Art in Ancient Rome
Given the huge expansion of Rome’s dominions, it is difficult to differentiate between what one might consider as Art in Ancient Rome and what might be considered as having been absorbed and modified by Rome, particularly when this process went on for over 1000 years.
Perhaps in order to regard something a being truly of ancient Rome we require a sufficient degree of innovation such as might be seen in architecture or frescoes 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 eventually discarding it in favour of the next most useful representational convention.
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.
| Art in Ancient Rome – Introduction | The decadence of classical art | Foreign influence | The Greek revolution | Painting and Frescos | Painting Styles | Drawing | Mosaics | Glass, Pottery and other wares | Sculpture | Architecture | Literature and Theatre |