3 Readings and Notes

V I T R U V I U S B O O K 2

BUILDING MATERIALS

PREFACE

1. Dinocrates the architect,* full of confidence in his
ideas and his cleverness, set out from Macedonia for the
army in the days of Alexanders rise to power, ambitious
for royal favor. From home he carried letters of recom-
mendation from neighbors and friends, addressed to the
king’s generals and highest court officials, in order to
facilitate his access to them,- when these generals received
him, he asked them courteously to present him to Alexan-
der as soon as possible. Despite their promises, they were
slow to do so, waiting for some suitable occasion. And
thus Dinocrates, supposing that they were playing games
with him, sought help in his own resources. He was a very
tall man, handsome, with a fine face and immense dignity.
Trusting, then, in those gifts of Nature, he went back
to his inn, undressed, and thoroughly oiled his body.
Crowning his head with a poplar wreath, draping his left
shoulder in a lion skin and brandishing a club in his right
hand, he strode before the tribunal where the king was
hearing petitions. 2. When the crowd began to take
notice of this novelty, Alexander, too, looked Dinocrates’s
way. Impressed by the young man, the king ordered the
crowd to make way for him to approach the tribunal,
and asked who he was.

“Dinocrates,” he answered, “an architect of Macedon,
who brings you ideas and plans worthy of your renown. I
have, for example, a project to carve all Mount Athos into
the image of a man. In his left hand I have represented the
walls of a spacious city,- in his right, a libation bowl where
the waters of all the rivers that run on that mountain will
gather together and plunge into the sea” (Figure 28).

3. Alexander, delighted with the idea, inquired imme-
diately about the nature of the plan – were there farm-
lands to furnish this city with a regular supply of grain?
When the king learned that food would have to be
imported by sea, he said, “Dinocrates, I appreciate the
ingenuity of this plan, and I am charmed by it, but I also
recognize that if someone were to found a colony there,
his judgment would be found wanting. Just as a newborn

baby cannot be nourished and grow without its nurse-
maid’s milk, so neither can a city grow without farm-
lands and the flow of their produce within its walls.
Without abundant food, no city can maintain a large
population nor, without resources, safeguard its people.
As much, therefore, as I think that the design is to be
commended, the choice of the site is to be condemned.
Still, I want you with me, because I intend to make use
of your talents.”

4. From then on, Dinocrates never parted from the
king, and followed him into Egypt. There, when Alexan-
der had noticed a naturally secure port, a thriving market-
place, wheatfields all around Egypt, and the great useful-
ness of the immense river Nile, he ordered Dinocrates to
lay out the city of Alexandria in his name.

So Dinocrates, because of the beauty of his face and the
dignity of his physical presence, came with high recom-
mendation to this privileged status. But to me, Imperator,
Nature did not grant imposing stature, age has ruined my
face, and bad health has carried off my strength. There-
fore, because I am bereft of such defenses, it is through the
help of my expertise and my writings that I shall — as I
hope — attain your approval.

5. Now, because in the first volume I have written all
about the duties of the architect and the [technical]
terms of the art, and likewise about city walls and the
division of the areas of the city within the walls, the
order would follow that I should write about temples,
public buildings, and private buildings, and the propor-
tions and symmetries they should exhibit, described so
as to make them plain. I thought that nothing else
should take precedence – unless I were to show some-
thing about the supplies of material that are assembled
to bring buildings to completion, both with regard to
their construction and to the general principles of mat-
ter, and to have discussed as well what particular func-
tional qualities they possessed, and to have explained of
what natural elements they have been composed.

However, before I begin to explain the natural ele-
ments, I shall begin with the principles of construction:

• 33 •

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• 34 • BOOK 2. BUILDING MATERIALS

where they had their beginning and how these discov-
eries have grown up, and I shall follow the initial steps
of ancient science and of those who have made
researches into the beginnings of humanity and its dis-
coveries, setting these down in writing. I shall, then,
explain as these writings have taught me.

CHAPTER l : THE I N V E N T I O N O F THE
ARTS AND OF BUILDING*

1. Humans, by their most ancient custom, were born
like beasts in the woods, and caves, and groves, and
eked out their lives by feeding on rough fodder. During
that time, in a certain place, dense, close-growing trees,
stirred by stormy winds and rubbing their branches
against one another, took fire. Terrified by the flames,
those who were in the vicinity fled. Later, however,
approaching more closely, when they discovered that
the heat of fire was a great advantage to the body, they
threw logs into it and preserving it by this means they
summoned others, showing what benefits they had
from this thing by means of gestures. In this gathering
of people, as they poured forth their breath in varying
voices, they established words by happening upon
them in their daily routines. Later, by signifying things
with more frequent practice, they began by chance
occurrence to speak sentences and thus produced con-
versations among themselves (Figure 29).

