Archaeology Odyssey 3:3, May/June 2000

Eternal Architecture

In ancient Rome, Vitruvius kept alive the classical ideal

By Thomas Gordon Smith

Around 25 B.C. the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote this dedication to the emperor Augustus:

I have drawn up definite rules so that by observing them you might understand what previous works were like and what future works will be like … In the following volumes I have disclosed all the principles of the discipline.1

Thus Vitruvius began his ten-volume De Architectura, the most extensive treatise on architecture written in antiquity.

Vitruvius wrote his masterpiece out of a sense of urgency. The turmoil of the late republic had left its mark on Roman architecture, which Vitruvius believed had drifted away from universal Greek principles. With Augustus at the helm, he thought, the time was ripe for a massive building campaign in which classical methods and forms could be re-established. But Vitruvius, approaching his 70th year, knew he would never see that day. In the preface to Book VI, he lamented: “I have achieved only little celebrity. Once these volumes have been issued, however, I hope that I will be renowned to future generations.”

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