The Arts in Ancient Rome

Based on an original work by
Christian Meyer Ross
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016

Roman art refers to the visual arts made in Ancient Rome and in the territories of the Roman Empire. Roman art includes architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work.
Luxury objects in metal-work, gem engraving, ivory carvings, and glass, are sometimes considered in modern terms to be minor forms of Roman art, (Applied Art), although this would not necessarily have been the case for contemporaries.
Sculpture was perhaps considered as the highest form of art by Romans, but figure painting was also very highly regarded.
The two forms have had very contrasting rates of survival, with a very large body of sculpture surviving from about the 1st century BC onwards, though very little from before, but very little painting at all remains, and probably nothing that a contemporary would have considered to be of the highest quality. 
Ancient Roman pottery was not a luxury product, but a vast production of "fine wares" in terra sigillata were decorated with reliefs that reflected the latest taste, and provided a large group in society with stylish objects at what was evidently an affordable price. 
Roman coins were an important means of propaganda, and have survived in enormous numbers. Other perishable forms of art have not survived at all. 
It was in the area of architecture that Roman art produced its greatest innovations. Because the Roman Empire extended over so great of an area and included so many urbanized areas, Roman engineers developed methods for city building on a grand scale, including the use of concrete. 
Massive buildings like the Pantheon and the Colosseum could never have been constructed with previous materials and methods. The concrete core was covered with a plaster, brick, stone, or marble veneer, and decorative polychrome and gold-gilded sculpture was often added to produce a dazzling effect of power and wealth.

Barberini Faun
Apollo Belvedere - Reconstruction
The study of Roman sculpture is complicated by its relation to Greek sculpture.
Many examples of even the most famous Greek sculptures, such as the Apollo Belvedere and Barberini Faun, are known only from Roman Imperial or Hellenistic "copies."
At one time, this imitation was taken by art historians as indicating a narrowness 
of the Roman artistic imagination, but in the late 20th-century, Roman art began to be reevaluated on its own terms: some impressions of the nature of Greek sculpture may in fact be based on Roman artistry.
The strengths of Roman sculpture are in portraiture, where they were less concerned with the ideal than the Greeks, and produced very characterful works, often in narrative relief scenes.
Examples of Roman sculpture are abundantly preserved, in total contrast to Roman painting, which was very widely practiced, but has almost all been lost.
While a great deal of Roman sculpture survives more or less intact, it is often damaged or fragmentary. 
Early Roman art was influenced by the art of Greece and that of the neighboring Etruscans, themselves greatly influenced by their Greek trading partners.
As the expanding Roman Republic began to conquer Greek territory, at first in Southern Italy and then the entire Hellenistic world, except for the Parthian far east, official and patrician sculpture became largely an extension of the Hellenistic style, from which specifically Roman elements are hard to disentangle, especially as so much Greek sculpture survives only in copies of the Roman period.
By the 2nd century BCE, most of the sculptors working at Rome were Greek, often enslaved in conquests.
Vast numbers of Greek statues were imported to Rome, whether as booty, or the result of extortion or commerce, and temples were often decorated with re-used Greek works.

Portrait Bust - Roman Republic
Portraiture is a dominant genre of Roman sculpture, growing perhaps from the traditional Roman emphasis on family and ancestors; the entrance hall (atrium) of a Roman elite house displayed ancestral portrait busts.
During the Roman Republic, it was considered a sign of character not to gloss over physical imperfections, and to depict men in particular as rugged and unconcerned with vanity: the portrait was a map of experience.
During the Imperial era, more idealized statues of Roman emperors became ubiquitous, particularly in connection with the state religion of Rome.
Tombstones of even the modestly rich middle class sometimes exhibit portraits of the otherwise unknown deceased carved in relief.

