The art of ancient Rome

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roman art

Understanding ancient Roman art is a complex matter which requires breadth of approach coupled with a good understanding of Roman society from its earliest origins. The simplistic and possibly "racist" approach is to enter the tug-of-war of Roman versus Greek culture in search for the genius of one or another cultural group. A more correct approach is to balance the various streams through time, so much as the evidence we have access to permits.

The truth of Roman art versus Greek art is far deeper and less clear-cut especially when we take into account the hugely long period of Roman civilisation, the variety of peoples and influences which came to constitute "Rome" and finally consider the art currents it drove through western civilisation from the middle ages through to the renaissance and beyond. In particular it spanned the shift of the cultural centre of gravity from the mediterranean basin across to central Europe. Further hair-splitting can be achieved by considering what might be defined as truly "Roman" during the various periods of the city's development and indeed what might be considered as "Greek art".

Greek art is a good starting point: when we consider Greek art in the context of Roman art and the city of Rome as a Latin city in central Italy we should think of it as a dialect of Greek art - koin dilektos. It is not dissimilar to considering the many reflections of Italian renaissance art in arts and crafts from the industrial revolution through to modern times. The spacial effects of colour studied by Mondrian, the Bauhaus and Rothko have much in common with the spacial effects rendered by Roman interior decorators who drew on Greek lessons and applied them to Roman architecture.

It is undeniable that for an extremely long period of time lasting many centuries, the "art of Rome" had little to distinguish it from the art of its neighbours: Etruscans to the north, Greek colonies to the south and central Italic art to the East.

Roman Plebeian art

Interest in Roman art tends to be focused around what we might call "high art". Rather like being fascinated with the art of the academies whilst forgetting to look at the strong undercurrent of street art which is increasingly evident to the modern public. Well, a similar undercurrent of street art existed in Rome also, evident in minor works such as tombstones or small clay works and eventually in the growing number of wall paintings in catacombs and in the Christian art of the early middle ages.

When did a truly Roman art come to be?

Perhaps in order to regard something a being truly of ancient Rome we require a sufficient degree of innovation. For example in architecture or frescoes there was a great deal of Romanization of art as opposed to mere multiplication or mass production essentially aimed at decoration as might be seen in the Roman reproduction of essentially Greek sculpture.

These are gross generalisations of course as even in the art of sculpture the Romans proved to be quite capable of putting Greek art to their own use and ends, superimposing their own Italic character and finally discarding the Greek vision in favor of the next most useful representational convention which happened to be of popular origins.

At any rate, the social and political environment generated by the dominion of Rome allowed for all types of foreign artistic influences to converge on Rome and for "the best" of them to proliferate across the empire. In this way Italic pottery with figurative reliefs of Greek inspiration has been found traded around the Mediterranean basin and as far afield as India.

At any rate, few would argue with the idea that art is an expression of the people who generate it. We can undoubtedly say that the ancient Romans of the early period (8th century BC) were very different to the ancient Romans of the empire (1st Century AD) and certainly different from the Romans of the late empire and of the Dark Ages (5th Century AD). The former were a relatively uneducated, austere people whose wealth was based on animal husbandry, farming, a degree of trade and war with neighboring tribes. These relatively uncultured warrior-farmers met high culture head-on when they took the Greek colony of Syracuse in southern Italy.

The Romans of the golden age of the empire were the peers of Maecenas, Virgil and Ovid. They were used to travelling far as part of their schooling. They welcomed the influence of other cultures and were used to warfare and commerce on an international scale. By this time Rome had begun to impress its own identity and character onto the strong vein of Greek art.

Should we wish to level a criticism at the art of this age it might be that it was primarily utilised for purposes of political propaganda. As such the elite predefined what was to be said through art rather than allowing the freedom of expression one might hope for, but this is compensated by the exquisite craftsmanship and harmony of the artifacts which seem to resonate the grandeur and peace of that epoch.

The Romans of the golden age were followed by the Romans of the decline of the empire who lived to experience the dread of insecurity through successive barbarian invasions. These Romans began to look to Christianity and other religions such as Mithraism as a route to (spiritual) salvation. During this last period the "high" art of the empire gave way to the underlying popular art of the Italic, plebeian, peoples.

Read on about the decadence of ancient roman art.

roman art:  roman art - Introduction | The decadence of classical art | Foreign influence | The Greek revolution | Ancient Roman Paintings | Painting Styles | Drawing | Ancient Roman Mosaics | ancient roman jewelry | Sculpture | roman statues | Architecture | Literature and Theatre |Ancient Rome Literature  | poems about Rome | roman music | roman pottery |

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This page about roman art was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments