Ancient Roman Art

The topic of ancient Roman art is very broad, spanning over almost 1000 years and 3 continents, from Europe into Africa and Asia. The first record of Roman art dates back to 509 B.C.E with the first formation of the legendary Roman Republic. Roman art encompassed a broad spectrum of media, from marble to painting, mosaic and gems, silver and bronze work as well as terracotta. The city of Rome itself was a melting pot of culture and influence. The Romans had no problem adapting other artistic styles from the Mediterranean cultures that surrounded them. For this reason, it is common to see Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian influences throughout Roman art. Despite their knack for adopting other styles, there is still something very “roman” about Roman art. In fact, one of the larger challenges of art history is identifying what that is.

Greek art had a significant influence on Roman art. After conquering Greece, Rome adapted much of Greece’s culture and artistic heritage. They even imported many of Greece’s most famous works to their own lands. The Romans were quite taken with Greek culture. The Roman poet Horace even famously said that “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive.” Many Romans commissioned versions of famous Greek works and sculptures from earlier centuries. The Romans did not believe that having a copy of artwork was of any less value than having the original. The copies did typically have some variation though, with small changes made to them. These changes were often made with a sense of humour, turning the more serious and somber elements of Greek art on its head. For example, a famously gruesome Hellenistic sculpture of the satyr Marsyas being flayed was converted into a Roman dining knife handle. The irony here is clever, as the tool used in the flaying is now the structure itself. This demonstrated not only the owner’s knowledge of Greek Mythology but also a dark sense of humour. This shows that the Roman artist was not simply copying, he was adapting in a conscious and clever way. It this ability to adapt, convert and combine elements with a touch of humour that makes Roman art distinctly “Roman”.

The founding of the Roman Republic, as we know it, occurred after the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown. The Etruscan civilization is the modern name given to the civilization of ancient Italy. During this period, the Romans were governed by magistrates, who were elected annually. There was also an overarching ruling body of the state referred to as “the Senate”. Eventually, this system broke down and civil wars ensued between 100 B.C and 42 B.C. The wars ended when Augustus defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. During this era, art was produced in the service of the state, depicting public sacrifices or celebrating victorious military campaigns. Portraiture depicted the common goals of the Roman Republic, which was about hard work, age, wisdom, being a community leader and a soldier. Patrons of the arts would deliberately choose to have themselves represented with balding heads, large noses, and extra wrinkles. This demonstrated that they had spent their lives working for the Republic as model citizens. The would show off their wisdom with each wrinkle and furrow of the brow.

Augustus’s rise to power signaled the end of the Roman Republic and the formation of Imperial rule. Roman art shifted here to represented the power, status or wealth of the ruler and his family. The different periods here were named after the ruling families at the time. Imperial art often referred back to the Classical art of the past, again borrowing heavily from Greek culture. The term “Classical” is often used when speaking about this type of art. It refers to the smooth lines of the work, the elegant drapery, idealized nude bodies, highly naturalistic forms, and balanced proportions. The Greeks had spent centuries perfecting this practice and the Romans simply continued the effort. There was a dynamic shift here. In this case, figures were idealized and people no longer wanted to be shown as wise, wrinkly old men but rather young, powerful warriors.

We, unfortunately, know very little about the artists making these works, especially during the Roman period. There is a significant lack of documentary evidence such as a contract or letters. The evidence we do have refers more to famous Greek artists of the past. As a result, historians will refer not to specific artists but consider them as a largely anonymous group. The Romans were an adaptive group of people and this really was their defining characteristic, when it came to art anyway. They had a remarkable ability to adapt, to take in and uniquely combine influences over centuries of practice. This is truly what made them distinct.