Polychromatic Sculpture 
Antinous as Dionysus-Osiris
Aphaia Pediment 
It is at present very 'chic' to maintain that all ancient sculpture was colored.
There is, undoubtedly, some evidence for this, with vestiges of pigment being found on some sculptures, in certain areas.
This means that much of the pure, gleaming white marble sculpture that we now admire was certainly colored in some way.
The question is how was it colored: a delicate wash, subtle colors, or bright, glaring primary hues ?
The 'eminence grise' behind this new aesthetic orthodoxy is a German archaeologist-cum-scientist, Vinzenz Brinkmann.
He has attempted to show how some of the earliest Greek sculpture might look in its 'original' colors, reconstructing their 'original' appearance on plaster casts.

The problem comes, however, with wondering how far we should imagine all Greek and Roman sculptures to be painted in this way, or whether, in the Roman world at least, we should really be thinking of, in the case of some statues, a more delicate coloring, not a garish smearing.
Alexander Sarcophagus
It is important to note that, although there are some references in ancient literature to colored sculpture, they are not many - and they are far out-numbered by those Greek and Roman writers who sing of the translucent, unadorned white marble of their favorite statues.
And why on earth did Romans polish their marble statues (as we know they did), if they were going to cover them up with thick coats of paint ?
The question is not whether some ancient statues were painted (in bits, of course they were) - but whether they were painted in bright, 'matt', garish 'poster-paints', as the obviously aesthetically ignorant Brinkman is intent on insisting.
Ἀντίνοος (Antinous)
Emperor Hadrian
There was a final flowering of Roman sculpture during the reign of Hadrian, when numerous works were commissioned representing the Emperor's 'favourite', the young Bithynian boy Ἀντίνοος (Antinous).
Hadrian turned to sculptors to perpetuate the melancholy beauty, diffident manner, and lithe and sensuous frame of the boy Antinous, creating in the process what has been described as "the last independent creation of Greco-Roman art".
It is traditionally assumed that they were all produced between Antinous' death in 130 and that of Hadrian in 138, on the grounds that no-one else would be interested in commissioning them.
The assumption is that official models were sent out to provincial workshops all over the empire to be copied, with local variations permitted.
It has been asserted that many of these sculptures:
"share distinctive features - a broad, swelling chest, a head of tousled curls, a downcast gaze  - that allow them to be instantly recognized".
Ἀντίνοος (Antinous) as Osiris
Ἀντίνοος (Antinous)
It has been noted that more images have been identified of Antinous than of any other figure in classical antiquity, with the exceptions of Augustus (Octavian) and Hadrian.
The study of these sculptures is particularly important because of his rare mix of biographical mystery and overwhelming physical presence.
The sculptures of Antinous remain without doubt one of the most elevated and ideal monuments to love of the whole ancient world, and the final great creation of classical art.
Although these may well be idealized images, they demonstrate what all contemporary writers described as Antinous's extraordinary beauty.
Although many of the sculptures are instantly recognizable, some offer significant variation in terms of the suppleness and sensuality of the pose and features versus the rigidity and typical masculinity.


Roman Wall Painting - Fourth Style
'A Roman Artist'
Stefan Bakalowicz
Of the vast body of Roman painting we now have only a very few pockets of survivals, with many documented types not surviving at all, or doing so only from the very end of the period.
The best known and most important pocket is the wall paintings from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other sites nearby, which show how residents of a wealthy seaside resort decorated their walls in the century or so before the fatal eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.
A succession of dated styles have been defined and analyzed, showing increasing elaboration and sophistication.
Starting in the 3rd century CE and finishing by about 400 we have a large body of non-Christian paintings from the Catacombs of Rome, showing the later continuation of the domestic decorative tradition in a version adapted - probably not greatly adapted - for use in burial chambers, in what was probably a rather humbler social milieu than the largest houses in Pompeii.

