Roman Art (c.500 BCE - 500 CE)
For several centuries Ancient Rome was the most powerful nation on earth, excelling all others at military organization and warfare, engineering, and architecture. Its unique cultural achievements include the invention of the dome and the groin vault, the development of concrete and a European-wide network of roads and bridges. Despite this, Roman sculptors and painters produced only a limited amount of outstanding original fine art, preferring instead to recycle designs from Greek art, which they revered as far superior to their own. Indeed, many types of art practised by the Romans - including, sculpture (bronze and marble statuary, sarcophagi), fine art painting (murals, portraiture, vase-painting), and decorative art (including mosaics, metalwork, jewellery, ivory carving) had already been fully mastered by Ancient Greek artists. Not surprisingly, therefore, while numerous Greek sculptors (like Phidias, Kresilas, Myron, Polykleitos, Callimachus, Skopas, Lysippos, Praxiteles, and Leochares, Phyromachos) and painters (like Apollodorus, Zeuxis of Heraclea, Agatharchos, Parrhasius, Apelles of Kos, Antiphilus, Euphranor of Corinth) were accorded great respect throughout the Hellenistic world, most Roman artists were regarded as no more than skilled tradesmen and have remained anonymous.
Of course it is wrong to say that Roman art was devoid of innovation: its urban architecture was ground-breaking, as was its landscape painting and portrait busts. Nor is it true that Roman artists produced no great masterpieces - witness the extraordinary relief sculpture on monuments like Ara Pacis Augustae and Trajan's Column. But on the whole, we can say that Roman art was predominantly derivative and, above all, utilitarian. It served a purpose, a higher good: the dissemination of Roman values along with a respect for Roman power. As it transpired, classical Roman art has been immensely influential on many subsequent cultures, through revivalist movements like Neoclassical architecture, which have shaped much European and American architecture, as exemplified by the US Capitol Building.
Marcus Aurelius' Column (193 CE)
Erected in the Piazza Colonna, Rome.
Depicts the "rain miracle of Quadi".
God rescues the Roman Legion from
destruction by barberians by
creating a terrible storm.
For details of colours and
pigments used by painters
in Ancient Rome, see:
Classical Colour Palette.
Although Rome was founded as far back as 750 BCE, it led a precarious existence for several centuries. Initially, it was ruled by Etruscan kings who commissioned a variety of Etruscan art (murals, sculptures and metalwork) for their tombs as well as their palaces, and to celebrate their military victories. After the founding of the Roman Republic in 500 BCE, Etruscan influence waned and, from 300 BCE, as the Romans started coming into contact with the flourishing Greek cities of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, they fell under the influence of Greek art - a process known as Hellenization. Soon many Greek works of art were being taken to Rome as booty, and many Greek artists followed to pursue their careers under Roman patronage.
However, the arts were still not a priority for Roman leaders who were more concerned about survival and military affairs. It wasn't until about 200 BCE after it won the first Punic War against Hannibal and the Carthaginians, that Rome felt secure enough to develop its culture. Even then, the absence of an independent cultural tradition of its own meant that most ancient art of Rome imitated Greek works. Rome was unique among the powers of the ancient world in developing only a limited artistic language of its own.
Roman architecture and engineering was never less than bold, but its painting and sculpture was based on Greek traditions and also on art forms developed in its vassal states like Egypt and Ancient Persia. To put it another way, despite their spectacular military triumphs, the Romans had an inferiority complex in the face of Greek artistic achievement. Their ultra-pragmatic response was to recycle Greek sculpture at every opportunity. Greek poses, reworked with Roman clothes and accessories, were pressed into service to reinforce Roman power. Heroic Greek statues were even supplied headless, to enable the buyer to fit his own portrait head.
