Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Change and Continuity of Roman Art and Architecture from Republican to Imperial Periods and the Reasons Why.

The English comedy group Monty Python did a movie in 1979 called The Life of Brian.  At one point in the movie, there is a meeting being held by some disgruntled Jews wanting to overthrow the Romans.  The leader of the group asks a rhetorical question, ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’  To which is answered, in paraphrasing, the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, health, wine, public baths, and order.  In exasperation, the leader says ‘all right, all right, but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?!?’[1]  Through their own comedic mocking way, Monty Python touched on the large extent of the great achievements that Rome made throughout their history.  These achievements, as mentioned above, took on many shapes and impacted on many facets of Roman life.  The art and architecture of Roman society in particular was of considerable note and importance. 

The art and architecture of the Romans, as is the case with all societies, did not remain the same from the time of its inception in the Republic era to that of the Imperial period.  There were some changes to certain aspects of life in the Roman Empire, and that subsequently brought about changes in the things that the Romans produced and the way they saw themselves.  Granted, this doesn’t mean that all aspects of art and architecture were changed completely from these two time periods; there were some things that remained very similar throughout the years as well.  This essay will look at some aspects of the art and architecture of the Roman Empire, where and why it originated, and how it changed or remained the same throughout the years.  The funerary monuments, western Greek settlements in Italy, the comparison of Hellenistic Greek art to that of the Roman Republic, and late Roman portraiture will be looked at.

The Romans had a strong sense of familial honour and duty.  One way that this is evidenced is by their need to increase the fame and laudability of the familial name.  This fame could at times increase to the point that a person was regarded (or regarded themselves) as a demi-god.  On one epitaph is found an inscription comparing a member of the second squad from Tarsos by the name of Melanippos to Herakles (Hercules)[2].  Citing the myth of Hercules and the twelve labours that he had to endure and complete to gain admittance into the realm of the gods[3], Melanippos is reported to have done the same number, and was killed in doing a thirteenth.  This comparison of Melanippos to Hercules is drawing fame to Melanippos as well as his family and is also conveying the message that he was significant in life in that he completed similar tasks as those done by a legendary demi-god.
Pliny the Elder[4] talks about the value that was placed on the family as well.  Pliny describes the Roman house as having portraits and models of the ancestors’ faces on display as opposed to statues and other artwork by ‘foreign artists’.  These models were also used in funeral processions for other family members, so that a representation of the entire family would be in attendance.  Further to this, the library of the house was kept with records of al the official careers held by ancestral family members, as well as large genealogical charts hung on the walls.  All of the acts preclude to the Roman pagans as having a high regard of their own significance in life and death and ensuring that the appropriate honour and glory were marked. 

Another influencing aspect on the architecture of early Republican Rome was the close settlements of the Greeks.  The colonies of the western Greek world were founded by more than just the mainland Greeks.  This was alluded to by Dominguez when discussing Acragas and stating that it was of mixed foundation, or people from different countries.[5]  This could help in explaining why Mertens stated that the first colonists in the seventh and sixth centuries BC had no established tradition of building and craftsmanship.[6]  Further, in talking about the concepts of form, he states that only the general concepts from the colonists’ homelands were transplanted to the new country, thereby indicating that there were multiple origination sites for a singular new city in the west.  It would stand to reason that the growing population of the Mediterranean world in the seventh to the fifth centuries BC would begin to look for more room and new places to settle, so this line of thinking is sound and plausible.  Thus, the presence of multi-cultural people settling one area or city would create differences and concessions to how things were developed, made, and designed to that of a homogenous single country such as mainland Greece.

Selinus was founded on the southern coast and as such was the westernmost Greek city in Sicily.[7]  The colonial poleis of Sicily and Magna Graecia were very proud of where they had placed themselves as well as the elaborate planned urban arrangement that was a completely new thing in the ancient world.[8]  After Selinus was planned and completed, there was some type of large-scale destruction, which Di Vita speculates was an earthquake, which occurred and required the city to be redesigned and modified.  This was carried out around 560 and 460BC.  The majority of the work that was done was carried out in the sacred areas on the acropolis and the eastern hills.  This provides an excellent example of how the natural landscape was altered in order to accommodate what they western Greeks wanted to do.  The hill at this time was terraced by way of a 10 metre tall retaining wall that was backfilled with 25000 – 30000 cubic metres of sand and forming two levels.[9]  Clearly then, the natural land didn’t stop the western Greeks from build what and how they wanted!  This carried over into the Roman Empire and influenced the way that the Romans built their cities and monuments, which is one possible explanation as to why so many laypeople have a hard time telling the different cultures ruins apart. 

The new geographical and geological conditions naturally influenced the building techniques and methods since the materials available were different to that of the mainland.[10]  For example, Sicily is poorer when it comes to robust stone used in building and there is no marble anywhere.  This would naturally encourage a different technique of building and shaping the sacred structures.  One such different technique was found with the discovery of architectural terracottas used in the roof decoration that date from early 600BC to late 500BC.[11]  Terracotta wasn’t just used as a decorative bit of working on the roofs, however.  In Magna Graecia terracotta gained a place of particular importance in representative monumental buildings.[12]  In the sixth century BC terracotta became the most important decorative part of the system. 