Roman Wall Painting
Roman Fresco - House of the Mysteries
Much of Nero's palace in Rome, the 'Domus Aurea' (Golden House), survived as 'grottos', and gives us examples which we can be sure represent the very finest quality of wall-painting in its style, and which may well have represented significant innovation in style.
There are a number of other parts of painted rooms surviving from Rome and elsewhere, which somewhat help to fill in the gaps of our knowledge of wall-painting.
From Roman Egypt there are a large number of what are known as 'Fayum mummy portraits'; bust portraits on wood added to the outside of mummies by a Romano-Egyptian middle-class.
Despite their very distinct local character, they are probably broadly representative of Roman style in painted portraits, which are otherwise entirely lost.
Nothing remains of the Greek paintings imported to Rome during the 4th and 5th centuries, or of the painting on wood done in Italy during that period.

Subject Matter
Wall Decoration - Villa of Agrippa Postumus
Roman painting provides a wide variety of themes: animals, still life, scenes from everyday life, portraits, and some mythological subjects.
During the Hellenistic period, it evoked the pleasures of the countryside and represented scenes of shepherds, herds, rustic temples, rural mountainous landscapes and country houses.
Erotic scenes are also relatively common.
The main innovation of Roman painting, compared to Greek art, was the development of landscapes, in particular incorporating techniques of perspective, though true mathematical perspective was not understood.
Surface textures, shading, and coloration are well applied, but scale and spatial depth was still not rendered accurately.
Some landscapes were pure scenes of nature, particularly gardens with flowers and trees, while others were architectural vistas depicting urban buildings.
Other landscapes show episodes from mythology, the most famous demonstrating scenes from the Odyssey.
Roman still life subjects are often placed in 'illusionistic niches', or shelves, and depict a variety of everyday objects including fruit, live and dead animals, seafood, and shells.
Pliny complained of the declining state of Roman portrait art, "The painting of portraits which used to transmit through the ages the accurate likenesses of people, has entirely gone out ... Indolence has destroyed the arts."
In Greece and Rome, wall painting was not considered as high art. The most prestigious form of art besides sculpture was 'panel painting', i.e. tempera or encaustic painting on wooden panels. 
Unfortunately, since wood is a perishable material, only a very few examples of such paintings have survived.
A few portraits painted on glass and medals from the later empire have survived, as have coin portraits, some of which are considered very realistic as well.


Ancient Roman architecture developed different aspects of Ancient Greek architecture and newer technologies such as the arch and the dome to make a new architectural style.
Roman architecture flourished throughout the Empire during the 'Pax Romana'.
Its use of new materials, particularly concrete, was a very important feature.
Roman Architecture covers the period from the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BC to about the 4th century AD.
Most of the many surviving examples are from the later period.
Roman architectural style continued to influence building in the former empire for many centuries, and the style used in Western Europe beginning about 1000 is called Romanesque architecture to reflect this dependence on basic Roman forms.
The Ancient Romans were responsible for significant developments in housing and public hygiene, for example their public and private baths and latrines, under-floor heating in the form of the hypocaust, mica glazing (examples in Ostia Antica), and piped hot and cold water (examples in Pompeii and Ostia).
Factors such as wealth and high population densities in cities forced the ancient Romans to discover new architectural solutions of their own.
The use of vaults and arches, together with a sound knowledge of building materials, enabled them to achieve unprecedented successes in the construction of imposing infrastructure for public use. 

Examples include the aqueducts of Rome, the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla, the basilicas and Colosseum.
The Ancient Romans intended that community buildings should be made to impress and amaze, as well as perform a public function.
The Romans did not feel restricted by Greek aesthetic axioms alone in achieving these objectives

The Romans were indebted to their Etruscan neighbors, and forefathers, who supplied them with a wealth of knowledge essential for future architectural solutions, such as the use of hydraulics and the construction of arches and vaults.

The Romans absorbed Greek architectural influence both directly (e.g. Magna Graecia), and indirectly (e.g. Etruscan Architecture was itself influenced by the Greeks).
The influence is evident in many ways; for example, in the introduction and use of the Triclinium in Roman villas as a place and manner of dining.
The Romans were also known to employ Greek engineers to construct Roman buildings.

