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Summary Article: Art, Roman
From The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

The origins of Roman art are a complex mix of native and imported styles and concepts that ultimately coalesced into what we now view as the art created by the Romans. Questions of chronology, location, and even historiography all come into play to help us understand the artistic and cultural meaning(s) of the art we have come to call Roman. Prior to the control of the Italian Peninsula by the Romans, the landscape was littered with cultures — Villanovan, Oscan, Etruscan, and Greek — all of which had lively production centers and trade in art of all media. Of these, the two most formative precursors to Roman art styles were the Etruscan and, via the Etruscans and the colonies in the south, the Greek (see Art, Greece). Indeed, much like their culture and broad political hegemony, Etruscan art had such an impact on the Romans that it can often be difficult to determine where Etruscan art ends and Roman art begins.

Though their origins are obscure, the Etruscans (see Etruria, Etruscans) became the dominant material culture in Italy from the sixth century BCE until the Roman hegemony of the second century BCE. Influenced by both Greece and the Near East, with which the Etruscans had extensive trade contacts, Etruscan art is perhaps most famous for its lively and brightly colored tomb paintings. Other than perhaps general interests in wall painting and mythological motifs, there seems to have been little direct influence on later Roman wall painting. It was different in the cases of architecture and sculpture. Etruscan temples were made of perishable or reusable material and so few survive beyond the foundations. Surviving material, such as the Temple of Minerva at Veii near Rome that dates to ca. 500 BCE, matches the description of Etruscan temples in Vitruvius (De Arch 4.7) and suggests the high podium, central access, and axial plan of later Roman temples. Etruscan public sculpture, such as the Apollo of Veii (ca. 500) or the "Mars" of Todi (fourth century), generally follow contemporary Greek styles, though a sense of movement and dynamism seem Etruscan. Private sculpture and portraiture form a special category: there was a growing trend from the early fourth century onward to include more veristic features. This unique trait may relate to the importance the Etruscans placed on funerary rights and with it an importance on an individual's specific features. An echo of this may be seen in the famous statement by Polybius (6.53) regarding the creation of Roman "death masks." Still, many examples of such portraiture, such as the so-called Brutus (Figure 1), are from the second or first centuries and so one could question whether these are culturally Etruscan or Roman. The portrait of Aulus Metellus from the first century BCE is illustrative of such a fusion of styles andcultures and shows how the origins of republican veristic portraiture may be found in earlier Etruscan works. All of this suggests that a dynamic relationship between the art of the two cultures, unsurprising given the shared geography and history, existed for several centuries.

Portrait of "Brutus." Musei Capitolini, Rome. © 2010 Photo Scala, Florence.

Thus the art of the Roman Republic can be viewed as a syncretic fusion of native Italic, especially Etruscan, styles and the diffused "Greek" styles found throughout the Mediterranean. As Rome's power extended further east, it came into increasing contact with the Hellenistic kingdoms, whose common artistic heritage had two large impacts on it. First, Rome became interested in Greek material brought back from its conquests. From the sack of Syracuse in 212 (Plut., Marc. 21) to the sack of Corinth in 146 (De Vir. Illus. 60) and beyond, a succession of generals and soldiers sent material back to Rome to glorify the city and interest the connoisseur. This made Rome a major center of art patronage and collecting, as the city became a major engine for art production. Second, Roman merchants and colonizers spread throughout these new areas and mixed their own material cultures with those of other populations.On an island such as Delos, Italian merchants lived side by side with Greeks, Phoenicians, Jews, and others; the whole created a dynamic population where artistic ideas and styles could mix and flourish. This commingling put the Romans in the heart of Hellenistic styles and trends across all media, making one question whether, from an artistic standpoint at least, "republican" Rome should be considered as "Hellenistic" Rome.

