Did Romans write instructional manuals on architecture, building etc.?

I am curious as to why so much of the Roman's knowledge of architecture and construction was lost in medieval times, especially since there did exist people able to read Latin and the old Roman manuscripts. Did the Romans not leave any instructions regarding the technical aspects of construction and architecture?

  • 6
    Could you edit your question to clarify where you've searched and what you found already, complete with links and references, and context if applicable? In particular, please let us know what you find missing or unclear about the Wikipedia entry on the topic, if one exists. This allows those who might want to answer to do so without needing to redo the work you've already done. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and help center and, in particular, How to Ask. – Mark C. Wallace Apr 29 at 8:21
  • 3
    Do ancient Roman cookbooks count? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apicius – RobertF Apr 29 at 19:50
  • 2
    What would be the point of writing a manual? I believe Roman crafts were primarily taught through the apprentice system, knowledge & skills were precious secrets to be passed on to chosen successors, rather than disseminated widely? I'm not sure of the literacy rate of craftsman. Even if craftsmen were functionally literate technical and engineering literacy would be a higher level, and further restrict both the author and the audience. Recording trade secrets would involve significant opportunity costs and I can't imagine how it would benefit the author. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 27 at 11:02
  • 1
    Written manuals for crafts makes only sense if 1) the target audience can read, 2) there is a cheap way to reproduce the manual (printing press). If these don’t hold, the main way of transmitting knowledge is generally apprenticeship. – Greg Oct 28 at 5:33

The only book to survive from ancient Rome on architecture is Marcus Vitruvius Pollio's De architectura, found by the Renaissance scholar Poggio Bracciolini in 1414 after being largely forgotten. Bracciolini was one of a number of humanists "devoted to the revival of classical studies". However, it had been referred to by several churchmen, chroniclers and scholars during Medieval times, but comprehension was perhaps hindered by lack of understanding of some technical words and also missing illustrations. An English translation is available here.

enter image description here

"1521 Cesare Cesariano Italian translation of De Architectura Libri Decem (The Ten Books on Architecture) by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.". Source & Attrib.

Numerous works have been lost to fires, wars, accidents, floods etc., and some because they were not considered worth copying by later scribes (or they came low on the list of priorities), but some other technical information did survive (for example, Frontinus' De aquaeductu was found, also by Poggio Bracciolini, in 1425 and made use of during the Renaissance). However, while there were people throughout the medieval period who could understand the language in which it was written, this is not the same as understanding and being able to exploit the knowledge contained therein. Vitruvius himself wrote at the beginning of his manuscript:

The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory...

Cited in: The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

A certain degree of basic technical knowledge is certainly helpful. More importantly, skilled craftsmen would be needed to do the actual building. These were lost, along with Roman concrete. As Wikipedia on Roman Technology surmises,

Roman technology was largely based on a system of crafts. Technical skills and knowledge were contained within the particular trade, such as stonemasons. In this sense, knowledge was generally passed down from a tradesman master to a tradesman apprentice. Being that there is only a few sources from which to draw upon for technical information, it is theorized that tradesmen kept their knowledge a secret.

Further, the kinds of building projects for which the Romans are famed (for example, aqueducts) require enormous resources. In the wake of the fall of the Western Empire and the economic decline that went with it, few states had such resources. Note that the most prominent structures erected in the Middle Ages - churches and castles - were built by those who could command the wealth and human resources to do it.

Note also that Roman architecture did not completely disappear; for example, the basilica was used in churches by the Merovingians and the Carolingians.

Other source:

Joachim Henning (ed), 'Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium: Byzantium, Pliska, and the Balkans' (2007)

| improve this answer | |
  • 13
    The editor of my copy of Vitruvius' book thinks that there were also drawings associated with the book (or that, when the book was actually used to teach roman engineers, they used relevant actual drawings and in-situ visits jointly to the textbook). But we have only the text, and that is a loss, as any engineering student can understand. A good modern edition will have modern drawings representing a scholarly interpretation of the text, considering historical/architectural evidence, because it would be very hard to interpret some details by yourself. – Luiz Apr 29 at 13:16
  • 1
    Very interesting! Can you specify what you mean by the quotation marks around 'recovered'? – LokiRagnarok Apr 30 at 6:55
  • @LokiRagnarok Clarified in my edit - 'recovered' was the word used by Wikipedia but I wasn't sure what was meant by it exactly. – Lars Bosteen Apr 30 at 8:28
  • 1
    “because they were not considered worth copying by later scribes (or they came low on the list of priorities)” Just to add a little background, since many people have inaccurate impressions on this point: the loss of books isn’t because mediaeval scholars didn’t care about preservation. They cared very much; but preservation then was difficult, expensive, labour-intensive work, and mediaeval Europe simply didn’t support so many centres of learning. So there was a constant triage of what to use materials and scribal work-hours on. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine May 1 at 14:03

While not exactly manuals, some of the architectural instructions survive on the buildings themselves.

The Roman temple of Bziza has a wall that bears marks of an architectural sketch on how to assemble the half-pediment of the pronao of the temple itself; there's also an engraving of the temple's entablature.

The temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, Lebanon has drawings sketching the construction of the Jupiter pediment and the ablution fountain roof; there's also a scaled-down floor plan. Some of the drawings are quite detailed and cover an area of 4 x 13 metres.

Daniel Lohmann, Drafting and Designing. Roman Architectural Drawings and their Meaning for the Construction of Heliopolis/Baalbek, Lebanon

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Hell yeah they're manuals. They're "field service manuals"; much like cars have paint codes, tire pressures, and in some cases, a model code that identifies all the factory options for that individual vehicle. – Rich Apr 30 at 19:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.