Skip to content

Roman Art: an Universal Art!

  • by

At first sight roman art can seems nothing more than a copy and continuation of classic greek art but it is not like that. Sure it is undeniable the influence of greek art on roman one but Rome history is so long and complex that we cannot reduce roman art to an imitation of greek one. Moreover we should distinguish art of Rome among monarchical,republican and imperial. Monarchical or archaic art of Rome’s history is largely influenced by Etruscan art so much that in order to find some figurative artworks surely produce by roman civilization we need to wait the fourth and the third century b.C. with a bronze container which tells the myth of the Argonauts known as Cista Ficoroni. Among the most important works of arcaich-monarchical Rome we need to remember Cloaca Maxima(larger sewer) and the Servian Walls.


The first artistic phases of Republican Art are rather simple and refined at all but it was the contact with the hellenic art to press ahead roman art. The conquest of Magna Graecia by Romans sanctioned military superiority of Rome city toward greeks, which however at the same time, was not able to resist to immortal charm of greek art which in a certain sense conquered in its turn Rome thanks to its culture. Roman republic had an ambivalent relationship compared to greek art since in a first moment was disliked along with greek philosophers and poets while little by little that centuries passed, it was more and more appreciated. In fact were born two schools of thougth: the first philhellenes which loved greek art and that was headed by Circle of Scipioni while the second one philoromaniac and conservative at whose head there was Cato the Censor. Greek artworks came to Rome after the submission of Magna Graecia by Rome and they were more and more required from the clientele of collectors so much that original artworks were no longer sufficent. All of that lead to the rise of thriving market of greek copies which had to meet ever -increasing roman costumers,a phenomenon that took the name of Neo-attic. The first signs of peculiar roman art were noticed only under the government of the dictator Sulla,mostly in architecture,painting and sculptural portraits. These last were characterized by a marked realism which did not leave the imperfections of faces as well as the signs of time. As concerns the field of painting the roman tradition is also called “pompeian” thanks to several findings the archaeological site of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 a.C. Each walls of stately house of such period were decorated by amazing frescoes rich ad detailed few of which have survived in good state of maintenence. In the republic period, roman painting is divided into four styles which would be more correct to call “decorative schemes”. The first style of hellenistic derivation was documented thanks to architectorial incrustation painted(from III to II century b.C.) while the second style did not leave many traces outside Rome. It was definded “tromp l’oeil architectures”and it is thought may have been a roman invention.(from 120 to 50 b.C.) The third style was ornamental and overlapped the second one reaching up the time of emperor Claudius (41-54 a.C.) However the fourth style called “perspective illusionism” was very rich even though did not propose  anything new. Roman architecture of republican period showed its constructive genius especially in public works as big road network(that still exists)which then allowed the birth and development of huge roman empire. In this period does not lack the constructions of sacred buildings of course,as temple,but far more important was the constructions of bridges,galleries and aqueducts few of which still working nowadays! The most important examples about temples of republican age are the Forum of Caesar and the temple of Venus Genetrix but just with the restoration of temple of  Apollo Sosianus in 32 a.C. Rome will be able to compete finally with elegance and harmony of greek temples.


Imperial art of Rome was birth with classicism wanted by the first roman emperor namely Augustus which started a strong and radical transformation of urban planning of Rome which developed in a monumental sense. He greatly increased the construction of buildings as thermal baths,triumphal arches and amphitheatres the largest and famous of which was Flavian Amphitheatre best known as Colosseum which was inaugurated by Titus in 80 a.C. and then completed by Domitian. We need to mention even important buildings as Theatre of Marcellus, Amphitheatrer in Pula,Arena of Verona and the theatre of Orange. In sculpture we can notice a great influence of classic greek art that is evident especially in sculptures of divinities and important people of roman society. Rather emblematic are some sculptures which represent Emperor Augustus among which Augustus as Pontifex Maximus and Augustus Ioricato this last reworked from famous Polykleitos’s Doryphorus. Neo-attic was just the term used to indicate idealized roman works as classic greek art which however in the long run decreased sculptures to mere accademic works perfect and well balanced but cold and not very innovative. The gradual separation from sculptural neo-attic occured just with Julio-Claudian dynasty. In painting hold sway so called pompeian styles and  painting of illusionistic gardens. In the age of Augustus occured even a significant boost of glyptic art and tereuticus one that is art of working the metal.Among several finds discovered in such period stand out the treasure of Hildesheim, the Augustan gem (29 b.C.) the cameo of Augustus in Rome and the big cameo of France.

