The Art of the Romans from the Early Republic to the Fall of the Empire

Procession on the Ara Pacis / Creative Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.08.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Introduction to the Romans

1.1 – Introduction

Rome was founded in the mid-eighth century BCE by eight tribes who settled in Etruria and on the famous Seven Hills.

1.1.1 – Foundation Myths

The Romans relied on two sets of myths to explain their origins: the first story tells the tale of Romulus and Remus, while the second tells the story of Aeneas and the Trojans, who survived the sack of Troy by the Greeks. Oddly, both stories relate the founding of Rome and the origins of its people to brutal murders.

Romulus killed his twin brother, Remus, in a fit of rage, and Aeneas slaughtered his rival Turnus in combat. Roman historians used these mythical episodes as the reason for Rome’s own bloody history and periods of civil war. While foundation myths are the most common vehicle through which we learn about the origins of Rome and the Roman people, the actual history is often overlooked.

1.1.2 – The Historical Record

Archaeological evidence shows that the area that eventually became Rome has been inhabited continuously for the past 14,000 years. The historical record provides evidence of habitation on and fortification of the Palatine Hill during the eighth century BCE, which supports the date of April 21, 753 BCE, as the date that ancient historians applied to the founding of Rome in association with a festival to Pales, the goddess of shepherds. Given the importance of agriculture to pre-Roman tribes, as well as most ancestors of civilization , it is logical that the Romans would link the celebration of their founding as a city to an agrarian goddess.

Romulus, whose name is believed to be the namesake of Rome, is credited for Rome’s founding. He is also credited with establishing the period of monarchical rule. Six kings ruled after him until 509 BCE, when the people rebelled against the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, and established the Republic. Throughout its history, the people—including plebeians , patricians , and senators—were wary of giving one person too much power and feared the tyranny of a king.

1.1.3 – Pre-Roman Tribes

The villages that would eventually merge to become Rome were descended from the Italic tribes. The Italic tribes spread throughout the present-day countries of Italy and Sicily. Archaeological evidence and ancient writings provide very little information on how—or whether—pre-Roman tribes across the Italian peninsula interacted.

What is known is that they all belonged to the Indo-European linguistic family, which gave rise to the Romance (Latin-derived) and Germanic languages. What follows is a brief history of two of the eight main tribes that contributed to the founding of Rome: the Latins and the Sabines.

1.1.4 – The Latins

Cinerary urn: This Villanovan urn likely replicates the form that pre-Roman Latin huts assumed before the mid-seventh century BCE.

The Latins inhabited the Alban Hills since the second millennium BCE. According to archaeological remains, the Latins were primarily farmers and pastoralists . Approximately at the end of the first millennium BCE, they moved into the valleys and along the Tiber River, which provided better land for agriculture.

Although divided from an early stage into communities that mutated into several independent, and often warring, city-states , the Latins and their neighbors maintained close culturo-religious relations until they were definitively united politically under Rome. These included common festivals and religious sanctuaries.

The Latins appear to have become culturally differentiated from the surrounding Italic tribes from about 1000 BCE onward. From this time, the Latins’ material culture shares more in common with the Iron Age Villanovan culture found in Etruria and the Po valley than with their former Osco-Umbrian neighbors.

The Latins thus shared a similar material culture as the Etruscans. However, archaeologists have discerned among the Latins a variant of Villanovan, dubbed the Latial culture.

The most distinctive feature of Latial culture were cinerary urns in the shape of huts . They represent the typical, single-room abodes of the area’s peasants, which were made from simple, readily available materials: wattle-and-daub walls and straw roofs supported by wooden posts. The huts remained the main form of Latin housing until the mid-seventh century BCE.

1.1.5 – The Sabines

Pre-Roman tribes: Map showing the locations of the tribes who settled Rome.

The Sabines originally inhabited the Apennines and eventually relocated to Latium before the founding of Rome. The Sabines divided into two populations just after the founding of Rome. The division, however it came about, is not legendary.

The population closer to Rome transplanted itself to the new city and united with the pre-existing citizenry to start a new heritage that descended from the Sabines but was also Latinized. The second population remained a mountain tribal state, finally fighting against Rome for its independence along with all the other Italic tribes. After losing, it became assimilated into the Roman Republic.

There is little record of the Sabine language. However, there are some glosses by ancient commentators, and one or two inscriptions have been tentatively identified as Sabine. There are also personal names in use on Latin inscriptions from the Sabine territories, but these are given in Latin form. The existing scholarship classifies Sabine as a member of the Umbrian group of Italic languages and identifies approximately 100 words that are either likely Sabine or that possess Sabine origin.

1.1.6 – The Seven Hills

Before Rome was founded as a city, its people existed in separate settlements atop its famous Seven Hills:

  1. The Aventine Hill
  2. The Caelian Hill
  3. The Capitoline Hill
  4. The Esquiline Hill
  5. The Palatine Hill
  6. The Quirinal Hill
  7. The Viminal Hill

Over time, each tribe either united with or was absorbed into the Roman culture.

1.1.7 – The Quirinal Hill

Recent studies suggest that the Quirinal Hill was very important to the ancient Romans and their immediate ancestors. It was here that the Sabines originally resided. Its three peaks were united with the three peaks of the Esquiline, as well as villages on the Caelian Hill and Suburra.

Tombs from the eighth to the seventh century BCE that confirm a likely presence of a Sabine settlement area were discovered on the Quirinal Hill. Some authors consider it possible that the cult of the Capitoline Triad (Jove, Minerva, Juno) could have been celebrated here well before it became associated with the Capitoline Hill. The sanctuary of Flora, an Osco-Sabine goddess, was also at this location. Titus Livius (better known as Livy) writes that the Quirinal Hill, along with the Viminal Hill, became part of Rome in the sixth century BCE.

1.1.8 – The Palatine Hill

The Seven Hills of Rome: A schematic map of Rome showing the Seven Hills.

According to Livy, the Palatine Hill, located at the center of the ancient city, became the home of the original Romans after the Sabines and the Albans moved into the Roman lowlands. Due to its historical and legendary significance, the Palatine Hill became the home of many Roman elites during the Republic and emperors during the Empire.

It was also the site of a temple to Apollo built by Emperor Augustus and the pastoral (and possibly pre-Roman) festival of Lupercalia, which was observed on February 13 through 15 to avert evil spirits, purify the city, and release health and fertility.

Festivals for the Septimontium (meaning of the Seven Hills) on December 11 were previously considered to be related to the foundation of Rome. However, because April 21 is the agreed-upon date of the city’s founding, it has recently been argued that Septimontium celebrated the first federations among the Seven Hills. A similar federation was celebrated by the Latins at Cave or Monte Cavo.

1.2 – Roman Society

Ancient Roman society was based on class-based and political structures, as well as by religious practices.

1.2.1 – Social Structure

Life in ancient Rome centered around the capital city with its fora, temples, theaters, baths, gymnasia, brothels, and other forms of culture and entertainment. Private housing ranged from elegant urban palaces and country villas for the social elites to crowded insulae (apartment buildings) for the majority of the population.

The large urban population required an endless supply of food, which was a complex logistical task. Area farms provided produce, while animal-derived products were considered luxuries. The aqueducts brought water to urban centers, and wine and oil were imported from Hispania (Spain and Portugal), Gaul (France and Belgium), and Africa.

Highly efficient technology allowed for frequent commerce among the provinces. While the population within the city of Rome might have exceeded one million, most Romans lived in rural areas, each with an average population of 10,000 inhabitants.

Roman society consisted of patricians , equites (equestrians, or knights), plebeians , and slaves. All categories except slaves enjoyed the status of citizenship.

In the beginning of the Roman republic, plebeians could neither intermarry with patricians or hold elite status, but this changed by the Late Republic, when the plebeian-born Octavian rose to elite status and eventually became the first emperor. Over time, legislation was passed to protect the lives and health of slaves.

Although many prostitutes were slaves, for instance, the bill of sale for some slaves stipulated that they could not be used for commercial prostitution. Slaves could become freedmen—and thus citizens—if their owners freed them or if they purchased their freedom by paying their owners. Free-born women were considered citizens, although they could neither vote nor hold political office.

1.2.2 – Pater Familias

Roman family: Relief of a Roman family with the child in the middle, the father on the left, and the mother on the right.

Within the household, the pater familias was the seat of authority, possessing power over his wife, the other women who bore his sons, his children, his nephews, his slaves, and the freedmen to whom he granted freedom. His power extended to the point of disposing of his dependents and their good, as well as having them put to death if he chose.

In private and public life, Romans were guided by the mos maiorum, an unwritten code from which the ancient Romans derived their social norms that affected all aspects of life in ancient Rome.

1.2.3 – Government

The Roman Senate: A nineteenth-century fresco in the Palazzo Madama in Rome, depicting a sitting of the Roman Senate in which the senator Cicero attacks the senator Catiline.

Over the course of its history, Rome existed as a kingdom (hereditary monarchy), a republic (in which leaders were elected), and an empire (a kingdom encompassing a wider swath of territory). From the establishment of the city in 753 BCE to the fall of the empire in 476 CE, the Senate was a fixture in the political culture of Rome, although the power it exerted did not remain constant.

During the days of the kingdom, it was little more than an advisory council to the king. Over the course of the Republic, the Senate reached the height of its power, with old-age becoming a symbol of prestige, as only elders could serve as senators. However  the late Republic witnessed the beginning of its decline. After Augustus ended the Republic to form the Empire, the Senate lost much of its power, and with the reforms of Diocletian in the third century CE, it became irrelevant.

As Rome grew as a global power, its government was subdivided into colonial and municipal levels. Colonies were modeled closely on the Roman constitution, with roles being defined for magistrates, council, and assemblies. Colonists enjoyed full Roman citizenship and were thus extensions of Rome itself.

