The Art of Ancient Rome
This chapter introduces the Roman Empire that made a successful attempt at uniting the ancient world under one ruler and one ruling body. The Empire extended from the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys to the Thames in England; it went from the Rhine in Germany to Egypt itself. The empire established a system of roads that linked the vast reaches. The student will meet the forces, which made Rome a model for imitation in subsequent generations. The influence of this Empire can be seen in models for government, the law and architecture. The Romans left significant remains and more importantly, substantive architecture throughout its empire. The student will see the birth and death of the Empire. The art that was created to acknowledge and praise the Empire as well as mark the growth from its early years as a Republic and then into one of the most powerful forces in the ancient world.
1) It would be very useful to start with a number of maps that indicate the breadth of the Empire and relationship of the Republic to the Empire. The Etruscans were expelled from Rome in the year 509 BC. In 27 BC the Roman Republic was officially transformed into the Empire with the assumption of imperial power by Augustus (10–25). During the Early Empire political ideas of the god king came into Rome from the eastern segments of the growing empire and gradually transformed both the conception and depiction of the emperor’s power. This transformation allowed the emperors (Caesars) to assume power and control of the empire. In the statue of Augustus from Primaporta, that idea of divine relationship can be seen in the cuirass worn by Augustus (10–25) and the presence of the small putto by his side is an even more clear visual association with the gods. The putto represents Cupid, son of Aphrodite who is also linked to Rome as the ancestor of the Julian line and Augustus. The military breastplate covers his torso, and the symbolism of the figures on the breastplate referred to Augustus’ victories and the supposed divine origins of the Julian house. The center relief showed the recovery of the Roman military standards from the Parthians, who had captured them during an earlier battle. Augustus had to make military concessions to the Parthians in order to regain the standards, but he claimed the whole episode as a victory. Apollo and Artemis are also shown on his armor, because Augustus claimed to be the new Apollo, and he constructed a temple dedicated to Apollo on the Palatine Hill. The rising sun symbolizes a new age, and the figure of Mother Earth with a cornucopia and babies, representing Romulus and Remus, also symbolizes the emperor’s association with the Earth and her gifts. The discreet reference to Venus can be traced through the ancestry of Julius Caesar to Aeneas, who had escaped from the destruction of Troy, and finally to Venus herself, who had supposedly conducted a liaison with Ascanius, the father of Aeneas. The small putto on the dolphin at Augustus’ feet further establishes the divine relationship, which refers to yet another son of Venus, Cupid. This complex iconography served to create the idea and vision that the emperor and his statue, the Primaporta, are symbols of the Empire itself.
2) It has been said that Roman art was born “grown up,” that it had no infancy or youth. The statement that the art of the Etruscans and that of Greece were the parents of Roman art can further develop this idea. Their legacies are the elements of realism and idealism, at times alternating, at other times coexisting, but blending together to form Roman art.
Ideas from Greece were introduced at the end of the third century BC, but were often strongly resisted as weak. Romans like Cato admired Greek cleverness but considered the Greek people untrustworthy, emphasizing instead the Roman virtues of uprightness, honesty, and hard work. The head of a Roman patrician (10–6) carved during the late Republican period shows a realistic and vital portrayal of a specific human being. He could represent a man such as Cato. There is a strength and austerity about Roman portraits of this period that cannot be found in the world weary Hellenistic portraits of the same time frame. The wings in the atrium of a Roman house were supplied with niches in which the ancestor portraits were kept. During important occasions such as funerals these images were brought out and often carried in processions, some scholars have attempted to explain the great realism of Roman portraits are a result of the use of death masks, which are casts made of the deceased shortly after death.
In contrast the portrait of Julius Caesar with its modeling and confident expression seems much closer to both the mode and technique found in the Hellenistic portraits than it does to the tight and rather self righteous portrayal of the old Roman. Yet there is a synthesis of the Republican attitude and the Hellenistic style, which is depicted in the denarius of Julius Caesar (10–8), creating a portrait of a particular human being.
