Roman Relief Sculpture (117-324 CE)
In Roman art, the contrast between the principate of Hadrian, scholar, philhellene, pacifier, and traveller, and that of his martial and more practical minded predecessor, can be gauged from the absence under the former of a series of great commemorative monuments carved with scenes of the reigning emperor's victories and other spectacular achievements. (See also: Roman Architecture.) The Hadrianic sculptures that approximate most closely to Trajanic work (such as that on Trajan's Column) and probably date from the early years of the new regime are two modest reliefs cut on what would appear to have been two sections of a balustrade round a statue of Marsyas in the Roman Forum, since each scene terminates at one end in a figure of him on a pedestal and the splendidly rendered sacrificial beasts on the back of each slab could refer to a ceremonial restoration and rededication of that statue. One scene relates to Hadrian's continuation and extension of Trajan's alimentary foundation: on the left the emperor with his suite stands on the rostra before the temple of the deified Julius Caesar and addresses representatives of the grateful people, while further to the right is a statuary group on a base - Trajan seated and Italia with her children standing before him to thank him for his charity. The second scene records Hadrian's magnanimous cancelling, by the public burning of the debt-registers, of debts owed to the State. In the background of each scene is a reproduction in low relief of buildings in the Forum in their precise topographical order; and from these can be reasonably inferred (assuming that the onlooker was meant to find in the sculptures representations of the buildings that he actually saw above and beyond the slabs) the exact position and orientation of the balustrades, the site of the Marsyas statue being known from literary sources. The figures are less crowded than in Trajanic work; but the architectural details fill the whole background and the heads and shoulders of the figures in the second plane are raised above those in the foreground.
A still wider spacing of the figures characterises a fragmentary relief sculpture, again of the cancelling of public debts, now in Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, on which the actors wear the short Hadrianic beard; and a wholly classicising style marks three large, rectangular reliefs in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitol which clearly belonged to a sculptured arch of Hadrian's time. For although the imperial heads on these reliefs are mostly restorations, the hair and beard styles of the other figures are of that period. One scene shows the goddess Roma handing a globe to the emperor on his arrival in the capital soon mer his accession. Another depicts a dead empress - Plotina or Sabina - carried heavenwards on the back of the winged torch-bearing female figure of Aeternitas, while Hadrian sits watching and a male figure, personifying the Campus Martius, reclines beside the funeral pyre. In the third picture, which seems to be the pendant of the second, the emperor, mounted on a high platform, delivers an oration, probably in honour of the same dead empress, before the Genius of the Roman People and other listeners. These cold, correct, academic set-pieces, with their tracts of empty background and their calm, static actors, excite in us much less interest than do the eight roundels, re-used on the Arch of Constantine, which are sculptured with picturesque and graceful scenes of hunting, instinct with vivid movement, and of sacrifices on the hunting field. All the imperial heads were, as we have seen, re-cut in the early fourth century. But there can be no doubt that the original heads were those of Hadrian, whose passion for the chase was proverbial, whose youthful favourite, Antinous, can be recognised in several of the scenes, and among whose bronze medallion types are designs that are very close to some of the sculptured hunting episodes. For what Hadrianic monument these roundels were carved we do not know. We can only describe them as historical in so far as the emperor and some of the members of his suite whom they portrayed were public figures.