1. The beginning of association among human
beings, their meeting and living together, thus came
into being because of the discovery of fire. When many
people came into a single place, having, beyond all the
other animals, this gift of nature: that they walked, not
prone, but upright, they therefore could look upon the
magnificence of the universe and the stars. For the same
reason they were able to manipulate whatever object
they wished, using their hands and other limbs. Some
in the group began to make coverings of leaves, others
to dig caves under the mountains. Many imitated the
nest building of swallows and created places of mud and
twigs where they might take cover. Then, observing
each others homes and adding new ideas to their own,
they created better types of houses as the days went by.
3. Because people are by nature imitative and easily
taught, they daily showed one another the success of
their constructions, taking pride in creation, so that by
daily exercising their ingenuity in competition they
achieved greater insight with the passage of time.

First they erected forked uprights, and weaving twigs
in between they covered the whole with mud. Others,
letting clods of mud go dry, began to construct walls of
them, joining them together with wood, and to avoid
rains and heat they covered them over with reeds and
leafy branches. Later, when these coverings proved
unable to endure through the storms of winter, they
made eaves with molded clay, and set in rainspouts on
inclined roofs.

EXCURSUS ON CONTEMPORARY
HUT ARCHITECTURE

4. We can confirm that these things have been insti-
tuted for the reasons just described because even to this
day in foreign places people make buildings of these
materials, such as Gaul, Hispania, Lusitania, Aquitania –
that is, of oaken twigs or straw. Among the Colchian
nation in Pontus, on account of their abundance of
forests, they lay two entire trees flat along the ground,
one to the right and one to the left, and they leave a
space in between, whatever the length of the trees will
permit. Then they place two transverse trees above the
ends of the first two, which close off the central space of
the house. Above these go alternating beams joined at
the four corners, and by creating walls of trees they have
built towers, upright from bottom to top, and they stop
up the spaces that are left in between the logs with pot-
sherds and mud. They span the roofs in the same man-
ner, by cutting back the crossbeams at each end and
gradually reducing their size. By contracting on all four
sides at the top of the walls they extend a conical roof
over the center, and covering this with leafy branches
and mud they create roofed towers – barbarian style.

5. The Phrygians, on the other hand, who inhabit
plains, are at a shortage of wood because they have so
few forests. They choose natural hillocks and carve a
trench through their centers, and by digging out pas-
sages, they increase the available space as much as the
nature of the site will permit. On top, they create cones
by binding rods together, and covering these with straw
and stripped branches they heap up immense mounds
of earth above their dwellings. Thus they have devised
a method of shelter that is exceedingly warm in winter
and exceedingly cool in summer.

Some fit together hut dwellings out of swamp reeds.
Among certain other peoples and in several places house
construction is also carried out in the same way, for simi-
lar reasons. In Massilia, for example, we may notice
houses without roof tiles, made of earth and straw. In

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CHAPTER 2. FIRST PRINCIPLES • 35 •

Athens, on the Areopagus, there is an ancient example to
this day of a house daubed with mud. Likewise, on the
Capitol, the house of Romulus shows us – and calls to
mind – the ancient ways,- so do the wattle houses in the
Citadel precinct. 6. Reasoning from these indications
about the way in which the ancients invented building
we can conclude that this is exactly how it happened.

T H E I N V E N T I O N OF B U I L D I N G , C O N T I N U E D

When by daily practice they had made their hands
fully adept at building, and by exercising their talents in
clever ingenuity they had arrived by habit upon the arts,
then, too, the industry instilled in their spirits brought it
about that those who were more dedicated to these pur-
suits declared themselves carpenters. Because these things
had been so established in the beginning, and nature had
not only equipped the people with senses like all the
other animals, but had also armed their minds with ideas
and plans and subjected all other creatures to their power,
so from the making of buildings they progressed, step by
step, to the other arts and disciplines, and thus they led
themselves out of a rough and brutish life into gentle
humanity. 7. Then, training their own spirits and review-
ing the most important ideas conceived among the vari-
ous arts and crafts, they began to complete, not houses
any longer, but real residences, with foundations, built up
with brick walls or stone, roofed with timbers and tiles.
Furthermore, on the basis of observations made in their
studies, they progressed from haphazard and uncertain
opinions to the stable principles of symmetry.