Architectural Features

The Roman use of the arch, and their improvements in the use of concrete and bricks facilitated the building of the many aqueducts throughout the empire.
The dome permitted construction of vaulted ceilings, without crossbeams, and made possible large covered public space such as public baths and basilicas.
The Romans based much of their architecture on the dome, such as Hadrian's Pantheon in the city of Rome, the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla.
The use of arches that spring directly from the tops of columns was a Roman development, seen from the 1st century AD.

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016
One of the most important Roman architectural innovations was the Triumphal Arch.
An arch, of course, like a dome (an arch rotated through 3600), and vault (an extended arch), transmits load  evenly, and is still commonly used in architecture today.
The Romans were the first builders in the history of architecture to realize the potential of domes for the creation of large and well-defined interior spaces.
Domes were introduced in a number of Roman building types such as temples, thermae, palaces, and mausolea.
Half-domes also became a favored architectural element.
Monumental domes began to appear in the 1st century BC in Rome and the provinces around the Mediterranean Sea.

The Pantheon - Rome
Along with vaults, they gradually replaced the traditional post and lintel construction, which makes use of the column and architrave.
The enormous dimensions of Ancient Roman domes, vaults and arches remained unsurpassed until the introduction of structural steel frames in the late 19th century.

The Pantheon 
The Pantheon - Rome - Reconstruction
Pantheon, (from Πάνθεον meaning "every god") is a building in Rome, on the site of an earlier building commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD). The present building was completed by the emperor Hadrian and probably dedicated about 126 AD. He retained Agrippa's original inscription. The building is circular, with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres (142 ft). It is one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings. The 4,535 metric tons (4,999 short tons) weight of the Roman concrete dome is concentrated on a ring of voussoirs 9.1 metres (30 ft) in diameter that form the oculus, while the downward thrust of the dome is carried by eight barrel vaults in the 6.4 metres (21 ft) thick drum wall into eight piers. The thickness of the dome varies from 6.4 metres (21 ft) at the base of the dome to 1.2 metres (3.9 ft) around the oculus. The materials used in the concrete of the dome also varies. At its thickest point, the aggregate is travertine, then terracotta tiles, then at the very top, tufa and pumice, both porous light stones. At the very top, where the dome would be at its weakest and vulnerable to collapse, the oculus actually lightens the load.
Tile covered concrete quickly supplanted marble as the primary building material, and more daring buildings soon followed, with great pillars supporting broad arches and domes rather than dense lines of columns suspending flat architraves.
The freedom of concrete also inspired the colonnade screen, a row of purely decorative columns in front of a load-bearing wall.

The Colosseum
Watching the Crowd entering
the Colosseum
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016
Colosseum - Reconstruction
The Colosseum or Coliseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre (Latin: Amphitheatrum Flavium), is an oval amphitheatre in the centre of the city of Rome.
Built of mainly of concrete, it is the largest amphitheater ever built, and is considered one of the greatest works of architecture and engineering ever.
The Colosseum is situated just east of the Roman Forum.
Construction began under the emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, and was completed in 80 AD under his successor and heir Titus.

Colosseum - Section
Further modifications were made during the reign of Domitian (81–96).
These three emperors are known as the Flavian dynasty, and the amphitheatre was named in Latin for its association with their family name (Flavius).
The Colosseum could hold, it is estimated, between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, having an average audience of some 65,000; it was used for gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology.
The Colosseum's original Latin name was Amphitheatrum Flavium, often anglicized as Flavian Amphitheater. The building was constructed by emperors of the Flavian dynasty, following the reign of Nero.