Very different representations of Augustus Caesar were carved some in the tight, dry tradition of Roman realism. Most often, however, he is depicted as superhuman, idealized, and godlike. The model is no longer the union of Republican and Hellenistic portraits that influenced the portrait of Julius Caesar, but rather the ideal, abstract creations of fifth century BC Greece, when human beings were depicted with the perfection of the gods. This image of godlike perfection was a very conscious choice and was intended to imply the godlike power of the emperor. The pose has been modified from the fifth century Greek Doryphoros of Polykleitos (5–38) which has been adapted by the Romans as the basis for the adlocutio, or address to the soldiers of the army. Augustus appears to be addressing, instead, the people perhaps telling them of the peace or as it was known the Pax Romana that was a fact of his rule.
The monument that best illustrates the combination of the realistic Roman tradition with the idealization imported from Greece is the Ara Pacis Augustae (10–27). One of the allegorical panels shows Tellus, or Earth (10–28), with symbols of air and water on either side. The imagery follows a poem composed by the Roman Horace in 17 BC to commemorate the founding of Rome, but the style, with its full figures, subtle modeling, and single plane, strongly reflects Roman realism. A comparison of the depiction of the members of the imperial family from the Ara Pacis (10–29) with figures from the Parthenon frieze (5–48), shows the drapery of the Greek figures falls gently and quietly in folds that stress repeated calm verticals. While the drapery of the Roman figures are much more active, swinging this way on one figure, that way on another. The carving from the Parthenon seems dry and the folds shallow. The flat neutral background is allowed to appear between the Greek figures, creating ample space around each. The Roman figures, by contrast, seem to crowd up against one another, and even stand in two rows, so there is no space for easy movement. The heads come close to being portraits, although they are somewhat more generalized than the portrait busts.
During the Early Empire period, the stress was on the moral integrity of the emperor and his portraits sought to convey that ideal. For example Vespasian, a simple and forthright man, tried to bring some semblance of order and virtue back to Rome after the destructive influence of the self indulgent Nero. The character of the emperor is captured by the Roman sculptor (10–55). It was vital to the interests of the Empire that the emperor was perceived as an individual of unquestioned character and ability. The true appearance of the person was portrayed rather than the ideal of the image of the emperor. Elegant portraits were not unknown for example the portrait of a young Roman matron (10–36) portrays a woman of beauty and grace. There is a vast range of human types, a range that far outdistances the achievements of even the Greek Hellenistic sculptors. The life sized equestrian portrait of Marcus Aurelius (10–59), done in bronze, indicates another aspect of the emperor, this time the emperor appears as a mounted general ready to lead the troops into victorious combat. An earlier portrait of Hadrian (10–47) condenses the heroic grandeur of the Augustus Primaporta into a synthesis of the ideal and the real. Hadrian is presented as the successful general he was but the military presentation has been modified into a diplomatic and tactful portrait of power restrained.
During much of the third century the Empire was ruled by a series of so called Barracks emperors like Trajan Decius (10–69). These emperors had been successful generals whose troops had succeeded in displacing the current emperor and putting their own leader on the throne. They are represented with short military haircuts that replace the curling locks of the earlier century, and they are often portrayed with beards. During the fourth century the style was further exaggerated. The rigid frontality and staring eyes, as well as the gigantic scale of the head of Constantine (10–78) seem to take the emperor out of time and space and into a strangely rigid world somewhere else.
3) It has been said that captive Greece conquered victorious Rome, and, the Romans adopted many ideas in painting and sculpture from the Greeks. Roman temples were also strongly influenced by Greek temples (5–25). The facades of many Roman temples are strikingly similar, but when one looks at a side view, the changes are apparent. Roman temples are set on high podiums, as were their Etruscan prototypes (9–2), and one entered the temple from the front only, up a flight of stairs that directed the worshipper into a deep porch, much deeper than the porches of Greek prostyle temples. The columns are monolithic (10–2) rather than constructed of drums, which was the Greek custom, and temples are often pseudoperipteral. Although they appear to have a colonnaded peristyle all around, the columns do not truly form a peristyle because they are attached to the wall of the cella as engaged columns (10–1) rather than standing fully free as they would have on a Greek temple.
