FIELD TRIP: Art in Roman Civil Engineering

FIELD TRIP: Art in Roman Civil Engineering

While we’re on the subject of early Roman Empire art (see previous post in FIELD TRIP category), I thought it would be a good time to share my photos from a recent trip to Bath, England, as well as a photo I have of a Roman aqueduct I saw in Segovia, Spain.

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

The art in Roman civil engineering is undoubtedly the greatest physical contribution of the empire’s 500+ years of rule. Aqueducts like the one above brought water from distant sources to cities and towns, supplying public baths, latrines, fountains and private homes. They moved water by way of gravity and a slightly tilted downward gradient within conduits of stone, brick and concrete.  

Most of the aqueducts were buried beneath the ground, but where valleys or lowlands intervened, the conduits carried water on bridgework, such as the one I snapped a picture of in Segovia. There are many remnants of Roman aqueducts still standing today and beautiful to witness throughout Europe.

Notice the arches? They are the single most important architectural device invented (or at least perfected) by the Romans. To construct an arch out of wedge-formed stones was a new feat of engineering that allowed builders to explore new, bold designs. 

The Colosseum, Rome, c. 80 AD

The Colosseum, Rome, c. 80 AD

The Colosseum in Rome is the quintessential example of art in Roman civil engineering, and the arch is the most obviously way by which to identify a Roman styled building or temple as opposed to a Greek or even a Gothic structure. 

Roman Road in Britain

Roman Road in Britain

Let me just say that it would not have been a good time to roam the western world in Europe, the Near East and North Africa during Roman domination. Brutality was often the order of the day.

Those striking architectural feats, such as the paved Roman roads that moved armies and goods, and improved communications across a web of straight and well-drained paths, were done mostly by slaves. Slaves did most of the hard work across the vast empire. 

The Colosseum is awe-inspiring to look at, but it was also where people crowded in to watch bone-crushing chariot races, bloody gladiator fighting with exotic animals or other gladiators to the death, and where Christians were thrown to the lions by Emperor Nero.

Roman Bath House, Bath, England

Roman Bath House, Bath, England

However, the Romans took from the Greeks the love of bathing and a heightened awareness of the importance of personal hygiene. And that’s where the art in Roman civil engineering takes us to Bath, England, where we have a striking example of what the elite among the Roman invaders enjoyed!

Underground aquifer, Roman Bath House, Bath, England

Underground aquifer, Roman Bath House, Bath, England

The waters of the Bath House in Bath, England, are below modern street level. The water comes from nearby Mendip Hills. It’s rain water that percolates down through limestone aquifers to a depth of between 8,900 to 14,000 feet. Down beneath the ground where geothermal energy resides, the water temperature rises to between 147.2 and 204.8 F. 

Under pressure, the water then percolates back to the surface and bubbles up through fissures and faults to create the warm, luxurious baths that were thought to heal. 

Roman Bath House Pool, Bath, England

Roman Bath House Pool, Bath, England

The first shrine at the site was actually constructed by the Celts and dedicated to the goddess Sulis. It is interesting to note that when the Romans invaded, they thought that the Celt’s Sulis was very much like their own goddess Minerva, and so they rededicated the shrine to a combined goddess, Sulis-Minerva! 

After Roman withdrawal from Britain in the first decade of the 5th century, Bath fell into disrepair and much of the original temple and baths destroyed at the time of the fall of Rome.

Yet today, 1,500 years later, we still are able to see the wondrous art of Roman civil engineering thanks to what has been preserved and restored!

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