The second most prestigious class of cities was the municipium (a town or city). Municipia were originally communities of non-citizens among Rome’s Italic allies. Later,Roman citizenship was awarded to all Italy, with the result that a municipium was effectively now a community of citizens. The category was also used in the provinces to describe cities that used Roman law but were not colonies.

1.2.4 – Religion

The Roman people considered themselves to be very religious. Religious beliefs and practices helped establish stability and social order among the Romans during the reign of Romulus and the period of the legendary kings. Some of the highest religious offices, such as the Pontifex Maximus , the head of the state’s religion—which eventually became one of the titles of the emperor—were sought-after political positions.

Women who became Vestal Virgins served the goddess of the hearth, Vesta, and received a high degree of autonomy within the state, including rights that other women would never receive.

The Roman pantheon corresponded to the Etruscan and Greek deities . Jupiter was considered the most powerful and important of all the Gods.

In nearly every Roman city, a central temple known as the Capitolia that was dedicated to the supreme triad of deities: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (Zeus, Hera, and Athena). Small household gods, known as Lares, were also popular.

Lararium: A fresco and stucco lararium from the House of the Vettii.

Each family claimed their own set of personal gods and laraium, or shines to the Lares, are found not only in houses but also at street corners, on roads, or for a city neighborhood.

Roman religious practice often centered around prayers, vows, oaths, and sacrifice . Many Romans looked to the gods for protection and would complete a promise sacrifice or offering as thanks when their wishes were fulfilled. The Romans were not exclusive in their religious practices and easily participated in numerous rituals for different gods. Furthermore, the Romans readily absorbed foreign gods and cults into their pantheon.

Capitoline Triad: Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva made up the Capitoline Triad. They often shared a temple, known as the Capitolia, in the center of a Roman city. This photo is taken in the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, Palestrina, Italy.

With the rise of imperial rule, the emperors were considered gods, and temples were built to many emperors upon their death. Their family members could also be deified, and the household gods of the emperor’s family were also incorporated into Roman worship.

2 – The Republic

2.1 – Roman Sculpture under the Republic

During the Roman Republic, members of all social classes used a variety of sculptural techniques to promote their distinguished social statuses.

2.1.1 – Introdution

Early Roman art was influenced by the art of Greece and that of the neighboring Etruscans, themselves greatly influenced by their Greek trading partners. As the expanding Roman Republic began to conquer Greek territory, its official sculpture became largely an extension of the Hellenistic style , with its departure from the idealized body and flair for the dramatic. This is partly due to the large number of Greek sculptors working within Roman territory.

However, Roman sculpture during the Republic departed from the Greek traditions in several ways.

  • It was the first to feature a new technique called continuous narration.
  • Commoners, including freedmen, could commission public art and use it to cast their professions in a positive light.
  • Portraiture throughout the Republic celebrated old age with its verism .
  • In the closing decades of the Republic, Julius Caesar counteracted traditional propriety by becoming the first living person to place his own portrait on a coin.

In the examples that follow, the patrons use these techniques to promote their status in society.

2.1.2 – The Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus

Despite its most common title, the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (late second century BCE) was more likely a base intended to support cult statues in the cella of a Temple of Neptune (Poseidon) located in Rome on the Field of Mars. The frieze is the second oldest Roman bas- relief currently known.

Domitius Ahenobarbus, a naval general, likely commissioned the altar and the temple in gratitude of a naval victory between 129 and 128 BCE. The reliefs combine mythology and contemporary civic life.

One panel of the altar depicts the census, a uniquely Roman event of contemporary civic life. It is one of the earliest reliefs sculpted in continuous narration, in which the viewer reads from left to right the recording of the census, the purification of the army before the altar of Mars, and the levy of the soldiers.

Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb: This panel of the altar depicts the census, a uniquely Roman event of contemporary civic life.

The other three panels depict the mythological wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite. At the center of his scene, Neptune and Amphitrite are seated in a chariot drawn by two Tritons (messengers of the sea) who dance to music. They are accompanied by a multitude of fantastic creatures, Tritons, and Nereides (sea nymphs) who form a retinue for the wedding couple, which, like the census scene, can be read from left to right.

Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb: The other three panels of the altar depict the mythological wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite.

At the left, a Nereid riding on a sea-bull carries a present. Next, Amphitrite’s mother Doris advances towards the couple, mounted on a hippocampus (literally, a sea horse) and holding wedding torches in each hand to light the procession’s way. Eros hovers behind her. Behind the wedding couple, a Nereid riding a hippocampus carries another present.

2.1.3 – Tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the Baker

The Tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the Baker: The frieze represents various stages in the baking of bread in continuous narration.

The patronage of public sculpture was not limited to the ruling classes during the Republic. The tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the Baker (c. 50–20 BCE) is one of the largest and best-preserved freedman funerary monuments in Rome. Its sculpted frieze is a classic example of the plebeian style in Roman sculpture.

The deceased built the tomb for himself and perhaps his wife Atistia in the final decades of the Republic. While the tomb’s inscription lacks an L to denote the status of a freedman, the tripartite name of the deceased follows the pattern of names given to and adopted by former slaves.

The tomb, approximately 33 feet tall, commemorates the deceased and his profession. It three main components are a frieze at the top and the cylindrical niches (probably symbolic of a kneading machine or grain measuring vessels) below it.

The surviving text of the inscription translates as “This is the monument of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, baker, contractor, public servant.” The frieze represents various stages in the baking of bread in continuous narration.

Although time-worn, the naturalistic depiction of human and animal bodies in a variety of poses is still evident. This record of each stage in a mundane process demonstrates the sense of pride the deceased must have had in his profession. Because the wearing of togas was not conducive to manual labor, the simple clothing on the figures marks them as plebeians, or commoners.

2.1.4 – Portraiture

Roman portraiture during the Republic is identified by its considerable realism, known as veristic portraiture. Verism refers to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the subject’s facial characteristics. The style originated from Hellenistic Greece; however, its use in the Roman Republic is due to Roman values , customs, and political life.

As with other forms of Roman art, portraiture borrowed certain details from Greek art but adapted these to their own needs. Veristic images often show their male subjects with receding hairlines, deep winkles, and even with warts. While the faces of the portraits often display incredible detail and likeness, the subjects’ bodies are idealized and do not correspond to the age shown in the face.


[LEFT]: Portrait of a Roman General: When created as full-length sculptures, the veristic portrait busts appear to have been paired with idealized (mass-produced?) bodies that create a sense of disunity.
[RIGHT]: Bust of an old man: Verism refers to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the subject’s facial characteristics, such as the wrinkles on this man’s face.

The popularity and usefulness of verism appears to derive from the need to have a recognizable image. Veristic portrait busts provided a means of reminding people of distinguished ancestors or of displaying one’s power, wisdom, experience, and authority. Statues were often erected of generals and elected officials in public forums—and a veristic image ensured that a passerby would recognize the person when they actually saw them.

2.1.5 – The Late Republic

Marble bust of Pompey the Great: Portraits of Pompey combine a degree of verism with an idealized hairstyle reminiscent of Alexander the Great.

The use of veristic portraiture began to diminish in the first century BCE. During this time, civil wars threatened the empire, and individual men began to gain more power. The portraits of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, two political rivals who were also the most powerful generals in the Republic, began to change the style of the portraits and their use.

The portraits of Pompey are not fully idealized, nor were they created in the same veristic style of Republican senators. Pompey borrowed a specific parting and curl of his hair from Alexander the Great . This similarity served to link Pompey visually with the likeness of Alexander and to remind people that he possessed similar characteristics and qualities.

Julius Caesar portrait: A portrait of Julius Caesar on a denarius. On the reverse side stands Venus Victix holding a winged Victory.

The portraits of Julius Caesar are more veristic than those of Pompey. Despite staying closer to stylistic convention, Caesar was the first man to mint coins with his own likeness printed on them. In the decades prior to this, it had become increasingly common to place an illustrious ancestor on a coin, but putting a living person—especially oneself—on a coin departed from Roman propriety. By circulating coins issued with his image, Caesar directly showed the people that they were indebted to him for their own prosperity and therefore should support his political pursuits.

2.1.6 – Death Masks

The creation and use of death masks demonstrate Romans’ veneration of their ancestors. These masks were created from molds taken of a person at the time of his or her death. Made of wax, bronze , marble, and terra cotta , death masks were kept by families and displayed in the atrium of their homes.

Visitors and clients who entered the home would have been reminded of the family’s ancestry and the honorable qualities of their ancestors. Such displays served to bolster the reputation and credibility of the family.

Death masks were also worn and paraded through the streets during funeral procession. Again, this served not only a memorial for the dead, but also to link the living members of a family to their illustrious ancestors in the eyes of the spectator.

2.2 – Roman Architecture under the Republic

Roman architecture relies heavily on the use of concrete and the arch to create unique interior spaces and architectural forms.

2.2.1 – Introduction

Greek and Roman column orders: From top to bottom: Doric and Tuscan, Ionic and Roman Ionic (scrolls on all four corners), Corinthian and Composite.

Roman architecture began as an imitation of Classical Greek architecture but eventually evolved into a new style. Unfortunately, almost no early Republican buildings remain intact. The earliest substantial remains date to approximately 100 BCE.

Innovations such as improvements to the round arch and barrel vault , as well as the inventions of concrete and the true hemispherical dome, allowed Roman architecture to become more versatile than its Greek predecessors. While the Romans were reluctant to abandon classical motifs , they modified their temple designs by abandoning pedimental sculptures, altering the traditional Greek peripteral colonnades , and opting for central exterior stairways.

Likewise, although Roman architects did not abandon traditional column orders, they did modify them with the Tuscan, Roman Ionic, and Composite orders. This diagram shows the Greek orders on the left and their Roman modifications on the right.