The Romans were much more concerned with interior space than the Greeks had been, and through the use of the arch and the dome they learned to manipulate space in very creative ways. Roman architect engineers sought practical solutions to problems, and explored interior spaces of many types, making excellent use of such an unprepossessing material as poured concrete. The combination of the strength of the material and the flexibility it allowed, along with the strength of the curves of the arch, made it possible for the architects to vault much greater spaces than ever before. The possibilities were explored in such structures as the Pantheon (10–49 and 10–50), the Baths of Caracalla (10–68), and the Basilica of Constantine (10–79). Roman engineers used the strength of concrete and the arch to construct great projects like the Pont du Gard (10–31) while concrete faced with brick was used extensively for everyday buildings like market buildings (10–44) and the multistory insulae (10–53) that housed the common people. Marble facing was commonly used on the great civic buildings that changed the face of Rome, but underneath, most of them were constructed of concrete.
The Roman concern with interior space is apparent in the interior of the Pantheon (10–50) one of the most influential buildings in the history of art. Both the inner diameter and the height of the great dome measure 142 feet. It was constructed of concrete, and the tremendous weight of the dome was somewhat lightened by the deep coffering. Coffers are the ornamental panels that are sunk into the dome. Light enters the building only through the great oculus (circular eye) in the center of the dome, which measures 30 feet in diameter. Deep recesses have been cut into the walls, which are 20 feet thick. The circular building was entered through a porch whose monolithic Corinthian columns supported an architrave and pediment. The vast interior space provided the Roman with a completely different type of architectural experience. An enclosure of vast interior space that does not imprison one, this type of space became the hallmark of the Roman architect. This enclosure allowed the Romans to create huge buildings using a seemingly simple plan, and the arch and concrete.
The Romans made their greatest contribution to the history of architecture through their development of various types of vaults. The first, the barrel vault, is essentially a continuous series of masonry arches that are placed one behind the other. A cross section of a barrel vault shows that it is semi-cylindrical. The second type, the groin vault, was constructed out of two intersecting barrel vaults. A barrel vault has the disadvantage of creating an equal amount of downward thrust all along the wall, and continuous thick walls are needed to support it. The thrust of a groin vault, on the other hand, is concentrated at the four corners at which the two vaults intersect, and so buttresses or supports can be concentrated at those points. This allowed the areas between the supports to be opened up for windows. The groin vault has the obvious advantage of making possible a much lighter, more open interior than is possible with a barrel vault. The flexibility and practicality of the groin vault can be seen in the great hall of Trajan’s Markets (10–44) and in other structures. Clerestory windows in the ends of the groin vaults lighted the vast hall of the Baths of Caracalla. Massive groin vaults, as well as barrel vaults, were used in the basilica that was erected in the early fourth century by Maxentius and later acquired and completed by Constantine as the Basilica Nova. This basilica combined the functions of a civic meeting place and law court. Constantine added imposing masonry vaults creating a more massive structure. He refocused the power of the Late Empire in imitation of the Early Empire period and re created that authority seen in the Basilica Nova in the Late Empire period. Unfortunately, the nave of the building has been destroyed, but three of the massive bay arches remain.
Roman engineers built superb aqueduct bridges, like the famous Pont du Gard (10–31) in southern France. It is 880 feet long and over 160 feet high. The lower level supported the roadbed, while the upper level served as an aqueduct. With this structure, the Romans not only achieved the practical purpose of servicing the population with a water source, but also provided a vehicular and pedestrian traffic corridor over the river Gard. This was achieved by using forms of great esthetic power, as can be seen by the rhythm of the arches, and by utilizing the tensile strength of concrete to create a practical and efficient structure.
