The Roman Temple: Architectural Development and Adaptation

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Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

The Roman temple incorporates elements of the Greek and Etruscan types, but develops into something unique, which inspires Western architecture into the present day.

Roman religious practice was originally concerned with animistic beliefs; that is, belief in natural deities and nature spirits. Roman families worshiped at shrines set up in their own homes, or near important natural landmarks, such as a sacred stream or forest grove, and concerned themselves with appeasing these natural spirits.

As the Romans were first invaded by Etruscans, and then expanded on their own into Greek colonial territory, their religious practices, and their temples, slowly changed.

Greco-Etruscan Inspiration

The Etruscans were technologically and culturally superior to the original Romans, and when they entered the region of Tuscany, to the north of Rome, they dominated the whole area. It was through them – for the Etruscans had set up one of their kings to rule over Rome – that the Romans first came into contact with Greek-like gods and goddesses.

Eventually, the Romans threw off the Etruscan yoke and then moved south, conquering territory. When they ran into the Greek colonies in the south of Italy, they eventually adopted some Grecian deity traits to their own gods and goddesses, further cementing the similarities.

The actual Roman temple was based on Etruscan prototypes, and was similar to Greek types. The Romans set up an axis on which to set the temple; a forum, or open courtyard, in front of the temple; and then the temple itself. Unlike the Greek temples, it was approached only from one, clearly defined side: A front entrance. Columns, inspired by Greek styles, however, supported a gabled roof and surrounded the temple (those on the sides, as opposed to those at the front, were usually engaged columns). Inside the temple was the cella, the enclosed sacred chamber.

The Development of the Basilica

Another Roman building that would, with time, be given religious connotations was the basilica. Originally, basilicas were legal courts, where, at the end of an axis, stood an altar with a statue of the Roman emperor, symbolizing his presence at the court, where a judge would preside over legal issues and hear litigants’ cases.

After the widespread acceptance of Christianity – sealed with the Edict of Milan, produced by the Emperor Constantine – throughout the Roman Empire, however, this building type was co-opted by the new state religion, in their building of religious temples. The altar of the emperor was replaced by the religious altar, and the buildings’ purpose was changed from court of law to church. Another change was the movement of the side-based doors to the front of the building, so that on entering, peoples’ eyes would immediately be guided to the altar.

Some of the most famous basilica Churches remain existent today, such as Old Saint Peter’s. Their cruciform shape was symbolically important to the early Christians, and their large, open space was essential for a congregation-based religious service. This building plan was most popular in the West, however, where it was widespread. The alternate building plan, popular in the East, was that with a centralized plan, to be discussed shortly. It was the basilica-plan, however, that inspired most Church-builders in the West, up even to the present day.

The Central Plan

Finally, the third religious building discussed in this short article is that with a centralized plan, popularized in the Eastern Empire during the ascendancy of Christianity, after Constantine. This style is less familiar to modern Christians in the West, but like the basilica-plan, is based on older Roman architectural design.

The centralized plans of the Eastern Roman religious buildings were usually round, octagonal, or square in geometric shape, and were based off of royal, imperial tombs. It was also derived from the heroa, a building commemorating the deeds of a divinity or deceased member of a prominent family, and were sometimes used to mark out the places where a martyr for the Church was martyred.

For the new Christian faith, these centralized buildings were used for numerous purposes, not just as landmarks for marking out sites of martyrdom. They were also used as baptisteries, where believers died from their old life and rose from the water renewed, cleansed of their original sin, and they were used as places of worship.

Conclusion

All in all, the Roman Empire had an interesting development of religious architecture, from the Etruscan-inspired Roman temples, to the Christianized basilica- and centralized-plans of the West and East respectively. All inspired later generations of architects, up unto the present day, and all remain to inspire awe in those who visit the ancient ruins of these buildings, some 2,000 years old.

Sources:

  1. David S. Potter, Editor. A Companion to the Roman Empire. Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2006.
  2. Leland M. Roth. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning (Second Edition). Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, 2007.