Rome as the Perfect Balance?: Roman Attitudes towards Non-Roman Architecture

Cinzia Presti (University of Cincinnati) 

Scholarship on Roman perceptions of non-Roman constructions falls into two main themes: attitudes towards “primitive architecture” and towards structures of “old magnificence.” The first approach highlights Roman biases against wooden constructions as “unevolved” (Rougier-Blanc 2011), and an absence of permanent architecture as contradictory to the Roman ideal of urbanization (Foucher 2005; Shaw 1982). Conversely, former architectural marvels like pyramids and obelisks were seen as excessive and vain (Girdvainyte 2015; Merills 2017). Missing from the present scholarship is where Rome placed itself on the scale between “primitive barbarians” and “frivolous empire,” and I conclude that the Romans crafted their image to be perceived as superior through their perfect balance of ingenuity and purposefulness.

My analysis begins with Rome’s attitudes to “primitive” architectures. Vitruvius comments on the construction of huts by foreigners (De Arch. 2.1.4-5), and credits Roman craftsmanship and industry as the factors that allowed them to surpass these humble origins (De Arch. 2.1.4-5). This “innate quality of industry” (De Arch. 2.1.6) was seemingly absent in nomads who were deemed incapable of producing permanent architecture and were therefore uncivilized and unnatural (Tac. Germ. 46.3-5; Sall. Iug. 18.1-9).

Egyptian pyramids and obelisks were associated with vanity and uselessness (Tac. Ann. 2.60-61; Plin. HN. 36.16), whereas Augustus’ reappropriation of an obelisk as a sundial was deemed a true technological marvel (Plin. HN. 36.72) and a civic reapplication of a once useless monument. Likewise, Frontinus contrasted the uselessness of the pyramids to the practical marvel of the Roman aqueduct (Aq. 1.16), further situating Roman architects as both inventive and morally grounded.

Through a side-by-side comparison of Roman literary depictions of both “primitive” peoples and those of “old magnificence,” we can observe a moralizing tendency for Roman authors to identify the Roman people as a perfect balance between the two extremes: decadence and primitive simplicity.


Foucher, A. 2005. “Deux approches romaines du nomadisme: Tacite et Ammien Marcellin,” Euphrosyne 33, pp. 391-401.

Girdvainytè, L. 2015. “Egypt in Roman Imperial Literature: Tacitus’ Ann. 2.59-61,” Literatura 57, pp. 84-97.

Merrills, A. 2017. Roman Geographies of the Nile: From the Late Republic to the Early Empire, Cambridge.

Rougier-Blanc, S. 2011. “Le bois et ses usages dans le De Architectura de Vittruve,” Cahiers des Etudes Anciennes 48, pp. 89-117.

Shaw, B.D. 1982. “‘Eaters of Flesh, Drinkers of Milk:’ The Ancient Mediterranean Ideology of the Pastoral Nomad,” Ancient Society 13/14, pp. 5-31.