Mark Cartwright
published on 22 April 2015
Available in other languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Turkish
Roman Theatre Façade, Aosta (by Mark Cartwright, CC BY-NC-SA)
Roman Theatre Façade, Aosta
Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c. 90 - c. 20 BCE), better known simply as Vitruvius, was a Roman military engineer and architect who wrote De Architectura (On Architecture), a treatise which combines the history of ancient architecture and engineering with the author's personal experience and advice on the subject. As no similar work has survived complete from antiquity, the book has become an invaluable source, not only on Greek and Roman architecture, but also on a wide range of other topics such as philosophy, mathematics, and medicine.

He served as a military engineer and architect for Julius Caesar between 58 and 51 BCE and he personally visited Greece, Asia, North Africa, and Gaul. He was considered an expert on ballistics and he also built a basilica at Fanum Fortunae (modern Fano in Umbria, Italy) in c. 27 BCE. In De Architectura , written 30-20 BCE, Vitruvius gives a very personal account of ancient and contemporary architecture which draws on his own experience and on older works, especially by Greek writers such as Hermogenes of Alabanda, who wrote in the 2nd century BCE.

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Vitruvius was a great admirer of Greek architecture in general. De Architectura was also perhaps aimed at gaining favour from the then Roman emperor Augustus (to whom it is dedicated), although it is curiously silent on many of the important buildings erected during the reign of Rome's first emperor.

for Vitruvius buildings should always be three things: beautiful, stable, and useful.

De Architectura

Much more than a book on buildings and machines, the contents of De Architectura reveal the ancients' much wider concept of what exactly is 'architecture' and it describes such topics as science, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, astrology, medicine, meteorology, philosophy, and the importance of the effects of architecture, both aesthetic and practical, on the everyday life of citizens. In short, according to Vitruvius, the successful architect and engineer should have both theoretical and practical knowledge based on a broad and deep understanding of all the sciences, arts, and even nature. Even more importantly, for Vitruvius buildings should always be three things: beautiful, stable, and useful.

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Since I notice that the uneducated rather than the educated gain favour, I have decided not to compete with the pushiness of ignoramuses, but rather to demonstrate the great value of our discipline by publishing this body of instructions.

(De Architectura, Bk. 3 Introduction)

De Architectura also originally had illustrations which helped to clarify Vitruvius' descriptions, particularly those of technical devices. These are an invaluable record in themselves and his descriptions of such machines as the hodometer, which measured distances by dropping balls into a drum, intrigued such noted figures as Leonardo Da Vinci, who attempted his own reconstructive designs. Da Vinci, of course, created his famous Vitruvian Man based on the proportions described by Vitruvius (chapter 1 of Book III). Vitruvius' work is also full of anecdotes of ancient scholars and scientists, often being the only source of such now famous episodes as Archimedes in his bathtub.

Arch of Augustus, Aosta
Arch of Augustus, Aosta
Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

There are some important omissions in De Architectura, notably amphitheatres, aqueduct arcades, and some of what we today might consider the greatest Roman buildings, such as Roman baths, are dealt with only briefly. Nevertheless, the work is a fascinating insight into the field of ancient architecture and it was hugely influential from the Renaissance period onwards.

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Copied and re-copied right through the Middle Ages, the oldest surviving copy dates to the 8th century CE and in 1486 CE the first printed copies were published in Rome. Right up to the 20th century CE the descriptions, illustrations, and the very weight Vitruvius gave to certain topics above others influenced not only students of the subject but long-defined what was considered the primary components of western architecture

Summary of De Architectura

De Architectura is divided into 10 books:

Book I - on an architect's ideal education, the principles and divisions of architecture, fortifications, principles of good town planning, and where best to build a temple.

Consequently, since such a wide discipline should be enriched, and overflow with many different kinds of expertise, I do not think that people can justifiably profess themselves architects at the drop of a hat. (Bk. 1, Ch. 1.11)

Book II - on the origins of buildings and the various materials employed in their construction such as bricks, sand, stone, and wood, and the various types of walls.

