Roman Art

Ancient Rome grew out of the Latin culture, which overthrew that of the Etruscans, first in the city of Rome itself, and then the rest of the Italian Peninsula. Although the government was that of a Republic from 509 BCE-27 BCE, the Romans expanded their sphere of influence beyond Italy from an early period, conquering a variety of other Mediterranean and European cultures, including Greece and Egypt. From 27 BCE until the early 5th century in the West, Rome was an Empire, ruled by an Emperor, or at times a conglomeration of Emperors and Caesars, with the city of Rome at its center. The Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire east to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul), on the shores of the Bosporus, and the Eastern Roman Empire persisted until 1453, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Sultan Mehmet II.


The Romans were considered to be great engineers and builders, and are credited with perfecting concrete by adding volcanic ash, which made it stronger, waterproof, and better at withstanding earthquakes. The Romans also were among the first to use free-standing arches and domes in their architecture, and often spanned large spaces with barrel vaults and groin vaults. All of these innovations allowed the Romans to span larger spaces, and to build the aqueducts that brought water into the cities, often from springs hundreds of miles away.

Diagram of Roman arches and vaults and the Pont du Gard, Nîmes, France, early 1st century CE

The period of the Roman Republic is characterized by their expansion into the rest of the Mediterranean and the influence of both Greek and Etruscan forms on their art and architecture. Roman temples of the Republican period are hybrid structures, built primarily of stone, using one of the Greek orders, and in a psuedoperipteral style, but on the high base of the Etruscans with a portico at the front. The Temple of Portunus (Fortune) in Rome, built c. 75 BCE is an example of this style. Other temples from this period, such as the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli, built in the early 1st century BCE, are built in the Greek tholos style. These are often built for female goddesses, and make use of Corinthian columns.


Temple of Portunus, Rome, c. 75 BCE (photo by CC BY-SA 2.5,


Temple of the Sibyl, Tivoli, early 1st century BCE

Roman sculpture of this period is characterized by a style referred to as verism, or “warts and all” imagery. This has to do with a few factors. One is the patrilineal nature of Roman culture, and the fact that your standing within Roman society came from the standing of your ancestors, which leads to the second factor: ancestor worship. Wax death masks were placed on family altars for worship, but by the 2nd century BCE those were replaced by marble images of the (mostly male) ancestors. By this period, often referred to as the Late Republican Period, the governmental system of Rome was starting to fray, and there were numerous internal uprisings and disputes. In many ways, verism was a means of showing the ability of these wealthy, patrician men (and their families) to lead, as they looked serious, strong, and unidealized. The image below, known as Togate Barbarini (Man with Portrait Busts of His Ancestors) from the 2nd half of the 1st century BCE reflects this. Even though the head of the main figure, although from the right era, is a Renaissance addition, you still get an idea of the flow of the drapery connecting the heads of 3 men of the same patrician family. One thing to also remember with Roman sculpture as well is that it was originally painted.


Togate Barbarnini (Man with Portrait Busts of His Ancestors), 2nd half 1st century BCE

One of the richest sources of knowledge about the late republican and early Empire periods of Rome are the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. Because the eruption covered and preserved much of these cities, including the bodies of inhabitants, bread in ovens, and frescoes on walls, they give a sense of life in a Roman city in the 1st century CE. Roman cities were built on a grid plan, following the plans of Roman military forts, called castrum (sing. castra). At the center was the forum with the main civic and religious structures, and just outside was the amphitheater for gladiatorial games and other entertainments. Street had raised stones, spaced side enough for carriage wheels, to allow pedestrians to cross without getting their feet dirty. Romans also had rudimentary indoor plumbing and systems by which floors could be heated.

2 aerial views of Pompeii, showing forum and amphitheater

Much of what is known about Roman domestic architecture also comes from these sites. Romans were very interested in comfort, and the wealthy Romans designed their houses to allow for it. The more public rooms were in the front of the domus, or house, with the private family rooms around the garden (sometimes a swimming pool) in back. The atrium had the impluvium and conpluvium, which connected to the plumbing pipes, and moved water throughout the house. The houses of the wealthy were also decorated with frescoes and mosaics.

