Roman Art and Architecture, the art and architecture of ancient Rome and its empire, which at its height extended from the British Isles to the Caspian Sea. The earliest Roman art is generally associated with the overthrow of the Etruscan kings and the establishment of the Republic in 509 bc. The end of Roman art and the beginning of medieval art is usually said to occur with the conversion of the emperor Constantine the Great to Christianity and the transfer of the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople (present-day İstanbul) in ad 330. Roman styles and even pagan Roman subjects continued, however, for centuries, often in Christian guise (see Early Christian Art and Architecture).
Roman art is traditionally divided into two main periods, art of the Roman Republic and art of the Roman Empire (from 27 bc on), with subdivisions corresponding to the major emperors or to imperial dynasties. When the Republic was founded, the term Roman art was virtually synonymous with the art of the city of Rome, which still bore the stamp of its Etruscan past (Etruscan Civilization). Gradually, as the Roman Empire expanded throughout Italy and the Mediterranean and as the Romans became exposed to other artistic cultures, notably that of ancient Greece, Roman art shook off its dependence on Etruscan art; during the last two centuries before Christ a distinctive Roman manner of building, sculpting, and painting emerged.
Nevertheless, because of the extraordinary geographical extent of the Roman Empire and the number of diverse populations encompassed within its boundaries, the art and architecture of the Romans was always eclectic and is characterized by varying styles attributable to differing regional tastes and the diverse preferences of a wide range of patrons. Roman art is not just the art of the emperors, senators, and aristocracy, but of all the peoples of Rome’s vast empire, including middle-class business people, freedmen, slaves, and soldiers in Italy and the provinces.
Curiously, although examples of Roman sculptures, paintings, buildings (see architecture), and decorative arts survive in great numbers, few names of Roman artists and architects are recorded. In general, Roman monuments were designed to serve the needs of their patrons rather than to express the artistic temperaments of their makers.
A clear picture of Roman architecture can be drawn from the impressive remains of ancient Roman public and private buildings and from contemporaneous writings, such as De Architectura (trans. 1914), the ten-volume architectural treatise compiled by Vitruvius toward the close of the 1st century bc.
|A||Roman City Planning|
The typical Roman city of the later Republic and empire had a rectangular plan and resembled a Roman military camp with two main streets—the cardo (north-south) and the decumanus (east-west)—a grid of smaller streets dividing the town into blocks, and a wall circuit with gates. Older cities, such as Rome itself, founded before the adoption of regularized city planning, could, however, consist of a maze of crooked streets.
The focal point of the city was its forum, usually situated at the center of the city at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanus. The forum, an open area bordered by colonnades with shops, functioned as the chief meeting place of the town. It was also the site of the city’s primary religious and civic buildings, among them the Senate house, records office, and basilica.
The basilica was a roofed hall with a wide central area—the nave—flanked by side aisles, and it often had two or more stories. In Roman times basilicas were the site of business transactions and legal proceedings, but the building type was adapted in Christian times as the standard form of Western church with an apse and altar at the end of the long nave. The first basilicas were put up in the early 2nd century bc in Rome’s own Forum, but the earliest well-preserved example of the basilicas (circa 120 bc) is found at Pompeii.
The chief temple of a Roman city, the capitolium, was generally located at one end of the forum. The standard Roman temple was a blend of Etruscan and Greek elements; rectangular in plan, it had a gabled roof, a deep porch with freestanding columns, and a frontal staircase giving access to its high plinth, or platform. The traditional Greek orders, or canons (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian), were usually retained, but the Romans also developed a new type of column capital called the composite capital, a mixture of Ionic and Corinthian elements. An excellent example of the canonical temple type is the Maison-Carrée (circa ad 4) in Nîmes, France.
