Roman Relief Sculpture (c.55 BCE onwards)
On the Ara Pacis Augustae, founded in 13 BCE and completed and dedicated in 9 BCE, were errected the earliest western reliefs that can be strictly described as documentary, that is, depicting a contemporary event in which specific, identifiable individuals are portrayed as taking part. This altar, which stood in the Campus Martius on the western side of the Via Lata, consisted of a table of sacrifice within a precinct, the walls of which were pierced by entrances on the east and west. The outer sides of these walls are carved with two superimposed zones of relief work and all the sculptured portions of the monument are of Luna marble. In the upper zone on the south side is shown the procession of Augustus and members of his family, with f1amens and lictors, to the site of the altar on the day of its foundation, 4 July 13 BCE. Here we can recognise Augustus himself, the consuls of the year, Tiberius and Varus, Agrippa and one of his little sons, possibly Livia, the emperor's wife, Julia, his daughter, his sister Octavia, his two nieces, the Antonias, with their husbands and children, and Iullus Antonius, who was praetor urbanus in that year. On the corresponding north side is the parallel, converging procession of members of the Roman priestly colleges, magistrates, senators, and representatives of the Roman people with their children.
This large-scale procession is continued in miniature on the inner altar proper, where friezes show figures of Vestal Virgins, priests, sacrificial victims with their attendants, and parts of other figures. Both of the large processional scenes are typically Roman, slow, stately, and purposeful, yet with their casual and homely touches - a young couple chatting, officials with their attention wandering, one child obviously frightened, another child tired of walking and asking to be picked up. But the treatment of the main figures, with their rhythmic draperies and idealised hair and features, is thoroughly classical and there can be little doubt that the sculptors of the Ara were Greeks. Of the four scenes that adorned the outside of the east and west walls two survive - Tellus or Italia, seated amid children, animals, and plants and flanked by the spirits of ocean and the inland waters, and Aeneas offering the white sow as a sacrifice to the Penates (of the two other scenes, the Wolf and Twins and Dea Roma, only fragments remain); and these, while Roman in content, are conceived and executed in the full Hellenistic pictorial style. Moreover, the lovely floral composition, alive with tiny beasts, birds, and insects, that occupies the lower zone on the outside of all four walls and the great naturalistic swags of fruit, leaves, corn, ears, etc. that decorate the upper zone on the inner side of the walls can be closely paralleled in carvings from second century BCE Pergamon and in some first-century BCE work in Attica.
Note: for more information about the art and artists of Classical Antiquity, please see: Greek Sculpture and Greek Art. For historical influences, see: Egyptian Sculpture and Egyptian Art. For a list of the best statues, statuettes and reliefs produced during this period, see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.
Just as the procession on the precinct walls and altar proper perpetuates the actual ceremony of consecration, so the rest of the reliefs are likely to allude to the same occasion. The reliefs on the east and west walls could represent painted panel pictures fixed to the provisional wooden structure that the altar was destined to replace. The floral zone could be reckoned to be a translation into marble of a ceremonial carpet or hanging used at the altar's site on the foundation day. As for the swags - we know that it was customary in Rome to deck with fillets and garlands a site set apart for a new religious building; and although the marble versions as we have them combine in one luxuriant medley the flowers and fruits of all four seasons to symbolize the blessings of Augustan peace and plenty, we can reasonably assume that they take the place of the real garlands that were slung between the posts of the temporary precinct walls on 4 July 13 BCE.
The reliefs of the Ara Pacis offer a superb example of the interweaving of the actual present with the legendary past, of concrete fact with symbol and allegory, of classical dignity and poise in the human figures with an uninhibited delight in all the details of Nature in the decorative friezes. In their own kind they remained unsurpassed throughout the history of Roman sculpture.