2.2.2 – Roman Temples

Most Roman temples derived from Etruscan prototypes. Like Etruscan temples, Roman temples are frontal with stairs that lead up to a podium, and a deep portico filled with columns. They are also usually rectilinear , and the interiors consist of at least one cella that contained a cult statue.

If multiple gods were worshiped in one temple, each god would have its own cella and cult image. For example, Capitolia—the temples dedicated to the Capitoline Triad—would always be built with three cellae, one for each god of the triad: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

The Temple of Portunus : A typical Roman Republican temple. Rome, c. 75 BCE.

Roman temples were typically made of brick and concrete and then faced in either marble or stucco. Engaged columns (columns that protrude from walls like reliefs) adorn the exteriors of the temples. This creates an effect of columns completely surrounding a cella, an effect known as psuedoperipteral . The altar, used for sacrifices and offerings , always stood outside in front of the temple.

Temple of Hercules Victor: A Roman modification of a Greek tholos. Rome, from the late second century BCE.

While most Roman temples followed this typical plan, some were dramatically different. At times, the Romans erected round temples that imitated the Greek tholos . Examples can be found in the Temple of Hercules Victor (late second century BCE), in the Forum Boarium in Rome . The temple consists a circular cella within a concentric ring of 20 Corinthian columns. Like its Etruscan predecessors, the temple rests on a tufa foundation. Its original roof and architrave are now lost.

2.2.3 – Concrete

The Romans perfected the recipe for concrete during the third century BCE by mixing together water, lime, and pozzolana , volcanic ash mined from the countryside surrounding Mt. Vesuvius. Concrete became the primary building material for the Romans, and it is largely the reason that they were such successful builders.

Most Roman buildings were built with concrete and brick that was then covered in façade of stucco, expensive stone, or marble. Concrete was a cheaper and lighter material than most other stones used for construction. This helped the Romans build structures that were taller, more complicated, and quicker to build than any previous ones.

Wall of a tomb on the Via Appia, Rome: The ruins show the internal core of the building, made in Roman concrete.

Once dried, concrete was also extremely strong, yet flexible enough to remain standing during moderate seismic activity. The Romans were even able to use concrete underwater, allowing them build harbors and breakers for their ports. The ruins of a tomb on the Via Appia (the most famous thoroughfare through ancient Rome) expose the stones and aggregate that the Romans used to mix concrete.

2.2.4 – Arches, Vaults, and Domes

The Romans effectively combined concrete and the structural shape of the arch. These two elements became the foundations for most Roman structures. Arches can bear immense weight, as they are designed to redistribute weight from the top, to its sides, and down into the ground . While the Romans did not invent the arch, they were the first culture to manipulate it and rely on its shape.

An arch is a pure compression form . It can span a large area by resolving forces into compressive stresses (pushing downward) that, in turn, eliminate tensile stresses (pushing outward). As the forces in the arch are carried to the ground, the arch will push outward at the base (called thrust). As the height of the arch decreases, the outward thrust increases. In order to maintain arch action and prevent the arch from collapsing, the thrust needs to be restrained, either with internal ties or external bracing, such as abutments (labeled 8 on the diagram below).

Schematic illustration of an arch: This diagram illustrates the structural support of an arch extended into a barrel vault. The dotted line extending downward from the keystone (1) shows the strength of the arch directing compressive stresses (represented by the downward-pointing arrows outside the arch) safely to the ground. Meanwhile, tensile stress (represented by the horizontal and diagonal-facing arrows) is contained by the surrounding wall.

The arch is a shape that can be manipulated into a variety of forms that create unique architectural spaces. Multiple arches can be used together to create a vault. The simplest type is known as a barrel vault.

Barrel vaults consist of a line of arches in a row that create the shape of a tunnel. When two barrel vaults intersect at right angles, they create a groin vault . These are easily identified by the x-shape they create in the ceiling of the vault. Furthermore, because of the direction, the thrust is concentrated along this x-shape, so only the corners of a groin vault need to be grounded. This allows an architect or engineer to manipulate the space below the groin vault in a variety of ways.

Temple of Echo at Baiae: The dome on Temple of Echo at Baiae creates the building’s remarkable acoustic properties.

Arches and vaults can be stacked and intersected with each other in a multitude of ways. One of the most important forms that they can create is the dome. This is essentially an arch that is rotated around a single point to create a large hemispherical vault. The largest dome constructed during the Republic was on the Temple of Echo at Baiae, named for its remarkable acoustic properties.

Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (scale model): Concrete was used as the primary building material and barrel vaults provide structural support, both as a terracing method for the hill and in creating interesting architectural spaces for the sanctuary.

Arches and concrete are found in many iconic Roman structures. The Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (c. 120 BCE) at Palestrina, Italy is a massive temple structure built into the hillside in a series of terraces, exedras , and porticoes. Concrete was used as the primary building material and barrel vaults provide structural support, both as a terracing method for the hill and in creating interesting architectural spaces for the sanctuary.

Aqua Marcia: These are some ruins from the aquaduct near Tivoli, Italy, c. 144–140 BCE.

Roman aqueducts are another iconic use of the arch. The arches that make up an aqueduct provided support without requiring the amount of building material necessary for arches supported by solid walls. The Aqua Marcia (144–140 BCE) was the longest of the eleven aqueducts that served the city of Rome during the Republic. It supplied water to the Viminal Hill in the north of Rome, and from there to the Caelian, Aventine, Palatine, and Capitoline Hills. Where the Aqua Marcia had contact with water, it was coated with a waterproof mortar.

3 – The Early Empire

3.1 – Imperial Sculpture in the Early Empire

Augustan art served a vital visual means to promote the legitimacy of Augustus’ power, and the techniques he employed were incorporated into the propaganda of later emperors.

3.1.1 – Augustus

During his reign, Augustus enacted an effective propaganda campaign to promote the legitimacy of his rule as well as to encourage moral and civic ideals among the Roman populace.

Augustan sculpture contains the rich iconography of Augustus’s reign with its strong themes of legitimacy, stability, fertility, prosperity, and religious piety. The visual motifs employed within this iconography became the standards for imperial art.

3.1.2 – Ara Pacis Augustae

Ara Pacis Augustae: The actual u-shaped altar sits atop a podium inside a square wall that demarcates the precinct’s sacred space.

The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, is one of the best examples of Augustan artistic propaganda. Not only does it demonstrate a new moral code promoted by Augustus, it also established imperial iconography. It was commissioned by the Senate in 13 BCE to honor the peace and bounty established by Augustus following his return from Hispania (Spain) and Gaul; it was consecrated on January 30, 9 BCE.

The marble altar was erected just outside the boundary of the pomerium to the north of the city along the Via Flaminia on the Campus Martius. The actual u-shaped altar sits atop a podium inside a square wall that demarcates the precinct’s sacred space.

Ara Pacis Augustae: A detail from the processional scene on the south wall.

The north and south walls depict a procession of life-sized figures on the upper register . These figures include men, women, children, priests, lictors , and identifiable members of the political elite during the Augustan age. The elite include Augustus, his wife Livia, his son-in-law Marcus Agrippa (who died in 12 BCE), and Tiberius, Augustus’s adopted son and successor who would marry the emperor’s widowed daughter in 11 BCE. While the altar as a whole celebrates the Augustus as a peacemaker, this scene promotes him as a pious family man.

3.1.3 – Imperial Portraiture

Augustus very carefully controlled his imperial portrait. Abandoning the veristic style of the Republican period, his portraits always showed him as an idealized young man. These portraits linked him to divinities and heroes, both mythical and historical.

He is often shown with an identifiable cowlick that was originally shown on the portraits of Alexander the Great . His lack of shoes signifies his supposed humbleness despite the great power he possessed. Two portraits of him, one as Pontifex Maximus and the other as Imperator , depict two different personae of the emperor.

Augustus’s portrait as Pontifex Maximus shows him attired with a toga over his ever-youthful head, an attribute that serves to remind viewers of his own extreme piety to the gods.

Augustus: Portrayed as Pontifex Maximus.

The Augustus of Primaporta shows the influence of both Roman and Classical Greek works, including the Spear Bearer by Polykleitos and the Etruscan bronze Aule Metele. Assuming the role of imperator, Augustus wears military grab in a pose known as adlucotio, addressing his troops. Despite his poor health, which left him with a frail body, he appears healthy and muscular.

Cupid rides a dolphin at Augustus’ feet, a symbol of his divine ancestry. Cupid is the son of Venus, as was Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of the Roman people. The Julian family traced their ancestry back to Aeneas and, therefore, consider themselves descendants of Venus.

Augustus of Primaporta: The Augustus of Primaporta statue shows the influence of both Roman and Classical Greek works. Cupid rides a dolphin at Augustus’ feet, a symbol of his divine ancestry.

As Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, this use of iconography allows Augustus to remind viewers of his divine lineage. In addition to adopting the body language and attire of a general, the relief on the cuirass shows one of Augustus’ greatest victories—the return of the Parthian standards.

During the civil wars, a legion’s standards were lost when the legion was defeated by the Parthians . In a great feat of diplomacy, and curiously not military action, Augustus was able to negotiate the return of the standards to the legion and to Rome . Additional figures on the cuirass personify Roman gods and the arrival of Augustan peace.

3.1.4 – The Legacy of Augustan Sculpture

Upon the death of Augustus, Tiberius (14–37 CE) assumed the title of emperor and Pontifex Maximus of Rome. Like his father-in-law, Tiberius maintained a youthful appearance in his portraiture in sculpture.

A general in his pre-imperial career, Tiberius appears in a sculpture very similar to the Augustus of Primaporta. He wears military attire and stands erect in a dynamic contrapposto pose with his arm raised. Although he wears boots, which would appear to contradict the suggestion of humbleness seen in full-length sculptures of Augustus, his plain cuirass and the absence of religious iconography suggest a competent leader who does not promote his accomplishments or divine ancestry.

