Art of the Roman Empire






Nerva (ad96-98), an elderly senator and the first of the Antonine Emperors, introduced the system of adoption into the imperial succession. This emperor had an aristocratic, asymmetrical elegance to his face, an "inimitable" quality for which the last Ptolemies of Egypt had striven in their portraits. His adopted successor. Trajan (ad98-117) - who, born in southern Spain, was the first emperor born outside Italy - went to the opposite extreme of the ambiguous iconography of Domitian. His preference for solid, monumental realism suggests the deep determination of this military leader in its strict formal equilibrium. The Roman historian Tacitus observed that innumerable descendants of freed slaves were among the noblemen and senators living in the reign of Trajan. After a century of victories and crises, the government embarked with renewed vigour on a variety of enterprises whereby Rome was embodied, publicly and privately - whether by the state, the emperor, or individual citizens - in the form of a warrior. The military fringe haircut was encouraged, and every artistic representation geared to promote the sense of power.
Trajan's Forum (ad107-113) represented the marble heart of the eternal city, an immense fortified encampment, the outpost of an aggressive military machine. The basilica was positioned as the principis (headquarters) of the castrum (fort), the libraries as the archives of the legions, and the Column marked the site in the parade ground where the standards were venerated. The decorative scheme of the Column was charged with metaphor, with commanders alternating with shields on the exterior, a triumphal chariot over the entrance, a colossal equestrian statue of Trajan in the centre of the square, and around him crowds of chained barbarians, stunned witnesses and victims of this great glory. The column, in a human touch, brings in its recounting of the two Dacian wars, a certain sense of compassion for the victims.

      Bronze cipeus (roundel) of Trajan.
Archaeological Museum, Ankara.
Trajan led the campaigns of ad113-116 against
the Parthians and died on the wav home in Cilicia





Detail's of Trajan s Column, Rome

Trajan's Column, Rome

The column was erected as the centrepiece of the Forum of Trajan, between the Basilica Ulpia and the Greek and Latin libraries (ad110-113). The recess in its base housed a golden urn containing the ashes of the emperor. The parian marble frieze of the column, exceeds 200 metres (650 feet) in length and follows a spiral course around the column, which is about 30 metres (100 feet) high. Recounting the two wars against the Dacians (ad101-106). which on the Column are separated by the image of Victory writing on a shield, the narrative is based upon contemporary sketches made to reconstruct the campaign in triumphal paintings. Just as Alexander had his court artists. Trajan had a military engineer, Apollodorus of Damascus, who used his avid eye for details of landscape, animals, clothing, and weapons to document with technical precision boats, engines of war. watchtowers. forts, city buildings, and encampments. The events begin at the bottom of the column with the signals of the sentries on the Danube. The tranquility is suddenly shattered by the peasant tumbling from his mule in front of the emperor: it is perhaps an omen, the meaning of which is lost because the Commentaries of the Dacian War, compiled by Trajan himself, have not survived, but this does not detract from the satisfying effect. According to the ancient Greek style of historic illustration, the different races, both among the Roman auxiliaries and the allies of the Dacians. are scrupulously characterized. Jove, armed with a thunderbolt, intervenes in support of his favourites at the first battle of Tapae, just as Zeus does in a statuary group of Alexander at Sagalassus (Turkey).
The glory of the victors is dampened in this narrative by the cruelty of the massacre: for example, an auxiliary grips the hair on the head of a decapitated enemy between his teeth. Numerous scenes illustrate troops on the move, addresses to the soldiers, field battles, infantry and cavalry actions in various types of terrain, and sieges. Each of them ends with the flight of the enemy and the capture or surrender of its leaders. Various exemplary actions of the emperor are also depicted, punctuated by ritual deeds that invite the observer to look beyond the detail and recognize the reassuring values of the event and the strength of the political structure behind it. The narrative concludes at the top of the column with a flock of sheep passively pushed on by the deported population; these animals vanish in the last spiral of the frieze where the fluting of the huge column reappears. The idyllic naturalism of the style of Alexandria is realistically interpreted to provide a setting for contemporary history in a show of inexorable might. Objective portrayal and epic vision unite to produce an emotional atmosphere that is shared by the artist, the figures, and, ultimately, the observers themselves in its implication that the rule of Rome is rooted in the permanent reality of nature.




