The Art Of Woodworking In The Roman World

The Art of Woodworking in the Roman World

The Art Of Woodworking In The Roman World


When we talk about Roman influences, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? Ancient Romans are known as strong and influential people with the capabilities to bring down nations to their knees.

It is where leaders lead and intellectuals meet. It was the center of the universe during its glory days; no wonder that it is also the center for innovations, inventions, and the arts.

Wood as a building material

Historical Architectural Contributions Of The Roman Empire


While most historical architectural contributions of the Roman Empire were made of natural stone, the foundation of these structures was made using very strong and reliable wood. No doubt that using wooden structures such as wooden scaffolding is still a popular technique nowadays.

During the Roman period workers who constructed temples, colosseums, buildings and homes used wood as well.

The kind of wood used for most constructions ranged from moderately strong to very durable types. Romans used beech, maple, olive, ash and elm trees.

A type of African wood called Tthyine was used by well-off residents to construct wooden ornaments, furniture, and decorative items.

Ancient Romans believed in a higher form of power and considered Tthyine to have mystical powers as well.  

Other building materials  

While wood was a staple in constructing different structures like homes, buildings, and bridges, newer building materials were soon gaining popularity.

The Roman brick was one of the most popular building materials among the Romans and was first used at the beginning of the Empire.

These fired clay bricks replaced sun-dried mud-brick and were available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Roman bricks were used walls, roofing, floors and also for building ceramics.

Roman Brick


The Romans favored bricks than other materials during the first century of the Empire. It was found in public and private buildings.

Historians said that Romans were proud of their bricks that they took it everywhere they went. They introduced their crafts to local folks even operating their own kilns just to introduce bricks to different parts of their empire.

In fact, earlier bricks found in France, Germany and the British Isles were all influenced by ancient Roman brick-making techniques.

The introduction of Roman concrete

Introduction Of Roman Concrete


Concrete was said to have been used in a minor scale in Mesopotamia but it was the Romans who took advantage of its versatility and amazing strength. Roman architects were the ones who perfected the properties of concrete.

After it was rediscovered in Rome, concrete became the favorite among local builders. They constructed buildings and structures with daring designs and sizes.

The Romans constructed buildings with towering pillars, arches, and domes. Concrete gave rise to ambitious projects like the colonnade screen, which was a row of decorative concrete columns at the front of a broad wall.

Concrete was first used in Rome in the town of Cosa in 273 BC. It was made from a mixture of lime mortar, pozzolana, aggregate, stones, and water.

The mixture was packed inside wooden frames where it hardened and bonded. Concrete is, therefore, the most relevant contribution of Romans to modern architecture.  

Roman carpentry and its influences

Roman Carpentry And Its Influences


Carpenters were regarded as an integral part of Roman society because they made huge steps in creating construction techniques that have made Rome unequaled for thousands of years.

Carpenters were part of the construction labor force consisted of slaves, soldiers from the Legions, poor citizens and skilled labor. Carpenters may either be a slave or a skilled guild (carpenters collegia).

A skilled carpenter was considered faber tignarius or a beam craftsman. There was no distinction between the different professions and trades that existed during this period.

When it came to larger projects, a master carpenter or architect would also be the designer who was responsible for the construction of the entire project. The master carpenter performed the same function as modern-day contractors.

Projects that contractors take during those days were covered by sophisticated oral or written contracts. Within these contracts were specific responsibilities for all aspects of the job including labor and materials.

The Carpenter Collegia

The carpenter collegia was a group or an association of carpenters that provide training and apprenticeships on math and practical engineering.

Upper-class particians embarked on careers in the army, politics or law because this profession was seen as too lowly for their class.

Therefore it was carpenters that created new techniques and updated materials which revived Roman engineering. Their discoveries improved the lives of people and have helped Rome continue to dominate Europe and the Mediterranean regions for many centuries.

King Numa was the early second Roman king who started the construction of guilds which existed in most Roman towns and cities. Collegias were organized along trade lines, therefore, had strong social support with members sharing fraternal support.

It was in the early 4th century that Roman carpenters were required to be part of their appropriate guild and was seen as a way for the government could impose taxes every five years.

Because of this law, it would be impossible to switch professions. Children of carpenters would also have to follow in their father’s footsteps in order to obey the law.

It was also this time when members of the collegium fabrum tignuariorum or those who work with beams of wood, created an alter to honor their goddess Minerva the god of crafts.

