The Roman Empire: Story Behind its Art and Architecture

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin

In the 8th century B.C., during the same time as the legendary foundation of the city of Rome, a group of Greek colonists established the city of Syracuse, which became one of the wealthiest and most prosperous cities in the entire Mediterranean.

Great achievements depicted in Roman sculptures
Roman art was greatly influenced by the Greek. (Image: salajean/Shutterstock)

Archimedes, the Great Mathematician

Image of Archimedes.
Archimedes was considered one of the greatest Greek mathematicians. (Image: Domenico Fetti/Public domain)

Syracuse sided with Carthage during the Second Punic War that caused the Romans to send one of their Generals, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, to capture it in 214 B.C. The two-year siege is famous in history, as the Greek Engineer and Mathematician, Archimedes lived in Syracuse who applied his genius in constructing an array of war machines, deadly catapults, and a fantastical giant claw used to overturn attacking Roman warships.

Marcellus and his Roman army eventually broke in to sack Syracuse, in the process accidentally killing Archimedes, whom they had wanted to capture and put to work for them.

The Impact of Greek Culture

How it relates to the Roman art is that Marcellus and his men returned to Rome with their loot, including an incredibly rich trove of stolen Greek art as well as thousands of enslaved Greeks. That was the beginning of Roman exposure towards Greek culture and art, which transformed the Roman culture and civilization. Until then, the greatest influence on Roman art and architecture had been the earlier indigenous Italian civilization of the Etruscans.

Learn more about the Classical Legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Romans and the Etruscan Art

The Romans imitated many aspects of Etruscan art and architecture but the cosmopolitan Etruscans were themselves in contact with the Greeks and were influenced by them. The sack of Syracuse marked the moment when Greek art was introduced to Rome on a massive scale, sparking the great fusion of two cultures. The Romans copied and adopted Greek ideas and influences fully. Their culture thus became a rich mixture of Roman and Greek elements which subsequently spread all over the Mediterranean.

The Famous Forms of Roman Art

The bronze sculpture of Capitoline Wolf.
The Capitoline Wolf, dated to the 6th century B.C. (Image: Capitoline Museums/Public domain)

One of the most enduring forms of Roman art was bronze and marble sculpture. For decades, surveys of Roman art began with a spectacular piece of bronze sculpture known as the Capitoline Wolf, which portrayed the animal that rescued and nurtured Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

This engaging statue, cited as the shining example of Etruscan sculpture, is dated to the 6th century B.C. The scientific analysis has revealed that neither is it an Etruscan statue nor a Roman, dated to the late Middle Ages, with some Renaissance additions.

Learn more about five hundred years of the Roman Empire.

Story of Bronze Sculptures By the Early Romans

There are examples of bronze sculptures, attributed to the Etruscans or early Romans, which illustrated the cultural dialogue between them. That included a statue dated to the 4th century B.C., depicting a dynamically posed chimera, a mythological beast; combined elements of a lion, snake, and goat and another of an imposing warrior encased in armor, called the Mars of Todi.

Importance of Art for the Romans

For the Romans, art was often used to reinforce Roman values, with a purpose for publicity. For example, the full-length statue of Aulus Metellus showed the politician clad in a toga, the characteristic garb of a Roman citizen, with his arm extended as if he were making a speech.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Use of Portrait Bust in Roman Art

Old men and aristocrats had their portrait busts made
Portrait busts were considered realistic images of a person. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The most distinctive Roman sculpture was the form known as the portrait bust. In contrast to classical Greek sculpture, which focused on the generic idealized representation of muscular, young men; Roman portrait busts were highly realistic images of specific individuals, whose aim was to accurately capture their likenesses. The people most likely to have their portraits memorialized in stone or bronze were successful aristocrats, including many Roman portrait busts of old men. 

These portrait busts seemed unappealing due to the accuracy of every wrinkle, wart, and receding hairline of their subjects, but for the Romans, hyperrealism was the point to be able to recognize the person. These men and their busts were also intended as embodiments of Roman virtues, and their advanced age was part of what lent them their dignity.

Learn more about the innovative technologies of Rome and Greek.

An Early Roman Family Ritual: Wax Death Masks

Upper-class Roman families kept a collection of wax death masks of their ancestors and these images were the focal point of family rituals, which seemed to have influenced the veristic style of Roman portrait sculpture.

Women in Roman Portraits

While most portraits were of men, there are also some portraying aristocratic women who were depicted in a characteristic posture with one arm across their torso and the other raised up with the hand held alongside their cheek. Termed the pudicitia pose, representing their modesty, one of the paramount virtues expected of upper-class women. Those portraits could be seen as female equivalents of their male counterparts. 

A woman's bust showing an elaborate hairstyle.
Elaborate hairstyles spoke about the wealth of the Roman women. (Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2004)/Public domain)

The most distinctive feature of female portraits was their extremely elaborate hairstyles, with multiple braided strands of hair coiled into buns. One of the famous portrait bust examples was molded into a tall fan-shaped transverse crest.

These intricate hairstyles seemed to have run in fads, to date it to the era of the Flavian Emperors, when this particular arrangement was popular.

Portrait Bust: A Storyteller

One aspect of portrait busts was that they captured some of the personality of the subject. The portrait bust tradition continued into the Empire, and by the look at any of the Emperors, one could figure out about their personality traits as an Emperor. For example, the statue of Vespasian portrayed him as a pragmatic farmer that he started out as, and the bust of Marcus Aurelius captured a sense of his spiritual and philosophical inclinations, the scowling portrait bust of Emperor Caracalla aptly conveyed his despotic nature, and Nero appeared a little mentally unstable.

Common questions about the Roman Art

Q: Which culture influenced Roman art and architecture?

Greek culture and art which transformed the Roman culture and civilization was the main influence for Roman art and architecture.

Q: Why is Roman art important?

Roman Art is important, primarily because it was used to depict the values with the purpose of publicity by the Romans.

Q: What type of art did ancient Rome have?

One of the important forms of Roman art was bronze and marble sculpture. Another distinctive Roman sculpture was the form known as the portrait bust.

Q: Why did Romans make busts?

Romans made portrait busts to display realistic images of specific individuals, whose aim was to accurately capture their likenesses unlike classical Greek sculpture, which focused on the generic idealized representation of muscular, young men.

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