Colosseum - Seating Section
Colosseum - Sectioned Plan
The name Colosseum has long been believed to be derived from a colossal nude statue (made of gilded bronze) of Nero nearby (the statue of Nero was named after the Colossus of Rhodes).
This statue was later remodeled by Nero's successors into the likeness of Helios (Sol), or Apollo, the sun god, by adding the appropriate solar crown. Nero's head was also replaced several times with the heads of succeeding emperors.
Construction was funded by the opulent spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 AD led to the Siege of Jerusalem.

The Colosseum
The Colosseum could accommodate 50,000 people.
They were seated in a tiered arrangement that reflected the rigidly stratified nature of Roman society. 
Special boxes were provided at the north and south ends respectively for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins, providing the best views of the arena. 
Flanking them at the same level was a broad platform or podium for the senatorial class, who were allowed to bring their own chairs. 
The tier above the senators, known as the maenianum primum, was occupied by the non-senatorial noble class or knights (equites).
The next level up, the maenianum secundum, was originally reserved for ordinary Roman citizens (plebeians) and was divided into two sections.
The lower part (the immum) was for wealthy citizens, while the upper part (the summum) was for poor citizens.
Specific sectors were provided for other social groups: for instance, boys with their tutors, soldiers on leave, foreign dignitaries, scribes, heralds, priests and so on.
Stone (and later marble) seating was provided for the citizens and nobles, who presumably would have brought their own cushions with them.
Inscriptions identified the areas reserved for specific groups.
Another level, the maenianum secundum in legneis, was added at the very top of the building during the reign of Domitian.
This comprised a gallery for the common poor, slaves and women.
It would have been either standing room only, or would have had very steep wooden benches.
Some groups were banned altogether from the Colosseum, notably gravediggers, actors and former gladiators.
Each tier was divided into sections (maeniana) by curved passages and low walls (praecinctiones or baltei), and were subdivided into cunei, or wedges, by the steps and aisles from the vomitoria.
Each row (gradus) of seats was numbered, permitting each individual seat to be exactly designated by its gradus, cuneus, and number.
The arena itself was 83 meters by 48 meters (272 ft by 157 ft / 280 by 163 Roman feet).
It comprised a wooden floor covered by sand (the Latin word for sand is harena or arena), covering an elaborate underground structure called the hypogeum (literally meaning "underground").
Sylvae, or recreations of natural scenes were also held in the arena.
Painters, technicians and architects would construct a simulation of a forest, with real trees and bushes planted in the arena's floor, and animals would then be introduced.
Such scenes might be used simply to display a natural environment for the urban population, or could otherwise be used as the backdrop for hunts or dramas depicting episodes from mythology.

for more information about the Colosseum  and the Roman Games and Gladiators got to:

While using advanced building techniques, the Romans continued to use the three orders of architecture that they had inherited from the Greeks: the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian.
In addition they added two orders of their own: the Etruscan (or Tuscan), and the Composite.
Most of these developments are described by Vitruvius, writing in the first century AD in his work 'De Architectura'

There are three distinct orders in Ancient Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These three were adopted by the Romans, who modified their capitals. The Roman adoption of the Greek orders took place in the 1st century BC. The three Ancient Greek orders have since been consistently used in neo-classical European architecture. The Romans added two orders of their own: the Etruscan (or Tuscan), and the Composite.

The Doric order is the simplest of the orders, characterized by short, faceted, heavy columns with plain, round capitals (tops) and no base. With a height that is only four to eight times its diameter, the columns are the most squat of all orders. The shaft of the Doric order is channeled with 20 flutes. The capital consists of a necking which is of a simple form. The echinus is convex and the abacus is square. Above the capital is a square abacus connecting the capital to the entablature. The Entablature is divided into three horizontal registers, the lower part of which is either smooth or divided by horizontal lines. The upper half is distinctive for the Doric order. The frieze of the Doric entablature is divided into triglyphs and metopes. A triglyph is a unit consisting of three vertical bands which are separated by grooves. Metopes are the plain or carved reliefs between two triglyphs. The Greek forms of the Doric order come without an individual base. They instead are placed directly on the stylobate. Later forms, however, came with the conventional base consisting of a plinth and a torus. The Roman versions of the Doric order have smaller proportions. As a result they appear lighter than the Greek orders.

