Underground construction in the Roman Empire – Rome

The architects of the Roman Empire left us not only masterpieces above the ground, that still inspire modern specialists and attract millions of tourists from all over the world, but also unique underground structures.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum (Amphitheatrum  Flavium ) is one of the symbols of Roman Empire and one of the earliest examples of application of underground construction for creation of multifunctional structure.

The Colosseum  is one of the earliest examples of application of underground construction for creation of multifunctional structure (photo 2rim13_arhitekto.ru)

The Colosseum is named also Amphiteatrum Flavium commemorating the memory of two Emperors of the Flavii house, Vespasian and Titus, under the rule of the latter it was opened in 80 AD. Designed to accommodate about 50,000 spectators, the amphitheater impresses with its enormous size for its time – 156 m  wide, 188 m long, with the height of the outer wall of 48.5 m (that being the height of 12-storey building). Such a scale surpasses all the similar ones of their time, except two amphitheaters.

 

 

 

The Colloseum outer wall consists of four horizontal levels (photo source)

But the Colosseum is significant for some engineering principals and additional functions rather than its size. The Colloseum outer wall consists of four horizontal levels. Two lowest levels have barrel vaults and the third has cross vaults. Also the columnar orders are different: Corinthian order for the third and fourth levels, Ionic for the second and Tuscan for the first. The most remarkable characteristic of its exterior are 90 arches at the low level and 80 reach-through windows at the other two.

The most remarkable characteristic of its exterior are 90 arches at the low level and 80 reach-through windows at the other two (photo amph-fla016  Photo — Dagli-Orti, Paris)

However, besides the levels, the Colosseum is also famous for its hypogeum.  For a long time it was buried under the soil, stones and garbage.  Twice all that was removed in XVIII century and the beginning of the XIX, however they were filled with the mud again. The big part of the hypogeum was dug out again in 1874. At the present day extensive works were carried out on cleansing and studying the hypogeum, after which it was opened to tourists.

What is so interesting about underground part of the Colosseum: an underground maze of offices, rooms for keeping people and wild animals (photo amph-fla009 Loretta Santini. ROME AND VATICAN. FOTORADIDACOLOR — TERNI, 1972, P. 35)

So, what is so interesting about underground part of the Colosseum: an underground maze of offices, rooms for keeping people and wild animals, lifting mechanisms by which the participants of the performance and animals arrived into the arena in the cells and on the platforms. The German archeologist Heinz Jurgen Beste had been studying the underground part for years, also taking his studying in the field of Ancient Roman mechanics to understand possible applications of different stone parts for lifting and the way it worked. He discovered the meaning of many different stone elements, including the way the mechanisms for transportation of the cages worked, the places the details of lifting machines were implemented and so on, also the places where beans of the stories between levels of the hypogeum were inserted. 

The Colosseum’s hypogeum made possible implementation of the wide range of ideas, the amphitheater was built for (photo amph-fla0392007 г. Foto Lyubimova OV)

According to the researchers, until the middle of the first century the Romans had staged reconstruction of the sea battles by flooding the arena, but after the wooden struts had been replaced by stone ones, it became impossible.  However, the underground space under the arena continued to serve as the premises for placement of various mechanisms, which thanks to many ropes, lifting platforms and levers created effects for performances, representing the mighty glory of Rome.

The German archeologist Heinz Jurgen Beste had been studying the underground part for years (photo smithsonianmag.com)

In such a way, the Colosseum’s hypogeum made possible implementation of the wide range of ideas, the amphitheater was built for. Also it confirms that Roman engineers efficiently used underground space for solving their challenges.

The Сloaca Maxima

The name of this structure became very famous (being originated initially form Latin “clearing”), sometimes we forget that it belongs to one of the oldest and definitely the most famous sewing system in the world. 

The Cloaca Maxima became a salvation for Rome, collecting sewage and helping to drain the area, it had been en example proving necessity of construction of permanent solid sewing system in the cities.

It is unclear when the construction began, according to the most popular version, the cloaca was constructed it under Lucius Tarquinius (616 - 579 BC), as a tool to drain marshy soil between three Roman hills: Capitoline, Esquiline and Palatine, which was regularly flooded by the Tiber river, for Roman Forum’s construction instead of previous drainage canal.  

The Cloaca Maxima became a salvation for Rome, collecting sewage and helping to drain the area, it had been en example proving necessity of construction of permanent solid sewing system in the cities (photo 170_Cloaca Maxima.high)

The great sewer was clad in Gabin stone, had a width of 3 m, height of 4 m and was 800 m long, the construction work was carried out without use of concrete. It was the open canal at that time, later the wooden covering was erected and finally the whole canal was clad in stone and was hidden under the rule of Augustus.

The sewing system of the capital of Empire started to grow, new sewers and canals were constructed, with the Cloaca Maxima staying the largest while taking in the most of them. Censors Marco Portio Caton and Lucius Valerius Flaccus ordered the construction of new public sewers in 184 BC and renovation of previously existed.

That was a major step in the development of the system. However, the main work was carried out during the reign of Emperor Augustus, thank to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus Caesar’s statesman  (also general and architect) who was responsible for Rome’s improvement.  Particularly, after inspection, he supervised the works for redirecting into the cloaca of several water supply canals, improving its clearance. Under Domitian  (81-96) the Cloaca Maxima was a part of the system that included 11 aqueducts.

After the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Cloaca Maxima was neglected and after the VI century fell out of use, after receiving damages. It was partially renovated in 1870 after the Unification of Italy. 

The Cloaca Maxima’s opening to the Tiber near the island is still visible in the modern Rome and it is often visited by tourists.  By the way, some parts of the former sewing system are still in use, being integrated into the new one.

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