There were some characteristics in the art of the age, however, that one may view as definitively Roman. The first is an emphasis on historical events in art, especially reliefs. Though such material in sculpture may go back to the fifth century BCE, it was always the exception in Greek art. From the battle monument of Aemilius Paullus at Delphi to the numerous religious and administrative reliefs (suovetaurilia, census, etc.), the Romans were uniquely interested in representing their past as actual history, rather than through allegory. The second is a strong interest in wall painting. Again, this finds its roots in Etruscan and Greek art, but the numerous surviving remains have led to an entire taxonomy being proposed: the so-called Four Pompeian Painting Styles. The "First Style" finds its origins in earlier masonry-style paintings, while "Second Style" paintings, with a strong visual emphasis on architecture, landscape, and myth, also have clear antecedents. "Third Style" is more complex with its thin candelabra designs and small, far-off vistas, where the wall is treated more as a canvas and not as an illusionistic "window." "Fourth Style" is a mixture of the previous three styles (Figure 2). Along with pictorial illusion and narrative, these styles highlight an interest in the decoration of domestic space. In addition, they span over a hundred years from the end of the republic to the beginning of the empire, thus illustrating the complex nature of republican art with its issues of style, chronology, and interpretive assumptions.

The Ixion Room, House of the Vettii, Pompeii. © 2010 Photo Scala, Florence/Fotografica Foglia.Courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali.

The advent of Augustus (Imperator Caesar Augustus) and the Julio-Claudian Dynasty brought about major changes to the art of the day. The new empire required an artistic ethos to best illustrate the new political reality at Rome; Augustus and his successors saw the value in turning back to the idealism of Classical Greece. Though traditional forms such as verism and historical reliefs continued, often in non-imperial or "plebeian" art, this imperial ideology found its new voice in the ideal art of the past to suggest the timeless and exceptional nature of the empire. Now the ruler and the state became one and the same and Augustus set a visual and material standard that was to be the model for emperors until the end of the Roman Empire. A statue like the Augustus Prima Porta (Figure 3) illustrates this well, with its classical idealism in face and pose, and the highly allegorical imagery on the breastplate relating to the military prowess and the eternal and far-reaching bounty of the empire. Even the cupid on the dolphin suggests Augustus' familial links to Venus. The whole then glorifies the new ruler and the new empire, inseparable in concept, in a visual language suggesting its timeless nature. Similar ideologies are expressed on something more public like the Ara Pacis (see Ara Pacis Augustae). Though this "Augustan Classicism" was not the sole artistic style utilized, it was the main vehicle through which Augustan, and so Roman, propaganda was spread, along with extensive building programs throughout the empire to celebrate the "new world order."

The Augustus Prima Porta. Vatican City. © 2010 Photo Ann Ronan/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence.

This type of imagery continued among all the Julio-Claudians, especially Augustus' immediate family and successors. Portraits of Gaius, Lucius, Tiberius, and Caligula all show a marked preference for broad classical idealism, to the point where it can often be difficult to determine the precise individual represented. This stylistic choice reinforced not only the inherent messages as set by Augustus, but also the line of succession and the current emperor's links to the respected first ruler. Some changes occur in the imagery of Claudius and Nero, especially in coinage, but by and large this stylistic preference was maintained. Private art seems to have been an area where individuals could express themselves more. The grotto at Sperlonga, for example, illustrates Tiberius' interests in highly Baroque-style pieces, while Nero's Domus Aurea is an opulent example of a villa full of Fourth-Style painting. Non-imperial art, for those who could afford it, was a mix - some filled their villas (e.g., Villa dei Papiri) with collections of classically inspired material, while others pursued images in a more linear, free, and schematized style, as witnessed on numerous grave reliefs from the period.

A break of sorts occurred under the Flavians. To remove direct links to disliked emperors such as Caligula and Nero, Vespasian and Titus both looked to veristic portraiture to mark an effective break and to renew the stability of the empire. No longer were emperors ideals, but "real" people for "real" problems. New expressions also occurred in relief sculpture, as the panels from the Arch of Titus show an interest in spatial illusion and depth, with a conscious mixing of idealized and veristic imagery. Similar depictions may be found on the so-called Cancellaria Reliefs, though the illusionism and sense of depth are not as natural as on the Arch. Perhaps the most famous use of such techniques at the time comes from the Column of Trajan (see Trajan's Column). This spiraling work references Trajan's Dacian campaigns from start to end and is yet another version of the Roman historical relief. The work is a narrative tour de force with its scenes of battle, marching, preparations, and the famed suicide of the Dacian Decebalus. All is done imaginatively in a style that reduces accurate rendering of space and scale to a more symbolic representation that highlights the readability of the image over precise realism (Figure 4). What was most important was the message and not the style: Rome and its emperor conquer all. The column laid the foundation for many monuments to come, but with the philhellene Hadrian there was a return to classical forms as witnessed in his portraits, reliefs such as the rondels now on the Arch of Constantine, and the numerous statues of Antinoos. Monuments built under his reign such as the Pantheon, the Temple of Venus and Roma, and the Olympieion in Athens all attest to his interest in large-scale building programs. The Antonines followed in Hadrian's vein, but an increase in abstraction in space, such as the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, and in figure, such as on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, show that classicism and a more schematized style could exist side by side.