After they had noted what a profusion of resources
has been begotten by Nature, and what abundant sup-
plies for construction have been prepared by her, they
nourished these with cultivation and increased them by
means of skill and enhanced the elegance of their life
with aesthetic delights. Therefore, 1 shall tell as best I
can about those things which are suitable for use in
construction, what their qualities are and what proper-
ties they possess.

8. Now if there are those who wish to question the
order of this book in the belief that all this information
should have been put first, this is how I will render my
account so that they will not think that I have wan-
dered from the point. When I set out to write about the
whole body of architecture, I thought that in the first
volume I would explain with what knowledge and skill
that art is equipped, define its aspects in technical
terms, and tell of what matters it has come into being.
Thus, in the appropriate place, I explained what is

desirable in an architect. Accordingly, in the first book I
discussed the duties of the profession, and in this one I
will treat the natural materials that are of use. This book
will not declare where architecture originated, but only
where the origins of construction had their beginning,
and by what principles they were nurtured and how
they progressed step by step to this state of refinement.
9. And so, this is what the plan of the present volume
will be, in its proper place and order.

Now I will return to the subject at hand, and account
for the supplies suitable for completing buildings, how
they seem to be produced by nature and by what mixture
of elements their composition is tempered, so that these
will be easily seen by the reader rather than obscure.*
None of the types of matter, nor bodies, nor objects can
come into being without the coming together first of ele-
ments, nor will natural phenomena submit to valid expla-
nation according to the teachings of the natural philoso-
phers unless the causes inherent to these things, how and
why they are as they are, are demonstrated by subtle
reasoning.

C H A P T E R 2 : F I R S T P R I N C I P L E S

( F I G U R E 3 0 ) *

1. Thales was first to think that water was the origin
of all things. Heraclitus, the Ephesian, who was called
‘The Obscure” by the Greeks for the obscurity of his
writings, [thought] that the first element was fire. Dem-
ocritus and Epicurus, who followed him, proposed
atoms, what our people call “inseparable bodies,” and
some call “indivisibles.” The teachings of the Pythago-
reans added earth and air to fire and water. Thus Dem-
ocritus, to the extent that he did not name separate
things as such, but rather created the hypothesis of
indivisible bodies, seems to have meant that when sepa-
rated from one another, they are undamaged and inca-
pable of destruction – nor can they be cut into sections,
but instead retain in themselves an infinite solidity for
all time.

2. Therefore, because all things seem to come
together and to be born from the conjunction of these
bodies, and are distributed into infinite types of natural
objects, 1 thought that I should expound on their vari-
eties and the criteria for their use, as well as what quali-
ties they have in building, so that when this information
is known, those who are planning to build will avoid
mistakes and assemble supplies suitable for buildings.

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• 36 • BOOK 2. BUILDING MATERIALS

CHAPTER 3: MUD-BRICK MASONRY
(FIGURE 31)*

1. First, therefore, I shall discuss mud bricks, and
from what type of earth they should be created. For
they should not be made from sandy or pebbly clay, nor
from loose sand, because if they are made from these
types of earth they will be heavy at first, and then, as
rain spatters against the walls, they break down and dis-
solve, and the straw mixed in them will not hold
together because of their unevenness. They should be
made from whitish clay or red earth or even coarse
sand. For these types of earth, on account of their light-
ness, have durability without weighing the building
down, and they are easily piled together.

1. The bricks should be made in springtime or
autumn, so that they dry at a uniform rate.* For those
prepared in midsummer are defective because when the
sun has baked the outermost skin harshly and prema-
turely, it makes it so that the brick looks dry when the
interior has not yet dried. Then, when it later contracts
in drying, it will shatter what has already dried. Thus
these bricks are rendered cracked and weak. They will
also be most serviceable if they were made two years
earlier, as they cannot dry thoroughly before that time.
If they are laid while new and not entirely dry, then,
when the plaster has been laid and remains there solidi-
fied, the mud bricks themselves, as they subside [in dry-
ing], cannot maintain the same level as the plaster, and
as they contract they no longer bond with it, but
instead pull apart at the join. Therefore the plaster, split
away from the masonry of the building, can no longer
stand by itself because of its flimsiness, but shatters, and
the walls, having settled haphazardly, are themselves
flawed. For this reason the people of Utica would use a
mud brick in the construction of walls only if it were
fully dry and made five years earlier, and approved as
such by the judgment of a magistrate.