The Romans used the repeated arch patterns with great effectiveness in other constructions as well, for example, in the Colosseum. This building was the largest arena in existence until very recent times, measuring 600 feet in length and 400 feet in width. It seated nearly fifty thousand people. The engineering feats are again impressive, because the banked seats had to be supported by the structure itself, not by an underlying hill, as had been the case with Greek amphitheaters (5–70) and its Roman counterparts (10–12 and 10–13).
The Romans used their architecture to serve the Empire; each structure became a visual example of the imperial might and strength of Rome itself. The Romans were very aware of the impact of this kind of visual statement; they constructed roads to every corner of the Empire to serve the indigenous populations, but also to remind these peoples of the grandeur that was Rome. A Roman provincial city, Timgad, illustrates the Roman need to build, this was a city that became a living example of the Empire, and even reflected the military might of the Roman Legion by its very design. The city is laid out as a Roman military camp.
The visual propaganda which Roman buildings created effectively persuaded the populations of the might of the Empire. The building programs the Romans sponsored became efficient in servicing the Empire; but also extended to those perimeter areas definitive examples of the sheer power of the Empire.
4) The small city of Pompeii was destroyed with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius covering the city with deep layers of volcanic ash and lava in the year AD 79. The catastrophe was a boon for historians, because it has enabled us to reconstruct the full physical setting of the town in a way that is impossible in any place that has been continuously inhabited. The major traffic arteries that run through the city and divide it into various sections are intact. The center of Pompeii, like the center of other Roman cities, was the forum (10–9), with its temples, its curia (a building for the city council), and its basilica which was the seat of the law courts and the center of government activity.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pompeii is the design of the houses (10–13). These houses were inward turning; there were no front yards, and the houses came right up to the sidewalk. One entered the house proper through a narrow entrance called the fauces and moved into the central reception area known as an atrium. The roof of the atrium opened the room to the sky and rain. The small basin below the opening was known as the impluvium. A number of rooms led off the atrium; for wealthy householders these included a room that contained the busts of their ancestors. From the atrium one moved through the house to the open peristyle courtyard, which was filled with trees and flowers. Rooms for sleeping often opened off this courtyard. Facilities for cooking and other types of domestic work were situated farther back, as were quarters for the slaves. Sculpture (often copies of Greek originals) mosaics, and fresco paintings were used to decorate Pompeian houses.
The techniques used to decorate the walls have been divided into four successive but overlapping styles. In the First or Masonry Style, sometimes also known as Incrustation, the wall is divided into numerous rectangular panels of different colors, with many of the panels modeled to resemble stone of various types (10–14). This probably served as a substitute for more expensive stone facings. It was popular from approximately 200 BC to about 80 BC. The Second Style, also known as the Architectural Style (10–16) lasted from about 80 BC to about 20 BC. In this style the space of the room was made to look as though it extended beyond the flat wall, thus creating an illusionistic effect of space. Although the architectural forms are visually convincing, they do not follow the rules of scientific perspective that later developed in the Renaissance. At times, using a technique known as “herringbone perspective,” the artist had the orthogonals converging along a central axis, rather than at a single vanishing point. In mature Second Style designs some artists actually demonstrated an understanding of single vanishing point perspective. In the representation of the Odysseus’s saga, Odysseus in the Underworld, the landscape is painted quite freely, with loose, easy strokes, and the artist has created the illusion of a wide expanse of space. In another type of Second Style illusionism (10–17), the wall seems to open out into a delightful garden filled with trees, flowers, and birds. The fence is carefully painted and creates the illusion of moving into space.
