Sculpture: Friezes and Reliefs

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Sculpture: Friezes and Reliefs


Triumphal Art. The victory of the general Aemilius Paullus over the Macedonians at Pydna in 168 B.C.E. in 168 B.C.E. is significant not least for the uses of artworks in the celebrations that followed. A triumph was held in Rome during which paintings of the battle by Greek artists were paraded—a typical example of Roman interest in using historical events as a basis for representation in art. As well, Paullus paraded vast amounts of statues and

paintings looted from Greece in the wake of his victory, which apparently filled 250 wagonloads. In Greece he had a sculptured monument set up at Delphi (168-167 B.C.E.), the location of the most famous oracle in the ancient world, and a sanctuary of great significance. This monument was a column 9.5 meters in height supporting a bronze equestrian statue of the general; at the top of the column were marble relief sculptures (31 centimeters high and 6.5 metersmeters long), which depict specific moments of the battle that are also spoken about by ancient historians. For instance, Livy (44.40.4-10) and Plutarch (Aemilius Paullus 18) write that the battle began when a riderless horse broke loose from the Roman ranks, causing both sides to clash as they tried to catch it. A rearing riderless horse conspicuously appears on the frieze, as do Romans and Macedonians elsewhere who are made clearly distinguishable from each other by their dress and armor. The idea of depicting actual battles in monumental sculpture was not unknown to the Greek artists. Alexander the Great had commissioned Lysippos to make a vast monument to celebrate an early victory over Persia at Granikos; and the artists who worked on Paullus’s monument were probably Greek. But already in Paullus’s monument one sees imagery drawn from real events (or events taken to be real), which was a recurrent feature in later sculptural memorials in the Roman world. More mundane subjects also appeared in Roman marble relief sculpture, such as the rather static depiction of census-taking on the so-called altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus from the temple of Neptune (circa 100 B.C.E.). This contrasts in style and subject matter from the more assured and flamboyant rendering of the wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite in the same building.

Ara Pacis. From the Augustan age the most significant sculptural monument is the Ara Pacis (13-9 B.C.E.), a marble rectangular enclosure (11.6 by 10.6 meters) surrounding an altar on raised steps. Aspects of its overall design recall on a smaller scale the great altar of Zeus at Pergamon, (circa 180 B.C.E.) which celebrates Pergamene military victories. This earlier monument was set on a high podium approached by twenty-four steps, with an Ionic colonnade on three sides, below which is the famous frieze depicting the battle of gods and giants. The Ara Pacis was set up on the Campus Martius to commemorate Augustus’s safe return from Gaul and Spain and further participates in the Augustan propaganda campaign, as did, for instance his Prima Porta statue. Within the enclosure are sculpted wreathes hanging from ox skulls (bucrania) above vertical fluting. Externally, on the lower panels were sculpted complex ornamental acanthus leaves, while above are scenes propagating messages of peace, prosperity, and the piety of the imperial entourage who are engaged in a sacrificial procession. Augustus was presented as supreme priest (Pontifex Maximus), echoing an image of Aeneas on another part of the frieze in the role of a priest conducting a sacrifice. The grand civic procession of figures recalls that of the Parthenon frieze (circa 448-32 B.C.E.), and the use of shallow relief to suggest figures at a slight distance on the Ara Pacis recurs notably on later monuments such as the arch of Titus (81 C.E.). Allegorical figures appear on the altar, too, such as the female figure, usually seen as Earth (Tellus) or Peace (Pax) who embraces two babies and is surrounded by contented animals in a pastoral setting flanked by two other female figures who may represent the elements. These figures owe something to the fine sculptures of aristocratic Athenian women on tombstones that date from

the late fifth century B.C.E. That peace leads to prosperity and fecundity is a commonplace of ancient thought, and here is seen as a direct consequence of the Augustan regime. On a smaller scale, the Gemma Augustea of circa 14 C.E., a large piece of onyx (19 by 23 centimeters) divided into upper and lower pictorial sections likewise invokes allegorical as well as historical imagery to disseminate the glory of Augustus and his successors. Above, Augustus is depicted as a deified figure about to be crowned and attended by the goddess Roma; below defeated enemies of Rome await their fate as soldiers hoist the victory spoils tied to a pole into the air.

Arch of Titus. Imperial arches date from the early first century C.E. such as that of Tiberius at Orange (26 C.E.). But the marble arch built to commemorate Rome’s victory in the Jewish war under Titus, Vespasian’s successor, (circa 81 C.E.) has become widely known as a classic example of triumphal Roman art. It is located toward the eastern end of the Roman forum and is comparatively small, measuring 15 by 12 meters. Its main inscription reveals that it was built by Titus’s brother, Domitian, but its chief points of interest are in the reliefs in its passageway. These depict the actual triumphal procession itself in both realistic and allegorical ways. One panel shows Titus riding a chariot with a winged personification of Victory behind him, as attendants appear below wielding fasces. A sense of spatial depth is suggested by the fuller carving of figures in the foreground compared to the shallower carving for figures behind, and the fine carving of the horses in profile and three-quarter views recalls sculptures from the treasury of the Siphnians built at Delphi (circa 525 B.C.E.). The panel on the opposite side has less of the slow decorum of the panel depicting Titus in glory. It shows the plundered objects from the Jewish temple, especially the menorah (the great lampholder) being carried by a crowd of wreathed men, some of whom also carry trumpets and placards, possibly describing the booty. This procession appears to move forward and then turns toward an arch in the background with foreground figures more fully carved than those behind—again emphasizing a sense of depth here. The Corinthian pilasters and coffered vault of the arch make the figures seem more lively, and as one moves through the arch into the forum a palpable feeling of being part of the procession itself, or reliving it, is evoked.

Trajan’s Column. Victory monuments could take a number of different forms apart from arches. Trajan’s column was set up in 113 C.E. in his imperial forum to celebrate his recent successes over the Dacians. It is 28.9 meters in height, set on a podium of 6.2 meters with a continuing spiral frieze 200 meters long and varying in height from 85 cm to 1.45 meters. This monument—which was originally surmounted by a statue of the emperor—is one of the grandest examples of Roman sculpture. In very general terms the design owes something to the monument to Aemilus Paullus of 168-7 B.C.E., but there is, of course, nothing on the older monument that comes close to the great frieze on Trajan’s column. The episodes from Trajan’s

campaign are carved in shallow relief (about 5 centimeters) on hollow drums of marble placed on top of each other. The scenes are not formally divided from each other and comprise detailed images of battles, the army on the march, transportation of goods, Trajan sacrificing or addressing the troops, as well as architectural and natural backdrops. Depth is suggested through the diminishing size of back-ground figures as well as their being placed on a higher level than foreground figures. The “realism” of the scenes does not preclude the presence of gods and personifications such as the winged Victory, or the Danube River in the form of a bearded giant. As might be expected on a frieze of such vast proportions telling a basic story, a number of stock images are repeated and human types are presented with an artificial uniformity. Certain conventions such as depicting Trajan as taller than the surrounding figures are also employed. It would be mistaken to view the frieze as an accurate record of the campaign, although it may give some generic information about equipment and so on. Itsprime function is imperial propaganda, and through its sheer size, range of imagery, and sculptural virtuosity, Trajan’s column achieved a lasting impact on subsequent ages in antiquity and beyond. While other impressive monuments to Trajan’s regime appeared in Rome and else-where—such as the arch at Benevento or the friezes on Trajan’s trophy at Adamklissi in Rumania—Trajan’s column stands apart in more ways than one. It not only inspired columns to later emperors such as Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (which depict his battles with German tribes), but was considered a worthy resting place for

the emperor’s ashes by the senate, though not originally intended for this purpose. It is mostly intact today, surmounted by a statue of St. Peter, erected in 1588.

Severan Arches. One of the best-preserved monuments of the Roman forum is the arch of 203 C.E. honoring Septimius Severus. At 20.6 meters in height it is much larger than that of Titus. As well, there are three arches to this Severan monument—one main central arch is flanked by two smaller ones. It commemorates victories over the Arabs and Parthians as recorded in the inscription atop the arches, and its relief sculptures depict the emperor and his sons along with images of Victory, river gods and lines of the defeated enemy as captives. Like many Roman monuments, then, it combines allegorical as well as historic figures. The Severan arch at Leptis Magna, erected in 203 C.E. was a four-way monument—two sets of arches set at right angles—at a major intersection of the city. It has richly ornate Corinthian pillars and pilasters and is decorated with triumphal friezes of the emperor and his retinue. There is less attempt at illusionistic depth in these images than, for instance, in the arch of Titus. These figures are often frontal, and those understood to be in the background are raised to a slightly higher level; also drapery is rendered by deeper thin incisions than before. Some of these techniques would be designed to accommodate the viewers below, but they also led to a style that was to become steadily more schematic.

Old and New Styles. As an amalgam of old and new sculptural styles with various panels recycled from older monuments, the arch of Constantine (312-15 C.E.) is a fitting embodiment of his regime, which saw the transition to Christianity as the official religion, while still retaining much of the classical past. The arch commemorates his defeat of his main rival Maxentius at the Mulvian bridge, and borrows from works dedicated to Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. Ideology as well as artistic convenience would be the motives here, as Constantine would be attempting to legitimate his regime and its changes by presenting them as being in a tradition consistent with these former emperors who had left a favourable legacy to posterity. The three-way arch is similar in design and dimension to that of Septimius Severus at the other end of the forum, and notable borrowings from Trajanic monuments are the Dacian figures sculpted in the round, standing on plinths atop the Corinthian pillars supporting the arch. Two sculpted roundels above the peripheral arches show the fuller “classical” style of sculpture from the time of Hadrian, and these contrast in clear stylistic terms with images from Constantine’s own time which show the emperor making a speech (Oratio) in the forum and distributing gifts (Donatio or Liberalitas). These images develop trends seen in the arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna. The figures now are more squat than earlier with narrow lines signifying drapery folds, and the overall design is more symmetrical and openly schematic than, for instance, the frieze on the Ara Pacis. As well, distant figures in the Oratio scene appear as more or less severed heads above foreground figures, and the gaze of most of the characters toward the center emphasizes the symmetry of design. The frontality of key figures is explicit in the central figure of the emperor himself (now decapitated) and in the two enlarged seated figures at each end of the podium, identified as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Many of these later scenes verge on the symbolic in their design and execution and convey a clear message of imperial authority to the laity. Such techniques would, of course, feature more emphatically in the heavily didactic, or message-driven, art of Christianity of successive centuries.


Diana E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992).

Jerome J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Nancy and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine, third edition (London: Laurence King, 2000).

Donald E. Strong, Roman Imperial Sculpture (London: A. Tiranti, 1961).

Mario Torelli, Typology and Structure of Roman Historical Reliefs (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982).