3. Now there are three types of mud bricks. One,
which is called “Lydian” in Greek, is the one which we
use, one and one-half feet long and one foot wide. The
Greeks construct their buildings with the other two
types. Of these one is called pmtadoron, the other tetra-
doron. For the Greeks call a palm a ddron, because in Greek
the giving of gifts is called ddron, and that is always done
by the palm of the hand. Thus whatever is five palms
long in every direction is a pmtadoron, and what is four
palms long is a tetradoron, and public works are con-
structed with pmtadora, private works with Mradora.

4. Along with these bricks half-bricks are made, which
are laid like this: rows of bricks should be laid on one
side, and rows of half-bricks laid on the other. Therefore
when they are laid on the level on each side, the walls
will be tied together with alternating surfaces and the
half-bricks, placed over the joins, lend a durability and an
appearance on each side that is not unattractive.

There is a city called Maxilua in Further Spain,
another called Callet, and in Asia one called Pitane,
where bricks, once they have been made and dried, float
when they are cast into water. Now these seem to be able
to float because the earth from which they are made con-
tains pumice. And because it is so light, once solidified
by air it will not admit or absorb moisture. Thus, because
they are of a light and porous nature, yet do not allow
the power of moisture to penetrate into their body, what-
ever their weight, inevitably they are borne up in water
just as pumice will be. And thus they are extremely use-
ful, as they are neither heavy when used in construction
nor, once made, will they dissolve in storms.

CHAPTER 4: SAND FOR C O N C R E T E
MASONRY*

1. In concrete structures one must first inquire into
the sand, so that it will be suitable for mixing the mor-
tar and not have any earth mixed in with it. These are
the types of excavated sand: black, white, light red, and
dark red. Of these the type that crackles when a few
grains are rubbed together in the hand will be the best,
for earthy sand will not be rough enough. Likewise, if it
is thrown onto a white cloth and then shaken off, if it
neither dirties the cloth nor leaves behind a residue of
earth, it will be suitable.

1. If there are no sand beds where it may be dug out,
then it will have to be sifted from riverbeds or gravel
deposits, or, of course, extracted from the seashore. But
this type of sand has these faults in construction: it dries
with difficulty, nor will the wall support uninterrupted
loading unless it is relieved at intervals, nor will it take
ceilings. This is even more so of sea sand because the
walls, when plaster is applied to them, give off salt and
dissolve the surface.

3. Excavated sands, on the other hand, dry quickly in
construction, and the plastering stays in place,- they will
also bear ceilings, but only those sands that are from
newly discovered sand deposits. When sand beds lie

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CHAPTER 6. POZZOLANA FOR CONCRETE MASONRY • 37 •

exposed for any stretch of time after they have been
worked, subjected to sun and moon and frost, they break
down and become earthy. And thus when such sands are
mixed into the mortar, they cannot hold the rubble
together. Instead, the rubble comes loose, and the weight
of the masonry, which the walls can no longer sustain,
collapses.

But even though newly excavated sands have so
many virtues in construction, they are not useful for
plaster precisely because in mixing with lime, because
of its own density, and with straw, it cannot dry without
cracks,- it is too intense. Although its fine grain makes it
useless for construction, as in opus signimm, river sand,
when flattened down by the action of a plaster float,
acquires firmness for plasterwork.

CHAPTER 5: LIME FOR C O N C R E T E
MASONRY»

1. Now that everything has been clarified about sup-
plies of sand, then we must be careful about our lime,
and whether it has been cooked down from limestone or
si’Iex (hard limestone). And that which is made from
denser and harder stone will be useful in construction,
and that made from porous stone, for plaster. When it
has been slaked, then the materials should be mixed so
that if we are using excavated sand, three parts of sand
and one of lime should be poured together. If, on the
other hand, it is river or sea sand, two parts of sand
should be thrown in with one of lime. In this way the
rate of mixture will be properly calibrated. Furthermore,
if one is using river or sea sand, then potsherds, pounded
and sifted, and added to the mixture as a third part, will
make the composition of the mortar better to use.

