Art of the Roman Empire





Public Building

Vitruvius resorted to Greek architectural models to offer families homes that were attractive and comfortable, to provide the public with arcades and basilicas, and to dedicate to the gods temples that were both decorous and well-proportioned. During Augustus' reign, the construction of public utilities assumed an importance that had previously been unknown in Mediterranean countries. Technical advancement and the testing of original inventions were the responsibility of the town magistracies, the public works offices, and the curators or commissioners of the various areas of production. Motivated by contractors who were conscious of their civic and electoral responsibilities, architects from Asia (such as Quintus Mutius) developed the techniques that enabled works to be mass-produced: for example, the stone arch based on re-usable wooden frames; concrete vaulting; and paved roads over uniform drainage beds. The organizational skills of the Latins were applied to a slave economy. Specialized manual work was reduced to a minimum, and unlimited scope given to general construction work. Different types of facing were used for concrete walls. Ordinary stonemasonry (opus quadratum) gradually gave way to walls of mass concrete in which the mixture was poured into a casing constructed with two sides of small stone blocks. The pieces were initially irregular in shape (opus incertum). and work proceeded slowly because they had to be fixed together; the concrete pieces were then made into a more standard form in the shape of small pyramids with square bases (opus reticulatum), which were quicker to assemble. Under Augustus, true bricks came to be used widely and were produced in vast quantities. Only a few experts were needed to supervise the large workforces engaged in extracting, refining, and mixing the clay, moulding the bricks, drying them, and firing them in kilns, then letting them stand and eventually transporting them. The economy of the whole process, guaranteed by seals stamped on the bricks, was the monopoly of the emperor. He gave his personal blessing to finished works, using his name on the dedicatory inscription for perpetuity, as public benefactor.

Pantheon, Home.
This splendid edifice was originally constructed by Agrippa in 27bc




The Gaze of Rome

The Roman mood of confidence and resolution, which proclaimed itself heir to the Hellenic tradition and asserted its authority, can also be seen in portraits of individuals. In the words of Virgil (Aeneid, vi. 847-53): "Others...shall hammer forth more delicately a breathing likeness out of bronze, coax living faces from the marble.... But you, Roman, must remember that you have to guide the nations by your authority, for this is to be your skill, to graft tradition into peace, to show mercy to the conquered, and to wage war until the haughty are brought low." Whether from the faces of those who managed the system, such as the Emperor or the magistrates, or ordinary men and women. Rome's gaze follows us. Allegorical statues and portraiture depicted a distinctive Roman face wearing a proud look that in ancient Greece denoted respect for particular schools, traditions, and institutions. Rome was a veritable museum of styles, where models from any period in the past could be assembled. Public monuments and celebratory portraits combined to reflect the taste and aspirations of each imperial dynasty.



Portrait of Nero
with beard inspired
by Greek philosophers.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Julio-Claudian Dynasty

Portraits of the Emperor Tiberius adl4-37), who succeeded his father-in-law Augustus, retain the classicizing features favoured by his predecessor, while those of Caligula (ad37-41) show a certain delicacy in the shading of the cheeks and the soft light in the eyes. Claudius (ad411-54), who had studied Italian and Etruscan antiquity, reflected on the
components of Roman culture. In one work, he harks back to the early foreign kings - Numa Pompilius was a Sabine, while Tarquinius Priscus was the son of the Corinthian Demaratus and an Etruscan mother, and Servius Tullius, who rose to be king, was the son of a prisoner. Portraits of Claudius echo the manner of the first heirs of Alexander in their monumentality. From the outset, Nero (ad54-68) abandoned the simple, arid sculptural tradition of the Augustan age. He wears a beard, modelled on the Greek philosophers, his face is soft and fleshy, and his eyes are deep-set and with shadows, suggesting a restless personality. The so-called "fourth style" was adopted for wall-paintings such as those in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii, which pre-date the earthquake of ad62. The composition is still symmetrical in the theatrical tradition of the "second style", but with a wholly new type of landscaped architectural background that opens up the entire wall to the viewer. The figures, which stand out from the decorative surroundings, lend a spiritual atmosphere. The design is executed with consummate skill, the perspective is sharp, and the quality of the painting is very high. An increased depth of space creates more tension between foreground and background, while slender, entwined garlands link the colonnades with the crossbeams of the airy loggias that stand out against the clear sky. A vital element of the scene is the light, which graduates gently from the dense luminosity of the realistic still-life subjects in the foreground to the transparent shadows that soften the details of the distant landscape. After upheavals in the economy and in Nero's dealings with the Senate (ad64), his policies took on a Hellenistic tendency: in his portraits, the beard and hairstyle become curly, the cheeks plump, and the lower lip fleshy and protruding; his eyes look upwards, like those of Alexander. At the entrance to the Domus Aurea (Golden House), the residence built by Nero after the great fire of ad64 had destroyed much of Rome, the bronze worker Zenodoros erected a colossal statue of Nero wearing the radiate crown of the sun. The design of the palace was faithful to Hellenistic-landscape architecture.

