Carmelo Malacrino and Jay Hyams, trans. Constructing the Ancient World; Architectural Techniques of the Greeks and Romans. Getty Publications, 2010.
We admire the architectural achievements of the Greeks and the Romans. Carmelo Malacrino’s account of their building technologies can only add to that admiration. He makes the distinction between Greek and Roman for reasons of chronology. In fact much of the technologies developed by the Greeks quickly spread to Etrusca and Latium. And conversely building techniques associated with the Romans were not unknown in classical Athens, Corinth, Olympia, and other Greek city states.
In addition to the architectural remains, the author has used literary resources, Herodotus, Strabo, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Cato the Elder, and other writers. But most important is the first-century work On Architecture by Vitruvius Pollio. Malacrino includes wonderful diagrams of the various buildings and technologies described by Vitruvius.
Geologists would be pleased that Malacrino begins by describing the different stone materials used by the classical world, their attributes, and their limits. Transportation costs were all important, so to the extent possible, stone materials were local. Marble was the most prized of all stone, but limestone was the more common.
Much of the work of shaping the stone was done at the quarry. The columns and lintels used in Greek temples were monoliths and hence colossal in size. And heavy, water transport was used as much as possible, but getting the stones to the elevated Greek building sites necessitated animal power, large teams of oxen. Elaborate pulley systems and block and tackle were used to hoist the carved stones into positions. Hoisting machines were normally powered by men inside large tread wheels.
Labor at the quarries did most of the initial carving. It was slave labor, hence cheap, and the technologies labor intensive. Mostly percussion tools were employed – the hammer, punches, chisel, and wedge. However, these were skilled laborers, with an intimate knowledge of the nature of the rock material.
Each stone was elaborately carved for a particular place in the building. That included groves and channels for inserting ropes for lifting. Once in place, bosses and protective surfaces were then removed.
In the 4th century BC, Greeks began to use bricks fired in kilns; terra cotta tiles and temple decorations were already in use. Tiles were a much lighter roofing material than stone slabs. Because they were lighter, they could be manufactured in large quantities and shipped over distances to building sites. Corinth was an important center for ceramics manufacture.
There was much to admire in the various innovations in the Greek building arts. The Romans were, if anything, even more impressive. Malacrino contends that opus caementicium, we call it concrete, revolutionized the building trade in the ancient world. It was a mixture of lime, stone or other aggregate, sand, and water. It was most commonly used in constructing walls which were then faced with richer materials. Opus caementicium could also be used as a mortar, which gave rise to brick architecture. The brick wall would be surfaced with a plaster, molded and then painted.
These brick walls with concrete cores needed substantial foundations. Romans were so good at their foundations that much Roman architecture survives.
The Roman use of the arch revolutionized interior spaces. Whereas Greek temples had relatively small interior spaces, the Romans created magnificent interiors in their basilicas or meeting halls and their public baths. To prove that point Malacrino provides illustrations and color photographs of the Baths of Caracalla, built between 212 and 217 A.D.
Those baths required water. The Aqua Claudia was sixty-eight-kilometer aqueduct that delivered 184,282 cubic meters of water daily. It was one of a dozen or so aqueducts that fed the city.
Several years ago, I looked at the ruins of Greek architecture in Sicily, Crete, Rhodes, and Delos as well as Athens. If only I had read this book, those stones would have spoken more knowledgably.