2. When lime absorbs water and sand it reinforces
the masonry. Evidently this is the reason: because
stones, too, are composed of the four elements. Those
which have more air are soft, those with more water are
dense with moisture, those with more earth are hard,
those with more fire are more friable. Because of this, if
we take this stone before it has been cooked, pound it
fine and mix it with sand in masonry, it will neither
solidify nor bond. If, on the other hand, we throw it
into the kiln, then, caught up in the flame’s intensity, it
will shed its original property of hardness, and with its
strength burned away and sucked dry, it will be left
with wide-open pores and voids. Therefore, with its air

and water burned away and carried off, it is left with a
residue of latent heat. When the stone is then plunged
in water, before the water absorbs the power of its heat,
whatever liquid penetrates into the pores of the stone
boils up, and thus by the time it has cooled it rejects
the heat given off by lime. 3. Therefore, whatever the
weight of stones when they are cast into the furnace,
they cannot have retained it by the time they are
removed,- when they are weighed, although their size
remains the same, they will be found to have lost a third
part of their weight because of the moisture that has
been cooked out of them. And thus, because their pores
and spaces lie so wide open, they absorb the mixture of
sand into themselves and hold together,- as they dry,
they join together with the rubble and produce the
solidity of the masonry.

CHAPTER 6: P O Z Z O L A N A FOR
C O N C R E T E MASONRY*

1. There is also a type of powder that brings about
marvelous things naturally. It occurs in the region of
Baiae and in the countryside that belongs to the towns
around Mount Vesuvius. Mixed with lime and rubble, it
lends strength to all the other sorts of construction, but
in addition, when moles [employing this powder] are
built into the sea, they solidify underwater. Evidently
this is why it happens: under these mountains are boil-
ing earths and plentiful springs. These would not exist
unless deep beneath there were huge fires, blazing with
sulphur or alum or pitch. Therefore these interior fires
and the vapor of their flames seep through veins in the
ground and make this earth light, and the tufa created
there has risen up without any component of moisture.
Hence, when these three ingredients [lime, fired rubble,
and pozzolana], forged in similar fashion by fire’s inten-
sity, meet in a single mixture, when this mixture is put
into contact with water the ingredients cling together
as one and, stiffened by water, quickly solidify. Neither
waves nor the force of water can dissolve them.

2. This, too, may serve to indicate that there are
deep fires in these localities: there are places in the hills
of Cumae and Baiae which have been dug out as sweat-
ing chambers. In these, boiling vapor, created deep
below, pierces the ground by the intensity of its fire. It
rises up in these places where it has seeped through to
the surface, creating outstandingly serviceable sweating

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38 • BOOK 2. BUILDING MATERIALS

chambers. Antiquity records that fires cropped up in
great abundance under Mount Vesuvius and that flames
vomited forth from thence into the surrounding country-
side. Thus that sponge or pumice called “Pompeian”
seems to have been reduced to its present type of con-
sistency by the firing of some other type of stone.

3. The type of pumice extracted from this place does
not occur everywhere,- only around Aetna and in those
hills of Mysia which the Greeks call “scorched” (kata-
kekaumeni) and anywhere else where the locality has
these particular properties. If in such places there are
boiling springs and hot vapors exuding wherever one
digs, and these very places are recorded by the ancients
as having had flames coursing through the countryside,
it seems certain that the intensity of fire will have
deprived the tufa and the ground in that place of its
moisture, just as moisture is driven from lime in a kiln.

4. As a result, [in building with pozzolana underwater],
unlike and unequal entities that have been forcibly sepa-
rated are brought together all at once. Then the moisture-
starved heat latent in these types of ingredients, when
satiated by water, boils together and makes them com-
bine. Quickly, they take on the qualities of a single solid
mass.

Now this will leave open the question why, if hot-
water springs occur just as frequently in Etruria, there is
not some similar powder occurring there, through the
use of which underwater masonry might consolidate in
the same manner. I thought 1 had better anticipate the
readers question and explain how this happens. 5. The
same types of earth do not occur in every place or every
region, nor the same types of stone. Some terrains are
mostly soil, others are sandy, and some consist of gravel.
In other places the ground will be made of coarse-
grained sand, and it is absolutely the case that earth has
different qualities of unlike and unequal type that vary
with each region. Especially, one can see that where the
Apennine range encloses the regions of Italy and Etruria
there is no lack of sand deposits in almost every locality.
Across the Apennines, however, in that part which faces
the Adriatic Sea, not one can be found, nor can I name a
single one across the sea in all Achaea or Asia. Therefore
the same opportunities cannot possibly combine in
every place where there are plentiful hot springs. All
things occur as Nature has decided, not determined for
human pleasure1 but scattered as if at random.

6. Therefore, in those places where the mountains are
not earthy but are made instead of soft matter, the force
of fire exiting through the veins of that matter parches
it, for fire burns off whatever is soft and tender, leaving
behind whatever is harsh. And thus, just as in Campania
scorched earth …

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