Imaginary architectural scene in a fresco
from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii



The fire that devastated Rome in the tenth year of Nero's reign (ad61) affected a large part of the emperor's Domus Transitoria ("temporary home), which occupied the imperial lands of the Palatine and Esquiline hills, from where the emperor watched the conflagration. His sumptuous new residence, the Domus Aurea (Golden House), was planned on a grand scale rivalling Greek or Oriental counterparts, with natural parks, country villas, and a huge network of luxurious buildings for accommodating and entertaining guests. The scheme-was subsequently copied in Domitian's uncompleted villa situated in the Alban Hills and in Hadrian's Villa built at Tivoli. One of the domestic wings, buried below the Baths of Trajan, was rediscovered at the end of the 15th century. The decoration of the vaults of what had become grottos inspired and gave its name to the "grotesque" style that emerged during the Renaissance. The decoration was the work of Fabullus, a painter noted for the colour and splendour of his gilded stuccowork. The ceilings and walls were adorned with lively mythological frescos in the so-called "fourth style".


Plan of a residential quarter of Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome



Detail showing the transportation of a dead hind from a sarcophagus depicting the myth of Hippolytus.
Museo Arqueo-logico Provincial, Tarragona, Spain


The myth of Hippolytus, the innocent and tragic son of Theseus, was a popular subject that frequently appeared in the decoration of funeral monuments. In the absence of Theseus, Hippolytus' lustful stepmother Phaedra made advances towards him. which he rejected. She then hanged herself, leaving for her husband a letter in which she accused the prince of raping her. On Theseus' return, he banished his son and used one of three wishes given to him by Poseidon to dispose of the alleged culprit and restore the family honour. While Hippolytus was driving his chariot along the seashore, a bull emerged from the water and terrified the horses; Hippolytus was thrown from the chariot and trampled to death by his horses. Theseus later learned the truth from Artemis. Based on a painting by Antiphilus, a sarcophagus made in Athens (c.ad23O) and exported to Tarragona illustrates the whole story. The cruel climax is powerfully depicted on the rear of the tomb in a surprisingly modern style. The modelling stands out from the background in slight relief and the complex composition is made striking by its stark realization. The interplay of the elements of the myth - the sea personified as Thalassa startled by the bull; the foreshortened chariot; the god heedlessly dispensing justice; the messenger in the presence of Theseus - creates a choral lament for the victim and sharply reminds us of our fate.

This scene from the same sarcophagus shows the departure of Hippolytus



Rear face of the sarcophagus,
illustrating Hippolytus trampled by the horses and killed by the bull of Poseidon,
seen in the background with the trident




The Flavian Dynasty

The intermixing of Hellenic and Roman elements in imperial art is evident in the portraits of Nero's successor Vespasian (ad69-79). Those designed for private appreciation placed emphasis on past republican realism, evoking the emperor's military background, while those for public consumption show a harder face with classical features. The theories behind the wall-paintings of Nero's reign found wider practical application in stucco decoration, which was ideally suited to the subtle realism of the "fourth style". In the decoration of a villa at Stabiae, incomplete at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (ad79), a portrait of Narcissus with architectural details and skilful depiction of the young man's delight at his reflection in the water reveals the artist's virtuosity.


