Roman Sculpture

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Roman Sculpture

The Etruscan Influence.

Roman sculpture has its roots in Etruria, an ancient country north of Rome. According to tradition, the Etruscans were immigrants from Asia Minor who migrated to Italy, perhaps during the general meltdown at the end of the Bronze Age, in the years following 1200 b.c.e. Once they arrived, they established themselves as a ruling class that exploited the resources of one of the richest regions of Italy. Etruria was an important export market for Greek vases, and Greek artisans worked in its cities for Etruscan patrons. One such colony of Greek craftsmen existed in Caere (modern Cerveteri, north of Rome), where there is still a large Etruscan necropolis. The paintings in the Etruscan underground tombs at Tarquinia were probably done by Greek artisans, though the taste is Etruscan. Rome's last three kings were Etruscan; the last of them, Tarquin the Proud, who was expelled in 510 b.c.e., built a great temple for the triad of gods, Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno on the Capitoline Hill in Etruscan style. As a model for all future Roman temples, it stood on a raised podium and was decorated with painted terracotta moldings. The cult statue of Jupiter was made of terracotta by an Etruscan sculptor from Veii named Vulca. A surviving terracotta statue from the school of Vulca was found in the ruins of Veii and now stands in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome. The so-called Apollo of Veii originally looked down from the ridgepole of an Etruscan temple. It has the "archaic smile" of the Greek kouroi (nude male statues), but it has little of the quiet serenity of archaic Greek sculpture.

Early Sculpture in Rome.

Etruscan influence continued in Rome after the Etruscan kings were driven out, and Etruscan sculptors continued to work there. One monument that survived from this early period is a bronze she-wolf of about 500 b.c.e. In the Renaissance period, two infants were added, suckling her teats. The addition clearly identified this wolf with the legendary wolf that suckled Rome's legendary founders, Romulus and Remus, as infants, but it is not clear whether the original statue should be connected with the legend or not. The Etruscan influence on Rome faded, however, as Rome's conquests brought Greece into the empire. A turning point came in 211 b.c.e. while Rome was fighting a desperate war with the Carthaginians who were led by a general of genius, Hannibal. That year the city of Syracuse, which had sided with the Carthaginians, fell to Marcellus, the proconsul commanding the Roman army that was operating in Sicily. Syracuse was a great Greek city filled with works of art, and a share of the art travelled back to Rome as spoils of war. They made a strong impression on the Roman elite, who clamored for more Greek art. In the second century b.c.e., when Rome conquered Greece, there was ample opportunity for more looting. In 146 b.c.e. Rome destroyed Corinth, and the commander, Lucius Mummius, sent shiploads of art works to Rome, saying as he did so that if these cargoes were lost at sea, there were more where they came from. Yet the number of masterpieces was limited, and so a flourishing industry arose in Greece of copying sculptures in marble for the Roman market. The skill of the copyists varied, and though the sculptors knew how to make exact replicas, it is clear that they sometimes varied the originals. Yet without these Roman copies modern understanding of Greek sculpture would be greatly diminished.

Augustan Classicism.

The emperor Augustus (r. 27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.), the heir of Julius Caesar, made himself master of the Roman world only after a hard-fought civil war. First he had to suppress Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who had mustered armies in the east. He destroyed them in a battle fought in 42 b.c.e. at Philippi in northern Greece. Then he had to suppress a more dangerous rival, Mark Antony, defeating him at the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e. After finally achieving peace, Augustus was determined to give the empire a capital worthy of its position as mistress of the Mediterranean world. He turned to the art of classical Greece to accomplish this goal. His artists revived the Canon of Polyclitus, a classical treatise on the proper proportions for sculpture, in creating statues of Augustus. Indeed, a comparison between the so-called "Prima Porta" statue of Augustus, found at the villa of his wife Livia a short distance north of Rome, with the Doryphoros (Spearbearer) of Polyclitus reveals some startling similarities. The statues have the same tilt of the head, and the same treatment of the hair. While Augustus has some individual features, such as his high cheekbones and the hint of resolution to his brow, his physique adheres to the proportions which Polyclitus set forth in his Canon. The statue is a copy of an original statue of the emperor conceived about 27 b.c.e., the year that the senate conferred on him the title "Augustus," meaning "the revered one." The statue of Caesar Augustus is an idealized version of the man as a celebration of his new title. Augustus harnessed the art of Greece for his political purposes. The aesthetic value of the "Prima Porta" Augustus cannot have greatly interested the sculptor who carved it or Augustus' wife Livia, who was probably the person that commissioned it, for its rear is only roughly finished. After all, no one could see it, for the statue was intended to stand against a wall.

The Altar of Peace.