House of the Vettii and plan, Pompeii, remodeled before 79 CE

Roman wall painting has been divided into 4 phases based on the frescoes found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The first phase (c. 200-60 BCE) is mostly about simulating marble on the walls, probably because there was also a tradition of easel painting. The second phase (from the 1st century BCE) includes trompe l’oiel motifs, architectural details, and still lifes meant to seem realistic. Art historians usually date the frescoes from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale to this phase. The third phase (c. 20 BCE-20 CE), is characterized by monochrome backgrounds with elaborate framing devices and small scenes in the center, such as at the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase. The fourth phase (c. 20-79 CE) revives large-scale narrative paintings and panoramic vistas, and frames it in the same manner as the third style, as can be seen in the House of the Vettii.


First Style Wall Painting, Samnite House, Herculaneum, late 2nd century BCE


Second Style wall Painting from the Villa of P. Flannius Synestor, Boscoreale, c. 50-40 BCE


Third Style Frescoes from the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase, c. 11 CE


Fourth Style Frescoes, House of the Vettii, View of the Room of Ixion, 63-79 CE

Less wealthy Romans lived in insula, or apartment buildings, with shops below and shared kitchens and latrines. These structures were the housing for the urban lower classes, or plebeians. Some of the more middle class insula had decorated walls, and the shared spaces were per floor, not for the whole building. The best preserved of these come from the Roman port city of Ostia.insula_in_ostia

Insula and street, Ostia (photo by By Dennis Jarvis [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons))

The Early Empire period is characterized by the rise of Octavian, renamed Augustus, and the conception of both the Princeps Civitatis (First Citizen of the State) and the Pax Romana, or the era of peace ushered in by the reign of Augustus. Augustus had the Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of the Augustan Peace, dedicated to celebrate this on January 1, 9 BCE. This altar also showed the Augustan commitment to the family, with the Imperial family proceeding along one side, and the senators on the other. On the front is an image of a goddess, possibly Roma or Tellus, and floral forms, all of which was meant to imply that the Roman peace ushered in an era of fertility and fecundity for the land, animals, and people. Augustus also began, with sculptures like the Augustus of Prima Porta, to have himself depicted in a very idealized manner, with images of the gods and military might on his armor and Cupid at his feet, meant to remind people of his supposed descent from Venus through Aeneas, making him semi-divine.


Augustus of Primaporta, early 1st century CE copy of a c. 20 BCE bronze original

Ara Pacis Augustae, c. 13-9 BCE with details of the imperial procession and the goddess

Augustus was also famous for saying that Rome was a city of bricks when he came to power and a city of marble when he left it. He ushered in a rebuilding campaign in Rome, making the city appropriately imperial for his tastes. One of his most impressive monuments was the Julian Forum, begun in 54 BCE by his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and rebuilt by Augustus.

Julian Forum reconstruction and view today

Another major Early Empire monument comes from the dynasty that replaced the Julio-Claudians, the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum because of the colossal statue of Nero that once stood at this site. This was built for the Roman people after the excesses of Nero, and is a testament to the technical sophistication of Roman engineering. The amphitheater is built up of 3 levels, and seating was ticketed according to social rank. You would enter the arch that had the Roman numeral corresponding to your ticket, and processed through the groin vaulted hallways that made traffic flow efficient. The structure was also shaded by a retractable awning, and boasted hand-cranked elevators and trapdoors below the floor to allow for animals and men to suddenly appear. It could also be flooded for mock-naval battles as part of the entertainments.

The Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum), 70-82 CE

Every Roman emperor also had a triumphal arch to commemorate great military victories, or at least those you were to think of as great, and were placed along the main triumphal way into the city. These would be covered in sculpture, and topped with bronze sculptures of the emperors in chariots pulled by horses or elephants (as symbols of his wealth and power). Those that still exist in Rome today are fragmentary, with much of the sculpture lost or moved as spolia to other monuments, and the bronze statues lost. The Triumphal Arch of Titus, raised by his brother Domitian in 81 CE, gives a sense of what these were like. This was commissioned to commemorate both his apotheosis, or ascension into the heavens as a god, and his victory over the Jews of Palestine in 70 CE. The relief sculptures still extant on the interior of the barrel vault show the Flavian return to verism for portraits, with a continuation of idealism in terms of what it meant to be emperor.