More Articles About Sculpture, Painting and Architecture of Ancient Rome
From the Julio-Claudian period there has come down to us no public monument whose whole scheme of sculptural decoration is completely known to us, as in the case of the Ara Pacis. One of the best-preserved reliefs of this time is a long frieze ornamenting one side of what would appear to have been a large base or altar, the reliefs on its other sides being wholly lost, apart from tiny fragments indicating that they once existed. It was found in Rome beneath the Papal Chancellery and shows a procession of city magistrates (vicomagistri) accompanied by ministers (camilli) holding statuettes of the imperial Genius and Lares, sacrificial victims with attendants, musicians, and other male figures. The men and animals are ranged side by side along the field with little overlapping. In parts of the frieze there is a second row of figures carved in low relief on the background and of these the chief stylistic interest lies in the fact that their heads are slightly raised above those of the figures in the foreground, as though the spectator were viewing the procession from a somewhat elevated point of vantage. This device of vertical perspective, which we shall meet with again many times in Roman historical sculpture, has often been hailed as essentially a feature of popular Italian folk, art, which wormed its way into works of public and official sculpture. But normally it is the lower types of art that borrow from the higher, not vice versa; the convention occasionally appears in official Hellenistic sculpture and was probably to be found in monumental Hellenistic paintings, to judge from their apparent reflections in western funerary reliefs of Greek content and in Roman historical scenes of a strongly pictorial character, such as the reliefs with battles of Romans and Gauls on the Tiberian Arch at Orange; and when we find it occurring, as here, on an elegant, refined, not to say academic, piece of carving and on works of court inspiration such as the reliefs on Trajan's Column, it is hard to believe in its Volkskunst origin. Its increasing vogue and development are to be more reasonably explained by the general Roman passion for factual detail, which naturally expressed itself in attempting to display all the participants in an action, including those in the second plane, as fully as possible. Again, the device was at times obviously demanded by aesthetic considerations, when in architectural reliefs such as the Orange panels and the spiral bands on Trajan's Column, the whole effect depended on filling the entire field with sculpture. There we sometimes find the complete figures of the persons in the second plane tiered above those in the foreground.
The other surviving reliefs which can be dated to the Julio-Claudian epoch need not detain us long. A series of parts of processional and sacrificial scenes now built into the Villa Medici on the Pincian Hill, and some fragments with architectural and decorative motifs found on the Via Lata and now in the New Capitoline Museum, may have belonged to the Ara Pietatis begun by Tiberius in AD 22, but completed under Claudius. There is a group of figures, including those of Divus Augustus and Venus, and part of a procession of sacrificial beasts, at Ravenna, also possibly Claudian. Most of these pieces strike us as cold, conventional, and unadventurous. If Nero's ambitious schemes for new imperial residences (e.g. the Golden House) and for replanning Rome after the fire of 64 left him time for sponsoring buildings with historical reliefs, none have come down to us.
The next significant works of this kind date from the reign of the third Flavian emperor, Domitian.
of the Domitian Era
There was, in fact, another, classicising Flavian style, which is also to be found in the figure frieze, alluding to Minerva and her Roman cult, on the precinct walls of the forum planned and begun by Domitian, but dedicated under Nerva. And the same style appears again in the Louvre relief of an imperial suove-taurilia sacrifice, dated by some as Julio-Claudian, but more probably depicting Domitian (the modern face takes the place of one that was smashed deliberately in ancient times), sacrificing at the twin altars of Divus Vespasianus and Divus Titus. (See also bronze sculpture and marble or stone sculpture).
Divine figures, gods and personifications, are found extremely rarely. Typical, routine happenings in army life - imperial addresses to the troops (adlocutiones), sacrifices in the field, the fortification of strong-points, marches, battles of all kinds - do, indeed, recur; and these could have taken place at any time and in any order. But there are also shown certain particular events and places in the Dacian campaigns that are outstanding and unique - the initial crossing of the Danube by the Roman army, the emperor's voyage up the Danube, the submission of the Dacians at the end of the first war, Trajan's embarkation at Ancona for the second war, the great sacrifice by the Danube bridge, the storming of the Dacian capital, the death of the Dacian king Decabalus; and these things must have happened, for the most part, in the particular order in which they are recorded on the Column. We have, then, in the reliefs a sequence of events which is generally, but not, as it were, photographically true to history, not a literally exact chronological and topographical account of the campaigns, but a faithful outline of the story combined with a most minute and circumstantial description of the sort of problems that the Roman troops had to face in Dacia. The accuracy of the rendering on the Column of Roman military details and of Dacian physiognomy, arms, dress, fortifications, etc. can be established from other archaeological material; and there can be little doubt that behind these reliefs lie sketches made at the 'front' by eyewitnesses, namely army draftsmen who accompanied the troops to war. It is likely that such sketches would have been originally made for the imperial archives, without the Column in view. But when it was decided that the Dacian wars should be depicted in relief on its shaft, a master artist, commissioned to prepare measured drawings or cartoons for the sculptors, would have made a selection from the army draftsmen's work, elaborated their sketches, and fused them together within a single framework, using vertical perspective so as to fill each band from top to bottom with an 'all,over', tapestry-like design and to display the maximum amount of detail. A striking instance of this urge to omit nothing and to present everything in its greatest extent is the scene of a legionary wading a river and carrying his shield, piled with his equipment, on his head. Here vertical perspective for the river, which is shown spread out as on a map, is illogically combined with the horizontal viewpoint for the man, who is seen from behind. This combination of viewpoints must have been a deliberate part of the design, not just due to naivety on the pact of the carver, whose modelling of the soldier's back and arms reveals him as a very skilful artist. Similarly, the illogical disproportion in scale, throughout the reliefs, between the human figures and the architectural and landscape accessories was due, not to childishness, but to the necessity of making the human actors, whose activities were, after all, of primary importance, stand out and be distinguishable from a distance. (See also: Roman Architecture: c.400 BCE - 400 CE)
If it be urged that we have no direct evidence for the existence of army artists' sketches, the same applies to Trajanic illustrated scrolls relating the history of the Dacian wars, which are some, times thought to have been the models of the Column frieze. And on what but war-time drawings could such scroll illustrations themselves have been based?