It is, however, very probable that we should ascribe to the last year of Hadrian the only series of State reliefs dating from before the late antique period that have so far come to light in an east-Mediterranean land. These reliefs, found at Ephesus and now in Vienna, have often been assigned to the joint reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. But one slab shows a group of four imperial persons, two of whom can be readily identified as Hadrian and Antoninus Pius standing side by side with a sceptre between them in a manner that can only be explained as an allusion to the former's adoption of the latter as his colleague, heir, and successor in February 138 CE. The other two figures in the group, a youth and small boy, must be Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, adopted as his sons by Pius. Pius had been popular in Asia when he served there as proconsul; and the whole monument could have been erected in Ephesus as a compliment to the dynasty of which he was now a member. A striking scene presents an emperor, whose head is unfortunately lost, wearing military dress and riding, above the reclining form of Tellus, in the Sun God's chariot, with Victory holding the horses' reins and the Sun himself leading them. This could be Pius' adoptive grandfather, the deified Trajan, imagined as the new Sol and as the pendant of Luna, who, on another slab, rides above the recumbent figure of Thalassa in a chariot drawn by stags, while Hesperus acts as charioteer and Nox leads the animals. The scenes depicting battles, sacrifices, groups of personifications of localities etc., could then allude to those oriental victories of Trajan that shed lustre on his immediate successors, although they themselves did not emulate his martial programme. If the battles on this monument represented Lucius Verus' Parthian campaigns of 162-4 CE, it would be difficult to see what warlike, divinised emperor would be relevant to such a context and why the adoption in 138 CE of Pius, in which the child Verus played but a minor part, should feature so prominently. The style and content of the Sol and Luna scenes, with their figures plastically modelled in very high relief, their paratactic arrangement of the actors, and preponderance of divine over human personages, are in the full Hellenistic sculptural tradition. But the presumably east-Greek carvers of these and of the other slabs were equally at home in the bold foreshortening of figures emerging from the background, in the rendering of depth in several receding planes, and in the use of vertical perspective in crowded groupings which we have so often found in western relief work. Noteworthy, too, in this east-Greek setting are the almost completely frontal poses of the family quartet. Of Antoninus Pius' peaceful activities no records in relief have survived. But his predecessor's paramount interest in the provinces and his lengthy tours abroad were commemorated on the temple of Divus Hadrianus, dedicated in the Campus Martius in 145 CE by a series of fine, statuesque, female figures carved in high relief and personifying countries and peoples of the Roman world, of which, however, only a few can be identified with any certainty. After Pius' death a column was set up, also in the Campus Martius, to commemorate his consecration. The shaft, which was plain, to judge by the coin types that represent it, has vanished; but its large base, now in the Vatican, has an inscription on one side and its three other sides sculptured. The relief on the principal face, composed of large, classicised figures, is as cold, correct, and academic as the three Hadrianic panels now in the Conservatori and resembles one of them very closely in composition and content. Pius and his empress, Faustina I, are carried heavenwards, attended by eagles, on the back of a winged male Genius who holds a celestial globe, while their flight is watched by Roma seated on the right and rhe personification of the Campus Martius reclining on the left. Since the whole monument was court-inspired, we can hardly dismiss as 'popular' and consciously anti-classical the very differently treated scene of diminutive figures that appears on each of the lateral faces of the base. This is a decursio or parade of foot-soldiers and horsemen, presumably one of the spectacles held at the emperor's funeral, in which cavalry were made to ride round a central, relatively static group of infantry. But in order not to obscure any of the participants and to fill the field in a manner satisfying to the eye, the horsemen have been turned by the sculptor into a kind of wreath encircling the foot-soldiers, those in front of the latter (from the onlooker's standpoint) being placed below them and those behind them, above them. Given the limited space at the artist's disposal, the figures, particularly those of the infantry, could not be other than short and stocky. But this very dumpiness serves to produce a sense of sturdy strength; and the carving of the individual men and horses is careful and naturalistic. The ledges, on which the upper and central figures rest, hold them down to earth and dispel any uncomfortable suggestion that they are floating in mid-air.