The reason for Rome's cultural inferiority complex remains unclear. Some Classical scholars have pointed to the pragmatic Roman temperament; others, to the overriding Roman need for territorial security against the waves of marauding tribes from eastern and central Europe and the consequent low priority accorded to art and culture. To which we might add that - judging by the narrowness of Celtic art (c.500 BCE - 100 CE) - Roman artists weren't doing too badly. Moreover, we should note that cities in Ancient Rome were less provincial and far more powerful than Greek city-states, so that its art invariably played a more functional role - not least because Roman culture was actually a melange of different beliefs and customs, all of which had to be accomodated. Thus, for example, art quickly became something of a status symbol: something to enhance the buyer's home and social position. And since most Romans recognized the intrinsic value of Greek artistry, buyers wanted Greek-style works.
Like the Romans themselves, early Roman art (c.510 BCE to 27 BCE) tended to be realistic and direct. Portraits, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, were typically detailed and unidealized, although later during the age of Hellenistic-Roman art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE), the Romans became aware of the propaganda value of busts and statuary, and sought to convey political messages through poses and accessories. The same PR value was accorded to relief sculpture (see, for instance, the Column of Marcus Aurelius), and to history painting (see, Triumphal Paintings, below). Thus when commemorating a battle, for example, the artwork used would be executed in a realistic - almost "documentary" style. This realistic down-to-earth Roman style contrasts with that of Hellenistic artists who illustrated military achievements with mythological imagery. Paradoxically, one reason for the ultimate fall of Rome was because it became too attached to the propagandist value of its art, and squandered huge resources on grandiose building projects purely to impress the people. Construction of the Baths of Diocletian (298-306), for instance, monopolised the entire brick industry of Rome, for several years.
Rome's greatest contribution to the history of art is undoubtedly to be found in the field of architectural design. Roman architecture during the age of the Republic (knowledge of which derives largely from the 1st-century Roman architect Vitruvius) discovered the round temple and the curved arch but, after the turn of the Millennium, Roman architects and engineers developed techniques for urban building on a massive scale. The erection of monumental structures like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, would have been impossible without Rome's development of the arch and the dome, as well as its mastery of strong and low-cost materials like concrete and bricks.
The Romans didn't invent the arch - it was known but not much used in Greek architecture - but they were the first to master the use of multiple arches, or vaults. From this, they invented the Roman groin vault - two barrel vaults set at right-angles - which represented a revolutionary improvement on the old Greek post-and-lintel method, as it enabled architects to support far heavier loads and to span much wider openings. The Romans also made frequent use of the semicircular arch, typically without resorting to mortar: relying instead on the precision of their stonework.
Arches and vaults played a critical role in the erection of buildings like the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla, the Basilica of Maxentius and the Colosseum. The arch was also an essential component in the building of bridges, exemplified by the Pont du Gard and the bridge at Merida, and aqueducts, exemplified by the one at Segovia, and also the Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus in Rome itself.
A further architectural development was the dome (vaulted ceiling), which made possible the construction and roofing of large open areas inside buildings, like Hadrian's Pantheon, the Basilica of Constantine, as well as numerous other temples and basilicas, since far fewer columns were needed to support the weight of the domed roof. The use of domes went hand in hand with the extensive use of concrete - a combination sometimes referred to as the "Roman Architectural Revolution". But flagship buildings with domes were far from being the only architectural masterpieces built by Ancient Rome. Just as important was the five-storey apartment building known as an insula, which accomodated thousands of citizens.
It was during the age of Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE) and Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE) that Rome reached the zenith of its architectural glory, attained through numerous building programs of monuments, baths, aqueducts, palaces, temples and mausoleums. Many of the buildings from this era and later, served as models for architects of the Italian Renaissance, such as Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) designer of the iconic dome of the cathedral in Florence, and both Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), designers of St Peter's Basilica. The time of Constantine (306-337 CE) witnessed the last great building programs in the city of Rome, including the completion of the Baths of Diocletian and the erection of the Basilica of Maxentius and the Arch of Constantine.
Dating back to Etruscan times, and located in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, this was the main Roman chariot racing venue in Rome, Italy. Measuring roughly 2,000 feet in length (610 metres) and 400 feet in width (120 metres), it was rebuilt in the age of Julius Caesar to seat an estimated 150,000 spectators, and again during the reign of Constantine to seat about 250,000. It is now a park.
