Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module CLAS2631: Roman Buildings & their Decoration

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS2631: Roman Buildings & their Decoration

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • CLAS1301 or CLAS1781 or ARCH1131 or ARCH2091


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To equip students with a broad overview of the basic developments in Roman art during the period 500 B.C. -and A.D. 500.
  • To give students some understanding of a selection of the most important or best-known objects and monuments of Roman culture.
  • To help students to develop skills in different ways of looking at visual material (including painting, sculpture and buildings) and/or to consolidate skills in using the language of visual criticism.
  • To enable students to evaluate architecture in a more detailed and contextual way and to make independent stylistic, aesthetic and historical judgments in order to be able to assess visual evidence for the ancient world.
  • To enhance students' study of literary and historical modules relating to the Roman world by helping them to acquire a fuller understanding of how buildings and their decoration are related to ancient culture and society and of how they have been used, studied and appreciated up to the present day.
  • To develop knowledge and practise evaluative skills through essays, seminar presentations and project-based learning and to test these skills by essay and written examination.


  • The module studies the forms and meanings of Roman buildings in terms of both their structure and decoration. It is intended to be accessible to all second-year students with a broad historical knowledge of the Roman world, and in particular to students having completed the first-year module CLAS1781.
  • The module adopts both a chronological and a thematic approach, considering both private and public buildings from across the period between the Etruscan era and the fourth century A.D. and focusing on a range of approaches to visual material already introduced in the first-year module CLAS1781.
  • The module will involve close visual analysis of a selection of buildings from Italy and the Roman world.
  • Specific subjects covered may include any of the following: 1. General consideration of the nature of architecture and the role and status of the architect, of traditional and innovative scholarly approaches to Roman buildings, and of methodological aims and problems. 2. The walls and gates of Roman cities. 3. The impact of Etruscan and Greek ideas on the art and architecture of Roman Italy 4. The Roman atrium house and its decoration with portraiture and painting 5. The sanctuaries of Roman Italy. 6. Temples of imperial Rome and the provinces. 7. Basilicas and their decoration. 8. Displays of sculpture in public and private architecture. 9. Historical reliefs on arches and other monuments. 10. Tomb buildings and their contents, including sarcophagi 11. Theatre buildings and associated statuary. 12. Bath buildings, libraries and fountain structures.
  • A range of different kinds of visual material will be studied, particularly architecture, but also sculpture, painting and mosaic, as well as selected extracts of literary sources in translation, in particular from the treatise On Architecture by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • A knowledge of architecture and associated painting, sculpture, and mosaic between 500 B.C. and A.D. 400, based on an acquaintance with individual examples and some literary evidence.
  • Awareness of the principal framework of scholarly debate relating to Roman buildings and their decoration, including the classification and evaluation of such material, the status of architects and artists, and the reception of art and architecture in its own time and at later periods by users and viewers.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • An ability to handle a range of methodologies appropriate for a higher-level understanding of a diverse range of visual artifacts and structures.
  • An ability to look at buildings, painting, and sculpture and to explore their meaning, and an ability to use a critical vocabulary appropriate for the evaluation of visual material and to make stylistic and aesthetic judgments.
  • An ability to raise and to start to answer valid questions in response to critical archaeological and art-historical literature.
  • An ability to present ideas and arguments in written and oral form according to academic conventions and to engage in discussion and debate on individual visual examples with the lecturer and with peers.
  • An ability to assemble material of different kinds in order to undertake a sophisticated analysis of an individual building and to use appropriate methodologies to reconstruct its original appearance.
Key Skills:
  • The skills needed to analyse, evaluate, and synthesise a wide range of evidence, but especially visual material, and to select and apply methodologies appropriate to the material discussed.
  • The capacity to sustain a clear, well structured, and well-defended argument in written or oral form.
  • The ability to work with peers in creating a constructive engagement with material.
  • The ability to organize material for a small-scale research project.
  • The ability to respond constructively and imaginatively to visual signs and especially to the built environment.
  • The ability and self-discipline to work autonomously, and the capacity for organization required to meet deadlines and to negotiate competing claims on finite resources.
  • Facility with key IT resources, in particular word-processors, online databases, and to make profitable and selective use of relevant internet resources.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Lectures are appropriate and the most effective means of imparting information and explaining methods of interpretation, both in the presentation of ancient evidence and in the synthesis of modern scholarship. However, they are conducted with both formal and informal elements, and open discussion of spaces and ideas is encouraged. The material is therefore developed through a combination of didactic learning and group work activities in which the students examine themes and issues as they appear in particular buildings. This enables direct engagement with, and provides opportunities for research in and informed collective discussion of, the varieties of visual material addressed in the module.
  • Seminars on broad issues, supported by exploration of individual examples, enable direct engagement with, and provide opportunities for research into, and informed collective discussion of, the varieties of visual material addressed in the module and the wider theoretical themes raised.
  • Reading classes facilitate critical understanding and discussion of Vitruvius' work On Architecture in relation to surviving Roman buildings.
  • Group presentations facilitate students' understanding of methodologies for approaching architectural and artistic material, their capacity for constructive collaboration with and assessment of their peers, and their ability to initiate and continue informed discussion that engages with visual material and raises a level of academic debate.
  • Writing essays enables the assembling and evaluation of material and the formulation of logical and coherent argument, as well as skills in writing coherent, comprehensible and grammatically correct English. An essay tests the attainment of such skills and forms part of the summative assessment of the module.
  • Project workshops contribute to the critical handling of evidence and facility of discussion and develop skills of essay writing and project management, facilitating the organisation of data for a small-scale research project and providing opportunities for independent learning and study in a controlled environment.
  • The research project demonstrates the student's ability to evaluate and organize a range of archaeological material in relation to a specific small-scale research project.
  • A final examination tests ability to understand material studied across the module and to focus relevantly on critical issues and to organize knowledge and argument appropriate to questions raised. An alternative form of assessment can be devised where appropriate.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 18 2 per week 1 hour 18
Seminars 5 5 in Epiphany Term 1 hour 5
Reading classes 2 2 in Epiphany Term 1 hour 2
Project workshops 2 2 in Epiphany Term 1 hour 2
Field Trip 1 1 in Epiphany Term 2 hours 2
Preparation for formative tasks 20
Preparation for portfolio project 51
General preparation and background reading 100
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Examination Component Weighting: 30%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Examination 2 hours 100% Examination
Component: Portfolio project Component Weighting: 70%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Research project 4000 words 100% An exercise on visual material and skills

Formative Assessment:

One formative exercise

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University