Towards the middle of the second century AD the Roman imperial government had covered the Empire with a perfect network of roads built with polygonal stones. A fairly faithful medieval copy of a map of the Roman Empire is conserved. This map included many of the major cities and even the location of some road hostels. This map is known as the “Peutinger Table” or “Tabula Peutingeriana“.
The great maritime centers of the Empire, like the port of Ostia, had a well developed street system plus granaries or warehouses to store grain, oil, and wine. These port cities also had temples for all the religions practiced in the Empire, as well as places for the entertainment of merchants who lived there, and for foreigners coming from other provinces to trade. Ostia was Rome’s main port and an important trade center specially with Africa; Puteoli, on the Gulf of Naples, was in charge of the trade with Alexandria; Brindisi, in southern Italy, was rather a military and shipping port for the trade with Greece and the East.
The great Roman roads led to the Germania and Gaul by crossing the Alps, and from there they led to Britain and Spain. In Spain and Gaul many existing modern roads follow the same layout of the Roman roads which generally were traced following straight lines regardless of the rough slopes, swampy areas -which required tremendous engineering effort-, rivers -for which they built big bridges-, and even tunnels.
Many bridges from the Iberian Peninsula are Roman in origin and feature a rounded/circular layout towards the river mouth and a wedged layout towards the upstream side. The Alcantara Bridge has at its entrance a small temple dedicated to the deified bridge. This gigantic bridge shows elegance of lines and is perfectly horizontal unlike most Roman bridges that have an arched profile (from the center they went down to each one of the river banks).
The Roman aqueducts were colossal engineering works similar to bridges. One of them, the Pont-du-Gard aqueduct in Provence, is like a bridge including three levels of arches with the water running on the higher duct. In Spain the three level aqueduct of Segovia is almost intact and there are still colossal remains of what must have been the greatest of all Roman aqueducts: the Merida aqueduct from the fifth century AD. As an example of a two level Roman aqueduct can be cited that of Tarragona. In the Roman African provincial aqueducts are also found.
In Rome as well as in its provinces, the city gates used to be flanked by two defense towers. These gates were also considered semi-sacred buildings and their locations were precisely indicated in the so called pomerium or wall precinct. In some strategic cities the doors of these walls had colossal dimensions, the famous Porta Nigra in Trier (Germany) has three levels of porticoes. In Spain many cities still have their Roman gates and walls, although modified and embellished during the Middle Ages. The walls were sometimes interrupted by square or round towers as in Lugo. There are also large remains of these Roman walls in Tarragona, Leon, Avila, Toledo, Cordoba, and Merida.
The interior of a Roman city was generally urbanized according to the old Italic pattern which imposed two main roads: the cardo (a north–south-oriented street) and the decumanus (an east-west street) which should cross at right angles. In the crossing of these two main streets was built the Forum or main square often with arcades. The Forum included the basilica, the main temple, and shops surrounded it. The best known example of a Forum from a small Roman city is that of Pompeii. Usually at each end of the Forum was a triumphal arch serving as an entrance door to the great monumental plaza. Timgad, an African city founded by Trajan, has the best preserved remains of a Roman city after Pompeii. Besides the temple of the Forum, a Roman city used to have other temples dedicated to minor divinities: Pompeii had temples for Apollo, Isis, Mercury, and Aesculapius.
The secondary streets were parallel to both via cardo and via decumanus thus giving the city’s layout a checkered appearance. This grid was also typical in the military camps that gave origin to many cities such as León, in Spain, and English cities whose names end in –cester a corruption for the Latin castra meaning buildings or plots of land reserved for or constructed to be used as a military defensive position.
An indispensable element of a Roman provincial city was the amphitheater. Some amphitheater remains in the African provinces are colossal. There are also ruins of Roman amphitheaters in Nimes and Arles (Provence), Padua and Verona (Italy), Pola (Dalmatia), El-Djem (Africa)…
Of all Roman amphitheaters conserved to this day, the one at Pompeii is undoubtedly the oldest; many inscriptions referring to him reveal that it was known with the name of espectaculo (entertainment). The shows played in a Roman amphitheater seemed much like our popular festivities of today but gigantically enlarged and emphasizing its brutal nature. Romans applauded bloodshed. The ferocity of the gladiatorial combats, enthusiastically celebrated by crowds, have its origin in the funerary games of the Etruscans.