The emperor Vespasian was the founder of Flavian dynasty which continued with his sons Titus and Domitian,which completed the most famous work of Rome that is Colosseum. Another architectural-sculptural masterpiece of such period Arch of Titus a triumphal arch sculpted with figures in relief. The age of Flavian dynasty was important also because in architecture there was a gradual detachment from hellenism which led to the costruction of hemispherical domes as Domus Transitoria and Domus Aurea. Even the improvement of technique of barrel vault was pretty important. Just with the coming of emperor Trajan there was a total detachment from influence of greek art; his famous Trajan Column introduced innovation thanks to its outstanding reliefs which had to celebrate the conquest of Dacia(current Romania) indeed in such period the historical relief  came back to high level of masterpieces of ancient art. The innovations of reliefs of Trajan’s column can be summarized in crude realism of battle scenes which tend to show impetus of fight,suffering,the pain of the vanquished without idealization and theatricality.

With the age of emperor Adrian become still fashionable hellenism since he was very passionate about classic greek art. He made to build Villa Adriana in Tivoli and rebuilt the Pantheon while in sculpture  were ypical portraits of Antinous which was a young greek  emperor’s mistress from this last divinized. Classicism of Adrian’s age also continued with dynasty of Antonine or adoptive emperors which produced works with a marked chiaroscuro contrast as can be seen from the base of Colonna Antonina. With the advent of Commodus‘s empire who was quite eccentric,there was an artistic breakthrough especially in sculpture since is improved the spatial dimension and are introduced symbolic-religious themes or irrational events as we can notice by looking at the Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Anfiteatro Flavio
Flavian Amphitheatre or Colosseum,symbol of Rome



In the Late Empire begins the decadence of roman empire due to a severe instability both political and economic but also social which culminated in the crisis of III century. Roman art detached itself from hellenism and nature abandoning the form by taking refuge in irrational world and metaphysical abstraction. In this period in Rome prevail plebian or provincial art also due to growing influx of lower-class people and a loss of power and importance of patrician’s aristocracy. In fact roman society and art have always been characterized by a strong dualism between patricians and plebeians. These last gave life to popular art simple.clear and immediate which aimed to flatter customers and then it developed in some kind of art more and more free and expressionist which stand out from hellenism converging then in the medieval art. On the contrary patrician or aulic art was a kind of art linked to hellenism and to rational form of nature which was celebrated with great official works. Aulic art survived in Constantinople and gradually renewed itself until it flows in the byzantine art

Late Empire art goes on by leaving natural harmony to focus on representation of concept rather than accuracy of form. We can notice that by observing the colossal statue of Constantinus(12 meters tall) featuring of two big innatural eyes which expresses divine power of emperor. Even in the famous Arch of Constantinus the trend is to stand out from space-realism indeed carved figures don’t stick to prospective reality but to an idealization of reality. This is showed mostly in the figure of emperor which looms over to figures around him in a pretty innatural way to emphasize the aura of a trascendent divinity that emperor had compared to his servants. Constantinus was very important even for the famous “edict”in 313 which allowed freedom of worship for the Christians and that led to the development of a public christian art,which at first moment resulted to the edification of impressive and sumptuous basilicas and that later evolved in the famous paleochristian art.


Roman art has been an intermediary between ancient art and subseguent artistic manifestations which then brought to the birth of carolingian art,  gothic art and renaissance one. In fact it is not too much to say that roman art has been an universal art since thanks to the vastness of roman empire it has spread in infinity different places even beyond the empire’s borders. It has influenced thousands artist all over the world for several centuries and ,we can be assured,it will continue to fascinate billion people for centuries to come!       

Views: 20

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

PHP Code Snippets Powered By :