The Ionic order is distinguished by slender, fluted pillars with a large base and two opposed volutes (also called scrolls) in the echinus of the capital. The echinus itself is decorated with an egg-and-dart motif. The Ionic shaft comes with four more flutes than the Doric counterpart (totalling 24). The Ionic base has two convex moldings called tori which are separated by a scotia. A column of the ionic order is nine times its lower diameter. The shaft itself is eight diameters high. The architrave of the entablature commonly consists of three stepped bands (fasciae). The frieze comes without the Doric triglyph and metope. The frieze sometimes comes with a continuous ornament such as carved figures instead. 

The Corinthian order is the most ornate of the Greek orders, characterized by a slender fluted column having an ornate capital decorated with two rows of acanthus leaves and four scrolls. It is commonly regarded as the most elegant of the three orders. The shaft of the Corinthian order has 24 flutes. The column is commonly ten diameters high. The Romans adapted all the Greek orders and also developed two orders of their own, basically modifications of Greek orders. The Romans also invented the superposed order. A superposed order is when successive stories of a building have different orders. The heaviest orders were at the bottom, whilst the lightest came at the top. This means that the Doric order was the order of the ground floor, the Ionic order was used for the middle story, while the Corinthian or the Composite order was used for the top story. 

The Tuscan order has a very plain design, with a plain shaft, and a simple capital, base, and frieze. It is a simplified adaptation of the Doric order by the Romans. The Tuscan order is characterized by an un-fluted shaft, and a capital that only consists of an echinus and an abacus. In proportions it is similar to the Doric order, but overall it is significantly plainer. The column is normally seven diameters high. Compared to the other orders, the Tuscan order looks the most solid.

The Composite order is a mixed order, combining the volutes of the Ionic with the leaves of the Corinthian order. The column of the Composite order is ten diameters high.

One class of building was, for the most part, only marginally effected by the various innovations in Roman architecture.
The Roman temple architecture style was derived from the Etruscan model.
The Etruscans had adopted other styles into their temples, of which Greek architecture was the main influence. 
Therefore Roman temples were distinct, but also based on both Etruscan and Greek plans.
Roman temples emphasized the front of the building, which consisted of a portico with columns, surmounted by a triangular pediment, (often decorated with sculpture).
This departs from the Greek model of having equal emphasis all around the temple, where it could be viewed and approached from all directions.


© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016
Unique, and somewhat idiosyncratic among Roman buildings is the Ara Pacis.
The 'Ara Pacis Augustae' (Latin, "Altar of Augustan Peace"; commonly shortened to Ara Pacis) is an altar in Rome dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of Peace.
The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate on July 4, 13 BC to honor the return of Augustus to Rome after three years in Hispania and Gaul, and consecrated on January 30, 9 BC.
The altar reflects the Augustan vision of Roman civil religion.

Possible Reconstruction of External Decoration
(see above for Polychromatic Sculpture)
It consists of a traditional open-air altar at its center surrounded by precinct walls which are pierced on the eastern and western ends by openings.
The Ara Pacis is perhaps best known for the decoration on the exterior of the precinct walls composed of two tiers of friezes.
On the north and south, the upper register depicts the procession of members of the Imperial household, and the larger regime, while on the east and west, panels depict allegorical themes of peace and Roman civic ritual.
The lower register of the frieze depicts vegetal work meant to communicate the abundance and prosperity of the Roman Peace (Latin: Pax Augusta).
The monument as a whole serves a civic ritual function, whilst simultaneously operating as propaganda for Augustus and his regime, easing notions of autocracy and dynastic succession that might otherwise be unpalatable to traditional Roman culture.

to be continued....