In addition to the amphitheater most of the Roman cities used to have a theater. As an example of the best preserved Roman theater is that of Orange, in Gaul. There is also the theater of Aspendos, in Asia Minor, that of Bosra, in Syria, those of Timgad and Thugga in Africa, and the theaters of Mérida, Ronda and Sagunto in Spain.
Another important element of a Roman city were the public baths such as those found in Pompeii and Timgad, or the baths of Bath in England which still show ruins of the ancient Roman baths.
A very distinctive type of a Roman town, somewhat different from the provinces, were the fortified camps for the Roman legions which were also urbanized following a fairly regular plan. These towns were more or less square, with pit and walls, and their streets had lodging for soldiers with the bigger rooms reserved for the senior officials of the Praetorium. The legions also had their exclusive artists and showed a predilection for memorial buildings. The most artistically important work from architects and sculptors working for the Roman military is the big monument near Adam-Kilise in Bessarabia (now within Romania). It was a solid round tower with a frieze of pilasters alternating with metopes and atop a conical roof and an octagonal construction holding a panoply formed with weapons and an armor. These metopes contained compositions with flat reliefs and many characters that would later inspire the decoration motifs used during the late Middle Ages. The tower of Adam-Kilise sustains the characteristic Roman symbol of the trophy* (trofeo). The trophy is of a very remote Latin origin; it was used as early as the period of the Republic and was traditionally employed till the days of the Empire. Originally, the trophy was a tree or pole planted in the place where the army had won a campaign or battle, and was decorated with the panoply of weapons taken from the conquered. It was an offering to the genius loci of the place in gratitude for the victory achieved. At first, the trophies were trees decorated with weapons to which two of the enemy’s chiefs were tied to starve, but soon Romans wanted those testimonies of military success to be more permanent and so they were built with monumental bases to sustain the true trophy carved in stone. Another examples of trophies are Pompey’s trophies at the entrance of Spain in the Summum of the Pyrenees and Augustus’ trophies at the entrance of the Gauls in Nice.
Naturally, merchants and farmers living in the provinces received as “Roman art” only the art brought by the legions, and these in turn cultivated a special art somewhat influenced by their contact with the different races living in the frontiers of the Empire. A typical example of this art from the provinces influenced by military art is that of the reliefs of the so called Igelsaule, or Igel column, which is nothing but the grave of a merchant family. It is a square tower with multiple levels of reliefs and a pyramidal top, a very frequent shape in Roman tombs even since the earliest years of the Empire.
Funerary reliefs found in Roman provinces often included daily life scenes which provide some very interesting “pictures” about the Roman customs of the last days of the Empire. From one of these tombs, near Neumagen, came some reliefs now in the Museum of Trier that inform us, with lovely familiarity, of the most intimate things, like a lesson given by the preceptor of a house, or the hairstyle of a noble lady, or the act of presenting a gift, or the payment of a debt.
The funerary monuments from the Provinces were often reduced to a simple stele, a degeneration of the Greek funerary steles, and had portraits inside a small niche or a medallion. Sometimes several portraits of individuals from one family accumulate in the same memorial tombstone. In Spain it was found a special type of stele with few reliefs and the horseshoe arch* combined with geometric roses. The horseshoe shape was employed by the Visigoth populations of the Iberian Peninsula and later by the Arabs who may have learned it from the Visigoths. It is not believed, however, that this form of the horseshoe arch is originally from Spain, since it did not appear in other Iberian monuments, but instead was very frequent in Syria and Asia Minor. Since most of steles decorated with the horseshoe arch came from León, where the Roman garrison of Spain was located, it could be accepted that this shape of the horseshoe arch, which later had a huge acceptance in Spain, was originally from Syria and later brought to Spain by the Roman legions.
The Roman military art had certain uniformity and it may be possible that the Romanesque art style that later appeared in the provinces depended more on the military art brought by the legions than on the official art coming from Rome.