Roman temples were erected not only in the forum, but throughout the city and in the countryside as well; many other types are known. One of the most influential in later times was the type used for the Pantheon (ad 118-28) in Rome, consisting of a standard gable-roofed columnar porch with a domed cylindrical drum behind it replacing the traditional rectangular main room, or cella. Simpler temples based on Greek prototypes, with round cellas and an encircling colonnade, such as that built about 75 bc at Tivoli, near Rome, were also popular.
|C||Markets and Shops|
Recreational buildings and shops were dispersed throughout the Roman city. The shops were usually one-room units (tabernae) opening onto the sidewalks; many, including combination mill-bakeries, can still be seen at Pompeii and elsewhere. Sometimes an entire unified complex of shops was constructed, such as the markets built in the reign (ad 98-117) of Trajan on the Quirinal Hill (Monte Quirinal) in Rome and still standing, which incorporated scores of tabernae on several levels and a large vaulted two-story hall.
|D||Theaters and Amphitheaters|
Roman theaters first appeared in the late Republic. They were semicircular in plan and consisted of a tall stage building abutting a semicircular orchestra and tiered seating area (cavea). Unlike Greek theaters, which were situated on natural slopes, Roman theaters were supported by their own framework of piers and vaults and thus could be constructed in the hearts of cities. Theaters were popular in all parts of the empire; impressive examples may be found at Orange (early 1st century ad), in France, and Sabratha (late 2nd century ad), in Libya.
Amphitheaters (literally, double theaters) were elliptical in plan with a central arena, where gladiatorial and animal combats took place (Gladiator), and a surrounding seating area built on the pattern of Roman theaters. The earliest known amphitheater (75 bc) is at Pompeii, and the grandest, Rome’s Colosseum (ad70-80), held approximately 50,000 spectators, roughly the capacity of today’s large sports stadiums.
Racecourses or circuses were also built in many cities for holding chariot races and horse races. Rome’s circus-shaped Piazza Navona occupies the site of one that was built during the reign (ad 81-96) of the emperor Domitian. The largest circus in Rome, the Circus Maximus, held about 200,000 spectators.
Large cities and small towns alike also had public baths (thermae); under the Republic they were generally made up of a suite of dressing rooms and bathing chambers with hot- , warm- , and cold-water baths (caldaria, tepidaria, frigidaria) alongside an exercise area, the palaestra. The baths (75 bc) near Pompeii’s forum are an excellent example of the early type. Under the empire these comparatively modest structures became progressively grander; such late examples as the Baths of Caracalla (about ad 217) in Rome also incorporated libraries, lecture halls, and vast vaulted public spaces elaborately decorated with statues, mosaics, paintings, and stuccos.
Among the other great public building projects of the Romans, the most noteworthy are the network of bridges and roads that facilitated travel throughout the empire, and the aqueducts that brought water to the towns from mountain sources (Pont du Gard, late 1st century bc or early 1st century ad, near Nîmes).
Although the public buildings were generally the grandest and costliest structures in the city, most of the area of a Roman town was occupied by private residences.
Family dwellings then as today were built in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but the Roman domus usually displayed the preference for symmetry around an axis that characterizes most of Roman public architecture as well. Early houses dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries bc seem to have been built on patterns going back to Etruscan times.
The standard domus italica, or early Republican house, consisted of an entrance corridor (fauces), a main room (atrium) open to the sky with a central basin for the collection of rainwater, a series of small bedrooms (cubicula), an office area (tablinum), a dining room (triclinium), a kitchen (culina), and perhaps a small garden (hortus). The front rooms of the house might open onto the street and serve as shops.
During the late Republic and early empire, Roman houses became ever more elaborate. Greek-style columns were installed in the atrium, the old hortus was expanded and framed by a colonnade (peristyle), and the decoration became quite lavish. The wealthiest city dwellings might occupy an entire block, as did the so-called House of the Faun at Pompeii, built early in the 2nd century bc.
|G2||The Villa and the Palace|
Suburban villas, such as those owned by the statesman and orator Cicero and other famous Romans, often incorporated fields, lakes, shrines, and thermal complexes. The finest of the preserved imperial villas is that (begun ad 118) of Hadrian at Tivoli. The first emperor, Augustus, who reigned from 27 bc to ad 14, lived in a relatively austere residence on the Palatine Hill in Rome, but under Domitian a great imperial palace (begun about ad 81, dedicated ad 92) was constructed nearby by the architect Rabirius (flourished ad 63-100). Domitian’s Domus Augustana also served as the headquarters of succeeding emperors. It had grand reception halls, public dining areas, fountains, and a garden in the form of a stadium, in addition to a residential wing.
