Roman Art I : Introduction
by: P. Dionysius Mus

In this project I will try to give a very general survey of ancient Roman architecture (part 2), sculpture (parts 3&4) and painting (part 5). I will also upload some pictures in my Yahoo briefcase, so you don't have to read about things without seeing them. Main source for this project is:

JANSON (H.W. & A.F.): History of Art, 5th edition revised; New York, 1997 (ISBN 0-500-23751-4).

I also used some other contributions in general Roman history and culture books.


"Among the civilizations of the ancient world, that of the Romans is far more accessible to us than any other. We can trace its history with a wealth of detail that continues to amaze us: the growth of the Roman domain from city-state to empire; its military and political struggles; its changing social structure, the development of its institutions; and the public and private lives of its leading personalities. Nor is this a matter of chance. The Romans themselves seem to have wanted it that way. Articulate and posterity-conscious, they have left a vast literary legacy, from poetry and philosophy to humble inscriptions recording everyday events, and an equally huge mass of visible monuments that were scattered throughout their empire, from England to the Persian Gulf, from Spain to Romania. Yet, paradoxically, there are few questions more difficult to answer than 'what is Roman art?'. The Roman genius, so clearly recognizable in every other sphere of human activity, becomes oddly elusive when we ask whether there was a characteristic Roman style in the fine arts, particularly painting and sculpture." (From: JANSON, op. cit.).

The main reason for this is of course their admiration for Greek art and the many influences from other styles throughout this big empire, but they didn't just copy Greek and other examples as is an often heard prejudice. It is of course obvious that the great names in Greek art like Phidias, Praxiteles, Polyclitos and Lysippos were very famous and their work often imitated, but the Romans also created their own 'style' based on Greek standards. Since the Roman empire was a cosmopolitan society, there were influences in both directions: great areas were 'Romanized', but the Romans also incorporated existing local systems into their own society, also in the artistic area. Thus Etruscan, Egyptian and Eastern characteristics entered Roman art, just like religious and organizational aspects did.

"Under such conditions, it would be little short of a miracle if Roman art were to show a consistent style such as we found in Egypt, or the clear-cut evolution that distinguishes the art of Greece. Its development, to the extent that we understand it today, might be likened to a counterpoint of divergent tendencies that may exist side-by-side, even within a single monument, and none of them ever emerges as overwhelmingly dominant. The 'Roman-ness' of Roman art must be found in this complex pattern, rather than in a single and consistent quality of form - and that is precisely its strength." (JANSON, op. cit.).

The following items will be discussed in the next parts:

Part II, Architecture: This aspect of Roman art has, unlike sculpture and painting, definitely a distinctive Roman character. Greek models did not suffice to reflect the specific Roman way of public and private life; radical new forms were invented, and they used cheaper materials and quicker methods. Vital to Roman architecture was the arch, with its derivations like the barrel vault and the groin vault. Such an arch is strong and very self-sustaining, in contrast to the arch composed of horizontal courses of masonry (like the Lioness Gate at Mycenae). No less vital to Roman architecture was concrete (mixture of mortar and gravel with rubble). The Romans developed this into their chief building technique, hiding the unattractive concrete surface with a facing of stone, marble, brick or plaster.

Parts III & IV, Sculpture: As already stated, there is no such thing as a typical Roman style of sculpting. Since the demand for sculptures was tremendous, imitating and copying was a very fast way to produce sculptures. But there are also some typical characteristics, like the high degree of realism, that don't refer to Greek standards. Here only portraiture and narrative relief will be discussed, since these aspects of Roman art possess the highest degree of Romanitas.

Part V, Painting: Since almost all of the surviving paintings are wall paintings (mostly from Pompeii and Herculaneum), these will be discussed here. The subjects of the paintings are very varied, and there is no specific style recognizable.
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