The extreme type of vertical or bird's-eye perspective found in these scenes on Pius' column-base is decoratively very effective and in view of the topic set and the field to be adorned its use was unavoidable. In the eleven large, rectangular panels that have come down to us from some triumphal monument, or monuments, of Marcus Aurelius' reign - three in the Conservatori and eight re-used on the attic of the Arch of Constantine - the subjects are such that the scenes could all be drawn in logical, horizontal perspective, as seen from the ordinary spectator's level. Only in one very crowded scene of sacrifice are the heads in the second and third planes raised above those in the foreground. Human activity is, for the most part, confined to the lower half of the picture, and buildings, trees, spears, banners, and standards occupy the upper portion of the field, sometimes crowding it, at other times leaving empty tracts of background, but always providing a sufficient filling. In one scene, that of an imperial largesse, the emperor and his suite, being raised on a very high platform, are in possession of the upper portion of the panel, while the recipients, men, women, and children, stand at ground level in the lower portion. Generally such scenes of largesse are viewed by the spectator from the side. But here the imperial group directly faces him and the citizens either move towards him or turn their backs on him; and in this case logic in perspective is combined with the full presentation of almost every actor. Despite the theatrical gestures and intense glances that appear in these reliefs here and there, our impression is that the monumental, generally well-proportioned figures are playing their parts with a stately, quiet dignity. The processions advance slowly; the crowds do not jostle unduly; the sacrifices are unhurried; the imperial speeches and audiences, whether to Roman troops, a suppliant barbarian chieftain, or a group of prisoners, are unimpassioned; and on the faces of the conquered there is little trace of anguish. The Antonine calm still prevails. Meanwhile, the richness of the background details and the lavish drilling of hair, beards, folds of drapery, arms, and armour lend a high degree of picturesqueness to the whole series.
of the Marcus-Aurelius Era
Trajan's Column was, of course, the model
for that of Marcus. Here, as there, the story begins with a crossing of
the Danube by the Roman troops, there are the same recurring episodes,
and scene succeeds scene continuously without a break. Vertical perspective
is no less freely used than on the earlier monument, the figures in the
second plane being often raised quite clear of those in the foreground:
rivers appear as on maps, while the boatloads of men crossing are seen
from the horizontal, human viewpoint. On the other hand, there are several
marked stylistic and technical divergencies between the two friezes. On
the Antonine or Marcus' Column, there is little interlocking of adjacent
scenes and we miss the Trajanic artist's skill in fusing together by subtle
transitions incidents of different content. The total effect is less that
of a moving film than of a series of juxtaposed still, pictures. Many
of the scenes tend to break up into two parallel, horizontal, superimposed
zones, so that the band loses its tapestry-like unity of design. Monotonous
rows of figures in virtually identical poses now confront us. The relief
is much higher than on Trajan's Column. Limbs, heads, and even bodies
are worked wholly or almost in the round, as if free standing statuettes
had been flattened at the back and applied to the wall of the shaft. The
result is brighter highlights and darker pools of shade. The artist of
Marcus' Column displays, on the whole, rather less interest in the landscape
and architectural background. But buildings, army tents, the straw huts
of the enemy and so on, are carefully delineated; and again the 'local
colour' and the circumstantial military details suggest that the sketches
of eyewitnesses were the basis of the frieze. As on the base of Pius'
Column the squatness of the figures serves to express the toughness and
dogged determination of the combatants.
of the Severan Period
There is no reason to suppose that in these scenes the designer was breaking deliberately with classical tradition. For the groups of soldiers and captives in the panels on the bases of the eight engaged columns are treated in a monumental, plastic manner; and the four flying Victories, each with a child personifying a Season below her feet, in the spandrels flanking the central passageway were obviously modelled on those of the spandrels of the Arch of Titus and of Trajan's Arch at Beneventum. Also plastic and monumental in their style are the figures in the Palazzo Sacchetri relief in Rome, which depicts Septimius, shown almost in profile, on a platform with his sons receiving a group of togate personages.
