Skip to main content

Ancient Rome to Modern Construction: Four Lessons We’ve Been Learning for Millennia

Imagine traveling back in time to a Roman construction site around 100 AD.

It's easy to expect that we'd have a lot to teach them (picture how fun it would be to introduce them to modern tools and cranes!). It's also easy to underestimate how sophisticated they were - for example, did you know they regulated temperature without mechanical HVAC and sloped the edges of roads (just as we do now) to manage water runoff? 

Ancient construction professionals were working on solving many of the same challenges we face today, with some notable examples of success. In reality, we’d likely have as much to learn as we’d have to teach. We certainly felt that way when we were onsite filming at the ancient Library of Celsus, creating the most detailed scan of the library, ever.

But how did the crumbling Library of Celsus become the heart of The Great Library, a story about the future of construction? 

Simply put, the Library of Celsus is a landmark in construction history - an emblem of excellent planning, innovative architecture, and impressive implementation coming together to create a truly magnificent building. So where better to find inspiration for the future than by looking to the wisdom and insights of the past? 



Lesson 1: Detailed planning is design’s equivalent of “measure twice, cut once”

The ancient city of Ephesus is home to some of the most remarkable and innovative engineering techniques of the Roman Empire. Its grand structures, like the iconic Roman columns at The Library of Celsus, have captivated visitors for 2,000 years. 

But how did they pull off such impressive feats? And what can we learn from them as we navigate modern construction? Turns out, quite a lot. And it starts with good planning. 

To place Ephesus in context, at its peak in the second century A.D, it was the largest metropolis and active harbor in Asia Minor and the final port on the Silk Route. While Rome was the political capital, Ephesus was the economic capital.

Ephesus was far ahead of its time, with extensive forethought put into the design. Typically, cities would form gradually, starting from a small nucleus and gradually expanding as people moved in. But not Ephesus! Outperforming much of modern construction, the city was fully designed and engineered before construction began.

The city planners carefully considered everything, from the number of houses to the water system to the sewage and drainage, with a specific population in mind. 

Considering that this was over 2,000 years ago, their sophistication is almost unbelievable. As modern construction seeks to become more streamlined, efficient, and connected, we are building on the work they began. 



Lesson 2: Design choices, like building materials, can naturally lead to more comfortable spaces

As mentioned, we've taken special interest in The Library of Celsus, using it as the scene for our documentary on the future of construction. Not only is it a great example of eye-catching design, it’s also an example of early building science. With such careful thought put into the city, it's only natural that the individual buildings are also works of art. 

Completed in 135 AD, the Library of Celsus was located at the heart of the city of Ephesus and held 12,000 scrolls. As one of the most prestigious ancient libraries, authors competed to have their writings stored there. 

Ephesus is prone to stifling heat and humidity in the summer. To help keep the library and its precious contents cool, the architects used an abundant local resource: marble. It's bright white color and high density reflect the sun away and naturally dissipates heat quickly, making it a strategic choice. 

We chatted with local archeologist and site expert Cengiz İçten, who explained that there were about 35 marble quarries around Ephesus. They'd prep the marble at quarries and then float it into the city on rafts. Not only was marble used for the building, but also all the furnishings, from desks to tables to chairs. The bookcases were double-walled as an added measure to moderate temperature and humidity, creating an air barrier to help insulate the scrolls. 

Today, we can use modern technology to rapidly iterate designs in ways that the ancient Roman architects could only dream of, quickly comparing different building orientations, materials, window options, and more to find the most comfortable and sustainable option.  



Lesson 3: Building in resilience is essential

Looking at the facade's columns design, it's clear that the architects had a flair for the magnificent. To make the library look larger, they made the columns in the center slightly shorter, distorting the perspective and creating an optical illusion of a grander scale. 

But the real question… how did they secure the columns without modern solutions like rebar? While onsite filming for The Great Library, we originally assumed that the columns were held in place via the weight of the structures resting on them. Their actual methods are far more intricate.

Watch this video, filmed onsite in Ephesus, to see how ancient Roman columns were secured. For the time, their methods were impressive. But, as earthquakes later proved, not enough to survive long term. Today, we use similar methods, with the benefits of modern materials and tools, to build more secure, resilient structures. 



Lesson 4: Knowledge is lost almost as easily as it is gained

There's much to learn from how Ephesus and The Library of Celsus were built.  

There's also an important lesson in what was lost. 

After reaching such a peak in design and construction, we entered the Middle Ages and regressed to dumping sewage in the streets. The Roman’s construction insights were lost for a millennium. 

So, how do we ensure that we don’t repeat our past mistakes, and instead, share our knowledge in an enduring and collaborative way? 

That question is at the heart of The Great Library docuseries, a joint adventure with some of the industry’s best and brightest architects, engineers, and contractors. The team is collaborating to digitally re-imagine the Library of Celsus as a 21st-century facility, creating a detailed, site-accurate design. 

Along the way, we’re documenting their journey, from design files at various stages of development to actual footage of planning meetings between key project players. Everything we learn will go into The Great Library - a free online repository of modern construction knowledge.

Together, we can leverage technology to evolve and overcome the biggest challenges facing modern construction. And this time, we can ensure the knowledge won’t be lost. 

About the Author

Hannah is a Content Creation Specialist for Trimble Construction. She has 10 years of experience in the construction industry, with a particular passion for green, resilient, equitable construction. Along the way, she’s worked with energy efficiency assessors, custom home builders, architects, and lean building specialists.

Profile Photo of Hannah Finch