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This lesson offers a basic outline of Roman art. We begin by examining the Greek roots of Roman art.

Then, we look at the three predominant forms of Roman art: sculpture, murals and mosaics.

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Roman Art: Characteristics and Predecessors

Most historians tend to see Roman art as, at best, a poor copy of Greek art. It is possible that the Romans themselves shared this perspective. Roman authors rave about Greek sculptors, like Phidias and Praxiteles, but they make no mention of Roman sculptors. Where the Greeks treated art almost as a form of religious expression, the Romans seem to have treated it more like a commodity.As such, Roman art is rarely as impressive as its Greek predecessors. However, despite these shortcomings, the huge demand for art in Rome, especially among the Roman elite, means that the sheer volume of Roman art dwarfs that of any previous civilization.

In fact, many great Greek sculptures survive only as Roman copies.Nevertheless, the fact remains that Rome owes nearly the entirety of its artistic achievement to the Greeks. The Greeks had long since mastered the art of sculpture, creating some of the greatest masterpieces of all time. The elements of Greek sculpture – realism, idealism, harmony of form – held a great appeal to the Romans.

The Romans may also have borrowed inspiration from the Etruscans, who had an artistic tradition all their own, including sculptures and murals.The derivative nature of Roman art raises some interesting questions. First of all, are Roman imitations of Greek sculptures Greek art or Roman art? This question is further complicated when we realize that Rome was a huge empire, spanning many cultures. This raises still further questions. Is a mural made in Roman-occupied Syria, Syrian art or Roman art? And further: is a statue made by a Greek slave in Rome still Greek, or is it Roman?We cannot begin to address these questions in this lesson; however, it is important to keep these reservations in mind as we take a look at the art of Rome. This lesson will focus on the three most popular forms of Roman art: sculpture, murals and mosaics.

Let us begin with the most Greek of these – the sculpture. Romans love Greek sculptures. They bought, borrowed or stole vast quantities of sculpture from Greece. They also copied a lot of it, either in bronze or in marble. Yet, the Romans also made this art their own, in the form of portrait sculptures and narrative reliefs.

Portrait Sculptures

The tradition of portrait sculpture stretches back to the earliest days of Roman history. It was probably derived from the Roman custom of creating ancestral images.

When a Roman man died, his family created a wax sculpture of his face, which they kept in a special shrine at home. These sculptures were more like records of a person’s existence than works of art, so emphasis was placed more on realistic detail than artistic beauty.As Rome grew wealthy and gained access to Greek sculptors, Roman aristocrats, called patricians, began making these portraits from stone rather than wax. Yet, despite this transition, they maintained their preference for accurate rendition over artistic expression.

Compare this portrait of a Roman, with its sharp realism and grave expression, to this Greek portrait head from Delos, with its expressive eyes and powerful emotional impact.

Comparison of a Roman and a Greek sculpture
side by side of sculptures

The importance of these funerary sculptures to the Roman aristocracy can be seen clearly in this statue of a Roman patrician proudly displaying his ancient heritage with the busts of his ancestors.

Roman patrician displaying heritage
Roman statue holding heads

Yet, Roman sculpture was not just about revering the dead, but also about honoring the living. Important Romans were rewarded for their valor or greatness by having statues of themselves put on public display.

Below is one of the earliest of these sorts of statues that we’ve found, and this pattern continued all the way through the death of the Republic.

Roman statue that would have been on public display
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With the rise of the Empire, we see a sharp reduction in this trend. Not in the number of statues, which in fact increased dramatically, but in the number of people who got to be represented in statues. Instead of statues of statesmen and generals, we now get statues of emperors.

In these statues, the realism of the early Roman funeral busts gives way to idealism.

Statue of Augustus
statue of augustus

Looking at the statue above, with its perfect lines and grand stature, we’re not even sure if we’re looking at a man or at a god. This ambiguity is not surprising because the answer is, we’re looking at both. This is a statue of Augustus. Augustus was the first emperor of Rome and was worshiped as a god.

He even had his own imperial cult.Later emperors would erect similar statues of themselves around the empire, like Claudius, Hadrian, Nerva and Constantine. Romans seem to have taken these statues very seriously. Emperors who made too many enemies in life would suffer a damnatio memoriae (a condemnation of their very memory) after their death.

Their statues would be destroyed, or simply defaced, throughout the empire.

Statues of Claudius, Hadrian, Nerva and Constantine
statue of four emperors

Narrative Reliefs

With the ascent of the emperor, another form of sculpture rose to prominence in Rome: narrative reliefs depicting the emperor’s exploits.

Like the portrait busts, these reliefs have their roots in a much older Roman tradition. Victorious Roman generals would often commission paintings commemorating their conquests. These were often carried during triumphal parades and set up for public display.

However, these paintings were never meant to be grand works of art but rather pictorial depictions, advertising the hero’s achievements. The fact that none of them have survived to today suggests that these paintings were treated like we treat posters. With the greater resources available to emperors, the art of proclaiming one’s victory became much more serious, permanent and monumental, moving from paintings on wood panels to sculpted stone.

Three of the most famous examples of such monuments are the Ara Pacis, or ‘Altar of Peace,’ celebrating Augustus’ triumphs in Hispania and Gaul; the Arch of Titus, celebrating Emperor Titus’ victories, including his successful siege of Jerusalem; and Trajan’s Column, portraying Trajan’s successful campaigns against the Dacians.That pretty much rounds up the sculpture; now, all we have to do is look at the painting and the mosaics.

Painting

We have very few examples of painting from the ancient world. Paint rarely survives the test of time, unless it’s protected from the elements. Water, light, even air can reduce a masterpiece to black smudge.

With Rome, we are in luck because a few Roman cities, like Pompeii and Herculaneum, got buried in volcanic ash after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E.Luckily for us, a few residents of Pompeii were connoisseurs of wall paintings. Among the foremost of these were the Vettii. At the House of the Vettii, we can see the characteristics of Roman painting quite clearly.

Wall paintings at the House of Vettii
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One of the most distinguishing features of Roman painting was the use of illusion to create depth. Roman painters used this technique to frame a painting or to make flat walls look like alcoves or windows or even full blown surrounding scenes, like the frieze from the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii or the View of a Garden from the Villa of Livia in Prima Porta.

Yet, as excellent as the Romans were at simple illusions, they still had not mastered the art of perspective, as we can see in this wall painting from Boscoreale.

Frieze from the Villa of the Mysteries
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View of a garden from Villa of Livia
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Mosaics

Just one form of Roman art remains to be discussed, and that is the mosaic. The Romans loved mosaics, and they created them with immaculate skill.

Using cubes of naturally-colored marble, the Romans created mosaics of unprecedented quality and detail. Probably the most famous Roman mosaic is the floor mosaic below depicting Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus. Note the exquisite detail of Alexander the Great.

Floor mosaic of Alexander the Great
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Lesson Summary

To review: though the Romans copied most of their art from the Greeks and Etruscans, they did make some individual contributions to the world of art as well. Their sculptures show a victory of realism over Greek idealism, resulting in sculptures that were more accurate than beautiful.

Their wall paintings show a mastery of illusion and depth, though they still fall short of full perspective. And, their mosaics take the breath away with their exquisite detail and shading.

Learning Outcome

After watching this lesson, you will be able to explain the history behind and characteristics of several forms of Roman art: sculptures, narrative reliefs, paintings and mosaics.

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