The growing interest in frontality which
we have already noted in Aurelian and Severan adlocutiones is illustrated
again on the two main panels of the little Arch that clings to the western
wall of the portico of the church of San Giorgio in Velabro, between the
Palatine and the Tiber. It is known as the Porta Argentariorum, since
its inscription states that it was dedicated to Septimius and his family
in 204 CE by the bankers (argentarii) in collaboration with the wholesale
cattle-dealers (negotiantes baarii). These two reliefs as we see them
now are incomplete, for after the murders of Caracalla's father-in-law
Plantianus in 205 CE, of his wife Plautilla in 211 CE, and of his brother
Ceta in 212 CE, the portraits of the victims were removed. One panel now
shows Caracalla by himself, sacrificing at a tripod and virtually full-face,
although his head is inclined slightly towards the spectator's left. In
the other panel Septimius and his empress are also sacrificing at a tripod.
Here Julia Domna is completely, Septimius very nearly, frontal and both
of them display no interest in one another or in the rite that they profess
to be performing, but gaze straight before them into the distance as though
to scan the faces, and accept the homage, of the onlookers. Noteworthy,
too, is the flat, two-dimensional technique in which the figures are rendered.
In another attic frieze, a scene of sacrifice
in Julia Domna's honour, we find the same monotonous row of tiered, frontal
onlookers in the background, while the figures in the foreground, if not
all rigidly full-face, are basically frontal, being turned only very slightly
towards the central act which they are supposed to be witnessing. In the
third more or less complete frieze, the so-called dextrarum iunctio, in
which Septimius, clasping the hand of Caracalla, presents him to Lepcis
(again symbolised by the Tyche, Hercules, and Bacchus in the background)
as his fellow Augustus, the posing of the figures is more varied and there
is a more naturalistic concentration of the actors on the ceremony. Characteristic
of all three friezes is the extensive use of drilling in the drapery and
the almost wholly two, dimensional carving of the figures in the second
of the Tetrarchic Period
Indeed, the artist who planned the Constantinian carving on the Roman Arch was definitely not anti-classical in taste. The two reliefs of Sol and Luna in their chariots in the roundels on the short sides are obviously modelled on the eight Hadrianic roundels and are, if technically inferior to the latter, vigorously drawn and skilfully adapted to their circular fields. In the lying Victories with Seasons at their feet in the spandrels of the central passage-way, in the Water Deities in those of the lateral passage-ways, and in the groups of Victories and captives on the column bases, he followed the long-established traditions of Roman and Italian sculptured Arches.
These more monumental figures are the least successful of all the Constantinian carvings on the Arch. Apart from the Seasons, which are as good as many on contemporary Seasons sarcophagi, those in the spandrels are ungainly and distorted, while those on the bases, in particular the Victories, are bodiless and two-dimensional, with drapery folds that fashion decorative linear patterns bur bear little or no relation to the forms beneath them. Here we must admit a falling,off from, not a rejection of, the classical ideal.
For the final stage in the story of frontality in Roman historical sculpture we pass to New Rome, to the reliefs on the base of the obelisk set up by Theodosius in 390 CE in the hippodrome in Constantinople. Here the emperor and his family, seated or standing in strictly frontal poses and accompanied by officials, soldiers, and monotonous rows of repetitive spectators in two superimposed tiers, watch performances in the hippodrome - chariot races, dancing displays, and the actual erection of the obelisk. The late fourth-century Columns of Theodosius and Arcadius, both of which were drawn before they were destroyed, bore on their shafts spiral relief bands obviously modelled on those of the Roman Columns. Of the Column of Arcadius with scenes from the Gothic wars we have an especially fine set of drawings made by a German artist in the action. Thus these reliefs carry on, to the eve of the Byzantine epoch, the documentary, narrative style of historical sculpture that the Ara Pacis Augustae had inaugurated.
Meanwhile the centralised composition, with the imperial group as the focal point of interest, was destined to play a long and significant role in the art of the Christian Church, with Christ and His heavenly court replacing the emperor and his entourage as the central, dominating theme.
For articles about the art of Ancient Greece see:
of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
BACK TO: Part I of Roman Sculpture.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART