Roman Art

Roman art, works of art produced in ancient Rome and its far-flung provinces.

Early Influences

From the 7th to the 3d cent. BC, Etruscan art flourished throughout central Italy, including Latium and Rome. It was strongly influenced by the early art of Greece, although it lacked the basic sense of rational order and structural composition of the Greek models. The influence of native Italic and Middle Eastern art was also strongly felt, particularly during the archaic period (before c.400 BC).


Large polychrome terra-cotta images, such as the Apollo of Veii (Villa Giulia, Rome), sandstone tomb effigies, and tomb paintings reveal a native feeling for voluminous forms and bold decorative color effects and an exuberant, vital spirit. From c.400 BC through the Hellenistic age, the vitality of the archaic period gave way to imitation of the Greek classical models combined with a native trend toward naturalism (Mars of Todi, Vatican). The merging of these trends produced the establishment of Hellenistic realism in Roman Italy at the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire (Orator, Museo Archeologico, Florence; Capitoline Brutus, Conservatori, Rome.).

After the conquest of Greece (c.146 BC), Greek artists settled in Rome, where they found a ready market for works executed in the Greek classical manner or in direct imitation of Greek originals. While the many works by these copyists are of interest principally for their reflection of earlier Greek art, they throw light on the eclecticism of Roman taste, and their influence was of paramount importance throughout the development of Roman art. Roman portraits, however, have an origin very remote and altogether Italianate. It was a Roman custom to have a death mask taken, which was then preserved along with busts copied from it in terra-cotta or bronze.

By the time of the empire, the Roman conception of art had become allied with the political ideal of service to the state. In the Augustan period (30 BC–AD 14) there was an attempt to combine realism with the Greek feeling for idealization and abstract harmony of forms. This modification is seen in the famous Augustus from Prima Porta (Vatican), which represents the first of a long series of the distinctly Roman type of portrait. Under the emperors from Tiberius through the Flavians (AD 14–AD 96) portrait busts reveal in general a growing concern with effects of pictorial refinement and psychological penetration. The magnificent reliefs from the Arch of Titus, Rome, commemorating the conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70, mark a climax in the development of illusionism in historical relief sculpture.

From the time of Trajan (AD 98–AD 117) the influence of the art of the Eastern provinces began to gain in importance. The spiral band of low reliefs on Trajan's Column (Rome), commemorating the wars against the Daci, employs a system of continuous narration. In the period of Hadrian (117–138) there was a reversion to the idealization of the Augustan style and at the same time a growing sense of voluptuousness. Major works from the later period of the Antonines (138–192) are the column and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (Rome).

From the time of Caracalla to the death of Constantine I (211–337) the rapid assimilation of Eastern influences encouraged a tendency toward abstraction that later developed into the stiff iconographic forms of the early Christian and Byzantine eras. The reliefs of the friezes from the Arch of Constantine, Rome (c.315), may be regarded as the last example of monumental Roman sculpture.


Roman painting, like sculpture, was strongly influenced by the art of Greece. Unfortunately, much of the painting has perished. What remains suggests that the art was conceived principally as one of interior decoration. Aside from encaustic portraits chiefly of Alexandrian origin, the largest single group of Roman paintings is from Pompeii, although parallel work exists elsewhere. The Incrustation, or Architectonic Plastic, style extended to c.80 BC; it was characterized by flat areas of color broken by full-scale painted pilasters in apparent imitation of marble slabs.

The Architectural style that followed lasted 70 years; it was largely influenced by stage design and employed painted columns, arches, entablatures, and pediments to frame landscapes and figure compositions, destroying the architectonic quality of the wall. Many famous paintings, such as the Aldobrandini Wedding and Odyssey Landscapes (Vatican), are believed to be Roman copies of Greek originals. By 10 BC the Architectural style yielded to the Ornate style, where the semblance of architectural construction became subordinate to decoration, and the paintings within the borders became prominent. Most surviving Pompeiian paintings date from the Intricate style period, which commenced about AD 50 and continued until the destruction of the city in AD 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius. Large areas of flat color enclose diminutive, graceful, and delicate scenes executed in brilliant color.

Mosaic and the Minor Arts

The continued striving after three-dimensional illusionist effects revealed in the various phases of painting was duplicated in the development of mosaics, extensively produced throughout the empire. In general the Roman minor arts tend to emphasize sumptuousness of materials and ornamentation. Cameos and golden jewelry were extensively produced. Among the most famous is the large Cameo of the Deified Augustus (Paris).

The famous pottery from Arretium (modern Arezzo) was mass-produced and widely exported. Early examples employed a black finish and aimed at imitation of metallic effects. From the time of Augustus, the ware was characterized by a deep red glaze with decorative figures in low relief applied to the body of the vase. During the 1st cent. AD new processes were invented for making glass, and techniques were developed for the imitation of precious stones that made possible the production of fine murrhine vases (e.g., the famous Portland vase, British Museum).


See G. Becatti, The Art of Ancient Greece and Rome (1967); R. B. Bandinelli, Rome, the Centre of Power (1970) and Rome, the Late Empire (1971); M. Greenhalgh, The Classical Tradition in Art (1982); M. Wheeler, Roman Art and Architecture (1985); P. Zanker, Roman Art (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Roman Art: Selected full-text books and articles

Art in Ancient Rome By Eugénie Strong Charles Scribner's Sons, vol.2, 1928
Librarian's tip: Covers Roman art from the Flavian dynasty and after
FREE! Roman and Medieval Art By W. H. Goodyear Grosset & Dunlap, 1897
The Arts and Man By Raymond S. Stites McGraw Hill, 1940
FREE! Companion to Roman History By H. Stuart Jones Clarendon Press, 1912
Librarian's tip: Chap. VIII "Art"
Greek, Etruscan & Roman Art: The Classical Collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston By Museum of Fine Arts, 1963 (Revised edition)
Librarian's tip: Includes descriptions and pictures of the works in the collection
Painting in Italy: From the Origins to the Thirteenth Century By Lionello Venturi; Bianca Maiuri; Eugenio Battisti; Amedeo Maiuri Albert Skira, 1959
Domestic and Divine: Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysos By Christine Kondoleon Cornell University Press, 1994
Studies in Erotic Art By Theodore Bowie; Otto J. Brendel; Paul H. Gebhard; Robert Rosenblum; Leo Steinberg; Theodore Bowie; Cornelia V. Christenson Basic Books, 1970
Roman Sources of Christian Art By Emerson H. Swift Columbia University Press, 1951
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