This fragment from a composition in the "fourth style" shows the portraits of a man and woman viewed in the Etruscan-style pose. The man, with his markedly Mediterranean features, is thought by some to be the lawyer Terentius Xeus. Others believe him to be an unknown magistrate dressed in his white toga and clutching a scroll, but it is widely held that he is Paquius Proculus, a baker, whose shop lay adjacent to the house containing the painting. The elevated quality of life of the couple, which we could call upper middle class, is shown in the refined dress and elegant hairstyle of the woman, who has a stylus in her right hand and a two-leafed wax tablet on which to write. According to longstanding convention, the skin of the male is tanned while that of the woman is lighter.

First century ad,
fresco from Pompeii.
National Archaeological Museum, Naples


Publius Aelius Hadrianus (ad76-138). successor to Trajan, was an intellectual who during his 20 years of government expressed his personal vision as writer, architect, and artist. With the technical assistance of Decrianus (Demetrianus). he moved the Colossus of Nero and built the Temple of Venus and Roma in its place. He also rebuilt the Pantheon and designed his own funerary mausoleum (now the Castel Sant'Angelo). In Britain, Hadrian planned the 120-kilometre (75-mile) long wall that bears his name. His villa at Tivoli perfectly embodied the imperial dream, evoking idyllic places such as the Nile and the Vale of Tempe. It was a lavishly decorated complex, made up of living quarters with reception rooms, porticos, baths, a theatre, grottos, vistas, and underground storerooms. He also recreated parts of famous buildings such as the Erechtheum at Athens and the Temple of Aphrodite at Cnidos. Hadrian fell ill in about ad137 and moved to Baiae, where he died.

Bust of Hadrian.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ostia.



The supposed architect of Trajan's Forum, Apollodorus of Damascus, fell from grace under Hadrian (ad117-138) for his severe criticism of the emperor's plan for the Temple of Venus in Rome. The double building, with colossal proportions, explicitly linked the sanctity of Rome to the goddess whom Caesar and Augustus claimed presided over the city's fortunes. Hadrian's other lasting tribute to Rome's immortality was the rebuilding of the Pantheon with its marvellous dome.
 The massive circular interior (spanned by a dome with an opening in the centre) was punctuated by the "houses" of the planetary deities, and the pediment, with the bronze eagle inside a crown, combined the symbols of Aion (eternity). Naturally, grandiose monuments such as these advertised the prestige of Rome, but the emperor (like Trajan, of Iberian origin) also enhanced its reputation by his frequent travels and his desire to bring unity to his dominions. As the emperor's image became more familiar, it developed in the many lines of coinage with different representations according to each province. The highest expressions of these personifications are in the reliefs surrounding the Roman temple at Rome dedicated to Hadrian after his death by his successor Antoninus Pius (AD138-161).

Interior of the Pantheon, Rome


Gold coin (aureus) depicting Hadrian in profile.
Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna


The personality of Hadrian has been maginatively encapsulated in Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951), a modern "autobiography" ostensibly written by the emperor for his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius Hadrian's enlightened cultural policy particularly in restoration, is reflected in a letter written to him by the historian Arrian, then governor of Cappadocia, at the end of a journey of inspection along the coast of the Black Sea (c.ad130):
"We arrived at Trapezus (Trebizond), the Greek city of which Xenophon once spoke, and I was moved to see the Euxine Bridge from the spot where Xenophon, and you yourself, looked down on it. The aitars are still there, but the stone is so rough that the letters are no longer distinct, and the Greek inscription was engraved with several errors by the barbarians: so decided to rebuild them in white marble and to provide them with a new epigraph in clear letters. The situation of your statue, facing the sea, is fine, but it does not look like you nor is it well executed. Arrange to send a statue worthy of your name, in the same pose. The spot is absolutely right for a lasting memorial."


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