City dwellers of the imperial period who could not afford private residences lived in insulae, multistory brick and concrete structures strikingly similar to modern apartment houses. The best-preserved examples are at Ostia, the port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber River, and date from the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
One kind of building that was almost always located outside the city proper was the tomb. Roman tombs, usually set up beside the major roads leading in and out of the cities, exhibit an extraordinary variety of forms because they reflect the personal tastes of private patrons and because their simple function—to house the bodies or cremated remains of the dead—could be satisfied with almost any shape.
The emperor Augustus had his own huge mausoleum built at Rome between 28 and 23 bc in the form of a great concrete drum surmounted by a mound, recalling the monumental earthen tumuli of Etruscan times. Across the Tiber the emperor Hadrian had an even larger mausoleum built (ad 135-139) for himself and his successors; it was converted (5th century) to a fortress, now known as Castel Sant’Angelo.
A wealthy contemporary of Augustus, Gaius Cestius, chose to be buried in a pyramid tomb about 15 bc, while at the same time a successful baker, Marcus Virgilius Eurysaces, had his tomb decorated with grain measures and a frieze detailing the various stages in the baking of bread. Persons of lesser means, especially freed slaves, were usually buried in communal tombs called columbaria in which the ashes of the deceased were deposited in one of hundreds of small niches marked with simple plaques.
Great tower tombs were also erected, such as that in honor of the Julii family of St-Rémy-de-Provence (France). Their mausoleum, built about 25 bc, consists of a large base topped by a four-sided arch and a small round temple housing two portrait statues. Burial chambers might also be located in mountain cliffs with elaborate facades carved into the sheer faces of the rock, as in the Roman cemetery at Petra, in present-day Jordan.
|I||Building Materials and Methods|
Quarried stone, used in conjunction with timber beams and terra-cotta tiles and plaques, was the essential Roman building material from Republican times on. The stone chosen ranged from central Italian tufa and travertine to gleaming white marble shipped from Greece and Asia Minor—or, from the time of Caesar on, from Luna (modern Luni, near Carrara) in Italy—and multicolored marbles imported from quarries all over the ancient world. Thin revetment plaques of fine marble were often used to sheathe walls constructed of cheaper stone blocks or rubble.
Marbles lent splendor to the Romans’ buildings, as they did to those of the Greeks before them. However, it was a material invented by the Romans—concrete—that revolutionized the history of architecture and permitted the Romans to put up buildings that were impossible to construct with the traditional stone post-and-lintel system of earlier architecture. Roman concrete was an amalgam of aggregate and a mortar of lime and pozzolana, a volcanic sand. It provided Roman architects with the means to cover vast spaces with great vaults (see Arch and Vault) and to liberate architectural design from the canonical rectilinear patterns that were used in classical architecture.
Concrete vaulting made possible the construction of the great amphitheaters and baths of the Roman world, as well as the dome of the Pantheon and such spectacular hillside sanctuaries as that of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (late 2nd century bc) at Palestrina. Because concrete walls and ceilings were fashioned in molds, architects were encouraged to experiment with irregular configurations that lent visual excitement to the interior of buildings. Although Roman concrete could be faced with a variety of materials, the most popular during the empire was brick. Indeed, during the first two centuries after Christ, brick first came to be appreciated as a building facing in its own right; brick-faced concrete quickly became the favored material for large buildings such as apartment houses, baths, and horrea, or warehouses (for example, the horrea of Epagathius, ad 145-150, at Ostia).
Throughout the Roman world, statues and reliefs were regularly displayed in, on, and around public and private buildings. In fact, some Roman buildings were little more than monumental supports for sculpture.
