Arts of Roman Antiquity - naturalism and idealism

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Greek Antiquity | Roman Antiquity

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, who was the city's first legendary king. In reality findings show that settlements in the area of the city Rome date back to at least the 10th Century BC.

The Roman arts style is based mainly on the arts of the Greeks but shows also Etruscan influences. Greek colonies existed in southern Italy and with the conquest of Greek, arts as well as artists were imported to Rome and many statues were even copied from Greek originals. Roman paintings mostly appeared as murals and served to enhance the architecture.

The Roman Republic

At about 510 BC the Etruscan kings were cast out of Rome, where they had reigned for a few generations. The Roman Republic was founded. The state was ruled by the Senate (Patricians) with two elected ruling members. During the 500 years of the Roman Republic a large area came under the influence of Rome. By the 3rd Century BC the whole mediterranean was ruled by Rome, 200 years later followed Carthage, Gaul and countries along the eastern mediterranean. The Roman law was developed and written down for the first time, to date this is the foundation of the laws of the western world.

Struggles for power between influencial families led to the downfall of the republic during the 1st Century BC. Julius Caesar came to power and was declared pontifex maximus in 63 BC. He became a dictator and the Senate lost its influence.

The Roman Empire

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC his adopted son Octavian (Augustus) became Roman emperor. He and his successors expanded the Roman empire over almost all of Europe, northern Africa and south-western Asia. In 330 Constantinople was made the second capital of the Roman empire, which led to the partition into eastern and western Roman Empire and ultimately to the downfall of the whole Roman world. In 476 AD the last Roman Emperor had to leave the throne. Instead of being the capital of the most powerful force in the known world, Rome slowly became the center of Christianity.


Just like the Greeks, Romans liked to install marble and bronze statues at public places. However the Roman motive was to enhance their reputations and political status. Many of the Roman statues were in fact copies of Greek statues. The Romans regarded Greek sculptures as perfect and therefore no further improvement in style was necessary. There is no seperate Roman style. While there is a visual developement in the genre of portraits, no such thing can be seen in purely decorative or religious statues. What is remarkable though is that there is also no big regional difference in style throughout the whole Empire. Roman artists always worked on demand. To produce the desired sculpture they mixed Greek styles of different epochs which best served their subject and that way created something new.

In the beginning the Romans mostly produced complete statues or herms - plain rectangular pillars with a head and shoulders. From the 1st Century BC onwards the Romans also produced realistic portraits as busts to honor the dead. Contrary to their Greek predecessors Roman republican sculptures were very realistic in showing the individual features of people – men and women. Even wrinkles and other imperfections are shown. Public likenesses were a way for politicians and other members of the upper classes to gain attention.

It was a Roman tradition to bring back sculptures from new territories to Rome where people could view them in public exhibitions. With the conquest of Greece statues of gods and mythical figures were imported to Rome and used to decorate temples as well as private luxury homes. As the supply of original artworks slowly dwindled and ethical problems with plundering now Roman areas started to rise, copies of Greek statues started to be made. There were also original artworks in the spirit of the idealised Greek sculptures. Later, the emperors also set up statues of gods in public places and in public buildings to demonstrate their generousity.

Portraits gained more and more importance as images of the Emperors were used as propaganda. The style of these images was adaped to local tastes. Idealised representations of the emperor appeared throughout the Roman Empire and therefore other people's portraits were also more and more idealised. They still showed individual features, but signs of age and imperfections were no longer desired. The further developement of portraits also led also to the development of equestrian statues.

An important aspect of sculptural art during the time of the Roman empire was also the developement of reliefs which told about important deeds. Multiple colorful reliefs on a triumph arch or other structure could tell a whole story of a war or other important event. Gods, allegorical figures and historical persons could often appear next to each other in one scene to tell a bout an important event. A completely new type of relief came into fashion in the late 1st Century AD, when the Roman middle-class started to decorate their tombs with reliefs of all of the important things they did in their lives – like being a builder, or a merchant or whatever else. In the 2nd Century sarcophagi made in a Greek style came into fashion. They were decorated with reliefs of mythological scenes and later also battles.


Roman houses and public buildings were decorated with marble (or imitations made from stucco), mosaic floors and very colorful paintings. These paintings were therefore no stand-alone pieces of art but served to enhance the architecture they were attatched to. As these paintings were best conserved in the antique city of Pompeii - which was buried by the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD – arts history defines four 'Pompeiian styles'.

Just like statues, Greek panel paitings1 and artists were imported to Rome after the conquest. There were also many copies of Greek pictures in Roman houses, but local tastes also always had an influence. Most of the murals were painted as frescos, meaning the paint was attached to the still wet plaster, which made it more durable. Details could be painted in secco – on the dry plaster. Pictures were often already finished when they were attached to the right space at the wall and could also be removed again and attached at a different place. The first known paintings show battle scenes.

At the time of the first Pompeiian style (200-80 BC) walls are decorated with painted stucco that imitates a wall with a base, cornice and colorful stone blocks above.

The second Pompeiian style (80-15 BC) takes over the arrangement of horizontal zones on the wall from its predecessor. Above a base there is a zone decorated with floral garlands, masks, detailed landscapes and even life-sized people. Very often the paintings also give the illusion of alcoves and other architectural elements.

In the third Pompeiian style (15 BC – 63 AD )walls are divided into vertical as well as horizontal zones. There is a defined centerpiece on each wall. Paintings often imitate Greek paintings. Illusions of architectural elements are not shown anymore.

The wall decoration of the fourth Pompeiian style (63-79 AD) continues to be arranged symmetrically, often a painting in the center is accompanied by complex illusions on both sides, showing perspectivic paintings of architecture and views to non-existant places.

After Pompeii was destroyed there was still a large variety of paintings. Many so called 'mummy portraits' - paitings of deceased people which were attached to their mummies - on wooden panels or linen are maintained, they were painted with colored hot or cold beewax2 or in tempera, which uses pigments bound in egg yolk. Murals lost their importence in favour of mosaics. A very popular motif were for instance hunting scenes with many different animals. The mosaics were made mainly of small cut stones, but also other materials like glass or terracotta which were layed into wet mortar.

The fall of the empire

The Romans continued the Greek practice of writing about arts and tried to define it. Works of the Greek Classic and Hellenistic period were seen as superior. What is known as Roman arts today usually served some kind of purpose and was therefore not seen as arts and not discussed by theorists.

The slow downfall of the Roman empire and Christianisation did not result in a sudden change of arts and the taste of the Roman citizens did not change, but the crisis meant that there was less money spent on new arts. Far fewer artworks were produced and slowly techniques were lost.

1Paintings on wooden panels.2A technique knows as 'encaustic'.

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