Till this day, you can still find the very stone surface where the carpenters inscribed a dedication using the very own tools that they used for their craft.  

Carpenters guarded advancements on crafts

Romans created the Roman Numeral system which dates back to 800 BC.  This system was created for standard counting according to a decimal base 10 system with no zero.

Romans only needed practical applications of numbers, therefore, there were no mathematical innovations that were created by the Roman Empire. Carpenters guarded trade, craft and technological secrets during their time.

Artistic woodworking during the Roman era

When it came to the arts, masters, and craftsmen were mostly hired to construct different wooden structures and buildings. Roman carpenters were innovators. Some copied from cultures that they have assimilated and improved these technologies.

Roman carpenters and architects borrowed from Greek structures and building designs to improve the design of the column. They were also able to understand the structural advantages of the arch which had more capabilities compared to the lintel and the dome.

Roman carpenters used the arch and partnered this with concrete to create impressive structures and majestic buildings.  

The majestic artistic wonder of the Pantheon

Majestic Artistic Wonder Of The Pantheon


Visit Rome today and you will surely be amazed at the beauty of the Pantheon. Historians say that when Michelangelo saw the Pantheon, he declared that it was made with angelic and not human design. 

The artist also suspected that the portions of the building were made by different architects who had amazing skill.

The name Pantheon is a combination of Greek words pan and then which mean all and gods. It is said that the building was constructed on the area where Romulus the founder of Rome ascended to heaven in 716 BC.

The Pantheon was called a perfect space because the dome of the building has a diameter equal to its height. Therefore it is a circle in a cylinder in a square.

The original design of the Pantheon has the highest classical architectural excellence. It was made by Greek builder Apolodorus.

But it was emperor Hadrian who had a strong interest in architecture and renovation of this building, created a lot of problems for carpenters and builders.

The Pantheon has a basic design, beautiful and powerful. At the front would be free-standing columns with an intermediate block above the column attached to a domed rotunda.

You will initially notice its large 21-foot tall double doors which are made of bronze. This would have been covered with pure gold during the time of Hadrian. The exterior is smoothly made of white marble panels.  

The Pantheon once had bronze-tiled roofing and portico beams. But these valuable components were melted and made into 8 Cannons at Castel Sant’Angelo. The pediment would have had a sculpture of an eagle carrying a gilded bronze leaf.

Still, there is another shallow pediment above this and this allowed for continuity between the intermediate block and the porch and the structure. The Romans wanted their temples large and remarkable and these were just some ways how Roman woodworkers showed off their amazing skills.

It was likely that the workers adjusted the columns to accommodate the larger 50 feet columns. These gigantic pieces were initially made for the Temple of Trajan which was being constructed at the same time as the Pantheon.

The interior portion of the Pantheon was redesigned in the Roman style when the structure was renovated. The has that gentle slope that helps direct rainwater away from the interiors.

There are opulent marbles found on the four corners of the Empire which can be translated as the conquest of Egypt, Asia, Carthage, and Gaul. This is in a squared circle translating the geography of Ptolemy.

The overall interior theme of the temple was circles and squares. The dome’s interior has square coffers in five rings of 28. This was one of the four perfect numbers known in antiquity.

A whole number whose summed factors equal it was considered by Pythagoras to have mystical and religious meaning. The coffers may have original designs of bronze stars or rosettes.

Meanwhile, the huge 27-foot oculus located the top of the dome is the interior’s only source of direct light. This design also kept to the belief that there shouldn’t be a roof on a Roman temple.

It was during the equinoxes including April 21, the original date of the founding of the ancient city of Rome, a fantastic lighting effect may be seen in the Pantheon. The midday sun casts a single sunbeam which lights up the doorway of the temple.

More stunning woodworking pieces inside the Pantheon

Stunning Woodworking Pieces Inside The Pantheon


Once you step inside the Pantheon, you might immediately compare it with another equally-popular structure, the U.S. Capitol building. The dome of both buildings is very prominent but the Pantheon exceeds 142 feet in diameter while the capitol dome is only 96 feet.

The Pantheon dome is the largest un-reinforced dome in the world and was the largest of any dome of any kind for more than 1,300 years. The way this dome was set will amaze anyone.

This was lifted by eight barrel vaults in the drum wall to piers. The overall width at the piers is about 20′-4″ but the curtain wall along the side of the large niches is reduced to 7′- 4″. This dome is 19′-8″ thick at the base and is 5 feet thick at the top.