Chief among these are the honorary, or so-called triumphal, arches erected in all parts of the empire. Although almost none of the great statuary groups (often chariot groups) that once crowned these arches has survived, the original purpose of such monuments was solely to support honorific statuary; the arches were very plain. Under Augustus and succeeding emperors, however, the arches themselves became more and more elaborate. They eventually developed into veritable billboards covered with extensive series of relief panels advertising the victories and good deeds of the emperors. The reliefs often recounted specific historical events, but frequently allegorical scenes were also depicted in which an emperor might appear in the company of the gods or receive the homage of kneeling personifications of conquered peoples.
Among the most important preserved arches in the capital are the Arch of Titus (about ad 81), in the Roman Forum, and the Arch of Constantine (ad 315), near the Colosseum. In two panels on Titus’s arch the triumphal procession of the emperor is represented, complete with the spoils from the sack of the great temple in Jerusalem. The arch erected in honor of Constantine the Great presents a mixture of reliefs reused from earlier monuments and new reliefs made specifically for the arch. The panels and friezes depict a host of subjects, including scenes of battle, sacrifice, and the distribution of largess. In the reused reliefs the head of Constantine the Great was routinely substituted for those of his predecessors. Such reuse and refashioning of older reliefs was not uncommon in imperial Rome; the monuments of dead emperors who were officially condemned by the Senate (damnatio memoriae) were either altered or destroyed.
Richly decorated arches are also found outside Rome. At Benevento in southern Italy a grand arch with 14 panels honoring the emperor Trajan was put up about ad 114. At Orange in France, the Arch of Tiberius (ad 25) is covered with representations of military trophies and bound captives, scenes of Romans fighting Gauls, and panels of captured arms and armor.
|B||Honorific Columns and Altars|
Historiated columns were also occasionally erected, with spiral relief friezes narrating in great detail the successful military campaigns of the Romans. The first and greatest of these was put up in the Forum of Trajan (ad 113) in Rome by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus. It recounts the activities of the Roman army in its war against the Dacians (see Dacia) on the empire’s northern frontier (now part of Romania). Historical reliefs also adorned great altars. The finest is the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace, 13-9 bc, Rome), the reliefs of which celebrate the initiation by Augustus of the Pax Romana, the great era of Roman peace and prosperity.
The style of the imperial relief sculptures ranges from the conscious neo-Greek classicism of the Ara Pacis friezes to the late antique—the schematic, frontal, and hieratic style of the new reliefs of the Arch of Constantine. On many monuments two or more styles may be seen side by side. As previously noted, throughout its history Roman art was eclectic, and no single period has a unified “Roman style.” In fact, the style of contemporary official and private monuments often differed markedly, as did that of coeval monuments in the capital and the provinces.
Private commissions for relief sculpture were usually in funerary contexts. Successful merchants such as the baker Eurysaces had their business activities immortalized on their tombs. During the late Republic and early empire, group portrait reliefs of freed slaves were frequently placed in the facades of their communal tombs; in the 1st and 2nd centuries ad portrait reliefs were popular for funerary altars set up in or around tombs.
The most important class of funerary reliefs, favored by the upper and middle classes alike from the mid-2nd century on, decorated the sarcophagi (coffins; literally, “flesh-eaters”; see Sarcophagus) produced in Rome and other major centers of the Mediterranean, including Athens and other cities of the Greek-speaking East. Many of the surviving sarcophagus reliefs are composed solely of garlands and other decorative motifs, but a great variety of narrative themes were also chosen. Mythological tales were especially popular, including the labors of Hercules, the Calydonian boar hunt of Meleager, and the legend of Niobe and her children. Often a portrait of the deceased was substituted for the head of the mythological hero or heroine. The sarcophagus reliefs were also sometimes pseudobiographical in nature, and a patron could choose from a repertoire of stock patterns for scenes of war, sacrifice, and marriage. The compositions of these scenes were frequently derived from imperial reliefs showing the emperor sacrificing to the state gods, receiving barbarian emissaries, and the like.
The preferred medium for Roman relief sculptures was white marble, but less costly varieties of limestone were also widely employed. Figural as well as decorative reliefs were generally painted, and colored stone was occasionally selected; for example, porphyry was favored in the 4th century, especially for imperial sarcophagi.