In the Third, or Ornate Style, the architectural elements serve merely to frame segments of the wall, often enclosing small scenes (10–18). At times the slender columns that are used to divide segments of the wall become completely fantastic. This style flourished from approximately 20 BC to AD 60. The Fourth, or Intricate Style, began around AD 60 and flourished until the destruction of the city in AD 79. In this style there is a return to architectural vistas, but they are combined with framed pictures (10–20). It is thought that these forms developed under the influence of Roman theatrical design. Framed scenes (10–21) were often flooded with light and color, with emphasis on contrasts between modeled light and dark, both depicted with quick, flickering brush strokes.
The difference between the Roman painterly brush stroke and Greek linear depictions of form is obvious when we compare figures from a Roman fresco (10–15) with Greek vase painting (5–58), in which a precise but delicate line is used to describe the figures. Although line can be used to suggest three dimensional form, it is not nearly so effective a medium for such a depiction as is painterly modeling with light and shade. In some cases the modeling can become rather difficult.
It cannot be said with absolute certainty that the Romans contributed the new sense of space surrounding the figures, because the lack of Greek paintings from earlier periods leaves speculation about how much was actually invented by the Roman painters and how much they adopted from now lost Greek masterpieces. It is known, for example, that the fifth century Greek painter Apelles was famous for having painted a still life of fruit, perhaps similar to the one shown in Figure 10–24, Still Life with Peaches. The artist has treated the peaches with care in order to capture the effects of light and water reflected through glass. The Roman artist attempted to give an object the reality of appearing in space and light. This is the Roman success synthesis and adaptation. The Roman created an image of a world that existed, they wanted a reality that could be felt and understood.
5) The Empire how did it really make that impact that was imitated by subsequent generations? In addition to the monuments of Augustus perhaps the most characteristic example of Roman Imperial art is the triumphal arch, like the one erected in Rome by the Emperor Domitian (10–37) in the year AD 81 to commemorate his brother Titus, the short lived emperor who preceded him. The arch contained a single passageway that was decorated on either side by carved relief panels. One side illustrates the triumphal parade of Titus himself down the Via Sacra upon his return from the Jewish Wars in AD 70 (10–39). He stands in a quadrigae (a chariot drawn by four horses). The other side shows the spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem that was carried in the triumphal procession (10–38). Most distinctive is the seven branched candlestick, the menorah, clearly seen as part of the booty. Both reliefs are crowded with figures, and the heads show great originality and individuality. Their style is typically Roman. A great deal of action is compacted in a small space, a characteristic that is much more typical of Roman relief carving than of Greek Classic relief carving. Whereas Greek reliefs were often symbolic, the Romans were much more interested in the narrative, praising their victories and military exploits as well as their contributions to the Empire.
The Emperor Trajan erected a number of such monuments to commemorate and detail his victories and achievements. The most famous is the 100 foot column (10–42) he erected in his new forum in Rome. The narrative winds up the column. The repetition of the major characters of Trajan’s Dacian campaigns may have been derived from the picture scrolls that were popular during this time. Many details from the column demonstrate what is called “stacked perspective,” in which the figures in the back are placed higher than those in front are. This shorthand perspective often sacrifices truth to appearance or illusion in order to gain understanding. The artist had a sharp eye for realistic detail, which is so important in giving vitality to the narrative. But often symbolic representations are given in the midst of realistic description. The emphasis is much more on narrative fact than on visual attractiveness. This was the function and purpose of the monument, to give a visual account of the victories of not only the emperor but also of the armies of Rome.
In contrast to the work of the imperial workshops, yet still retaining that quality of the narrative, is a funerary relief from Ostia (10–46). Here are the events in the life of an official of the Circus Maximus, rendered in a presentation reminiscent of the narrative value of Trajan’s column but different. It is presented in a continuous narrative format. That is, at different stages in the story the primary figure appears more than once but occupies the same space. Many of the representational devices seen in medieval art have already put in an appearance in Roman art.