Full-length sculpture of Tiberius in military garb: Tiberius’ plain cuirass and the absence of religious iconography suggest a competent leader who does not promote his accomplishments or divine ancestry.

Like Augustus, who suffered from poor health, Claudius, who succeeded Caligula in 41 CE, was also infirm. In addition to health issues, Claudius lacked experience as a leader but quickly overcame this shortcoming as emperor.

During his reign, Rome annexed the province of Britannia (present-day England and Wales) and witnessed the construction of new roads and aqueducts . Despite these achievements, Claudius’s opponents still saw him as vulnerable, a situation that forced him to shore up his position almost constantly, resulting in the deaths of many senators. Perhaps this need to prove his competency in his role prompted him to commission a sculpture of himself as Jupiter, a sculpture that also bears striking similarities to the Augustus of Primaporta.

Claudius as Jupiter: Claudius holds a bowl (an offering to signify his piety) in one hand and a scepter-like object (to signify his power) in the other.

He continues the standard of the eternally youthful and healthy emperor begun by Augustus. His face and body are idealized. Like his predecessor, Claudius appears barefoot in a gesture of humility balanced with a symbol of divinity, in this case, an eagle to symbolize Jupiter. He wears a laurel crown as a metaphor of victory. While the positions of his arms and hand are similar to those of Augustus, Claudius holds a bowl (an offering to signify his piety) in one hand and a scepter-like object (to signify his power) in the other.

3.2 – Architecture of the Early Roman Empire

The Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties of the early Roman Empire oversaw some of the best-known building projects of the era.

3.2.1 – Introduction

The early Roman Empire consisted of two dynasties : the Julio-Claudians (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero) and the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian). Each dynasty made significant contributions to the architecture of the capital city and the Empire.

The first Roman emperor, Augustus, enacted a program of extensive building and restoration throughout the city of Rome. He famously noted that he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.”

This building program served the people of Rome by expanding public space , allocating places for trade and politics, and providing and improving the temples so the people could the serve the gods. As with his artistic iconography , this too became the standard that later emperors modeled their own building programs on.

3.2.2 – Basilica Julia

Basilica Julia: This is a computer generated image of the basilica, a large and ornate structure with two levels of arcades.

The basilica is a form of building that dates to the Roman Republic. Essentially it is the town hall in ancient Roman life, and many senators and emperors commissioned basilicas to commemorate their contributions to society.

In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar began the construction of the Basilica Julia, funded by spoils from the Gallic War, in the Roman forum . The basilica burned shortly after its completion, but Augustus oversaw its reconstruction and rededicated the building in 12 CE, naming the building after his great uncle and adoptive father.

The Basilica Julia housed the civil law courts and tabernae (shops), and provided space for government offices and banking. In the first century, it also housed the Court of the Hundred, which oversaw matters of inheritance.

It was a large and ornate structure with two levels of arcades . On both levels, an engaged column stood between each pair of arches. Tuscan columns adorned the ground level, while Roman Ionic columns adorned the second level. Full-length sculptures of men, possibly senators or other significant historical or political figures, stood under each arch on the second level and lined the roof above each engaged Ionic column. A similar pattern would appear on the Colosseum under the Flavians in the late first century CE.

3.2.3 – The Domus Aurea

In 64 CE, a fire erupted in Rome and burned ten of the fourteen districts in the city. Nero appropriated some of the newly cleared land for his own use. This land, located on the hills east of the Forum Romanum, became home to his new palatial structure known as the Domus Aurea, or the Golden House.

Nero’s complex included a private lake, landscaped gardens and porticoes, a colossal golden statue of himself, and rooms for entertaining that were lavishly decorated with mosaics , frescoes , and gold leaf . The surviving frescoes provide excellent examples of Pompeiian fourth- style painting, a fantastical style that inspired Renaissance grotesque when portions of the palace were discovered at the end of the 1400s.

Nero’s architects and engineers, Severus and Celer, designed the Domus Aurea and demonstrated some of the unique architectural shapes made possible through concrete construction. An octagonal hall testifies to the architects’ ingenuity. The octagonal room stands between multiple rooms, possibly for dining, and is delineated by eight piers that support a domed roof with an oculus that lit not only the hall but also the surrounding rooms. The octagonal hall emphasizes the role of concrete in shaping interior space, and the use of natural light to create drama.

Domus Aurea: The octagonal room with its surviving concrete dome and oculus.

Following Nero’s forced suicide in 68 CE, Rome plunged into a year of civil war as four generals vied against each other for power and Vespasian emerged victorious. After the year of warfare, Vespasian sought to establish stability both in Rome and throughout the empire. He and the sons who succeeded him ruled Rome for twenty-seven years.

Vespasian was succeeded by his son Titus, whose reign was short. Domitian, Titus’s younger brother, became the next emperor and reigned until his assassination in 96 CE. Despite being a relatively popular emperor with the people, Domitian had few friends in the Senate. His memory was condemned formally through damnatio memoriae —an edict that erased all memory and history of the person by removing their name from all documents and destroying all their portraits.

3.2.4 – Flavian Ampitheater

Upon his succession, Vespasian began a vast building program in Rome that was continued by Titus and Domitian. It was a cunning political scheme to garner support from the people of Rome.

Vespasian transformed land from Nero’s Domus Aurea into public buildings for leisure and entertainment, such as the Baths of Titus and the Flavian Amphitheatre. Nero’s private lake was drained and became the foundations for the amphitheater, the first permanent amphitheater built in the city of Rome. Before this time, gladiatorial contests in the city were held in temporary wooden arenas.

The amphitheater became known as the Colosseum for its size, but in also in reference to a colossal golden statue of Nero that stood nearby. Vespasian had the colossus reworked into an image of the sun god, Sol.

Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum): The exterior of the Flavian Amphitheater or Colosseum, 70–80 CE, in  Rome, Italy.

The building of the amphitheater began under Vespasian in 72 CE, and was completed under Titus in 80 CE. Titus inaugurated the amphitheater with a series of gladiatorial games and events that lasted for 100 days.

During his reign, Domitian remodeled parts of the amphitheater to enlarge the seating capacity to hold 50,000 spectators and added a hypogeum beneath the arena, for storage and to transport animals and people to the arena floor. The Colosseum was home not just to gladiatorial events—because it was built over Nero’s private lake, it was flooded to stage mock naval battles.

Like all Roman amphitheaters, the Colosseum is a free-standing structure, whose shape comes from the combination of two semi-spherical theaters. The Colosseum exists in part as a result of improvements in concrete and the strength and stability of Roman engineering, especially their use of the repetitive form of the arch. The concrete structure is faced in travertine and marble.

The exterior of the Colosseum is divided into four bands that represent four interior arcades. The arcades are carefully designed to allow tens of thousands of spectators to enter and exit within minutes. Attached to the uppermost band are over two hundred corbels which supported the velarium —a retractable awning to protect spectators from sun and rain. The top band is also pierced by a number of small windows, between which are engaged composite pilasters .

The three bands below are notable for the series of arches that visually break up the massive façade. The arches on the ground level served as numbered entrances, while those of the two middle levels framed statues of gods, goddesses, and mythical and historical heroes. Columns in each of the three Greek orders stand between the arches. The Doric order is located on the ground level, Ionic on the second level, and Corinthian on the third. The order follows a standard sequence where the sturdiest and strongest order is shown on bottom level, since it appears to support the weight of the structure, and the lightest order at the top. However, despite this illusion the engaged columns and pilasters were merely decorative.

3.2.5 – Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus: Via Sacra, Rome. 81-82 CE.

Following his brother’s death, Domitian erected a triumphal arch over the Via Sacra, on a rise as the road enters the Republican Forum. The Arch of Titus honors the deified Titus and celebrates his victory over Judea in 70 CE. The arch follows the standard forms for a triumphal arch, with an honorific inscription in the attic, winged Victories in the spandrels , engaged columns, and more sculpture which is now lost.

Inside the archway at the center of the ceiling is a relief panel of the apotheosis of Titus. Two remarkable relief panels decorate the interior sides of the archway and commemorate Titus’s victory in Judea.


[LEFT]: Triumph of Titus: This relief from the Arch of Titus that shows the triumphal procession for Titus upon his victory over Judea.
[RIGHT]: Sacking of Jerusalem.: This is a  relief from the Arch of Titus.

The southern panel inside the arch depicts the sacking of Jerusalem. The scene shows Roman soldiers carrying the menorah (the sacred candelabrum) and other spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem.

The opposite northern panel depicts Titus’s triumphal procession in Rome, awarded in 71 CE. In this panel, Titus rides through Rome on a chariot pulled by four horses. Behind him a winged Victory figure crowns Titus with a laurel wreath. He is accompanied by personifications of Honor and Valor.

This is one of the first examples in Roman art of humans and divinities mingling together in one scene; indeed, Titus was deified upon his death. These panels were originally painted and decorated with metal attachments and gilding. The panels are depicted in high relief and show a change in technical style from the lower relief seen on the Ara Pacis Augustae.

3.3 – Painting in the Early Roman Empire

Roman frescoes were the primary method of interior decoration and their development is generally categorized into four different styles.

3.3.1 – Introduction

Fayum mummy portrait: A mummy portrait of a young women found in the Fayum Necropolis, Egypt, from the second century CE.

Roman painters often painted frescoes, specifically buon fresco , a technique that involved painting pigment on wet plaster. When the painting dried, the image became an integral part of the wall. Fresco painting was the primary method of decorating an interior space. However, few examples survive, and the majority of them are from the remains of Roman houses and villas around Mt. Vesuvius.