The same kinds of stone were used for freestanding statuary, although statues were produced in great numbers in bronze and even in gold and silver. Relatively few bronze and almost no gold and silver statues have survived because they were frequently melted down in the Middle Ages and later. Notable exceptions are the bronze equestrian statue (circa ad175) of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on the Campidoglio in Rome (spared only because it was thought to be of Constantine the Great), the gold bust (Musée Cantonal d’Archéologie et d’Histoire, Lausanne, Switzerland) of the same emperor from Avenches, Switzerland, and the silver bust (Museo di Antichità, Turin, Italy) of Lucius Aurelianus Verus, coemperor (ad161-169) with Marcus Aurelius.
Statues were erected of deities, heroes, and mortals alike in a wide variety of contexts. Every temple had a cult statue of the god or goddess to whom the temple was dedicated. Marble and bronze images of the gods and heroes—Roman originals and copies of famous Greek statues—were popular not only for public places such as baths, but for the atria, gardens, and pools of private houses and villas. Important civic buildings were likely to possess a portrait of the current emperor and sometimes those of his wife and children as well.
Roman portrait sculpture forms one of the great chapters in the history of ancient art. Surviving portraits vary in size from miniature busts to colossal statues such as that of Constantine the Great, placed in his basilica in the Roman Forum. A Roman tradition during the Republic was to have family members carry images of the deceased during the funeral procession. Recent studies have suggested that the depictions of wrinkled old men and women associated with funerary monuments are not actual likenesses of the deceased but rather are cultural statements about them. This tradition merged with the practice of commemorating statesmen and other notables by erecting their images in public places. In both instances, real-life images are subsumed by imbuing the representations with artistic conventions connoting an array of Republican virtues. Some scholars have further suggested that these images were sculpted by Greek artists whose inherent antipathy toward the Romans impelled them to exacerbate these conventions until images verged on caricature.
The concept of an image imbued with cultural, not individual, characteristics continued into the Roman Imperial Period, as the images of Augustus reveal. When Augustus died in ad 14 at the age of 76, his official portraits still presented him as a young man. Although his image was transformed several times during his life, none represented him as an aged monarch. Nevertheless, in time, images of Roman royalty became more representational.
Little survives today of Roman panel painting, the equivalent of modern paintings on canvas. But it is known from ancient literature that Roman painters treated a variety of subjects, including historical events, myths, scenes of daily life (see genre painting), portraits (see portraiture), and still lifes.
In the Roman Imperial Period, portrait painting is best represented by a series of wooden panels recovered from sites throughout Roman Egypt. These works, traditionally called Fayyum portraits, after the agricultural district in Egypt where they were first discovered, were painted in the encaustic technique, a method that uses pigment contained in a medium of hot wax. These panels are the only portraits that have survived in any number, and even though they are provincial works, they testify to a high level of accomplishment on the part of Roman painters. These images reflect the prevailing tastes of the times and provide a chronological overview of the development of portraiture during the Roman Imperial Period. One painted imperial portrait is preserved (Staatliche Museen, Berlin), depicting Lucius Septimius Severus, his wife, Julia Domna, and their sons, Caracalla and Geta. Geta’s head was removed after his damnatio memoriae (official condemnation).
Mural painting is, by contrast, well documented, especially in Pompeii and the other cities buried in ad 79 by the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius. Four so-called Pompeiian Styles have been distinguished.
|B1||First and Second Styles|
The First Style, popular between about 120 and 80 bc (House of Sallust, Pompeii), is based on Greek interior decoration. It is sometimes called the Incrustation Style because painted plaster relief is used to imitate the appearance of the lavish marble-reveted walls of the very wealthy.