Only one of these Roman provinces developed a strong vigorous art, perhaps more monumental than that of Rome itself: the East. The Roman cities on the desert borders were magnificent; they were built with large stones and challenged in wealth and magnitude the ancient royal castles of the Sassanid Persians.
Almost all cities in Syria were rebuilt in Roman times. To ensure Roman rule in the East borders, the emperors ordered to built two cities in the middle of the desert: Baalbek and Palmyra, with such magnificence that surprised the Asians themselves. These cities were located in places where there had been Semitic shrines dedicated to Baals. At least this seems to be indicated by the cult practiced there and the shape of their temples which were hypaethral or with their cella opened like a courtyard, plus other details of their gigantic construction which were completely Oriental in origin.
The layout of Baalbek, a town located between Damascus and Beirut, will give an idea of the general arrangement of the sanctuary. The entrance was a portico with ten columns leading to a first hexagonal patio. Behind this was a huge patio with the altar in the center and two water cisterns. Beyond, erected on a podium, was the great temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus surrounded by a portico with Corinthian columns and the interior of the cella resembling a courtyard with walls lavishly decorated with pilasters and niches. This building, which has the highest columns in the world (20 meters) was built in the time of Antoninus Pius.
[Below, two reliefs of the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek]
In addition to the big religious centers of Baalbek and Palmyra, other cities of the Syrian border had some prosperity, and became rich because they were important commercial and shopping centers among Asian cities and the already Romanized provinces. Good examples are Bosra and Petra in Jordan. In Petra, the facades of tombs and houses were carved into the rock. Most had the same semi-classical style: columns attached to walls and architrave with a strange top of staggered battlements. One of these monuments called by the Arabs the treasure of Solomon seems to have been a temple as the so called El Deir or convent.
In the East, as far as the third century, the peculiarities of Roman art had the problem of deciding whether a particular province played an important part in the artistic evolution of the old Roman artistic forms or had influenced the evolution of early Christian art. As we assumed that the military art of the western Roman provinces helped create the medieval Romanesque ornamentation, we also assumed in the same way that the combined Roman and Eastern Art from Syria should have greatly influenced the Christian Byzantine art.
Foreign religious cults were a vehicle for the introduction of artistic styles in Rome, even since the last days of the Republic. From Egypt, Rome imported the cults of Isis and Serapis, brought in by veterans of the civil wars. Serapis, the local god of Alexandria, was later identified with Aesculapius. In the provinces, the legionnaires introduced the cult of the sun god Mithra of Iranian origin. There were Mithraeums or temples for the worship of Mithra in England, the Rhine, Africa, France, and Spain. The devotion to Mithra arrived in all borderlands where Roman legions came. The group of Mithras kneeling on the bull and ready to slaughter it (Tauroctony) was sometimes represented with great beauty. Although there were minor variations, the basic features of the central tauroctony scene were highly uniform. This statue was generally placed at the subterranean altar of the Mithraeum where the religious ceremonies were held, it was a way in which this ancient Persian religion was adapted to the Hellenistic and Roman mentality of those days. Mithraism was very popular with Roman troops and reached its peak around the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, though as a rival religion to nascent Christianity. Mithraism was railed against for its supposed diabolical imitation of Christian rituals and so was suppressed by the 4th century.
*Horseshoe arch: The horseshoe arch (Spanish: arco de herradura), also called the Moorish arch and the Keyhole arch, is the emblematic arch of Islamic architecture. Horseshoe arches can take rounded, pointed or lobed form. Horseshoe arches are known from pre-Islamic Syria, where the form was used as far as the fourth century CE. However, it was in Spain and North Africa (where it went from Spain) that horseshoe arches developed their characteristic form. Prior to the Muslim invasion of Spain, the Visigoths used them as one of their main architectural features. The Mozarabs also adopted this style of arch into their architecture and illuminated manuscripts.
*Trophy: A tropaion (Greek: τρόπαιον, Latin: tropaeum), from where the English “trophy” is derived, is an ancient Greek and later Roman monument set up to commemorate a victory over one’s foes. Typically this takes the shape of a tree, sometimes with a pair of arm-like branches (or, in later times, a pair of stakes set crosswise) upon which is hung the armour of a defeated and dead foe. The tropaion is then dedicated to a god in thanksgiving for the victory.