The myth of Narcissus,
stucco relief, Stabiae.
Antiquarium, Castellammare di Stabia, Italy


Arch of Titus, Rome


Detail of relief showing the victory of Titus, Arch of Titus, Rome

A feeling of transience pervades the work: the foliage, the soft feathers of the cupid's wing, and the blaze of the torch. The changing quality of the light lends definition to the angles of the youth's body and the strong lines of his face and hair. The varying effects of daylight, sometimes sharp and focused, at other times diffused or flickering, as if drawn from the flow of the stucco, enliven the images, creating abstractions of light and shade that were to become the ghost of the classical form, evoked with an independence of expression that would not be seen again until the Renaissance bas-reliefs of Donatello. On a monumental scale, the freedom of Flavian art is evident in the Arch of Titus, erected by Domitian (ad81-96) on his accession. Its purpose was to illustrate, in a symbolic sense, the victory over Judaea, which had been celebrated a decade earlier by his brother Titus and their father Vespasian. On the northern panel, the figure of Titus is shown alone in his triumphal chariot, flanked by Victory who crowns him, while the horses are led by the goddess Roma. They are followed by personifications of the Senate and the Roman people. The rods and axes (known as fasces) carried by the lictors (attendants) as symbols of their authority are angled to the background, conveying the depth of the scene. The other frieze deals with documented history, specifically the episode that marked the achievement of the age. We witness the transportation of the sacred objects looted from the Temple of Jerusalem: the seven-branched candelabrum and the Ark of the Covenant with the trumpets of Jericho; the tablets held aloft contain information about conquered cities. Whereas the procession represented on the Ara Paris follows a straight line, in this work both scenes follow a curve, giving prominence to the central section where the sculpture juts out in relation to the bas-relief of the heads in the distance. Passion breaks through the surface in dramatic contrasts of light and shade, and the formality of the structure is overshadowed by the content, with its passionate celebration of Rome and its people. In reviving the epic ardour of Hellenism, the artist makes a deliberate display of expressionism to convey a sense of excitement and turmoil. The horses rear up in the air. and the rhythmical movements of the bearers create an atmosphere of frenzied fervour, which can still be witnessed today, in some Mediterranean countries, during Catholic processions in which sacred objects are borne. There is a strong internal structure to the composition. The chariot is the unifying element of the design and holds together the twisting mass around it. bringing the tumult of the action into a single, organic whole. The notion of an internal impetus exploding throughout the work is reminiscent of the powerful Gigantomachia on the Pergamum altar. By positioning a splendid group of animals in the centre of the work, the artist again conveys the message of a triumphant, immutable destiny. The few images of Domitian that survived the destruction of the statues decreed by the Senate's damnatio memoriae after his assassination symbolize, in their variety, the entire imperial experiment, derived from a mixture of the realism imposed by Vespasian and the adherence to various phases of Hellenic art.

Detail of relief showing the victory of Titus, Arch of Titus, Rome.
Here, the spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem are displayed in a triumphal procession


Detail of relief showing the victory of Titus, Arch of Titus, Rome.
This scene depicts the actual triumphal procession with the toga-clad Titus in the chariot



Fragmentary statue of Antinous.
Archaeological Museum, Delphi


No other classicizing tendency of the ancient or modern world was as intent on recognizing itself in archetype as the world of Hadrian (ad117-138). In expressing their personal vision of the emperor, the great I Iellenic masters of the age seemed united in their adaptation of classical models to the realities of modern life. Antinous, a beautiful youth from Bithynia, was the beloved favourite of the Emperor Hadrian. When he died in Egypt in ad130, his image inspired artists to follow" in the footsteps of the great Greek sculptors, Calamis, Phidias, and Praxiteles, reverting to the ancient figurative tradition in order to portray contemporary power in aesthetic, philosophical, and religious terms. Perfect models were to be found in mythology, from which portraits of Antinous assumed the body and attitudes of heroes and deities. The relief carved in Rome by Antonianus of Aphrodisias is original in its elevation of the ordinary to the devine. Wearing a pine crown, like Silvanus, the god of forests and uncultivated land.
Antinous is shown as a typical forester with his short tunic and hill-hook. The dog standing at the side of Antinous emphasizes the funereal nature of the image of Silvanus, reinforced by analogy with Attic stelae. In this sacred, Alexandrian-style landscape, the vine alludes to Bacchus. The Greek signature of the scuptor has been placed at the side of an altar, which is surmounted by fruits from the bloodless offering. If the position of the arms is reversed, the figure of Antinous recalls the Dorvphorus of Polykleitos, while the face reflects the sadness of a period of uncertainty: it draws on Attic dogma, while retaining contemporary reactions and feelings.

Antonianus of Aphrodisias,
relief of Antinous as Silvanus,
Torre del Padiglione,
between ancient Lanuvium and Antium.
Private Collection, Rome,

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy