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The Mysterious Roman Who Shaped Modern Cities

Vitruvius' De architectura remains the cornerstone of the canon of traditional Western urbanism.

The origins of European urbanism lie deep in a long-forgotten past. But any discussion of the tradition could not go on for long without reaching Vitruvius. The renowned Roman writer on architecture, though hardly the first urbanist in the classical world, remains a leading light of Western urbanism for the simple reason that he is the earliest author whose work on the subject is both extant and extensive. A Roman proverb is appropriate: Verba volant, scripta manent. Spoken words fly away, but written words remain.

At least, some do. Vitruvius, the man, is an enigma. Surprisingly little is known about his life. The words that would have told us were either lost, or never written down. His work is cited a few times by Pliny the Elder in the Natural History, indicating that he was a known name in his field. A 19th-century classicist argued that Vitruvius was actually a pen name for a wealthy Caesarist, Marmurra—an enticing theory with little corroboration. Vitruvius (whose full name may or may not have been Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) probably came from a small town in Campania. After more than twenty centuries, maybe it is not surprising that there is more mystery than certainty.

What we know about Vitruvius’ life, we learn mainly from his own asides, peppered throughout the text of De architectura, and by inference, from our general knowledge of his time. He tells us that his parents had valued his education. We know that he began a career as a military engineer, traveled throughout the provinces, and eventually worked for Caesar. He also writes that he was involved in the design of a basilica (that is, a public building) in the Adriatic seacoast town of Fano. No other building projects are definitively linked to him. Those are the hardest facts.

Scholars have even debated the publication date for De architectura. If it is true, as many believe, that it was published in the same decade as the Battle of Actium, then, about its time, we know quite a bit. It was a time with historical themes that would be uneasily familiar to an American in the early 21st century: Rome was politically dominant and it fostered the best of the fine and practical arts. Its trade routes were well worn, with the diverse nations of the Mediterranean fully within its economic and political realms. Wealth was being created and displayed with fervor.

And yet, in the midst of this heady time, the culture of Rome was coarsening. Customs once shaped by the proven traditions of disciplined, patrician farmers whose citizen armies had first conquered Italy, and then the known world, were dissipating. In the wake of Caesar’s murder, and in the midst of a raging civil war, cracks had appeared all over the republican edifice of the state. If its date has been pegged with any accuracy, De architectura was written in the last days of the Republic, and dedicated to Caesar Augustus —Octavian, the victor of Actium—whose building projects would transform the city at the very dawn of the Empire.

De architectura reflects the contradictions of its historical moment. At times, Vitruvius shows a brittle, almost obsequious reverence for the forms of tradition, while displaying a lack of knowledge about the plasticity of the actual tradition from which those forms emerged. Scholars have observed, for example, that his discussion of temple architecture seeks to categorize the arrangement of columns into a set of idealized forms that, in practice, had never truly existed. This criticism has been supported by the facile contradictions between his proffered forms and the dimensions found in most actual, surviving Greek and Roman temples.

Yet the text also reflects, in its great breadth of technical instruction and its very nature as a treatment of the myriad forms of building, the striking ingenuity and ambitious dynamism of the Imperial moment. And even as he falls short, at times, in his interpretations of established customs, Vitruvius embodies, with the very same impulse, a prescient awareness that something of deep value is being lost all around him; and that he has the power, because of his own imperfect observations, to write down a record of what remains—before it flies away.

A heartbreaking proportion of classical writings would not survive the fall of the Western Empire, nearly five centuries after De architectura was written. By some estimates, more than 95 percent of classical texts were lost. By fortune or fate, De architectura would be one of the few that survived, preserving and transmitting the practices of ancient architecture down to the modern world. But given the scale of loss, we cannot be certain Vitruvius’ treatise on the building traditions of the Roman world was unique in its breadth. Even less can we judge that it was the best.

Nevertheless, since its popular rediscovery in Renaissance times, De architectura, unique as an artifact (and a talisman, of a sort), has become a touchstone for students of classical planning and architecture. Its author’s sometimes clumsy treatments of important topics, such as temple architecture, are thus forgiven and his imperfect analyses have served as starting points for modern attempts to decode, understand, and revive the traditions of the ancient past.