Built in the centre of Rome by Vespasian to appease the masses, this elliptical amphitheatre was named after a colossal statue of Nero that stood nearby. Built to seat some 50,000 spectators, its intricate design, along with its model system of tiered seating and spacious passageways, makes it one of the greatest works of Roman architecture. The Colosseum was one of the key sights on the Grand Tour of the 18th century.
The oldest surviving Roman triumphal arch, it was built after the young Emperor's death to celebrate his suppression of the Jewish uprising in Judea, in 70 CE. Standing on the Via Sacra, south-east of the Roman Forum, the Arch of Titus was the model for Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe in Paris (1806-36).
A huge bathing and leisure complex on the south side of the Oppian Hill, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, it continued to be used up until the early fifth century, or possibly later, until the destruction of the Roman aqueducts compelled its abandonment.
Built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple dedicated to the seven gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Hadrian in 126 CE, the Pantheon is a daring early instance of concrete construction. The interior space is based on a perfect sphere, and its coffered ceiling remains the largest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world. In the middle of its dome an oculus lets in a beam of light.
Capable of holding up to 16,000 people, the building was roofed by a series of groin vaults and included shops, two gymnasiums (palaestras) and two public libraries. The baths proper consisted of a central 185 x 80 feet cold room (frigidarium) a room of medium temperature (tepidarium) with two pools, and a 115-foot diameter hot room (caldarium), as well as two palaestras. The entire structure was built on a 20-foot high base containing storage areas and furnaces. The baths were supplied with water from the Marcian Aqueduct.
These baths (thermae) were probably the most grandiose of all Rome's public baths. Standing on high ground on the northeast part of the Viminal, the smallest of the Seven hills of Rome, the baths occupied an area well in excess of 1 million square feet and was supposedly capable of holding up to 3,000 people at one time. The complex used water supplied by the Aqua Marcia and Aqua Antoniniana aqueducts.
The largest building in the Roman Forum, it featured a full complement of arches and barrel vaults and a folded roof. It had a central nave overlooked by three groin vaults suspended 120 feet above the floor on four piers. There was a massive open space in the central nave, but unlike other basilicas it didn't need the usual complement of columns to support the ceiling, because the entire building was supported on arches. Moreover, its folded roof reduced the total weight of the structure thus minimizing the horizontal force on the outer arches.
Roman sculpture may be divided into four main categories: historical reliefs; portrait busts and statues; funerary reliefs, sarcophagi or tomb sculpture; and copies of ancient Greek works. Like architecture, a good deal of Roman sculpture was created to serve a purpose: namely, to impress the public - be they Roman citizens or 'barbarians' - and communicate the power and majesty of Rome. In its important works, at least, there was a constant expression of seriousness, with none of the Greek conceptualism or introspection. The mood, pose and facial features of the Roman statue of an Emperor, for instance, was typically solemn and unsmiling. As Rome grew more confident from the reign of Augustus (31 BCE - 14 CE), its leaders might appear in more magnanimous poses, but gravitas and an underlying sense of Roman greatness was never far from the surface. Another important characteristic of Rome's plastic art was its realism. The highly detailed reliefs on Trajan's Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, for instance, are perfect illustrations of this focus on accurate representation, and have been important sources of information for scholars on many aspects of the Roman Legion, its equipment and battle tactics.
Nonetheless, as we have seen, Roman sculptors borrowed heavily from the sculpture of Ancient Greece, and - aside from the sheer numbers of portrait busts, and the quality of its historical reliefs - Roman sculpture was dominated by High Classical Greek sculpture as well as by Hellenistic Greek sculpture. What's more, with the expansion of Rome's empire and the huge rise in demand for statuary, sculptors churned out endless copies of Greek statues.