The dome has an oculus with 27 feet in diameter. The woodworkers created 7 outside rings with the first one on the center of the main wall. Romans made very accurate measurements despite the lack of very precise instruments. It is 7′-6″ and steps into the next ring.

The remaining 6 step-rings are 2′- 6″ are formed inward found one above the other with their sizes decreasing. Most likely, each ring took enough time to allow the cementing materials time to cure and dry completely to support the next upper ring.

The carpenters may have constructed a 7 story setup of wooden beam scaffolding. This was to support the circular part of the upper dome that created the waffle-like coffers. Based on its design, the dome is a woodworking and architectural wonder that wouldn’t be constructed today without the use of rebar.

Roman insulae, homes and villas 

Roman Insulae Homes And Villas


The art of woodworking and architectural expertise was further seen in the homes of the ancient Romans. Ancient Rome was huge, occupying vast areas of land. Because of its size, different types of housing was used depending on the materials available in the area.

In Italy, there were two main types of housing. In large cities like Rome, an average Roman would have lived in a structure like an apartment or housing development called an insulae.

These were usually four or five story high rise tenement blocks where you will find poor families living in a house with just one or two rooms. Regular folks were allowed to have their small businesses on the ground floor of the building like a bakery or a small store. A carpenter would have located his specialized woodworking shop at this level as well.

These homes were mostly made of wood and brick with very little décor or organization. If you belonged to a lower class or poor family then you would have used this kind of facility. There are communal facilities nearby for drinking and cooking water and fountains where you can bathe. 

Most of these buildings were fire-hazards. Some emperors even declared height restrictions for the construction of these buildings. The wooden structures posed as a risk for accidents and were often called death traps.

Romans that have high ranks in the government, who were doctors, generals, businessmen and members of the royal family lived in opulent housing.

These homes were called villas or domus and were woodworking art forms as well. Most of the time, owners of these large homes paid woodworkers and carpenters to construct villas with one or two levels with an estate or a more ornate structure.

A regular villa had an atrium and after this, an original Greek open courtyard. These usually had wood and stone ornamental pieces on display. Most likely, there would be statues, water features and seating areas in these gardens.  

Villas had numerous rooms with larger rooms opening onto the courtyard. There would be a triclinium three couches or dining room and tablinum or an office-records room.  As a typical large home, there would be a back area like a kitchen, store room, and toilets.

Large villas were usually decorated with mosaic floors, painted walls and ceilings, luxurious wooden furniture and bronze and marble statues of gods. Large tapestries can be seen on the walls while different wooden and stone ornaments of varying size and shapes were usually scattered around the house.

The House of the Craftsman

The House Of The Craftsman


Another architectural feat was the Casa del Fabbro or the House of the Craftsman. This is a Roman house which was excavated in the city of Pompeii and serves as a good example of a carpenters workshop and home.

The carpenter’s house was excavated along the west side of the Casa del Menandro which occupied more than three-quarters of the island. As expected this is a very small home with an area of 3500 sq. ft.

This house has a garden but is not as large as the villas in Rome. The garden was average sized but with rooms found along the west side of the front hall on the ground floor. This also serves as the only entrance to the street.

The house had an entertainment section but this was made into a shop with the rooms found along the hall converted into storage of materials.

Among other items excavated from the area were a four-wheeled cart and a large number of bronze furniture fittings. The carpenter also used iron tools to suggest the owner’s primary occupation was a cabinetmaker.

The Elia excavation in 1933 also unearthed different items that belonged to the carpenter. There were bronze furniture fittings, cabinet bosses, hinges and handles, a bronze measuring rod, dividers, and a compass.

There were also projects that the carpenter was about to complete before Mt. Vesuvius buried the town in ash. There were pieces of worked and partially worked bone which was believed to be for furniture decoration.

There was also a bone-decorated iron furniture foot. There were specialized iron tools that the carpenter may have used to cut and shape wood. These included a large number of chisels which were straight and curved, whetstones, knives, saws with a wide blade, axes, files, hammers, pliers, and mallets.

Still found nearby were smithing and other carpentry tools which suggested that the owner could have also done work intended for handymen during the period.

To summarize

Ancient Romans were wise, creative and ingenious people who were organized and devoted to acquiring new knowledge and techniques. Woodworking as a trade and an art flourished during the time of the Ancient Romans with different architectural structures as evidence.