Other examples of frescoes come from locations that were buried (burial protected and preserved the frescoes), such as parts of Nero’s Domus Aurea and at the Villa of Livia. These frescoes demonstrate a wide variety of styles. Popular subjects include mythology, portraiture, still-life painting, and historical accounts.

The surviving Roman paintings reveal a high degree of sophistication. They employ visual techniques that include atmospheric and near one-point linear perspective to properly convey the idea of space. Furthermore, portraiture and still-life images demonstrate artistic talent when conveying real-life objects and likenesses. The attention to detail seen in still-life paintings include minute shadows and an attention to light to properly depict the material of the object, whether it be glass, food, ceramics , or animals.

Roman portraiture further exhibits the talent of Roman painters and often shows careful study on the artist’s part in the techniques used to portray individual faces and people. Some of the most interesting portraits come from Egypt, from late first century BCE to early third century CE, when Egypt was a province of Rome.

These encaustic on wood panel images from the Fayum necropolis were laid over the mummified body. They show remarkable realism , while conveying the ideals and changing fashions of the Egypto-Roman people.

3.3.2 – Classification

At the end of the nineteenth century, August Mau, a German art historian, studied and classified the Roman styles of painting at Pompeii. These styles, known simply as Pompeian First, Second, Third, and Fourth Style, demonstrate the period fashions of interior decoration preferences and changes in taste and style from the Republic through the early Empire.

3.3.3 – First Style

Pompeian First Style: A Pompeiian first-style wall painting from the Samnite House. Fresco. Second century BCE. Herculaneum, Italy.

Also known as masonry style, Pompeian First Style painting was most commonly used from 200 to 80 BCE. The style is known for its deceptive painting of a faux surface; the painters often tried to mimic the richly veneered surfaces of marble, alabaster , and other expensive types of stone veneer.

This is a Hellenistic (Greek) style adopted by the Romans. While creating an illusion of expensive decor, First-Style painting reinforces the idea of a wall. The style is often found in the fauces (entrance hall) and atrium  (large open-air room) of a Roman domus (house). A vivid example is preserved in the fauces of the Samnite House at Herculaneum.

3.3.4 – Second Style

Detail from the villa of P. Fannius Synistor: An architectural vista from a second-style wall painting in Boscoreale, Italy. c. 50–40 BCE.

Pompeiian Second Style was first used around 80 BCE and was especially fashionable from 40 BCE onward, until its popularity waned in the final decades of the first century BCE. The style is noted for its visual illusionsThese trompe l’oeil images are intended to trick the eye into believing that the walls of a building have dissolved into the depicted three-dimensional space.

Wall frescoes were usually divided into three registers , with the bottom register depicting false masonry painted in the manner of the First Style, while a simple border was painted in the uppermost register. The central register, where the main scene unfolds, is the largest and the focal point of the painting. This space was an architectural zone that became the main component of Second-Style painting.

Typically, paintings that relied on near-perfect linear perspective to depict architectural expanses and landscapes that were painted on a human scale. The desired effect was to make the viewer feel as if, while in the room, he or she was physically transported to these spaces.

3.3.5 – Villa of Livia

Villa of Livia: A Second-Style garden vista from the Villa of Livia, in Primaporta, Italy, from the late first century BCE.

As the style evolved, the top and bottom registers became less important. Architectural scenes grew to incorporate the entire room, such as at the Villa of the Mysteries and the Villa of Livia.

In the case of the Villa of Livia, architectural vistas are replaced with a natural landscape that completely surrounds the room. The painting mimics the natural landscape outside the villa, depicting identifiable trees, flowers, and birds. Light filters naturally through the trees, which appear to bend in a slight breeze. Naturalistic elements like this, along with the flight of the birds and other details, help transport the occupant in the room into an outdoor setting.

3.3.6 – Villa of the Mysteries

At the Villa of the Mysteries, just outside of Pompeii, there is a fantastic scene filled with life-size figures that depicts a ritual element from a Dionysian mystery cult. In this Second-Style example, architectural elements play a small role in creating the illusion of ritual space. The people and activity in the scene are the main focus .

The architecture present is mainly piers or wall panels that divide the main scene into separate segments. The figures appear life-size, which brings them into the space of the room.

Villa of the Mysteries: One wall on the ritual scene depicted at the Villa of Mysteries, in Pompeii, Italy, c. 60–50 BCE.

The scene wraps around the room, depicting what may be a rite of marriage. A woman is seen preparing her hair. She is surrounded by other women and cherubs while a figure, identified as Dionysus , waits. The ritual may reenact the marriage between Dionysus and Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos.

All the figures, except for Dionysus and one small boy, are female. The figures also appear to interact with one other from across the room. On the two walls in one corner, a woman reacts in terror to Dionysus and the mask over his head. On the opposite corner, a cherub appears to be whipping a woman on the adjoining wall. While the cult aspects of the ritual are unknown, the fresco demonstrates the ingenuity and inventiveness of Roman painters.

3.3.7 – Third Style

Third-Style wall painting: Detail of a Third-Style wall painting from the Villa of Agrippa Postumus in Boscotrecase, Italy, c. 10 BCE.

Third-Style Pompeiian painting developed during the last decades of the first century BCE. It was popular from 20 BCE until the middle of the first century CE. During this period, wall painting began to develop a more fantastical personality.

Instead of attempting to dissolve the wall, the Third Style acknowledges the wall through flat, monochromatic expanses painted with small central motifs that look like a hung painting. The architecture painted in Third-Style scenes is often logically impossible. The wall is frequently divided into three to five vertical zones by narrow, spindly columns and decorated with painted foliage, candelabra, birds, animals, and figurines .

Often these creatures and people were derived from Egyptian motifs, resulting from a contemporary Roman fascination with Egypt known as Egyptomania , following the defeat of Cleopatra at Actium and the annexation of Egypt in 30 BCE.

3.3.8 – Fourth Style

The Pompeian Fourth Style became popular around the middle of the first century CE. While considered less ornate than the Third Style, the Fourth Style is more complex and draws on elements from each of the three previous styles.

In this style, masonry details of the First Style reappear on the bottom registers, and the architectural vistas of the Second Style are once more fashionable, although infinitely more complex than their Second-Style predecessors. Fantastical details, Egyptian motifs, and ornamental garlands from the Third Style continued into the Fourth Style. Large pictures, connected to each other by a program or theme, dominated each wall, such as those in the House of the Vettii.

3.3.9 – House of the Vettii


[LEFT]: Daedelaus and Pasiphaë: Daedalus presents Pasiphaë with a wooden heifer.
[RIGHT]: Fourth Style: A Fourth- Style wall fresco in the Ixion Room of the House of the Vettii.

Many rooms in the House of the Vettii are lavishly painted. Each triclinium  is themed and painted in the Fourth Style. Each panel in the room follows the room’s theme, providing visual entertainment and a narrative during dining.

The Ixion Room, for instance, is a model of Fourth-Style wall painting. Within each red panel is a scene that depicts myths where the main character commits a major slight. One panel is dedicated to Ixion, who refused to pay a dowry and murdered his father-in-law. He also lusted after Zeus’s wife, betraying the relationship between guest and host.

Another panel depicts Daedalus presenting a wooden cow to Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos, so she could relieve her lust for a white bull. From this union, Pasiphaë birthed the Minotaur , a half-man, half-bull monster. Another Fourth-Style triclinium depicts scenes from the lives of Hercules and Theseus.

3.3.10 – House of the Tragic Poet

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia: A panel in the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, Italy, c. 60–65 CE.

The atrium of the House of the Tragic Poet includes a series of paintings that depict scenes from the Trojan War. The panels on the walls depict scenes that appear to be interrelated. As in the panels that decorate the House of the Vettii, the subject matter in the paintings in the House of the Tragic Poet are interrelated based on a common theme. Scholars believe these themes were carefully crafted not only to relate stories, but also to depict the virtues of the house’s owner.

Two panels on the south wall relate the beginnings of the Trojan War. One panel is of Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida. Another, badly damaged, appears to be a scene of the Judgment of Paris. These panels relate the beginnings of the Trojan War while portraying womanly ideals.

Two pairs of scenes, set across from each other, depict different, interrelated themes. The abduction of women is one theme visible in one image of Helen with Paris leaving for Troy. Another image portrays the abduction of Amphitrite by Poseidon. In both cases, a man abducts a woman.

The other two scenes deal with the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon, which begins the story of the Illiad. Of these two scenes, one depicts Achilles with Agamemnon, while the other depicts Achilles returning Briseis, his lover and captive, to his commander, Agamemnon.

A final image, found in the peristyle , depicts the Sacrifice of Iphigenia. All of these paintings are related to one another through themes such as marriage, womanly virtue, and the Trojan War.

3.3.11 – Riot at the Ampitheatre

Depiction of a riot at the amphitheatre at Pompeii: In 59 CE, a riot broke out between the citizens of Pompeii and the citizens of nearby Nuceria during a gladiatorial event. The brawl in the amphitheater resulted in serious injuries between both parties and the banning of all gladiatorial events for ten years.

While the above examples of Fourth-Style painting depict scenes from mythology, at least one contemporary scene is represented in a surviving fresco. In 59 CE, a riot broke out between the citizens of Pompeii and the citizens of nearby Nuceria during a gladiatorial event. The brawl in the amphitheater resulted in serious injuries between both parties and the banning of all gladiatorial events for ten years.

A fresco from Pompeii that depicts the event has also survived. The fresco depicts the Pompeiian amphitheater, with its distinctive exterior staircase, as well as an awning, the velarium . It also depicts the riot occurring both inside the arena and on the grounds surrounding the amphitheater.

3.4 – Architecture at Pompeii

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE preserved many structures in the city of Pompeii, allowing scholars a rare glimpse into Roman life.