Rome didn't invent relief sculpture - Stone Age man did. Nor was there any particular genius in the skill of its carvers and stone masons: both the reliefs of the Parthenon (447-422 BCE) and the frieze of the Pergamon Altar of Zeus (c.166-154 BCE) outshone anything created in Italy. What Rome did was to inject the genre with a new set of aesthetics, a new purpose: namely, to make history. After all, if an event or campaign is "carved in stone", it must be true, right? The Greeks adopted the more "cultured" approach of recording their history more obliquely, using scenes from mythology. The Romans were far more down to earth: they sculpted their history as it happened, warts and all.
The greatest relief sculpture of Ancient Rome, Trajan's Column is a 125-foot Doric-style monument, designed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus. It has a spiral frieze that winds 23 times around its shaft, commemorating the Dacian triumphs of Emperor Trajan (98-117 CE). Sculpted in the cool, balanced style of the 2nd century, its composition and extraordinarily meticulous detail makes it one of the finest reliefs in the history of sculpture. A full-size cast of Trajan's Column is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest.
Second only to Trajan's monument, this 100-foot Doric column in the Piazza Colonna also features a winding ribbon of marble sculpture carved in low relief, which illustrates the story of the Emperor's Danubian or Marcomannic wars, waged by him during the period 166-180 CE. It includes the controversial "rain miracle", in which a colossal thunderstorm saves the Roman army from death at the hands of the barbarian Quadi tribes. The sculptural style of the column differs significantly from that of Trajan's Column, as it introduces the more expressive style of the 3rd century, seen also in the triumphal arch of Septimius Severus (199-203 CE) by the foot of the Capitoline Hill. The heads of the Marcus Aurelius figures are larger than normal, to show off their facial expressions. A higher relief is used, permitting greater contrast between light and shadow. Overall, much more dramatic - a style which clearly reflected the uncertain state of the Roman Empire.
Other famous relief works of stone sculpture carved by Roman artists include: the processional marble frieze on the Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BCE) in the Campus Martius, and the architectural relief sculpture on the Arch of Titus (c.85-90 CE) and the Arch of Constantine (312-15 CE).
These works of marble and (occasionally) bronze sculpture were another important Roman contribution to the art of Antiquity. Effigies of Roman leaders had been displayed in public places for centuries, but with the onset of Empire in the late 1st-century BCE, marble portrait busts and statues of the Emperor - which were copied en masse and sent to all parts of the Roman world - served an important function in reminding people of Rome's reach. They also served an important unifying force. Roman administrators had them placed or erected in squares or public buildings throughout the empire, and affluent citizens bought them for their reception rooms and gardens to demonstrate loyalty. The traditional head-and-shoulders bust was probably borrowed from Etruscan art, since Greek busts were usually made without shoulders.
Roman statues and portrait busts are in many of the best art museums around the world, notably the Louvre (Paris), the Vatican Museums (Rome), the British Museum (London), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) the Getty Museum (Los Angeles).
Famous busts and statues of Roman leaders include:
- Statue of Augustus (Ruled 27-14 CE) (Livia's
Villa, Prima Porta)
Religious art was also a popular if less unique form of Roman sculpture. An important feature of a Roman temple was the statue of the deity to whom it was dedicated. Such statues were also erected in public parks and private gardens. Small devotional statuettes of varying quality were also popular for personal and family shrines. These smaller works, when commissioned for the wealthier upper classes, might involve ivory carving and chyselephantine works, wood-carving, and terracotta sculpture, sometimes glazed for colour.
As Rome turned from cremation to burial at the end of the 1st century CE, stone coffins, known as sarcophagi, were much in demand: the three most common types being Metropolitan Roman (made in Rome), Attic-style (made in Athens) and Asiatic (made in Dokimeion, Phrygia). All were carved and usually decorated with sculpture - in this case reliefs. The most expensive sarcophagi were carved from marble, though other stone was also used, as was wood and even lead. In addition to a range of different depictions of the deceased - such as Etruscan-style full-length sculptural portraits of the person reclining on a sofa - popular motifs used by sculptors included episodes from Roman (or Greek) mythology, as well as genre and hunting scenes, and garlands of fruit and leaves. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, sarcophagi became an important medium for Christian-Roman Art (313 onwards).