Arch of Titus and details of reliefs, 81 CE

The High Empire period was the time of the rule of the last of the “great” Roman emperors. One of these was Trajan, who built some of the major monuments of Rome with his favored architect, Apollodorus of Damascus. The Markets of Trajan were one of these, built between 110 & 114 CE into one of the hills of Rome following the design of the Middle Eastern markets Trajan had seen on his campaigns. There was space for possibly up to 150 shops, with storage above, administrative offices, and a residential apartment complex. The concrete barrel vault over the interior spanned the large space, and gave visual interest to the area above. The Markets were adjacent to the Forum of Trajan and the Basilica Ulpia, named for Trajan’s family, a large basilica, or law court, flanked by 2 libraries, and bookended by an equestrian statue of Trajan and the Column of Trajan, below which he was buried. The Column of Trajan commemorated the war against the Dacians, from the area of modern Romania, and has reliefs that spiral up the sides telling the story of the Roman victory. It is hollow, with stairs on the interior, and was originally topped with a bronze statue of the emperor.

Apollodorus of Damascus, Markets of Trajan, 110-114 CE

Forum of Trajan and Basilica Ulpia, reconstruction and site today, c. 112 CE

Column of Trajan and detail, dedicated 113 CE

Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, rebuilt the Pantheon, a 1st century structure dedicated by Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus. This was a temple dedicated to the main gods of Rome, and is one of the most unique of the surviving buildings of the ancient world. The temple was originally raised on 3 steps (street level in Rome has been raised in the intervening nearly 2000 years), and has a portico with a triangular pediment at the top on the front. In the pediment were bronze sculptures, and behind the portico is a huge drum that has a circumference of 360 degrees. The concrete at the base of the drum is over 20 feet thick, and gets progressively thinner as it rises to the oculus at the top, an opening which lets in sunlight. The dome is also lightened through the use of coffering, or square indentations in the ceiling, which once held gilt bronze stars on a blue background. This was also part of a larger, cohesive group on monuments, unlike the experience of the structure today.

Pantheon and Interior, 125-128 CE

In the Late Empire period, the art of Rome began to decline as internal strife made the empire begin to weaken. The emperors of this period had trouble holding power, with some ruling for very short periods of time, often 1-2 years or less. Some of the remaining works from this period reflect this upheaval, and the decline in naturalism that can be seen in the art.

photography by MMA - DP138717.tifretouched by film and media (jnc)

Sarcophagus with Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons, c. 260-270 CE


Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, c. 250-260 CE

One of the late emperors in the west, Diocletian, came up with a solution to the fractured nature of the empire in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries CE. He divided the rule of the empire into 4, called the Tetrarchy, with 2 emperors and 2 caesars, one each for the east and west. Diocletian and Galerius were Emperor and Caesar in the east, and Maximilian and Constantius (father of Constantine) were Emperor and Caesar in the west. The original location of the monument of the Tetrarchy, now in Venice, is unknown, but the monument itself, made of porphyry, a very expensive type of marble, reflects both the nature of this division and the shifting style of art to more squat, unrealistic figures with wide, staring eyes.


The Tetrarchy, c. early 4th century CE

This division fell apart when Constatius’s son, Constantine the Great came to power, and waged a war against his co-rulers until he was the last man standing. Although Medieval mythology named Constantine the first Christian emperor, he was pagan, only converting on his deathbed in 337 CE, but he did legalize Christianity, possibly at the request of his mother, Empress Helena. Constantine defeated his rival in the west, Maxentius, at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, also mythologized by later Christians, including Constantine’s biographer, Eusebius. His victory in this battle was memorialized on his triumphal arch, the last raised in Rome, which he placed near the Colosseum, and decorated both with spolia from other Roman triumphal arches and with new reliefs. These decorations, taken together, show the progression of Roman art from the High Empire to the Late. Constantine also finished the basilica begun by Maxentius, which was enormous, and built in a grand style. It was large enough to hold the Colossal Statue of Constantine, which the steady rejection of naturalism in the Late Roman style. It is thought that the entire statue would have been over 40 feet tall based on the remaining fragments.

Arch of Constantine and detail, 312-315 CE

Basilica of Maxentius and Constatine, c. 308-312 CE


Fragments of the Colossal Statue of Constantine, early 4th century CE

Constantine was also the Roman Emperor who moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, in 330 CE. This moved the center of gravity of the empire to the east, permanently after the fall of the Western Roman Emperor in 426 CE.


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