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Durham University

Department of Classics and Ancient History


Publication details for Dr Edmund Thomas

Thomas, Edmund (2007). Monumentality and the Roman Empire: Architecture in the Antonine Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Author(s) from Durham


Roman buildings are often noted for their monumentality, and it is this quality which makes them also models for builders of later epochs. But what exactly does this term encompass, and how significant was it for the Romans themselves? This book, the first full-length study of the concept of monumentality in classical antiquity, explores the importance of this quality in the public architecture of Roman Italy and the provinces of the Roman Empire from the point of view of the benefactors who funded such buildings, the architects who designed them, and the public who used and experienced them. It analyses the reasons why Roman builders sought to construct monumental buildings and uncovers the close link between architectural monumentality and the identity and ideology of the Roman Empire itself.
A consideration of the origins of the term in post-Antique writings about architecture and its range of uses and meanings, reveals that, besides its primary, etymological sense of architecture as commemoration (from Latin monumentum, ‘memorial’) and its often implicit association with architecture of grand scale, the concept of monumentality is often regarded as an ideal, visionary quality, which encapsulates the effectiveness of a building in making an impact on its audience. In Classical Antiquity there was no single word for monumentality; however, the concept certainly existed and, it can be argued, underwent a development which influenced subsequent ideas of monumental building. This study identifies four principal features of ancient public buildings contribute to their being regarded as monumental. The first of these is their form, not only their sheer physical size – the hallmark of monumental structures – but also their formal properties in structure and decoration, which contribute to the construction of a field of meaning giving buildings certain symbolic as well as physical properties. An obvious example is the triangular pediment standing over Greek temples and subsequently applied in the Roman period to other buildings to lend them a sense of monumentality. The second component of monumentality is the political significance of public architecture, which ranges from direct propaganda to more indirect expression of collective public identity. This is the classical ideal of monumentality, which reached a height in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Europe. The third factor of monumentality comprises the commemorative aspect, which emerged in the period of classical antiquity, originating not simply as a suggestion that buildings could commemorate human beings, but more importantly in the idea that a man-made building constructed in the natural landscape necessarily contained a certain relation to the divine and that its erection therefore involved a reflection on the issue of immortality. Finally, the fourth factor which principally determines the identification of a building as ‘monumental’ is constituted by the audience of the building and the range of its anticipated and actual responses to the construction.
While earlier periods undoubtedly contributed to the development of the notion of monumentality, this study focuses on the era when the Antonine emperors were in power over the Roman Empire, especially the reigns of Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Although this period can be considered the height of the Roman Empire and its buildings can be regarded among the Empire’s most famous works, it has never previously been the subject of a general synthesis. Moreover, this era is particularly suited to a consideration of the concept of monumentality because, in all four areas of monumentality identified above, there were significant developments. In its forms, Roman architecture had in the previous fifty years completed what was perhaps its greatest formal and technological revolution, and during the Antonine period architects and patrons both within and outside Rome confronted the symbolic meanings of the new forms. Such meanings found expression not only in the more traditional columnar orders, but also in newer, arched or vaulted forms. Secondly, the political potential of monumental architecture underwent a development during this period. Whereas in the first century of the Roman Empire the political meaning of public monuments had been associated primarily with the individual identity of a city and the government of Rome, during the Antonine period public architecture became from this viewpoint much more diverse. On one hand, direct imperial meaning associated with the emperors became almost codified with the help of the new architectural forms into something that could be recognised from city to city; on the other hand, it was no longer assumed that public buildings could only glorify their city, their gods or their emperor. The second century also witnessed a fragmentation of public architecture, which saw many of the same principles of monumental building applied to private collective buildings, designed to be monuments for their smaller, more specific public audiences, whether these were economic or professional groups, religious associations, or a social community.
The third aspect of monumentality, the potential of buildings to commemorate their builders, was in the Antonine era highly pronounced. This period is best known to historians as the age of the ‘Second Sophistic’, a literary and cultural movement which emphasized a nostalgic longing for and a desire to reconstruct the language and culture of the Classical Greek past. The effect of this movement on architecture was not only an increased interest in the role of ancient buildings as symbols of an idealized past culture, but also an almost paradoxical wish to construct new buildings to be, from their very inception, ‘monuments for the future’. The Second Sophistic also had a significant impact on the fourth component of monumentality identified in this study, the relation of buildings to their audience. This age of prolific, almost obsessive writing and speech-making produced a growth of rhetorical texts describing buildings and reinforcing their status as monuments, as intellectuals sought to show that their own appreciation of the monumentality of a building was superior to the wonderment of the common man. As architects presented their own creations as reflecting the harmony of the universe, so builders of monumental architecture were no longer satisfied with mere amazement on the part of the onlooker, but needed suitable literary or oral encomia to provide a verbal rhetoric that matched the rhetoric of their architectural forms. That need for recognition and appraisal was an essential feature of the monumentality of the Roman Empire, which also endures in post-Classical buildings right up to the present day.


180 in-text figures