BMCR 2023.11.07

The origins of concrete construction in Roman architecture: technology and society in Republican Italy

, The origins of concrete construction in Roman architecture: technology and society in Republican Italy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 311. ISBN 9781108845687.



In this study, Marcello Mogetta aims to reevaluate the dating of concrete construction in the Roman Empire, focusing exclusively on Republican Italy. The introduction of the book presents the methodological background and lays the groundwork for understanding the research question, especially by defining Roman concrete. The monograph is enriched by plates in color at the beginning of the book and numerous figures (mostly plans) accompanying the text. It also includes tables listing the monuments studied, their building technique, the type of their rubble masonry, their vaulting technique, their traditional chronology, their stratigraphic dating, and other dating evidence. In addition to its bibliography, the monograph also offers a catalogue of the sites covered, a rich glossary and an index.

In “Deconstructing Roman Concrete”, Mogetta analyses ancient literary sources—Cato the Elder, Varro, Vitruvius and Livy—to understand the origins of concrete construction, its practical use in architecture, and the opinion of these authors about this building innovation. The following chapters present the body of the author’s research and examine the occurrences of buildings that use the concrete construction technique in Republican Italy. “A New Date for Concrete in Rome” focuses on the distribution of the different construction materials available in Rome and its surroundings and on the description of the different examples of concrete architecture in Rome, by referring to older scholarship – that the author tends to reinterpret– and new data from recent excavations. Based on the sites studied, Mogetta places the advent of concrete construction in the second quarter of the 2nd century BCE in private architecture, and in the middle of the 2nd century BCE in public architecture, attributing this architectural innovation rather to the private sphere. Members of the ruling class who commissioned these private buildings using concrete transposed this innovation to the public sphere by deploying it in public construction projects. This construction technique offered the advantage of using a new type of material, made from the demolition or waste of other building materials reused in the construction process of new structures.

“A View from the Suburbium” transposes the research question to the periphery of Rome. Mogetta focuses in this chapter on Roman Republican villas, and takes the Ager Tiburtinus as a case-study. At the site of Tibur, he places the beginning of the use of concrete construction in the middle of the 2nd century BCE – which corroborates his hypotheses for the dating of concrete construction in Rome – at a time of transition from structures using polygonal masonry to new architectural forms like luxury villas that required the adoption of a new construction technique.

“Building Samnite Pompeii” is a substantial chapter that analyses the socioeconomic factors that may have underpinned the technical innovation of concrete construction at the site of Pompeii as well as in the Campanian region (Cumae, Capua and Teanum). In this area, concrete construction appeared around the 2nd century BCE, when Samnite elites, inspired by the innovations of Rome, applied them to their new public buildings.

The last chapter, entitled “Colonial Networks”, focuses in detail on the evidence of concrete construction primarily at the colonial sites of Fregellae, Norba, Alba Fucens, Paestum and Cosa with less extensive consideration of concrete construction at Ravenna, Potentia, Gravisca, Luna, Puteoli and Aquileia. The analysis of these examples shows that there was no universal adoption of this new construction technique, which scholars traditionally assumed was imposed on the colonies by Rome. On the contrary, each colony kept its singularity, which is reflected at the social, economic and environmental level, and continued to use local materials as well as local craftsmen to carry out the construction of new buildings. It is only at a later stage that some of the colonies might have been influenced by Rome.

Mogetta shows that this construction technique did not appear at the same time everywhere, but that its development was dictated by context, available resources and local skills. Also, this innovation in the periphery of Rome and in colonial sites is not always linked to the agency of Roman socio-political institutions; rather, this new technology emerged through independent processes and local initiatives in response to local needs.[1] The author succeeds in his goal of “establish[ing] a reliable chronological framework for the main concrete building types and techniques of the Roman Republican period”, and suggests avenues for future research on mortars, especially scientific analysis of their components, to better understand the origins of concrete construction in Italy.

This monograph is an important resource in the discipline of construction history. The author collects a large quantity of information from recent excavations and previous studies, approaching different geographical contexts together with different architectural contexts. Mogetta also takes into account factors such as the local dynamics underlying the development (or the non-development) of the concrete construction technique in some archaeological sites in particular, and the availability of construction materials around certain sites. Indeed, an important feature of this study is that it concludes with a bottom-up view of the spread of this building innovation. While traditional studies generally attribute construction innovations to the central power of Rome,[2] Mogetta’s book positions their earliest development locally instead (in the periphery of Rome, in the provinces, and in the colonies), highlighting in particular the mobility of experienced craftsmen who later brought their skills to larger centres and to Rome. This new way of thinking places this research in line with recent studies that also favor a bottom-up vision of construction innovations rather than a top-down one.[3]



[1] Except in the case of Pompeii, where Samnite elites seems to have been inspired by the innovations of Rome.

[2] Lugli, G., La tecnica edilizia romana con particolare riguardo a Roma e Lazio, Rome, 1957.

[3] Such as that of H. Dessales which focuses on the site of Pompeii (Dessales, H., The Technique of Wall Corners: Innovations and the Economics of Construction in Pompeii, in Maschek, D., Trümper, M., Architecture and the Ancient Economy, Analysis Archaeologica. An International Journal of Western Mediterranean Archaeology, Monograph series n. 5, Quasar, 2022, pp. 191-218.), L. C. Lancaster about Roman engineering and construction (Lancaster, L., Roman Engineering and Construction, in: Oleson, J. P., (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, Oxford, 2009, pp. 256-284.), and S. Camporeale on opus africanum (Camporeale, S., Opus Africanum e tecniche a telaio litico in Etruria e Campania (VII a.C.-VI d.C.), Aarchit 18, 2013, pp. 192-209.).