Much like Leon Battista Alberti, the 14th-century Florentine who studied Vitruvius and is credited with reviving the classical building tradition for modern times, Vitruvius encompassed many urban planning topics in his writings on architecture. Accordingly, a reading of his work is pertinent to understanding the planning traditions of Western Europe that continue to influence and shape our neighborhoods.

For example, following some introductory formalities about the objectives of architecture, the first topic Vitruvius explores in Book I is one of the most basic questions of urban planning—the selection of a site for a new town. Writing at a time of significant expansion (as Caesar had recently conquered most of Gaul), he describes a number of intriguing traditional practices for choosing a site, many of which looked to health as a paramount concern.

The Romans believed that the situation and orientation of a town had a vital impact on its inhabitants—a concept not so different from today’s study of microclimates, or the more traditional vinicultural interest in terroir. In particular, he advised that, within a town, the directions of new streets should be determined with reference to prevailing winds, to avoid the creation of wind tunnels. But there was more, particularly with respect to site selection:

First comes the choice of a very healthy site. Such a site will be high, neither misty nor frosty, and in a climate neither hot nor cold, but temperate; further, without marshes in the neighborhood. For when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy…. [I]f the town is on the coast with a southern or western exposure, it will not be healthy, because in summer the southern sky grows hot at sunrise and is fiery at noon, while a western exposure grows warm after sunrise, is hot at noon, and at evening all aglow.

Themes of sunlight and prevailing winds recur throughout De architectura. They reflect a resourceful principle to which Vitruvius and others in the Western European tradition have long subscribed. In the pre-industrial world, with limited technical knowledge, it was essential to identify natural phenomena that could assist builders in their goal of creating comfortable, durable, low-maintenance built environments. Studying and acceding to the predictable patterns of nature was the surest way to do this. Plainly, the roots of today’s interest in sustainable development can be found in the texts of classical antiquity; perhaps earlier.

The most planning-relevant section of De architectura is found in Book V. Here, Vitruvius identifies and describes an index of vital public sites. While the author’s primary focus is on architecture, his enumeration of purposes is valuable to the student of planning because the scaling and assemblage of these sites fundamentally shapes the physical character of the city, including surrounding urban interstices. The same text also provides a rich vein for Roman customs, because each of the sites the author notes reflects (and helped transmit, in its own time) the life patterns of the people that built it.

Each site that Vitruvius describes has a corresponding, firmly established cultural practice. Forums provided a venue for assembly and participation. Theaters reflected the primacy of music and drama. Harbors and treasuries showed the vitality of markets. Basilicas and senate houses, the practice of politics and the rule of law. And so on. In light of this manifest dynamic between sites and customs, one could also identify strands between the cultural forms of classical antiquity and those of more recent times in the modern West.

No single element of Western urbanism is more essential than that which the Romans instantiated in the forum. In Town and Square, an excellent (and sadly out-of-print) mid-20th-century book about the role of public spaces in traditional European cities, urbanist Paul Zucker taught that spaces like the Vitruvian forum corresponded tightly with the customs of politically participatory societies. He argued that no true public squares could be identified predating the classical Greek experiments with various degrees of self-government. (In classical Greece, the agora served a similar purpose; in the modern West, the town green or the plaza inherits the same.)

Vitruvius showed how the forum was the heart of the Roman plan. Around it, the more specialized civic sites should be arranged. These would include legal, political, and religious spaces. The author’s instructions for composing a new forum are simple. First, reserve an open space with a 2 to 3 ratio (roughly equivalent to the golden mean) at a scale befitting the importance of the town or city. Next, develop the blocks overlooking this space with buildings that comprise both street-level and upper-tier (i.e., balcony) access for pedestrians. Finally, over the course of several sections, he expands on a number of the special buildings that should be built in proximity to the forum. Notably, Vitruvius never prescribes the Roman frontier practice of establishing the forum near the origin of a town grid, at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanis maximus.

One site adjoining the forum was the basilica, which typically housed a mix of courtrooms and political chambers. One could compare the basilica’s purpose to that of a modern city hall or municipal building. (Today, basilica is typically a descriptor of church architecture, but in classical antiquity it did not carry religious overtones.) Ever cognizant of the potential benefits of astute site selection, Vitruvius advises building the basilica on the most sun-scorched lot facing the forum. This, he believed, would facilitate winter usage and, presumably, ensure convenient public access.