The Column of Trajan was originally the focal point of the great forum, or civic center, that Trajan built in Rome. The complex was much larger in scope than any of the fora constructed by previous emperors. In addition to a huge basilica, it contained libraries and a temple, with market stalls around the sides of a great adjacent courtyard. This tradition of constantly adding to the dynamics of Rome’s building program was continued by the Emperor Hadrian, who added to his personal glory as well as to the glory of Rome by erecting great public buildings like the Pantheon, which was built during his rule. The Baths donated by Caracalla continued to enhance this quality of imperium or imperial presence generated by earlier constructions.
Nero and Domitian built huge palaces for themselves, the most famous or infamous being Nero’s gigantic Golden House, or Domus Aurea with its Octagonal Hall (10–33). Fortunately the Fourth Style paintings from the Domus Aurea (10–20) were not destroyed. The elegant villa of Hadrian at Tivoli echoes the richness of imperial palatial architecture. To some extent it might reflect how Nero’s famous villa might have looked with its mile long portico. The Piazza Armerina in Sicily although much later and much smaller illustrates the continuing wealth of interior decorative programs; but it also details the style preferences of the patrician class.
In the later Empire the military became ever more important as Rome was under almost constant attack on all fronts, and the architectural remains from the period take on an ever more martial feeling. Diocletian’s palace at Split (10–75) is based on a military encampment and demonstrates that concern with heavy fortification. In spite of the defensive nature of the palace, it still echoes the grandeur and pomp of the early Imperial period. It derives its major importance from the peristyle court leading to the entrance to the imperial residence. The curved entablature that forms the arch within the broken pediment at the end of the court is a feature that was adopted from the East, where it appeared earlier and was used to decorate buildings like the rock cut mausoleum of Al-Khazneh in Petra, Jordan (10–52). It is also one of the many features of later Roman architecture that will be embraced by subsequent architectural periods.
During the second and third centuries wars and constant shifts of power wracked the huge empire. The Late Empire period occurred during the third century AD. The economy had begun to fail; even imperial authority was now being questioned. Diocletian assumed control in AD 284 and created a new and more manageable organizational structure with himself at the head of the Tetrarchy (10–74), sharing power with potential rivals. It was made up of two Augusti and two Caesari, each of whom ruled a specific geographic section. The portrait of the four tetrarchs (10–74) illustrates the profound changes that were taking place in the Late Empire. The group represents the four co rulers whom Diocletian had named to rule the Empire: himself and Maximian, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, the father Of Constantine. The figures are extremely rigid, and details of faces and costume are only schematically represented. This, perhaps, illustrates the new unity that the tetrarchs represented, their solidarity and single minded purpose in facing overwhelming odds. This new artistic style can also be seen in the relief carvings on the Arch of Constantine (10–77), that was erected a few years later. Constantine’s triumphal arch (10–76) follows the traditions established by earlier arches of triumph, the triple arched design was based on an arch erected by Septimius Severus in the early third century. Constantine not only followed the traditions of earlier imperial monuments, he also quite literally took from them, because he decorated his arch with panels originally carved for monuments erected by Hadrian, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius. His purpose was to show the continuity between the Early Imperial tradition and the Late Imperial tradition he would establish. The frieze work was carved by artists of Constantine’s own time. Details of this frieze make the decline in artistic quality painfully apparent. The little squat figures are all depicted at the same height, although they are placed in rows with the row behind slightly elevated. The heads are uniform, the hand gestures repetitive. The mark of the drill is used schematically to depict the drapery folds, and the figures are flattened. There is no sense of action; rather the figures seem to be frozen into some sort of symbolic ceremony. This could further augment the new attitude of redefining and reaffirming the continuing existence of the Empire by linking Constantine and the earlier emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. At the same time, the compositional principles being utilized will also be seen in the coming Middle Ages.
In AD 313 Constantine (10–78) ended the persecution of the Christians. In AD 395 the Empire was finally split into the Eastern and Western Empires, and by the fifth century the Western Empire had fallen under the onslaughts of the Germanic tribes of the north, starting a new chapter in Western Civilization.