Built In Art

Arch: History

The origin, or antiquity of the Arch has been a theme of much controversy, and it is one of those facts which is not likely to be decided. Whatever may be the theories of antiquaries and other writers on this point, it may be safely said, that a genuine architectural arch was not known much before the Christian era. Many ancient and modern authors either assert or imply that arches were understood and employed in very remote ages; but they fail at proving that they were ever used either by the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Jews, Babylonians, or Indians.


The quarries of Upper Egypt produced stones sufficiently large to cover in the dwellings of the inhabitants; and thus precluded the necessity of substituting the arch for the straight lintel. The gallery in the large pyramid of Ghiza, though it has somewhat the appearance of arched vaulting, cannot be properly called an arch, for it consists of a series of stones placed horizontally on each other, and projecting till they nearly meet at the top, where a single stone crowns the whole.

A nearer approach to the form of the arch is seen in one of the tombs among the remains of Egypt; but this is cut out of the solid rock. As to the arches of Upper Egypt, mentioned by Lucas, Pococke, and Norden, they must be regarded as of Roman or Saracenic, rather than of Egyptian construction.

Pococke says that the few specimens he saw were executed subsequently to the establishment of the Greeks in Egypt; and Norden informs us that he discovered Saracenic characters on the bridges near the pyramids of Memphis.


There is not sufficient evidence to induce us to suppose that the arch was known to this celebrated people. Speaking of the bridge over the Euphrates, Herodotus expressly says that it was first built of stone piers bound together with lead and iron, upon which were laid squared beams; being wooden framing on stone piers. The tunnels of Babylon, mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, were probably covered in the same way. Herodotus mentions a subterranean canal, or tunnel, which was covered with horizontal pieces of stone, six or seven feet, long by three wide.


The ruins of Athens are destitute of the slightest trace of an arch earlier than the time already assigned to its introduction. The roof of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, called the Lantern of Demosthenes, is formed by a single block of marble. The bridge over the Ilissus, as well as the building improperly called the Theatre of Bacchus, were erected by Herodes Atticus.

There is no example of an arch that can be dated to a period before the late 4th century. The earliest examples are barrel-vaulted Macedonian tombs. The introduction of this tomb type is commonly associated with the Macedonian kingdom by King Philip II and his son Alexander III. The technique of construction was probably imported from the Middle-East.


barrel_vaulted Macedonian tomb
The barrel-vaulted roof, a semicylindrical roof constructed of voussoirs, is the principal feature of the Macedonian tomb


The Arches specimens remaining in Ionia bear marks of Roman workmanship and, though arches have been found at Nola in Etruria, their date has not been fixed; and we know that Nola was occupied by the Romans as well as by the Greeks. The same may be said of Agrigentum, Tauromenium, Catania, and Syracusa. The gate in the ancient wall of Palatum was most likely erected subsequently to the building with which it is connected.

Let us profit by the remarks of a well-informed practical architect: " Till within a very few years, the ruins of Greece were unexplored; and even when scientifically illustrated by the genius of Stuart and Revett, the examples of the arch given by them could not be attributed to a period prior to the time of the Romans. In vain have ancient authors been consulted to afford some clue to unravel this interesting question; but from them we derive no assistance; for the architectural terms are so obscure, and the meaning so dubious, as to leave us in as great ignorance as before."

The discovery of a sort of domical roof in a subterraneous chamber at Mycenae led to these remarks, to which some writers refer as an example of the arch in Grecian architecture : Mr. Donaldson, however, properly observes, that although the form of the inner roof " resembled the shape of the arch, the true principle and peculiar property of the concentric construction of the vertical arch, deficient in this example, was thought to render the subterraneous chamber. inadmissible as a proof of its very early introduc­tion in the construction of the Greeks; nor does it appear probable, that the arch, in its perfect principle of application, was adopted in Greece before the time of Alexander or his successors, and thence communicated to the Romans." King comments on the statements and authorities adduced by different writers who contend for the early adoption of the arch by the Grecians, and asserts, that " Sicily was the country where this noble kind of ornament in architecture . first appeared, and that, indeed, Archimedes was the first inventor of it."



Early examples of Etruscan arches, dated from the fourth century B.C.E.

Etruscan arch, Perugia



The Romans


arches palmyra
Three arches of Palmyra, reign of Septimius Severus, early 3rd century AD



In Italy we find the earliest traces of arches, and, whoever was the inventor, the Romans have certainly the merit of bringing them into general use, and of employing them for the. most important purposes. If not the first example, at least one of the earliest is the conduit at Tusculum, near Rome, which is a subterraneous channel carried under a mountain.

servius tullius wall: arch

the Servian wall was built around the city of Rome in the early 4th century BCE


Other early examples are found in part of the ancient walls of Rome, built by Tullius; and in the Cloaca Maxima, supposed to have been formed by Tarquin the elder. That arched sewer, 16 feet wide by 30 feet in height, large enough to admit a carriage laden with hay, is now nearly closed up. The Theatre of Marcellus, in the same city, built in the time of Julius Caesar, contains a series of arches supposed to be next in point of time.
The Romans having once perceived the importance .and elegant effects produced by arches, introduced them into the whole of their public works, and not only imparted the curvilinear form to the apertures of walls, but adopted it in their decorated triumphal gates,etc.

arches theather of Marcellus
Theatre of Marcellus was was completed in 13 BC and formally inaugurated in 12 BC by Augustus


In the architecture of the Romans the arch was almost invariably of a semicircular shape; but the Moors, Christians, and some other nations, not only invented and introduced great variety in its curva­ture, but decorated it with numerous ornamental mouldings and sculptured enrichments. In the ecclesiastical edifices of the Christian architects, between the tenth and sixteenth centuries, we find numerous variations of curvilinear forms.

Content for class "clearfloat" Goes Here
comments powered by Disqus