Who designed the cartoons for the relief
bands has not been recorded. We know that Trajan's Syrian-Greek architect,
Apollodotus of Damascus, was responsible for the whole complex of forum,
basilica, and Greek and Latin libraries, of which the Column was the central
and dominating feature; and if he did not draw the cartoons himself, he
must have supervised and approved them. But whoever he was, this master
draftsman is agreed to have produced the classic example of the developed
continuous narrative style in Roman sculpture, converting what had probably
been isolated pictures into a single, unified, running frieze of closely
interlocking scenes - a space-time continuum. Here the figure of the hero,
Trajan himself, constantly recurs, seen, as in a film, passing rapidly
from place to place against an unfolding landscape and architectural background.
From the Trajan Era
For Roman buildings in Ancient Egypt, such
as Trajan's Pavilion (c.164 CE), see: Egyptian
The well-known Arch of Trajan at Beneventum
in southern Italy bears the date 114 CE and was certainly decreed by the
Senate, possibly already built and dedicated as a structure, before the
emperor's death. Its fourteen large, rectangular reliefs, one on either
side of its single passageway and six on either face (artics and pylons),
present an epitome of Trajan's achievements at home and abroad - his recruiting
of troops, his founding of colonies in Italy and in the provinces, his
establishment of new ports in Italy, his social policy, his pacification
of the Danube lands (in the person of their patron deities), his friendly
relations with Spanish and Germanic tribesmen, and his eastern conquests.
One of the most appealing of these sculptured pictures is the passageway
relief that depicts the alimenta, the emperor's charitable foundation
for the poor children of Italy, who appear in person to receive his bounty,
along with their fathers and personifications of their native cities.
All these reliefs form isolated, self-contained pictures, apart from the
two in the lower tiers of the pylons on the side of the Arch that faces
Beneventum, which constitute the single scene of Trajan's solemn welcome
by the citizens of Rome in the Roman Forum, and those on the attic on
the same side, again forming a single scene in which Trajan is greeted
on the Capitol by the Triad and other diviuities and receives from Jupiter
the latter's thunderbolt, the symbol of his vocation to govern the world
as the god's vice-regent. In this picture Hadrian is shown in imperial
dress next to the emperor, while Italia lays a hand upon his shoulder
as though to point him out as Trajan's heir. On the other side of the
Arch, in the relief that records Trajan's eastern conquests, Hadrian is
again indicated by the hand of an official laid upon his shoulder, while
another official rests his hand on the emperor's arm, as though to restrain
him from that annexation to the Empire of Meso
It would seem to be certain that the carving of the Arch was not completed until after Hadrian's accession. The treatment of these sculptures is not only wholly different from that of the Column reliefs, but also carries much further the stylistic divergencies between those reliefs and the other frieze. The compositions are crowded, but the main monumental figures stand out boldly in even higher relief against the massed company behind them. Background architectural and landscape elements are either absent or reduced to a minimum; and the use of vertical perspective is very limited. Gods, personifications, and human beings mingle freely. Some of the heads are badly weathered; but there still remain several striking likenesses of Trajan, and in the emperor's entourage are persons with arresting, portrait, like features.
For articles about the art of ancient Greece see:
of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
NEXT: Relief Sculpture from Ancient Rome (Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Severan Period).
For the origins and development
of 3-D art, see: Sculpture History.
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