported above ground level by stone and cement columns.
The arch was an important structural feature as it helped
distribute the weight of the channel onto the columns. An
important example of Roman aqueducts, the Aqua Appia, was
built around 320 BCE.
their territories against attack, the Romans used a form
of fortification in which a trench encircled the area and
guard posts were erected at fixed intervals. Ahead of the
trenches, rows of spikes were set into the ground and
sometimes booby traps were also made. Roman walls of the
later empire were thick structures with concrete used to
bind stones together. The walls were faced with stone or
brick. To fortify passages near bodies of water, cement
that could set under water was used.
Since Romans largely used stone for their construction,
they required chisels, hammers and files to shape the
blocks. Emery powder was then rubbed over the surface to
form a smooth finish.
The Romans used cranes to lift heavy blocks into
position. These consisted of a rope-and-pulley system,
with the ropes wound about a winch so that they could be
raised by winding it. The crane system was a very
important development, evolving over the centuries to the
modern giants which lift everything from construction
material to ship cargo. The use of it by the Romans is a
further gauge of their technical expertise.