Engineering Rome

Project Management in Rome throughout the Ages

By Brian Zabala

Photos are by the author unless otherwise stated.


Construction has forever defined the Eternal City. From the vast public building projects of the Imperial era to the commissioning of ornate Christian basilicas during the Renaissance, the continuity of Rome has demanded the construction of new structures in response to the social, political, and economic needs of the present.

Figure 1: The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum, with the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda constructed inside.

Planning and Administration

Before investigating the process of design and construction in pre-industrial history, it is important to consider that large construction projects were treated as “more of an art than a science.” It is only recently that the fields of architecture, engineering, and construction were more distinctly separated as they are today.

Republican Rome

Figure 2: The lex parieti faciendo, a contract for wall construction around the Macellum of the Roman colony Puteoli in 105 BC near modern Pozzuoli in Naples (National Archaeological Museum of Naples).

In the Roman Republic, the…

Imperial Rome

Modern Rome

Scheduling & Estimating (modern interpretations combined with evidence of methods…)

Costs…(high proportion of costs in transportation of materials…)

Construction order and tasks…

Evidence of minimizing transport trips and maximizing efficiency…?

Site preparation, demolition…?

Worker assembly/recruitment

Scheduling & Estimating

Task Sequence

Site Preparation

Temporary Structures

Scaffolding

Figure 2: Scaffolding on a building along the Lugarno Corsini in central Florence
Figure 3: One of two Metro Line C tunnels along the Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum facing west

Modern

Steel Safety features: shielding, barriers, signs, fencing, anchors,…

Ancient

Wood

Unrefined/refined lumber and boards…

Formwork

Brick/masonry formwork covering inner concrete core… plywood/wood boards and posts

Design

Figure 4: The ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum
Figure 5: Floorplan of the Baths of Diocletian
Figure 6: The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and of the Martyrs built inside the frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian

Projects commissioned in response to a social, economic, or political need…

Some design processes described by Vitruvius…(column design, aqueduct design, 

temple design)

Columns: Didyma design drawings, guide rings at Pantheon…

Economics

Standardization

large scale manufacturing

unskilled labor

Technology

Figure 7: “Roman wall-building included small stones laid in mortar, opus incertum (1). Opus retuculatum (2) was a later diagonal pattern. These walls had outer vertical angles finished with stone quoins (3). Opus testaceum had a brick facing (4). often strengthened by bonded tiles (5). Walls of foundations were cast in a timber framework (6), removed when the mortar had hardened” (David Darling).

Techniques

opus incertum

opus reticulatum

opus mixtum

opus testaceum

opus vittatum

Transportation

Quarried travertine mined near rivers (such as the Aniene…) and rotated onto wooden barges in trenches, while the river was blocked, allowing for trenches to fill and barges to float. Barriers removed, water level lowers, allowing barges to float out into the river. Aniene flows into Tiber, allowing transport directly to central Rome…(source…?)

Availability of materials around Rome…

Road construction for transport of materials…

Usage of materials from abandoned buildings…

Role of Ostia in accepting and processing imports of materials to Rome up the Tiber/Via Ostiense…(warehouses, docks, ships, carts…)

Materials

Ancient

Marble

Decorative facing over stone/brick walls

Structural columns in early periods…

Travertine

Structural early on, decorative in later periods…

Stone

Tuff…

A soft but easy to collect material for building…

Basalt, pumice…

Wood

Used for scaffolding, early bridges, beams, floors, doors, pulleys, cranes, 

lifting equipment, shoring/temporary retaining walls, centering trusses for 

vault/arch/dome construction…

Concrete

Filler material with high durability and strength

Covered with brick, stone, and marble/travertine…

Lime/Mortar

…Required for brick/masonry construction…

Plaster

…Protective/decorative covering for stone/masonry walls…

Metals

Lead, bronze

Used for water pipes and stone block anchors…

Modern (or medieval/renaissance…)

Concrete

Addition of internal support, allowing for structural concrete in tension…

Glass

Workers

Figure 8: Wall painting showing a scene of builders at work from the Hypogeum of Trebius Justus

Organization

Soldiers early on, slaves in later periods…

Construction, material transport, skilled/unskilled labor…

Compensation

Soldiers and slaves required living areas, food, clothing…(higher costs than for 

ordinary workers)

Figure 9: Pavement removal at the Piazza Goldoni in central Florence

References

Anderson. (1997). Roman architecture and society. Johns Hopkins University Press.

DeLaine, J. Production, transport and on-site organisation of Roman mortars and plasters. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 13, 195 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-021-01401-5

Domingo, Javier. (2013). (2013) – J. Á. Domingo, “The Differences in Roman Construction Costs: The Workers’ Salary”, in Boreas, 36, 2013, pp. 119-143.

Macaulay. (1974). City : a story of Roman planning and construction. Houghton Mifflin.

Wilson, A. (2006). The Economic Impact of Technological Advances in the Roman Construction Industry Actions. Innovazione tecnica e progresso economico.

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