The Pillar Porticus in the Architectural Design of High Imperial Epoch: Common Design Solutions Verifiable in the Domain of Housing of AD I and II

The Pillar Porticus in the Architectural Design of High Imperial Epoch: Common Design Solutions Verifiable in the Domain of Housing of AD I and II

Daniele Bigi (Sapienza University of Rome, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7555-9.ch011


The chapter concerns Roman housing of the AD II in its noteworthy and rapid evolution which has its source in the political and economic conditions most favorable in the history of Rome. On the basis of some specific structures to be found in Rome and Ostia, the author makes an attempt at demonstrating to what extent this phenomenon was linked to the unifying housing policy in localities of high demographic density in the Empire, one that can already be glimpsed from the end or Nero's epoch. Subsequently, the composition solution common in the designs of new urban quarters are identified and discussed. In particular, the linear portico of the pillared type came to be introduced into the practice of urban planning, imposed by pre-constituted models. Taking into consideration principally the examples from Ostia, the author describes these particular typologies of porticos, comparing them with other structures and realities of the western part of the Mediterranean world.
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In the Roman world the structure of the porticus (portico), architectonically indicative of monumental edifices, was applied to a variety of structures heterogeneous in their composition and function. Pierre Gros (1996) suggests that the term refers to any hypostyle construction elongated in form, whether free standing or not, complex or simple, serving various functions and evincing various forms (p. 105). Among the various aims the porticus served in the domain of housing during the peak period of the imperial epoch in the architectural panorama of Rome, it is necessary to ponder the porticos that bordered city streets. It was a compositional solution analyzed not so much in reference to single buildings, but considered within the framework of a wholistic reflection on the city, according to a precise and ordered modus costruendi meant to define and regulate the urban fiber regarded in turn as a serial composition of single structures.

In point of fact, prior to analyzing in detail some examples of portico galleries we can find or trace back in the urban structure of Rome and Ostia as well as at other places in the western part of the Mediterranean world between AD I and II, it is interesting to observe to what extent the housing after the great fire of Rome of 64 A.D. - that scourge that mercilessly held Rome in its grip for six days and six nights (Suet., Nero, 38) evinces common architectural forms, visible today in few cases in Rome, in many more in Ostia. In fact, the castrum at the estuary of the Tiber1 in its layout from AD II shows design solutions that recur in the composition of dense housing, solutions which most likely echo housing typologies or, in other cases, specific architecture present first of all in Rome. To demonstrate this fact the study of the housing typologies gleaned from the fragments of the Forma Urbis (Battistin, 2015) shows that all the apartment types catalogued by Packer (1971) at Ostia can be identified in the remains from the epoch of Severus.

A panoramic overview of the state of studies on Roman tenement housing provides the background from which to extrapolate concrete cases for comparative analysis. The objective adopted is to demonstrate that, characteristically and uniquely, the housing of the peak period of the imperial epoch was based on a proper study in the domain of architectural composition. Progressively, the tendency was born to define a unified language that, under Hadrian, was evidenced by the emperor's will to employ as state officials a category of professionals and technicians knowledgeable in the field of constructing buildings2.

For this reason, the spread of the linear pillar portico proves to be an architectural element recurring in new housing quarters constructed in Rome and densely populated areas in the western part of the empire. The aim of the present study is to try to understand whether this solution was the fruit of the measures adopted by Nero or was linked to the already well-established building tradition.

Hence the description of some cases from Ostia, dating back to the AD II - appositely compared with other elements of the western Roman empire realities, will make it possible to discover whether there exists a continuity of architectural language among the samples examined.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Linear Porticus: Porticos that flank the street axis. Included in the category are all porticos that have direct contact with the street, whether they are simple of complex structures, or whether they are based on pillars or columns as their supporting element.

Evergetism: Derived from the Greek e?e??et?? (“doing good deeds”). In the ancient Roman times, it referred to the will of high status and wealthy individuals (in this case the emperor Nero) to construct buildings for common use in order to gain more support from the populace.

Insula: A building or a group of buildings erected on a plot of ground within the city structure delimited by four streets. However, the study of ancient sources reveals that the term had two meanings. Vitruvius ( De Arch ., I, 6, 8; II, 9, 16) has in mind only a city block, while, already in the late period of the republic, in the texts where this term appears, it refers to the edifices built upwards that can be subdivided into apartments.

Coenaculum: The term applied to an apartment on the upper floor of a tenement house. It usually refers to the room where the principal meal of the day was consumed, but the property occupied by a single family was composed of a few rooms.

Medianum Apartment: This planimetric typology recurs in several tenement houses in Ostia. The “canonical” plan of the apartment consisted of the medianum, the central room illuminated by surrounding windows. Other rooms surrounded it on three sides. Generally, the medianum was an elongated rectangular accommodation. The same typology was also referred to as “atrium-corridor.” The entrance to the apartment was usually from the side. The same plan could be replicated on higher floors of the building.

Opus Craticium: A building technique based on a system of trellises ( crates ). Is consisted of a frame made of vertical and horizontal wooden beams, at intervals filled with clay or wattle and daub. The technique is typical for internal partitioning, but already at the late republican period it was also applied to external walls, especially in places where due to speculation and scarcity of apartments coenacula were erected one on top of another.

Pillar Porticus: Porticos with pillars of considerable dimensions, rather than columns, as their vertical element. In more ancient times they were made of tufa blocks but with the invention of opus mixture pillars were made in opus testaceum .

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