For basilica design, Vitruvius draws on elements from temple architecture, making reference to his formulae, presented in Book III, as starting points for the proportioning of columns, tiers, and other elements. Vitruvius also recommends situating the treasury, prison, and senate house at the forum presumably with complementary architecture. Thus, we see an early written example of a practice that has remained common throughout the history of Europe: the conscious incorporation of classical temple elements into secular, civic buildings.

Away from the forum, the outdoor theater implicitly forms a second node in the Vitruvian plan. It will draw crowds to a new destination and actuate a new center of urban development. In addition to addressing the structural and visual elements of theaters, Vitruvius delves into acoustic considerations:

Voice … moves in an endless number of circular rounds, like the innumerably increasing circular waves which appear when a stone is thrown into smooth water, and which keep on spreading indefinitely from the centre unless interrupted by narrow limits, or by some obstruction which prevents such waves from reaching their end in due formation. When they are interrupted by obstructions, the first waves, flowing back, break up the formation of those which follow.

After incorporating design considerations for optimal sound, Vitruvius recites a short history of Greek theaters, and presents a unique list of site-selection criteria. Notably, his unusually detailed treatment of public theaters illustrates an interesting marker in the timeline of Rome. In the last days of the republic, theater remained at the top of a cultural hierarchy that continued to reflect the philhellenic biases of old times. But as Jérôme Carcopino noted in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, in tandem with the growing authoritarianism and decadence of imperial society, competitive games and bloody spectacles at the amphitheater would supplant traditional drama at the center of Roman entertainment in the next century.

Forming a third node in the plan, Vitruvius describes a bath complex. Befitting the theme of architecture, his focus is on the fundamentals of construction. Similar to the forum, he recommends building at a scale proportionate to the population. Thus, a smaller town would reserve a smaller site for a bath complex, while a larger city would reserve a larger site. Like the public theater, only more so, the bath complex could be expected to attract frequent visitors. Hence, we could imagine a locus of activity in its vicinity.

The author advises selecting a site with a long southwestern or southern exposure for the bath. The southern element reflects a belief (as with the basilica) that prolonged natural sunlight is valuable to a public site. The western element, particularly for the warm bathing rooms, further incorporates the Roman custom of visiting the baths in afternoons and evenings. We can glean a bit more about the bath customs from Vitruvius. For example, he confirms the traditional, tripartite division of a bath complex into temperature-distinguished chambers, and that men and women had separate bathing areas as well.

Vitruvius rounds out Book V with a discussion of harbors. Depending on the topography and trade patterns of a particular town, waterfront activities may form a fourth node in its plan. In some places, however, the waterfront will simply adjoin the urban fabric of other neighborhoods; or, more likely, will create the initial node of settlement, onto which others are appended. One might surmise that a waterfront district would include warehouses, workshops, inns, taverns, and restaurants—as could be found in traditional ports throughout the ages. Vitruvius’ discussion, however, provides little guidance on adjacent development. Instead, he offers specific advice for the improvement and construction of maritime facilities.

The other books of De architectura do not touch as directly on the urban plan, but are nevertheless relevant to traditional Western urbanism. For example, the architecture of individual buildings forms a salient characteristic of urban fabric. His investigation of temple design identified, broadly, many of the building blocks of classical architecture that would continue to shape the face of Western urbanism down to the present time. In addition, he covers a number of allied arts, like the construction of aqueducts, agricultural land use, and a survey of Roman technical knowledge. One of the most curious points of De architectura is Vitruvius’ departure in Book IX into a long discussion about the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars.

A voice from a distant past, Vitruvius offers many of the same assets to urban planners and cultural historians that he does to architects. He also generates similar mysteries. The illustration he has left us of the late Roman republic is unique, if imperfect. De architectura offers a glimpse into the urban world of a decisive moment in classical antiquity—and into the mind of a man who quite literally helped to shape it. Through his writings, Vitruvius provides special insights on an early phase of a rich tradition that would evolve, over centuries, into modern European urbanism. And in light of its cultural influence since the Renaissance, De architectura remains the cornerstone of a canon of readings that have helped shape the traditional urbanism of the modern West.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.

This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.