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Build walls two feet thick with courses of red dressed stone, fired brick or ordinary hard stone in the cavity: then the outer faces should be bound to these with iron clamps and lead. In this way the wall, which has not been built with just a pile of material but in courses, will last indefinitely. (Bk. 2, Ch. 8.4)

Book III - on the mathematics and correct proportions of columns and temples.

The upper diameters of columns should be enlarged to compensate for the increasing distances for the glance of the eye as it looks up. For our sight searches for beauty. (Bk. 3, Ch. 3.13)

Book IV - on the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian architectural orders, and the various types of temples and altars.

If the sacred temples of the gods are to lie along public roads, they should be orientated so that passers-by can see them and make their salutations in front of them. (BK. 4, Ch. 5.2)

Floor Plan, Theatre of Marcellus
Floor Plan, Theatre of Marcellus
S.R.Koehler (ed) (Public Domain)

Book V - on various Roman buildings such as the basilica, the best design for theatres to obtain the best acoustics, and advice on building harbours.

The ancient architects, taking their lead from nature, designed the tiers of seats in theatres on the basis of their investigations into the rising of the voice, and tried, with the help of the mathematician's principles and musical theory, to devise ways in which any voice uttered onstage would arrive more clearly and pleasantly at the ears of the spectators. (Bk. V, Ch. 4.8)

Book VI - on the effect of climate on character and best foundations and layouts for private homes.

Bedrooms and libraries should face east since their function requires morning light, and again, so that the books in libraries will not rot. (Bk. 6, Ch. 4.1)

Book VII - on paving, vaults, and wall-paintings, including the best colours and their origins and history of use.

Purple has the most prized and most outstandingly beautiful appearance of all these colours. It is extracted from the marine shellfish from which purple dye is made, which is as amazing to the observer as anything else in nature. (Bk. 7, Ch. 8.1)

Book VIII – is concerned with water, its sources and conveyance via aqueducts.

There is a spring on the island of Cea and those who unwisely drink from it lose their minds; an epigram is inscribed there which says that a drink from the spring is delightful but that whoever drinks from it will end up with the brain of a stone. (Bk. 8, Ch. 3.22)

Los Milagros Aqueduct, Mérida
Los Milagros Aqueduct, Mérida
Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA)

Book IX – on the study of astronomy and its relevance to architectures and the measurement of time using sundials and water-clocks.

Archimedes ecstatically jumped out of the bath without a moment's delay and rushed off home, stark naked, announcing at the top of his voice that he had found what he was looking for, since as he ran along, he shouted repeatedly in Greek 'Heureka, heureka'. (Bk. 9 Introduction)

Book X – describes various machines and gadgets such as distance measuring devices, water-driven machines, and weapons like catapults, ballistae, and siege engines.

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Ropes are tightened up in the same way by means of hand-spikes and windlasses until they sound the same. In this way, by keeping the device taut with wedges, the catapults are 'tuned' to the proper pitch by musical testing. (Bk. 10, Ch. 12.2)

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.


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Questions & Answers

What is Vitruvius known for?

Marcus Vitruvius was a 1st century BCE architect who wrote a famous and influential book on architecture called 'De Architectura'. This work, which is a history of architecture and engineering, became even more influential during the Renaissance.

What are the three principles of Vitruvius?

The Roman architect and scholar Vitruvius thought that all buildings should have three qualities. They should be beautiful, stable (i.e. well-built), and useful.

What is the oldest copy of Vitruvius' 'De Architectura'?

The oldest surviving copy of 'De Architectura' (On Architecture) dates to the 8th century.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2015, April 22). Vitruvius. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Vitruvius." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 22, 2015.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Vitruvius." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 22 Apr 2015. Web. 26 May 2024.