It wasn’t just the architecture that Rome took its cues from Greece with.  The late art of the Roman republic is synonomous to the last stage of the Hellenistic art period of Greece. Most masterpieces of Roman art are Greek. Imitations were common at that time, due to the Roman admiration of Hellenistic artistry. Roman art greatly resembled Hellenistic art in both style and convention. As illustrated by the famous antique sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons. This group was discovered in Rome in 1506. It is believed to be an original carving of the second century B.C. and it was thought to have been based on an Hellenistic masterpiece depicting Laocoön and only one son. It was found in the remains of the palace of the emperor Titus. Other fragments of Hellenistic groupings were found in a grotto that served as a summer banquet hall of the emperor's seaside villa at Sperlonga.[13]

Most of our knowledge of Greek architecture comes from the few surviving buildings of the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods since Roman architecture heavily copied Greek.[14]  However, the Romans did use concrete and arches, whereas the Greeks focused more heavily on the columns, balance and symmetry in forms.  The aqueducts and plumbing that Rome had also outstripped the knowledge and innovation of the Greeks.  So, whilst Rome did copy the Greeks in a lot of respects to the architecture and building practices in the early days of the Republic, they were very much more advanced by the Imperial period. 

In comparison, The Romans learned sculpture and painting largely from the Etruscans and Greeks and helped to transmit Greek art to later ages. Roman art is the sculpture, pottery, painting, and other art produced in Ancient Rome in the middle of the Eighth Century BC until the decline of the Roman Empire by the Fifth Century AD. Ancient Roman art was heavily influenced by the art of the ancient Greece, and later by the art forms of countries within its empire, especially Ancient Egypt, or of civilizations which its empire bordered.[15]  The art of the first and second centuries AD pretty much continued the traditions of portraiture and Greek imitations. Roman artists added more use of art as propaganda to show what the emperors wanted people to know or to think. Some examples of this are the Arch of Titus and Trajan's Column.  Roman people were particularly interested in portraiture, such as making statues that really looked like one particular person.[16]

Rome it would seem, then, was a nation that owed much in the way of its architecture and art to the surrounding nations contemporary to it.  The Etruscans and the Greeks settled lands near Rome and shared and influenced the building practices and religious beliefs of the nation, and in turn gave rise to a great civilisation.  As the nation grew and aged, so too did it mature and grow in splendour.  When Augustus took power and began the Imperial period, he set about making many changes to Rome herself.  As Suetonius wrote:  “Urbem neque pro maiestate imperii ornatam et inundationibus incendiisque obnoxiam excoluit adeo, ut iure sit gloriatus marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset.  Aware that the city was architecturally unworthy of her position as capital of the Roman Empire, besides being vunerable to fire and floods, Augustus so improved her appearance that he could justifiably boast: ‘I found Rome built of bricks; I leave her clothed in marble.’”[17] 


Cerchiai, L., Jannelli, L., & Longo, F.  (2004).  ‘The Gulf of Naples’ in The Greek Cities of Magna Graecia and Sicily.  Pp. 36 – 61. 

Cotterell, A., and Storm, R.  (2005)  The Ultimate Encyclopaedia of Mythology.  London.

Di Vita, A.  (1990).  ‘Town planning in the Greek colonies of Sicily from the time of their foundations to the Punic wars.’  in Greek Colonists and Native Populations: Proceedings of the First Australian Congress of Classical Archaeology Held in Honour of Emeritus Professor A. D. Trendall, Sydney, 9-14 July 1985, Descoeudres, Jean-Paul.  Pp. 343 – 363.

Dominguez, A.  (2006).  Greek Colonisation: An Account of Greek Colonies and Other Settlements Overseas, Vol. 2.  Edited by Tsetskhladze, G., Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands, Pp. 253 – 357. 

Hanfmann, G. M. A. (1975).  The Problem of Roman Art. A Modern Survey of the Art of Imperial Rome. (Little, Brown and Company) New York. pp. 15-19, 24-26

Harding, M.  (2003).  "Graeco-Roman religion (extract)" in Early Christian Life and Thought in    Social Context: A Reader , pp. 175-191

Life of Brian.  (1979).  Jones, T.  Sony Pictures. 

Mertens, D.  (1990).  ‘Some principal features of West Greek colonial architecture.’ in Greek Colonists and Native Populations: Proceedings of the First Australian Congress of Classical Archaeology Held in Honour of Emeritus Professor A. D. Trendall, Sydney, 9-14 July 1985, Descoeudres, Jean-Paul.  Pp. 373 – 383. 

NewDocs – Book of Readings HST250 – Pagans, Jews, and Christians.  Macquarie University, Study Period 3, 2011. 

Suetonius.  (1995).  The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Graves, R.  Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.

Stockstad, M.  (2005).   Art History-Combined Volume. New Jersey: Pearson Education

Witcombe, C.  (2007).  ‘Art History Resources on the Web.’

[1] Monty Python Life of Brian, 1979
[2] NewDocs IV #1
[3] Cotterell & Storm (2005:50-51)
[4] Harding (2003:178)
[5] Dominguez,  Greek Colonisation: An Account of Greek Colonies and Other Settlements Overseas, p. 280
[6] Mertens, ‘Some principal features of West Greek colonial architecture’, p. 374
[7] Dominguez,  Greek Colonisation: An Account of Greek Colonies and Other Settlements Overseas, p. 299
[8] Di Vita, ‘Town planning in the Greek colonies of Sicily from the time of their foundations to the Punic wars’,  p. 352
[9] Di Vita, ‘Town planning in the Greek colonies of Sicily from the time of their foundations to the Punic wars’, p. 355-356
[10] Mertens, ‘Some principal features of West Greek colonial architecture’, p. 374
[11] Cerchiai, ‘The Gulf of Naples’, p. 39
[12] Mertens, ‘Some principal features of West Greek colonial architecture’, p. 375
[13] Halfmann, G. Problem of Roman Art
[14] Stockstad, Art History, p. 700
[15] Stockstad.  Art History Combined Volume, p. 700
[16] Witcombe, Art History Resources on the web.
[17] Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars,

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