Although the wholesale replication of Greek statues indicated a hesitancy and lack of creativity on the part of Roman artists, the history of art could not be more grateful to them, for their efforts. Indeed, it is fair to say that one of the greatest contributions of Rome to the history of art, lies in its replication of original Greek statues, 99 percent of which have disappeared. Without Roman copies of the originals, Greek art would never have received the appreciation it deserves, and Renaissance art (and thus Western Art in general) might have taken a very different course.
The greatest innovation of Roman painters was the development of landscape painting, a genre in which the Greeks showed little interest. Also noteworthy was their development of a very crude form of linear perspective. In their effort to satisfy the huge demand for paintings throughout the empire, from officials, senior army officers, householders and the general public, Roman artists produced panel paintings (in encaustic and tempera), large and small-scale murals (in fresco), and mastered all the painting genres, including their own brand of "triumphal" history painting. Most surviving Roman paintings are from Pompeii and Herculanum, as the erruption of Vesuvius in 79 helped to preserve them. Most of them are decorative murals, featuring seascapes and landscapes, and were painted by skilled 'interior decorators' rather than virtuoso artists - a clue to the function of art in Roman society.
In Rome, as in Greece, the highest form of painting was panel painting. Executed using the encaustic or tempera methods, panel paintings were mass-produced in their thousands for display in offices and public buildings throughout the empire. Unfortunately, almost all painted panels have been lost. The best surviving example from Classical Antiquity is probably the "Severan Tondo" (c.200 CE, Antikensammlung Berlin), a portrait of Roman Emperor Septimus Severus with his family, painted in tempera on a circular wood panel. The best example from the Roman Empire is the astonishing series of Fayum Mummy portraits painted in Egypt during the period 50 BCE to 250 CE.
Roman artists were also frequently commissioned to produce pictures highlighting military successes - a form known as Triumphal Painting. This type of history painting - usually executed as a mural painting in fresco - would depict the battle or campaign in meticulous detail, and might incorporate mixed-media adornments and map designs to inform and impress the public. Since they were quick to produce, many of these triumphal works would have influenced the composition of historical reliefs like the Column of Marcus Aurelius.
Roman murals - executed either "al fresco" with paint being applied to wet plaster, or "al secco" using paint on dry walls - are usually classified into four periods, as set out by the German archaeologist August Mau following his excavations at Pompeii.
The First Style (c.200-80
The Roman Empire incorporated a host of different nationalities, religious groups and associated styles of art. Chief among them, in addition to earlier Etruscan art of the Italian mainland, were forms of Celtic culture - namely the Iron Age La Tene style (c.450-50 BCE) - which was accomodated within the Empire in an idiom known as Roman-Celtic art, and the hieratic style of Egyptian art, which was absorbed into the Hellenistic-Roman idiom.
During the Christian epoch, the division of the Roman Empire into a weak Western Roman Empire (based in Ravenna and Rome) and a strong Eastern Roman Empire (based in Constantinople), led to changes in Late Roman art. While wall painting, mosaic art, and funerary sculpture thrived, life-size statues and panel painting dwindled. In Constantinople, Roman art absorbed Eastern influences to produce the Byzantine art of the late empire, and well before Rome was overrun by Visigoths under Alaric (410) and sacked by Vandals under Gaiseric, Roman artists, master-craftsmen and artisans moved to the Eastern capital to continue their trade. (See Christian-Byzantine Art.) The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, for instance, one of the most famous examples of Roman dome architecture, provided employment for some 10,000 of these specialists and other workmen. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian (527-565), the Hagia Sophia, together with the shimmering mosaics of Ravenna, represented the final gasp of Roman art.
To find out more about painting and sculpture from Classical Antiquity, see the following resources:
Greek Painting (c.480-323 BCE)
For more about painting and sculpture in Ancient Rome, see: Art Encyclopedia.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART