Abstract: Harena sine calce ("Sand without lime"): Building Disasters, Incompetent Architects, and Construction Fraud in Ancient Rome

Roman architects and builders employed concrete and other materials with great creativity and produced structures that in some cases have lasted 2000 years without significant decay. Nevertheless, the structures we see today are a very small sample of those that were constructed, even of those constructed with concrete, and that their survival is the result of a long process of natural and unnatural selection. How or why did the others disappear? Were the Romans in fact such good construction engineers after all? Roman engineers constructed thousands of buildings with opus caementicium over a period of 500 years: surely a significant sample of these buildings would turn out to be remarkably durable even by accident. In this regard, it is striking that a large, often hilarious corpus of Roman literary and epigraphical sources and legal texts survives that documents construction disasters, incompetent architects, fraudulent contractors, and cost over-runs. There is also ample testimony to misjudged urban planning, and flawed codes or regulations or inadequate enforcement of regulations, with resulting losses of life and property from fire and other natural disasters. What types of mistakes were made, what types of fraud committed, and what can we learn from them about the structures that survive?


Suggested Bibliography/Websites:

J.P. Oleson. “Harena sine calce: Building Disasters, Incompetent Architects, and Construction Fraud in Ancient Rome.” To appear in Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae.

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