Engineering Rome

Circus Maximus as an example of sustainability in Rome

1. Introduction

The ancient Roman and Latin poets Tibullus and Ovid may have been the very first to describe the Italian capital city as ‘eternal’, but thousands of years of travelers since then have agreed (Mike, 2010). The stunning attractions in the current World’s 16th Most Visited City (Choong and Hedrick-Wong, 2016) include the historical 60,000 seat Colosseum (built in the 1st century AD) right alongside corporate headquarters for the global fashion brand Fendi, built 19 centuries later (Bhasin, 2015). My academic eagerness to learn more about Rome’s famous engineering and architecture was a driving impetus for my participation in ‘Engineering Rome.’ Architect, author, and explores and explains Rome’s urban sustainability in his 2015 book, “Rome Works: An Architect Explores the World’s Most Resilient City” as well as his popular online blog ‘Sustainable Rome’. Ancient Roman design and construction continue to impress and inspire people around the world; in fact, it was Roman engineers who perfected the arch, the vault, and the use of concrete. Rome managed to support as many as a million simultaneous permanent residents as early as the 1st century AD: “Roman engineers and ingenuity built massive structures out of stone, wood and miraculous which still act as models for our own modern edifices.” (Museum of the City, 2017) In this paper, I will analyze an example of Roman sustainability through the Circus Maximus.

In the words of Carl Elefante “The greenest building is…one that is already built.” (Journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2007) Sustainability in modern civil engineering and infrastructure projects might include use of locally-sourced materials, or construction components that can be easily dismantled and repurposed in the future. The ancient Circus Maximus was a stadium designed for chariot racing; only pieces of that original structure survive today. Sustainable design includes vision for the project long after construction has finished. The Circus’ physical location was selected and planned to capitalize on geographical and topographical features with such enduring success that it remains a public gathering space today, despite virtually none of original circus structure remaining.

2. Definition of Sustainability and Resiliency

One of the most well-known definitions of sustainability is from the 1987 United Nations Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. This global report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Our Common Future, 1987) Being sustainable is often considered with respect to the environment, society, and economics. (Figure 1) Sustainable practices support economic, ecological, and human health. A sustainable project presumes that resources are limited, and should be allocated wisely with long-term priorities and consequences kept in view. Sustainability is about protecting the world in which we leave future generations. Measures of a project’s sustainability are answers to questions such as:

  • Is the project affordable over a long period of time?
  • How will this project impact the environment?
  • Will this project still have use and meaning in society over years?
  • How will the project respond to a natural disaster?
Figure 1

For a project to be sustainable, it must be maintainable for several generations. In context of the Circus Maximus, we will explore three aspects of its sustainability: resiliency, social, and environmental sustainability.

Resiliency is the ability to recover from stress, strain, and disaster. Economically, resiliency can be defined as “decomposed into two components: instantaneous resilience, which is the ability to limit the magnitude of the immediate loss of income for a given amount of capital losses, and dynamic resilience, which is the ability to reconstruct and recover quickly.” (Hallegatte, 2015) In the context of the Circus Maximus, this paper specifically analyzes how the structure has recovered from natural disaster.

3. Background of the Circus Maximus