Trajan Addressing the Troops. Trajan's Column, Rome. © 2010 Photo Scala, Florence, courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali.

The Late Empire marked major changes in Roman art. Less material survives and presumably less material was commissioned as the turbulence of the third century CE played itself out. Though the Severans produced much that was modeled on their Antonine predecessors, abstraction and schematization became more prominent. Hair on portraits was heavily drilled, with articulated clumps meant to suggest individual strands. In relief, three-dimensionality in space was limited to rows of figures suggesting depth, as in the panels from the Arch from Lepcis Magna, with flat, frontal figures lending an otherworldly quality. This linear and abstract style continued with Caracalla and among the majority of the soldier emperors, whose gruff portraits all suggest the warriors that they were. This linear and abstract approach was taken to new heights with the establishment of the Tetrarchy. The portraits from St. Mark's in Venice show nearly identical, abstract, almost alien figures, that were meant to eradicate any sense of individuality (Figure 5). The message is again what is most important: the chaos is no more and the lines of succession among four "equals" are clear. It was also the first time for almost a century when major buildings were erected at Rome. Most important is perhaps the Basilica Nova, whose massive interior space and axial plan were to be the forerunners of Christian churches. The reign of Constantine, like that of Augustus, marked a new political reality and so he needed to express this in art. Linear and abstract, his portraits maintain a certain idealism to reflect his exalted position. His heavy use of spolia on monuments such as his Arch at Rome linked him to the great emperors of the past, but his contemporary reliefs are all line and abstraction with the emperor central and imposing in hieratic scale, like his new god (Figure 6). This was to be the foundation for later Roman, Christian, and Byzantine art for centuries to come.

Statues of the Tetrarchs. St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. © 2010 Photo Scala, Florence.

Seated Constantine, Arch of Constantine, Rome. © 2010 William Storage, Nerve Net Inc.

The art of Rome evolved along with its society over the centuries. Often adapting to profound cultural or political changes, it was an art where individual and state ideologies were paramount. Historically, Roman art was often cast in the shadow of its Greek counterpart, thought of as either derivative or outright inferior to the art it emulated. Though there existed a dynamic relationship between the two, current studies on such issues as the nature of "Roman copies" and the Hellenic bias among early art historians have shed new light on the skill and invention of the Roman artists. In addition, interest in non-elite art and architecture has tried to counter an understandable bias toward seeing Roman art as the equivalent of imperial art. Such newunder-standings and interpretive methodologies are keys to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the material that formed the basis of the western art tradition.


Arches, honorific and triumphal; Architecture, civic, Roman Empire; Architecture, Roman Republic; Art, Greece; Art, Late Antiquity and Byzantium; Gems, Greek and Roman; Glass, Greece and Rome; Mosaics, Roman Empire; Paint and painting, Greece and Rome; Rome, city of; Sculpture, Greece and Rome; Wall-painting, Greek and Roman.

References and Suggested Readings
  • D'Ambra, E. (1993) Roman art in context: an anthology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • Fejfer, J. (2007) Roman portraits in context. Berlin.
  • Gazda, E., ed. (1991) Roman art in the private sphere. Ann Arbor.
  • Kleiner, D. (1992) Roman sculpture. New Haven.
  • Kleiner, F. (2007) A history of Roman art. Belmont.
  • Ling, R. (1991) Roman painting. New York.
  • Mattusch, C. C., ed. (2008) Pompeii and the Roman villa: art and culture around the Bay of Naples. London.
  • Pollitt, J. J. (1983) The art of Rome c. 753 bc-ad 337: sources and documents. Cambridge.
  • Ramage, N.; Ramage, A. (2009) Roman art: Romulus to Constantine. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ.
  • Sear, F. (1989) Roman architecture. Rev. ed. London.
  • Spivey, N. (1997) Etruscan art. London.
  • Zanker, P. (1988) The power of images in the age of Augustus. Ann Arbor.
  • Craig I. Hardiman
    Wiley ©2012

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