In 9 b.c.e., the Roman senate dedicated the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) on the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) in Rome to commemorate the safe return of Caesar Augustus from his campaigns in Gaul and Spain. It was a modest monument, reproducing the proportions of the Altar of the Twelve Gods which stood in the marketplace of Athens. It was adorned with reliefs, which are the most important features that survive of Augustan sculpture. Some of the reliefs portray the sacrifice that took place at the ceremony of dedication on 30 January 9 b.c.e. The panels on the north and south of the altar show a procession of the imperial family and court; the portraits are sufficiently realistic that most can be identified. On the east and west sides there are panels representing mythological scenes. One shows Aeneas, whom Augustus claimed as an ancestor, making sacrifice. But the most arresting of all is a panel on the outside of the altar enclosure that shows a goddess holding two infants. Various fruits are on her lap, and a child offers her one in his small hand. At her feet a cow rests, and a sheep grazes. The identity of the goddess is unknown. Some scholars believe her to represent "Peace," while others claim she is "Mother Earth," or perhaps Venus, the mother of Aeneas and hence the progenitor of the Julian family. Whatever her identity, she adheres to the artistic traditions of classical Greece. Her stola, the proper dress of a Roman matron, clings to her body, revealing her breasts and even her navel underneath. It reproduces the transparent drapery of Greek sculpture of the 420s b.c.e., such as the Flying Victory of Painonius of Mende, except that in the Ara Pacis relief there is no wind. Yet the message is clear enough. The goddess, whoever she is, is bringing the fruits of peace, and of law and order, to the Roman Empire. This, proclaims the relief, was the achievement of Caesar Augustus.

Historical Reliefs.

In one category of relief sculpture, the Romans could claim a degree of originality: the relief that narrated an historical event. The Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum commemorates the suppression of the revolt in Judaea that broke out in 66 c.e. Titus, who took over command of the Roman forces in Judaea from his father Vespasian, captured Jerusalem and then returned to Rome with his spoils to celebrate a Roman Triumph. In the triumphal ceremony, the victorious general paraded his captives and his spoils through the streets of Rome, through the Roman Forum along the "Sacred Way" and up to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill where he laid down his command. Inside the arch there are two great panels which portray the triumph: one shows the exhibition of the spoils, which include the seven-branched candlestick from the Temple in Jerusalem, and the other shows Titus himself in his triumphal chariot. There are two other great monuments in Rome that use continuous narration: the columns of Trajan and of Marcus Aurelius. Trajan, emperor from 98–117 c.e., added Dacia (modern Rumania) to the empire, and his column shows the campaigns that he waged to conquer Dacia. The story unfolds in a spiral scroll that runs from the bottom to the top of the column, where there perched a statue of the emperor himself. The episodes run into each other without obvious breaks. The column of Marcus Aurelius (161–180 c.e.) takes its inspiration from the column of Trajan. The "continuous narrative" frieze spirals up the column, but there is less attention to the factual recording of details. The nature of Marcus Aurelius' campaigns may account for the difference. Trajan's military operations resulted in an addition to the empire, whereas Marcus Aurelius was fighting to hold back barbarian attacks across the Roman frontier. The emphasis of his relief sculpture is more on the hardships and cruelty of war.

The Appearance of the Frontal Pose.

In the third century c.e., the frontal pose appeared in sculpture as a way of emphasizing the isolation of the emperor. Frontal poses were borrowed from Middle Eastern art; the first examples that we have come from the site of Dura-Europus on the Euphrates River, which was destroyed and abandoned in 257 c.e. Naturalism in sculpture was in full retreat in the third century, and the tendency became more marked in the fourth century. The base of an Egyptian obelisk erected by the emperor Theodosius I (379–395 c.e.) in the Hippodrome at Constantinople is a dramatic illustration of the portrayal of the emperor in the art of late antiquity. Theodosius and the imperial family sit in the imperial loge in the Hippodrome. On either side are senators and court officials. All face the onlooker. Below the imperial loge are various barbarians, recognizable by their dress. They kneel and offer tribute. Even as the empire was growing more ramshackle, the message of Roman sculpture insisted that the emperor was the fount of Roman peace and prosperity.


Richard Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984).

Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1971).

Glenys Davies, "Roman Sculpture," in The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford, England; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 651–653.

Niels Hannestad, Roman Art and Imperial Policy (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1986).

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

Hans Peter L'Orange, The Roman Empire: Art Forms and Civic Life (New York: Rizzoli, 1985).

Nigel J. Spivey, Etruscan Art (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1997).

Eugénie Strong, Roman Sculpture from Augustus to Constantine (London, England: Duckworth, 1907).

Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Trans. Alan Shapiro (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1988).