Engineering Rome

Hadrian’s testament to structural engineering

By David Joslin


The Romans were a a historically significant faction that reigned over the Mediterranean Sea; the significance of the Romans can be understood by the ubiquitous presence of Roman-based concepts, such as its obvious impact on language evolution, specifically the Romance languages, of Western Civilization and even its extent within the legislative and judicial branches of democratic governments. The most fascinating time stamp that Roman Civilization has left upon society, however, lies within the Roman structures that can be found all across Europe. Essentially, these monuments of Roman architecture and engineering—a process adapted and garnered over centuries—illuminate the importance of Roman structural engineering. The mere presence of the structures intermixed throughout Europe profoundly demonstrate the resilience of these structures, and thus the prowess that Romans had attained over the life span of the Republic and the Empire; basically the Romans found a way to incorporate structures that lasted for millennia. In recognition of the ingenuity found in Roman structural engineering, it is important to analyze how such structures remain so resilient, and in this way we will stray away from overindulging in the aesthetics and architecture—though these aspects undoubtedly drove the construction of these structures. Keeping this in mind, let us investigate the structural powerhouse that is Hadrian’s Villa so that we may unveil and understand the structural engineering behind the Roman structures that still stand today.

A Brief Historic Analysis

Hadrian and the Roman Empire

Hadrian, born Publius Aelius Hadrianus, ruled over the great Roman Empire after the reign of Trajan, one of the most highly esteemed emperors apart from Augustus. Over the length of Hadrian’s reign, ruling from 117 to 138 AD, Hadrian witnessed and held the empire at the height of its conquest over the Mediterranean. After gaining ascension to the Roman throne—the circumstances of which had been fairly peculiar(MacDonald, 1995)—the once army general Hadrian halted the Roman conquest into the region of the Parthians, staunchly believing that war was an unnecessary output for the empire (Adembri, 2000). Instead, the new emperor insisted on the restructuring, fortification, and defense of the large empire, establishing a period of structural growth during his 29-year rule (Adembri, 2000). Hadrian traveled throughout the Roman Empire for most of his life, and he spent the last 7 years of his life within the confines of Rome and his villa (Adembri, 2000).

Hadrian’s focus on structural expansion certainly explains the increase of brick production during this period (MacDonald, 1995), and it further provides the means and reason for the numerous historic structures and monuments erected at the time. The most notable monuments of Hadrian’s time were the Pantheon, the Temple of Venus and Rome, and Hadrians’ Mausoleum, today known as Castel Sant’Angelo, where Hadrian is supposedly buried. The Pantheon, as a note, was built before Hadrian, but it was rebuilt and fortified during the time of Hadrian. These structures, however, do not hold with certainty the emperor’s architectural will, as it is fairly debated that he had little or no impact on such structures (implying that there were engineers beyond Hadrian that are not noted within Roman literature) (MacDonald, 1995). It is not totally far-fetched to believe that Hadrian could have had a formidable impact on the planning of the structures, as the emperor was prone to European architecture and perhaps structural engineering of the time due to his many travels, and he without a doubt was an intellectual of the time (MacDonald, 1995). Nevertheless, there is no conclusive evidence as to whether or not Hadrian had any impact on the structural engineering of those monuments affiliated with him (MacDonald, 1995), so there is no reason for us to debate it here. Effectively, we will appreciate the engineers of Hadrian’s Villa, whoever they may have been, through investigating the engineering behind the structures still standing. The most valuable idea to take away from Hadrian is the fact that he provided the means (the money) for the Villa and its many substructures to be created. Thus, when I argue Hadrian’s “testament,” I do not indulge in a magnificent, intellectual Hadrian but instead in a Villa that was only brought about by Hadrian’s will.

Hadrian’s Villa: A Historic Overview

Though architecture and history are not the focus of this analysis, the importance of the two features articulate an understanding as to why the structure was erected. Hadrian had a certain love for architecture and its aesthetic features (Adembri, 2000), and this fact can be understood by the numerous travels on which Hadrian embarked (MacDonald, 1995). Hadrian’s Villa is an extension and expansion of the Republican Villa already situated in the valley near Tivoli before Hadrian’s reign as emperor (Adembri, 2000); Hadrian, of course, had no problem claiming the structure as his own. Renderings of different provinces of the former Roman Empire were supposedly outlined within the Villa, bringing to light the impact of Hadrian’s travels on this structure (MacDonald, 1995); in short, the Villa imitates various architectural values that would have been present during the time of Hadrian (MacDonald, 1995). Construction of the enormous Villa started in 118 AD, a year after Hadrian’s rise to power, following which a laborious effort transpired to erect many of the structures found in the Villa (Adembri, 2000). The construction most likely continued until the death of Hadrian (Adembri, 2000). After the fall of the Roman Empire, and perhaps even after the death of Hadrian, there was no means of protecting or sustaining the Villa, subjecting the structure to probable robbery, destruction, and the elements; moreover, the Renaissance period brought forth a new esteem for such villas, and so many of the art and architecture features of the Villa were transferred from Hadrian’s Villa to other destinations (Adembri, 2000). In short, what is now visible is only the tip of the iceberg which represents the former dominance and raw beauty the Villa maintained. Luckily, that which is most importantthe structural foundation and layout of the Villastill exists today.

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Figure 1: Detailed Map of Hadrian’s Villa Figure 2: Bird’s Eye View of Hadrian’s Villa

Hadrian’s Villa: Structural Analysis

The size of Hadrian’s Villa is not a particularly absolute description since we have no idea what the original span of the Villa was meant to be. (MacDonald, 1995). A good estimate to go by is around 250 acres. Figure 1 above compares the size of the Villa to the surrounding town (it’s huge), and figure 2 details the structures that can be found within the Villa. The passage of time, however, has led to the ownership of the land changing hands over the two millennia, and that which is now under control of the Italian Government is all that is available to public viewing (Adembri, 2000). Though a substantial amount, the buildings left out of public viewing such as Academia and the astounding “Reverse-Curve Pavilion” are not sights offered to the public. With this in mind, as shown by the Prezzi shown below below, the area of the Villa that will be analyzed is that which is available to anyone who might want to see the grand Villa for himself or herself. The analysis that follows takes a magnifying glass to the diverse structural themes posited throughout the Villa by observing the Villa’s common structural foundations. Much to my chagrin, the topics explored here will not fully do justice for the Villa, but this analysis ought to demonstrate raw Roman structural engineering at its finest.