3.4.1 – Mount Vesuvius and the Preservation of Pompeiian Architecture

During the Roman Republic and into the early Empire, the area today known as the Bay of Naples was developed as a resort-type area for elite Romans to escape the pressure and politics of Rome . The region was dominated by Mt. Vesuvius, which famously erupted in August 79 CE, burying and preserving the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, along with the region’s villas and farms.

When Vesuvius erupted on August 25, a cloud of ash spewed south, burying the cities of Pompeii, Nuceria, and Stabiae. While not everyone left prior to the eruption, archaeological evidence shows that people did leave the city. Some houses give the impression of having been packed up and in some cases furniture and objects were excavated jumbled together. Other objects of value appear to have been buried or hidden. There is evidence of people returning after the eruption to dig through the remains—either recovering lost goods or looting for valuables.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius: The black and gray areas show the direction in which the wind blew the ash and pyroclastic clouds.

In Pompeii, an ash flow suffocated the remaining population and allowed all organic matter to decompose. However, where bodies and other organic objects (from bodies to wooden architectural frames) once lay or stood, empty cavities within the ash remained and preserved their outer forms .

A pyroclastic flow of superheated gas and rock went west to the coast and the city of Herculaneum. Unlike the ash blanket of Pompeii, the pyroclastic flow in Herculaneum petrified organic material, ensuring the preservation of human remains and wood, including the preservation of wooden screens, beds, and shelving. Many of the frescoes , mosaics , and other non-organic materials in both the ash and pyroclastic flows were preserved until their excavation in the modern period.

3.4.2 – Residential Architecture at Pompeii – The Roman Domus

The Roman domus, or house, played two important roles in Roman society: as a home and as a place of business for patricians and wealthy Romans. To facilitate this dual functionality, the domus had a distinct set of rooms that could be used as either public or private spaces. While no modern domus adheres to the standard model of a domus, many Roman houses, both small and large, have nearly all of these different rooms.

Roman Domus: A standard plan of a Roman domus.

The design of the domus reflects the Roman patronage where a client is protected by a wealthy patron, and in return supports the actions and estate of the patron. Many of a patron’s clients would be freedmen or other plebeians and lesser patricians.

The domus is often set back from the main street, and  tabernae (shops) line the streets on either side of the house’s main entrance. Clients entered the house through the fauces (Latin for jaw), which was a narrow entryway into an atrium.

The atrium was the most important part of the house since it was the spot where clients and guests were greeted. It often included an impluvium, or basin that collected rain water. The roof did not cover the impluvium. The open space above the basin was called the compluvium.

The atrium was often richly decorated with thematic frescos and images of the patron’s ancestors. Cubicula , or rooms, lined the atrium, and at the far end was the tablinum. The tablinum functioned as the office of the patron and was where he met with his clients during the morning ritual of salutatio. The tablinum often provided a glimpse into the private sphere of the house, which was set behind the office.

Typically, the front half of the house served as public space, while the back of the domus was reserved for the more private functions of the family. In the back of the house, beyond the tablinum, would be one or more triclinium (plural: triclinia), or dining rooms. The dining rooms were lavishly decorated and typically furnished with dining couches and a low table.

A peristyle—a colonnaded courtyard—was usually the main feature of the back of the house. It could contain gardens and even a pool and provided light as well as shade and breeze for hot summer days. Other features of the domus, include alae (open rooms) with an unknown function, kitchens (culina), and additional rooms for work, sleeping, and servants. – Domus at Pompeii

Each domus throughout Pompeii represents the various ways the standard components of a domus were used to create unique floor plans that showcase the status and wealth of the owner.

The large complex of the House of the Faun encompasses an entire city block. This domus has two atria, each with its own fauces, although with two peristyles of different sizes. In essence, the House of the Faun was a private villa despite its urban setting.

House of the Faun: Ground plan of the House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy.

Two houses, the House of the Vettii and the House of the Tragic Poet—both previously discussed for their wall paintings—are simpler constructions than the House of the Faun, but both house plans still readily depict the wealth of the household.

House of the Vettii: Ground plan of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, Italy.

Visitors entering the House of the Vettii were greeted by a frescoed image of Priapus, an image that portrayed the wealth and luck of the two bachelors who lived inside. The main attributes of their house were the atrium and the large garden peristyle, surrounded by decorated triclinium and a garden complete with fountains, statues, and flowers. While this house had fewer public-private access restrictions than the standard domus, it did include the main attributes of a traditional Roman house.

House of the Tragic Poet: Ground plan of the House of the Tragic Poet.

The House of the Tragic Poet was small but maintained the public-private access characteristic of the traditional domus. The fauces was especially noted for its mosaic image of a dog, complete with the warning “Cave canem,” or, roughly, “Beware of dog.” The fauces led the guest into the atrium and the tablinum, which divided the public front of the house from the private back of the house, where a small peristyle and a frescoed triclinium were located.

3.4.4 – Public Architecture

The ash cloud that blanketed Pompeii in 79 CE preserved public buildings, as well as domi. Among the best preserved are the amphitheater, the Temple of Isis, and the Suburban Baths. – Ampitheater of Pompeii

Amphitheater of Pompeii: Built c. 70 BCE.

The Amphitheater of Pompeii is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater. Built around 70 BCE, the current amphitheater is the earliest Roman amphitheater known to have been built of stone. Previous amphitheaters were constructed of wood.

The design is seen by some modern crowd control specialists as near optimal. Similar to the Colosseum, but constructed over a century later, its arcaded exterior appears to have been conducive to efficient evacuation. Its washroom, located in the neighboring wrestling school, has also been cited as an inspiration for better bathroom design in modern stadiums.

Amphitheatre of Pompeii: The interior, with its tiered seating, shows the influence of Greek designs.

Derived from the Greek words amphi (on both sides) and theatron (a place for viewing), an amphitheater combines two theaters into a circular or ovoid form. The interior of the amphitheater at Pompeii resembles two Greek theaters, with its tiered seating overlooking a central staging area. Still structurally and acoustically sound, the amphitheater was the site of notable rock concerts in 1971 and 2016. – Temple of Isis

Temple of Isis: The temple’s design combines Roman, Greek, and Egyptian architectural elements.

Roman culture was accommodating of most of the religious beliefs of its conquered peoples, and often built temples and sanctuaries to non-Roman deities and incorporated them into their own pantheon. One such example is the Temple of Isis, dedicated to the Egyptian mother goddess.

The principal devotees of this temple are assumed to be women, freedmen, and slaves. Initiates of the Isis mystery cult worshiped a compassionate goddess who promised eventual salvation and a perpetual relationship throughout life and after death.

The temple’s design combines Roman, Greek, and Egyptian architectural elements. It is surrounded by brick columns faced with plaster in a stylized reed motif often found on Egyptian columns. Their general shape recalls both the Doric and Tuscan orders.

Like typical Roman temples, the portico and cella rest on a raised platform connected to the ground by a central stairway. The columns on the portico appear to have been Tuscan. To either side of the cella is an arched niche flanked by either Corinthian or Composite pillasters. – Suburban Baths

Suburban Baths: Built against the city walls, this structure served as a public bath house for the residents of Pompeii.

The Suburban Baths (c. late first century BCE), built against the city walls, served as a public bath house for the residents of Pompeii. The entrance to the Baths is through a long corridor that leads into the dressing room.

Excavation of the Baths revealed only one set of dressing rooms and has led archaeologists to believe that both men and women shared this facility. The dressing room then led to the tepidarium (lukewarm room), followed by the caldarium (hot room), both of which were standard in public baths throughout the empire.

4 – The Nervan-Antonines

4.1 – Architecture under the Nervan-Antonines

The emperors Trajan and Hadrian were the two most prolific emperors who constructed buildings during the Nervan-Antonine dynasty.

4.1.1 – Public Building Programs

Public building programs were prevalent under the emperors of the Nervan-Antonine dynasty . During this period of peace, stability, and an expansion of the empire’s borders, many of the emperors sought to cast themselves in the image of the first imperial builder, Augustus. The projects these emperors conducted around the empire included the building and restoration of roads, bridges, and aqueducts . In Rome , these imperial building projects strengthened the image of the emperor and directly addressed the needs of the citizens of the city.

4.1.2 – Trajan’s Forum

Trajan’s Forum was the last of the imperial fora to be built in the city. The forum’s main entrance was accessed from the south, near to the Forum of Augustus as well as the Forum of Caesar (which Trajan also renovated). The Forum of Augustus might have been the model for the Forum of Trajan, even though the latter was much larger. Both fora were rectangular in shape with a temple at one end. Both appear to have a set of exedra on either side.

Plan of the Forum of Trajan and Trajan’s Markets: Trajan built the forum and markets around the same time from 106 to 113 CE.

Trajan built his forum with the spoils from his conquest of Dacia. The visual elements within the forum speak of his military prowess and Rome’s victory. A triumphal arch mounted with an image of the emperor in a six-horse chariot greeted patrons at the southern entrance.

In the center of the large courtyard stood an equestrian statue of Trajan, and additional bronze statues of him in a quadriga lined the roof of the Basilica Ulpia, which transected the forum in the northern end. This large civic building served as a meeting place for the commerce and law courts. It was lavishly furnished with marble floors, facades , and the hall was filled with tall marble columns .

The Basilica Ulpia also separated the arcaded courtyard from two libraries (one for Greek texts, the other for Latin), the Column of Trajan, and a temple dedicated to the Divine Trajan.

4.1.3 – Trajan’s Markets

Trajan’s Markets: Trajan’s Markets as they stand today.

Trajan’s markets were an additional public building that the emperor built at the same time as his forum. The markets were built on top of and into the Quirinal Hill. They consisted of a series of multi-leveled halls lined with rooms for either shops, administrative offices, or apartments. The markets follow the shape of the Trajan’s forum.