Painters working in the Second Style, from 80 to 15 bc, sought to create the illusion of vast spaces beyond the surface of the wall by using perspective. Colonnades, gardens, theatrical stages, and round temples were popular motifs. Extensive series of Second Style murals can be found today at Pompeii (Villa of the Mysteries, 50 bc), in a magnificent recently excavated villa at nearby Oplontis (also 50 bc), and elsewhere. Even the house of Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome was decorated (circa 25 bc) in this elegant style.
|B2||Third and Fourth Styles|
The Third Style, from 15 bc to ad 63, is a highly refined style in which the illusionism of the Second Style is suppressed in favor of delicate linear arabesques on monochrome grounds. Probably the finest surviving suite of Third Style rooms comes from the Villa of Agrippa Postumus (10bc) at Boscotrecase. The Fourth Style, from ad 63 to 79, is the last and most complex style developed before the Vesuvian eruption. Architectural motifs were popular, but they were no longer rendered in a rational perspective; instead, fantastic, impossible-to-build structures adorn the walls of Fourth Style rooms, such as those in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii. In the Third and Fourth Styles the centers of the murals are frequently occupied by imitation panel paintings, usually depicting mythological subjects, although scenes of daily life, portraits, and other themes are also known.
The development of mural painting after the destruction of the cities of Vesuvius is less well documented. But painted rooms of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries may be found at Ostia and especially in the Roman catacombs, where Christian subjects were popular long before Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity.
Wherever painted murals existed, colored floors were likely to be present. They were often simply painted in solid colors, but in many instances they were made up of marble slabs of many hues or of thousands of tiny mosaic cubes known as tesserae.
Roman mosaics have been excavated in all parts of the empire. They range from abstract patterns of black-and-white tesserae to ambitious multicolor figural compositions, such as the great floor from the House of the Faun at Pompeii. This floor reproduces a 4th-century bc Greek painting, the Battle of Issus, depicting a military engagement of the armies of Alexander the Great and King Darius III of Persia.
Roman ceilings were frequently painted and on occasion covered with mosaics, but they were also often decorated with stucco reliefs that in turn were generally painted. Particularly fine stuccoed vaults have been found in the Farnesina House (20 bc) and the Tomb of the Pancratii (ad 160) in Rome.
|B||Gems, Cameos, Metalwork, and Glass|
In ancient Rome the arts of metalwork, gem cutting (see Gemstones: Gem Engraving), glass, and the like were highly respected. Although artists’ names are seldom recorded, the name of the engraver of the emperor Augustus’s official seal, Dioscurides, is known. Cameos and intaglios (engraved gems) survive in great numbers with portraits, mythological figures, and the like. Some large cameos with narrative and allegorical scenes are also known; chief among them are the Gemma Augustea (early 1st century ad, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), celebrating Augustus, and the Grand Camée de France (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), honoring Augustus’s successor, Tiberius.
Metalsmiths were active in producing precious metal jewelry as well as expensive tableware. Hoards of silver vessels have been found in a villa at Boscoreale and in the House of Menander at Pompeii. Both silver treasures were buried by the Vesuvian eruption and include pieces with abstract, vegetal, and figural ornament. The most widely distributed miniature works of art were the Roman coins struck in gold, silver, and copper. Under the empire the coins bore the portraits of the reigning emperors and their families on the obverse side and representations of deities and buildings or historical and allegorical narratives on the reverse.
Roman glass, despite its fragility, has survived in considerable quantities. Glass manufacture included molded and blown glass as well as such luxurious variants as cameo glass (Portland Vase, late 1st century bc, British Museum, London), mosaic glass (many examples, 1st century bc, Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York), fondi d’oro (gold-enhanced glass, many examples, 4th century ad, Metropolitan Museum, New York City), and diatreta (cage cup) glass—one-piece glass vessels consisting of a cup or vase enclosed in a mesh carved from its outer surface (Lycurgus Cup, 4th century ad, British Museum).
Roman art and architecture had a profound impact not only on the succeeding art of the Middle Ages, but on the Renaissance and baroque periods as well, and even much of the art produced in the 20th century has obvious roots in the Roman past.
See also Architecture; Baroque Art and Architecture; Byzantine Art and Architecture; Early Christian Art and Architecture; Etruscan Civilization: Art and Architecture; Furniture; Greek Art and Architecture; Neoclassical Art and Architecture; Pottery; Renaissance Art and Architecture.