By Andy Fox, Early Career Research Associate, ICS

As the environmental crisis rumbles on, and governments around the world commit to action, it can be illustrative to reflect on how historic civilisations engaged with their changing environment. For the Romans, this involved a number of approaches we might recognise. From green spaces to mitigate noise and air pollution, to tall chimney stacks to disperse pollutants over as large an area as possible, we have adopted similar practices to the Romans in adapting our built environments to cope with the growth of urban pollution.

While environmental urban pollution in the Roman world occurred at nowhere near the same level as it does today, it was nevertheless significant enough to have had a measurable impact in core sampling in Greenland. It is unsurprising, then, that mitigation played a part in Roman architectural development.

Our evidence derives from a variety of sources. Traditional literary evidence, such as Vitruvius’ discussion on the benefits of green spaces in a building (it clears liquid from the eyes, rarefies the air, and provides a healthy space for walking), is common, but only paints part of a much larger picture. To fully understand Roman engagement with their built environment, the full range of evidence from the ancient world must be brought to bear.

This series of Talking Humanities blogs will explore how Romans built with nature in mind, how they adapted their urban environments to cope with the demands of a growing population, and what we can learn about our responses to environmental catastrophes from Roman ones. Initially, we will examine how we might find familiar modern building practices and the creation of flexible space and retrofitting in the fabric of the ancient city.

Modern approaches to building for the future are not restricted to mitigating the impact of environmental pollution, and neither were ancient approaches. Flexible building and retrofitting form key parts of modern agendas in place-making. Flexible building is the creation of a space that can be repurposed according to need, with moving walls, open areas, and easily removable and replaceable temporary parts. Retrofitting, meanwhile, is the renovation of existing structures to create a new space with a new purpose.

The Saepta Iulia was originally conceived of as an assembly space in Rome, for the purpose of gathering citizens for voting, replacing the earlier Ovile. Construction began in the dying days of the Republic, in the first century BCE. It was completed later in the same century by Agrippa, and dedicated in 26 BCE, but elections had diminished in importance by this point: the Roman empire was beginning. As a result, the vast space, estimated by some to be one mile long, had to be repurposed, and it became one of Rome’s earliest flexible spaces.

Saepta Iulia was used for gladiatorial combat under various emperors, for ship battles, as an art gallery, an area to lounge or shop, as a venue for public speaking, and an alternative meeting place for the Senate, all in its first century of life, during which time it was also damaged by the great fire of 80 CE (not Nero’s fire!)

All these uses come from a handful of sources, all writing about the use of the city space in Rome. The site was a large open one, and easily repurposed for various gatherings. We might imagine that awnings would be able to be erected in these ancient open spaces, to shade users of the space in the hot sun, and Romans did put up such awnings in other sites, such as the Comitium (the meeting space of Rome’s Forum) in 209 BCE. Pliny the Elder, in his discussion of the cloth-types used for awnings, relates that adapting spaces to temporarily provide shade was a common practice, citing several occasions when spaces were covered in awnings, including when the entire Roman Forum had been shaded by Julius Caesar:

“Recently awnings actually of sky blue and spangled with stars have been stretched with ropes even in the emperor Nero’s amphitheatres.”  (Pliny, Natural History 19.23-24)

Other instances of awnings include those that could be drawn back. In a twist on the use of awnings to provide pleasant shade to benefit the health of lawyers and their clients, Caligula reportedly insisted on awnings being withdrawn during gladiatorial shows, so that the gladiators were forced to fight in the baking sun and the audience forced to watch in similar conditions.

The use of awnings and shade to affect the use of a space in Rome’s different seasons, and the creation of a vast multifunctional space in the Saepta Iulia, demonstrate Rome’s relationship with its built environment: building with future use in mind, and with an awareness of the changing environment. As Rome grew and its centre became more congested, space had to be used more flexibly and intelligently, and as Rome’s industry began to affect the environment, buildings had to adapt.

While flexible building worked for the immediate Roman present, with the growth of Rome came the retro-fitting of structures that had been built for posterity. The clearest examples of these are in the imperial mausoleums. The Mausoleum of Hadrian was fortified and amalgamated into the Aurelian Walls in 401 CE and became the Castel Sant’Angelo that still stands in Rome today, the papal fortress on the right of the Tiber. The Mausoleum of Augustus, however, has had a more chequered history after being built in the first century BCE. Its original site was a picturesque one, described by Strabo, a Greek geographer in the first century CE:

“A great mound near the river on a lofty foundation of white marble, thickly covered with ever-green trees to the very summit. Now on top is a bronze image of Augustus Caesar; beneath the mound are the tombs of himself and his kinsmen and intimates; behind the mound is a large sacred precinct with wonderful promenades.” (Strabo, Geography 5.8.)

This was a building intended to last forever, unchanged and constant in Rome’s landscape. Its core structure remains today, and it is the subject of a restoration programme by Fondazione TIM, who have put together a brief history of the site. Over the course of its history, this building has been repurposed and retrofitted several times, from its use as a fortification, to renaissance gardens for the Soderini family, a bull-fighting arena, and an opera house. During its lifetime, changes were made that would have been impossible for the original architects to foresee: a lack of security exits, a concern at the start of the twentieth century, are not fundamental to the design of a tomb.

More prosaic uses of the strong walls of the Mausoleum can be found in photographs of it from that same period. Residential buildings had utilised the evidently well-made Roman walls as part of their structure, although these were cleared when Mussolini took on the task of restoring it as a tomb intended for himself. The current restoration aims to bring the Mausoleum into the present fabric of the city, following its neglect after Mussolini’s overthrow, and it is currently being renovated as a museum for the archaeological finds of the site, and as the centrepiece of a larger precinct, mirroring its original setting.

Modern approaches to building for the future appear to have been common in the ancient world, and the retro-fitting of an existing structure to suit a new purpose would not have appeared in any way radical to a Roman. This engagement with the demands of a growing population and shrinking city space per capita is a common concern today. While expanding our city space (and the Romans did expand their city, notably to the other side of the Tiber) and growing our villages into towns is attractive, it is not the only solution. Through embracing both flexible buildings and retro-fitting, we can deploy our existing cityscapes to fit the needs of the people who use them, just as the Romans did 2000 years ago.