A portion of them are shaped into a large exedra, framing one of the exedra of the forum. Like Trajan’s forum, the markets were elaborately decorated with marble floors and revetment, as well as decorative columns to frame the doorways.

4.1.4 -Apollodorus of Damascus

Many of Trajan’s architectural achievements were designed by his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus. Apollodorus was a Greek engineer from Damascus, Syria. He designed Trajan’s forums and markets, the Arch of Trajan at Benevento, and an important bridge across the Danube during the campaigns against the Dacians.

Unfortunately for Apollodorus, Trajan’s heir Hadrian also took an interest in architecture. According to Roman biographers, Apollodorus did not appreciate Hadrian’s interests or architectural drawings and often discredited them. Upon the succession of the new emperor, Apollodorus was dismissed from court.

4.1.5 – Hadrian’s Pantheon

Hadrian’s most famous contribution to the city of Rome was his rebuilding of the Pantheon, a temple to all the gods, that was first built by Agrippa during the reign of Augustus. Agrippa’s Pantheon burned down in the 80s CE, was rebuilt by Domitian, and burned down again in 110 CE.

Hadrian’s Pantheon still remains standing today, a great testament of Roman engineering and ingenuity. The Pantheon was consecrated as a church during the medieval period and was later used a burial site.

Elevation drawing of the Pantheon: The Pantheon is an architectural innovation with a magnificent concrete, unreinforced dome.

The most unusual aspect of the Pantheon is its magnificent coffered dome, which was originally gilded in bronze. The concrete dome, which provided inspiration to numerous Renaissance and Neoclassical architects, spans over 142 feet and remains the largest unreinforced dome today. It stands due to a series of relieving arches and because the supportive base of the building is nearly twenty feet thick.

The cylindrical drum on which the dome rests consists of hollowed-out brick filled with concrete for extra reinforcement. At the center of the dome is a large oculus that lets in light, fresh air, and even rain. Both the oculus and the coffered ceiling lighten the weight of the dome, allowing it to stand without additional supports.

Pantheon: Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon of Agrippa in 118–125 CE.

The Pantheon takes its shape from Greek circular temples, however it is faced by a Roman rectangular portico and a triangular pediment supported by monolithic granite columns imported from Egypt. The portico, which originally included a flight of stairs to a podium, acts as a visual trick, preparing viewers to enter a typical rectangular temple when they would instead be walking into a circular one.

A dedicatory inscription is carved in the entablature under the pediment. The inscription reads as the original inscription would have read when the Pantheon was first built by Agrippa. Hadrian’s decision to use the original inscription links him to the original imperial builders of Rome.

4.1.6 – Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli

Hadrian traveled extensively during his reign and was frequently exposed to a variety of local architectural styles. His villa at Tivoli (built during the second and third decades of the second century CE) reflects the influence of styles found in locations such as Greece and Egypt.

Among the designs he borrowed are caryatids and statues beside them that depict the Egyptian dwarf and fertility god Bes. A Greek Maritime Theater exhibits classical Ionic style, whereas the domes of the main buildings, as well as the Corinthian arches of the Canopus (a pool) and Serapeum (an artificial grotto), clearly show the influence of Roman architecture.

Maritime Theater at Hadrian’s villa: The theater includes a lounge, a library, heated baths, three suites with heated floors, washbasin, an art gallery, and a large fountain.

One structure in the villa is the so-called Maritime Theater. It consists of a round portico with a barrel vault supported by pillars . Inside the portico was a ring-shaped pool with a central island. Inside the outer wall and surrounding the moat are a ring of unfluted Ionic columns.

The Maritime Theater includes a lounge, a library, heated baths, three suites with heated floors, washbasin, an art gallery, and a large fountain. During the ancient times, the island was connected to the portico by two wooden drawbridges. On the island sits a small Roman house complete with an atrium , a library, a triclinium , and small baths. The area was probably used by the emperor as a retreat from the busy life at the court.

Great Baths at  Hadrian’s villa.: The domes of the steam baths have circular holes on the apex to allow steam to escape.

The villa utilizes numerous architectural styles and innovations. The domes of the steam baths have circular holes on the apex to allow steam to escape. This is reminiscent of the Pantheon.

The area has a network of underground tunnels. The tunnels were mostly used to transport servants and goods from one area to another. In total, the villa’s structures demonstrate the emperor’s innovative spirit in the field of architecture.

4.2 – Imperial Sculpture under the Nervan-Antonines

The imperial portraiture of men and women in the early- to mid-second century reflects an increasing austerity and interest in the Greeks.

4.2.1 – Imperial Portraiture

Imperial portraiture under the Flavians first depicted the emperors as mature, older men. Nerva, who only reigned for two years before his natural death in 98 CE, was declared emperor by the Senate following Domitian’s assassination. Since he had no natural sons of his own, Nerva adopted a young and popular general, Trajan, to be his successor.

Nerva’s portraiture followed the style of imperial portraiture during the Flavian era. The few portraits that remain from the two years of his rule depict a man with a receding hairline and small mouth. The portraiture of Nerva and later of Trajan display an increasing militaristic look.

Nerva: The portraiture of Nerva and later of Trajan display an increasing militaristic look.

Nerva’s successor and adopted son Trajan was a much more successful emperor who was well liked by both the Senate and the people of Rome . He reigned for nearly twenty years (98–117 CE), and expanded the empire’s borders while implementing extensive public building and social welfare programs. Trajan’s portraits depict him as aging, but always with a full head of hair and a typical Roman hairstyle that is reminiscent of, although not identical to, those of Augustus and Alexander the Great.

Trajan: Trajan’s portraits depict him as aging, but always with a full head of hair and a typical Roman hairstyle that is reminiscent of, although not identical to, those of Augustus and Alexander the Great.

Hadrian, Trajan’s adopted son and heir, peacefully became emperor in 117 CE. He was a great lover of Greek culture and wore a closely trimmed beard in the style of Classical Greek statesmen, such as the Athenian Pericles . Hadrian set a fashion for beards among Romans, and most emperors after him also wore a beard. Prior to Hadrian nearly all Roman men were clean shaven.

Hadrian: Hadrian set a fashion for beards among Romans, and most emperors after him also wore a beard.

Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s adopted heir and successor, mimics his predecessor’s appearance in his official portraits—thick curly hair and a curly, closely-trimmed beard. By having his own portraits copy those of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius forged a visual link between himself and his predecessor.

Antoninus Pius: By having his own portraits copy those of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius forged a visual link between himself and his predecessor.

Antonius Pius’s adoptive sons Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius are also identified by the beards they wore. Both men are depicted with heads of thick, curly hair and a long, curly beards. Unlike the closely trimmed beard style of Greek statesmen, this style was more akin to the preferred style of the Greek philosophers. Marcus Aurelius admired the Greeks and was himself a philosopher. This style matched his personality and interests.


[LEFT]: Marcus Aurelius: Marcus Aurelius admired the Greeks and was himself a philosopher. He wore his beard long and curly, like the Greek philosophers.
[RIGHT]: Lucius Verus: The brother of Marcus Aurelius also wore his beard long and curly, like the Greek philosophers, unlike the closely trimmed beard style of Greek statesmen.

Unlike the rest of the emperors of the Nervan-Antonine line , Marcus Aurelius fathered a son who became his heir. Commodus’s portrait style followed that of his father and of preceding emperors. Commodus was egotistical and even had the head of the Colossus of Nero (now an image of the god Sol) recast in his own likeness.

Commodus as Hercules: Commodus believed he was the reincarnation of Hercules and claimed power from Hercules’s father, Jupiter. He even commissioned portraits of himself as Hercules.

Commodus also believed he was the reincarnation of Hercules and claimed power from Hercules’s father, Jupiter. He even commissioned portraits of himself as Hercules. These portraits show him with the now-traditional imperial style of thick, curly hair and a curly beard. Hercules’s lion skin is draped over his head and around his shoulders and he often carries a club and sometimes the apples of the Hesperides.

4.2.2 -Imperial Female Portraiture

Pompeia Plotina: This profile view of Pompeia Plotina shows the long braid worn behind the crown-like pile of hair in the front.

The women of imperial families set the standards of fashion and beauty during the reigns of their husbands or other male family members. These women also established the hairstyles of the period, which are so distinctive that busts and statues are easily dated to specific decades in accordance with the hairstyle of the woman depicted.


During the Nervan-Antonine period, the portraits of imperial women and their hairstyles kept some Flavian flavor but were simpler than they had been. The fashionable style among women during the reign of the Flavians involved hairpieces and wigs to create a stack of curls on the crown of the head.

Faustina the Younger: Greek hair style was promoted by Marcus Aurelius’s wife, Faustina the Younger, who is depicted here with carefully crimped hair worn close the head.

Trajan’s wife Pompeia Plotina and his niece Matidia established a new style that was almost an abstraction of the Flavian style. Their hairstyles still involved a vertical element, but the curls were simplified on the crown of the head. Matidia’s natural hair was gathered above nape of the neck, while Pompeia Plotina wore a braid at the back of her head.

Vibia Sabina: Just as Hadrian chose to wear his hair and beard in a Greek style, his wife Sabina also chose a Greek hair style, helping to promote Hadrian’s Panhellenic agenda.

Just as Hadrian chose to wear his hair and beard in a Greek style, his wife Sabina also chose a Greek hair style, helping to promote Hadrian’s Panhellenic agenda. Sabina is depicted with simplified facial features, and her style is comparable that worn by Praxitiles’s sculpture Aphrodite of Knidos. Her hair is held back by a band and carefully woven around the back of the head. A similar style was promoted by Marcus Aurelius’s wife, Faustina the Younger, who is depicted with carefully crimped hair worn close the head.

4.3 – Victory Columns under the Nervan-Antonines

The monuments dedicated to the reigns of Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius emphasize their military achievements, divinity, and public works.

