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Ancient Rome’s Failed Building Projects

Troubled construction projects are perennially in the news. When looking for historical parallels of grand and wasteful infrastructure schemes, journalists and political commentators often reach for absurdities and failures that were occasionally undertaken by 20th-century communist regimes. But go back further and we see that even those ancient civilisations commonly renowned for their ability in construction also funded ill-thought-out and unrealised building projects.

The Romans are rightly famed for their architectural achievements and feats of engineering. The Aqua Claudia delivered 184,000 cubic metres of water a day to the city of Rome through a channel 68 kilometres long, the final 16 kilometres of which were carried on towering stone arches. The emperor Trajan excavated a 32-hectare artificial harbour at the mouth of the Tiber to improve the supply of grain to the capital. The expansive dome of the Pantheon, 44 metres in diameter, remained the largest concrete span of any building into the mid-20th century. But set against these triumphs, the Roman Empire was not unfamiliar with mismanagement, spiralling costs, abandoned works and white elephants.

In AD 111, Trajan dispatched his official Pliny the Younger to the province of Bithynia in modern-day Turkey. Pliny’s remit included sorting out the economic mess that had engulfed the cities in the region, which were attempting to outdo each other with ever more monumental building works.

Upon arrival, Pliny discovered a series of embarrassing blunders. The citizens, or rather the civic authorities, of Nicomedia had spent 3,318,000 sesterces on constructing an aqueduct before abandoning and demolishing it, only to then spend a further 200,000 on a new one, which was similarly abandoned before completion. At the neighbouring city of Nicaea Pliny found a half-built theatre which had so far cost 10,000,000 sesterces, but which possibly needed to be pulled down, due either to the unsuitable terrain on which it was built or the poor quality of the stone that was used.

Attempting to establish comparative costs in modern currency is difficult and arguably irrelevant in providing a sense of scale. But given that the construction of an entire temple at the time typically cost tens rather than hundreds of thousands of sesterces, we can conclude that the amount wasted on these projects was considerable, to put it mildly.

Pliny reported his findings to the emperor, who responded with understandable alarm about the excessive spending and expressed the importance of holding those responsible for the debacles to account. However, Trajan still thought it important for such projects to go ahead if properly managed – the need for infrastructure and public buildings did not vanish just because previous efforts to construct them had been incompetently handled.

Likewise Pliny, the man on the ground, encouraged the emperor to support further undertakings on the promise that by combining both beauty and utility, they would be worthy of his reign and beneficial to the various cities. In one instance, Pliny advocates that Trajan sponsor the construction of a canal linking a lake near the city of Nicomedia with the sea, in order to facilitate commercial traffic. He notes that traces of an earlier trench are visible and believes it to be an abandoned attempt at a similar project by one of the region’s previous rulers. For Pliny, this is an opportunity for his emperor to ‘complete what the kings merely commenced’ – a more cautious man might have read this as a counsel of the difficulties involved.

Half a century earlier, one of Trajan’s predecessors, Nero, was responsible for the fiasco of attempting to construct a canal from Lake Avernus on the Bay of Naples all the way to the mouth of the Tiber, some 111 miles as the crow flies. Noble in intent, the project would have provided a safer passage for shipping up the Italian coast to the capital, bringing the indispensable supply of grain to its inhabitants.

The scheme floundered and was cancelled after Nero’s death. Its failure became a cautionary tale of an unrealistic project that sought to go beyond what nature allowed. Five decades later, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus claimed that evidence of this ‘futile ambition’ could still be seen in the rock faces near Avernus. Interestingly, Tacitus did not blame the vainglorious and weak-willed emperor alone, but also the architects who conceived the project and were judged to have ‘frittered away the resources of a Caesar’.

So, too, the Roman architect Vitruvius recognised that it was not only the political leaders who were responsible for costs getting out of hand, but that professionals in the building industry bore responsibility. He opens the final book of his treatise Ten Books on Architecture by explaining a law in the Greek city of Ephesus:

An architect, when he has received the commission for some public work, promises in advance what the cost is to be. Once this estimate has been turned over to the magistrate, his goods are put in lien until the work is completed. Then, when it is finished, if the actual expenses correspond to the estimate, he is awarded special honours. … If, on the other hand, more than a quarter has been consumed by the project, then money is taken from the architect’s own assets to make up the difference.

Vitruvius goes on to lament that such regulations did not apply in his day in Rome; this, he claims, would have prevented inexperienced and unscrupulous architects operating with impunity.

ildings and infrastructure projects are collaborative endeavours and that both praise and blame should rarely be attributed to one person. However in ancient Rome a building was the monumentum of the patron who conceived and paid for it, while the architects and builders were rarely recognised for their contribution. This is misleading from a historical point of view, as we tend to underestimate the role that others played in planning structures, attributing too much of the design to the mind of the ruler. It can also serve as a warning to would-be builders: share the credit or accept responsibility.


Christopher Siwicki is Research Fellow at the British School of Rome.

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