4.3.1 – Imperial Memorial

Trajan was born in Spain and rose to prominence in the Roman army during the reign of Domitian. He was a popular general who was adopted by the Emperor Nerva as his son and heir after Nerva realized he needed chose a successor who was liked by the people.

During Trajan’s reign of nearly twenty years, from 98 CE to 117 CE, the Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial range. Trajan established large building programs both in Rome and throughout the empire.

4.3.2 – Column of Trajan

Trajan and his architect Apollodorus of Damascus designed and built a large forum complex in the center of Rome. Standing between the libraries of the Forum of Trajan is a 128 foot tall victory column, known as the Column of Trajan. It stands on top of a large pedestal carved with a relief of the spoils of war.

The pedestal later served as a tomb for Trajan’s ashes upon his death and deification. He is the first emperor to be buried inside the pomerium , the religious boundary around the city of Rome. A 625-foot frieze that depicts Trajan’s two military campaigns against the Dacians is sculpted in a spiral relief that wraps around the column, from its bottom to its top.

Column of Trajan: The pedestal later served as a tomb for Trajan’s ashes upon his death and deification. Located in Rome, Italy, c. 112 CE.

The frieze depicts over 150 episodes with more than 2,500 figures. The scenes show the Roman army preparing for war, including scenes of moving the army, building fortifications, Emperor Trajan addressing the troops, battles, and the eventual surrender by the Dacians.

Only one quarter of the narration depicts battles, while the remaining panels depict scenes of preparation and other activities. The heavy emphasis on preparation, instead of battle, emphasizes the Romans’ organization and the power behind the army.

The visual narration is depicted in low relief (bas relief) and relies little on naturalistic detail, preferring to show some scenes in multiple perspectives and with figures on different ground lines . Important characters, such as Trajan, reappear throughout the frieze and are easily identified.

Trajan himself appears 59 times, leading his troops as the head of the army and the empire. With the exception of the appearance of a few Victory figures and a river god, the Romans and Trajan are shown conquering the Dacians under their own power, through their own superiority over their enemy, without the help of divine intervention.

Detail from the Column of Trajan: This detail shows five registers or bands from the Column of Trajan.

Trajan’s victory column was originally topped by an eagle and later with a statue of Trajan. The statue of Trajan eventually disappeared and was replaced in the sixteenth century by a bronze statue of St. Peter.

Scholars have recently called the legibility of the figures into question. Because of the column’s location, nestled between the libraries and the basilica of the Trajan’s Forum, the scenes, which are carved in low relief, are small and hard to read. It is uncertain how much of the column’s relief Romans would have been able to see. There is some speculation whether knowledge of the idea of the narrative was more important than being physically able to read the narrative.

4.3.3 – The Column of Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161 CE), the first of the Antonine emperors, was the adopted son of Hadrian. His heirs, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, had a column erected to him on the Campus Martius, the base of which survives today.

On two of its sides is an identical scene of a military decursio depicting cavalry men parading around soldiers, two of whom hold standards. The relief carvings are high enough to protrude from the sides and be visible when viewing the non-decursio side of the pedestal. It depicts each figure from a ground-level perspective while showing the circular parade from a bird’s eye view.

The pedestal of the Column of Antoninus Pius: This side shows the decursio scene. The relief carvings depict each figure from a ground-level perspective while showing the circular parade from a bird’s eye view.

On one of the other two sides is a dedicatory inscription. On the opposite panel is a scene of the apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina. The scene depicts a large winged figure named Aion (Eternity) carrying the couple, surrounded by two eagles, to heaven.

Pedestal of Column of Antoninus Pius.: The apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina, c. 61 CE.

Two figures look on from the ground. One is a personification of the Campus Martius, lounging on the ground with an arm around Augustus’ sundial obelisk , the location where the ritual of deification occurred. The other is a personification of Rome, who appears as a woman wearing armor. She salutes the emperor and empress during their apotheosis, while leaning on a shield depicting the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.

4.3.4 – The Column of Marcus Aurelius

A victory column was also erected for Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180 CE). This column is modeled on Trajan’s column and was originally erected on the Campus Martius between the Temple of Divine Hadrian and the Temple of Divine Marcus Aurelius. A relief frieze encircles the column and depicts Marcus Aurelius’s military campaigns at the end of his life in Germania.

Column of Marcus Aurelius: A detail of five bands from the column, circa 193 CE.

Despite the similar military scenes, the artistic style of the Column of Marcus Aurelius differs greatly from the Column of Trajan. The figures in this column are stockier and their proportions are distorted. The extra-large heads and deep relief carving were utilized so that the figures were easier to see from the ground than those on Trajan’s column.

The military strength of the empire is emphasized more so than on the Column of Trajan, where the majority of the scenes depict the preparation for battle, instead of the battles themselves. The new style, high relief , and military emphasis demonstrates the changing priorities and social-political attitudes of the period.

4.4 – Architecture under Hadrian

Hadrian was a great lover of architecture and the buildings he designed reflect attributes of his character.

4.4.1 – Hadrian’s Reign

Like Trajan before him, the emperor Hadrian had a long and successful career as an emperor of Rome , reigning from 117 to 138 CE.

Hadrian’s time as emperor was marked with peace and relative stability throughout the empire. He was an active general in the military, both before and after becoming emperor, despite a lull in military conflicts during his reign. He worked to strengthen Rome’s borders by building fortifications, outposts, and walls.

The most famous of these is Hadrian’s Wall in Britainnia that marked the northern boundary of the empire on the isle. Hadrian also traveled extensively, enjoying new cultures , inspecting troops, and promoting military readiness.

4.4.2 – Ostia

During Hadrian’s reign, the port city of Ostia grew significantly, reaching over 75,000 inhabitants by the third century CE. Located at the mouth of the Tiber on the Tyrrhenian Sea, Ostia was the main port city of Rome. The city was first founded during the third century BCE, as one of Rome’s earliest colonies.

The ruins of Ostia are from the city’s imperial period when it was at the height of its prosperity. Since Rome was settled inland, Ostia was always an important component to the capital city, especially as the empire expanded and relied on its provinces for survival. Merchant vessels and large ships filled with grains, building materials, and other goods to sell in Rome docked at Ostia, where the goods were eventually transferred upriver.

4.4.3 – Insulae

Insulae at Ostia.: Insulae, or apartment blocks, in the city of Ostia.

Ostia was a typical of a Roman city, including a large central forum , bath houses, temples, a theatre, barracks for firemen, and apartment buildings. The two central streets of the city, the cardo and decumanus , ran north–south and east–west through the city, intersecting at the forum—the center of the city’s civic and religious activities.

The citizens of Ostia lived in apartment houses or insulae, which stood six or seven stories high. The insulae of Ostia demonstrate the cramped and noisy living style that was common in Roman cities. Shops, known as tabernae, occupied the ground level of the insulae, while the upper stories housed apartments.

Roman apartments varied in size from larger homes located on the lower floors with private dining and cooking areas, as well as private toilets, to small, cramped rooms with communal cooking areas and toilets on the upper floors.

4.4.4 – Religion

The Capitolium at Ostia: This temple is dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and is located in the forum at the center of the city.

Excavations at Ostia reveal a variety of temples and meeting sites for cults and rituals . This reflects the relative religious diversity within the Roman Empire. Common features throughout the Empire include the Capitolium, the temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, in the forum at the center of the city.

Across from the Capitolium in the forum stands a temple dedicated to Augustus and Roma. Within close proximity is the Temple to Hercules , and throughout the city are temples dedicated to gods related to shipping and commerce, as well temples built by guilds , such as the ship builders or the rope makers, for their patron gods.

On the city’s outskirts, there is also a large sanctuary to the goddess Cybele or Magna Mater, attesting to her popularity in the city. The god Mithras was also popular among the Ostians and worshiped solely by men in the form of a mystery cult. Over 15 mithraea have been discovered in the city. These mithraea are nearly all built underground to replicate the cave central to the myths of Mithras. Hadrian’s general religious tolerance is reflected in this religious diversity, including the presence of a Jewish synagogue.

4.4.5 – The Arch of Trajan at Benevento

The Arch of Trajan in Benevento draws visual cues from the Arch of Titus at Rome. This arch, built between 114 and 117 CE, was erected over the Via Appia, one of Rome’s most ancient roads through southern Italy, as the road entered Beneventum.

Like the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Trajan is ornately decorated with scenes of conquest and the deeds completed by Trajan. On both sides of the arch is a dedicatory inscription. The exterior is decorated with engaged columns and reliefs of Trajan’s military conquest of Dacia , the extent of the Roman empire, and allegorical scenes of imperial power, as well as Trajan’s good deeds as both a builder of public works and as the founder of a charitable institution for children in Roman Italy.

The Arch of Trajan at Benevento: View from the north. Benevento, Italy. 114–117 CE.

The two interior relief panels depict the religious activity of Trajan. One shows him making a sacrifice in one of Rome’s oldest fora, the Forum Boarium, which was home of some of the city’s oldest temples.

The other panel depicts Trajan being welcomed after his apotheosis by the Capitoline Triad. These two scenes depict Trajan’s piety as well as the approval given him by the three most important gods in the Roman pantheon.

4.4.6 – Hadrian’s Mausoleum

Hadrian’s Mausoleum: The Mausoleum of Hadrian was a large cylinder topped by a garden and quadriga statue. A central room housed the ashes of Hadrian and his family, as well as several of the emperors who succeeded him.

Hadrian also built a large mausoleum for himself and his family on the right bank of the Tiber River in Rome. Its original design seems to have purposely recalled the Mausoleum of Augustus, located across the river on the Campus Martius.

The Mausoleum of Hadrian was a large cylinder topped by a garden and quadriga statue. A central room housed the ashes of Hadrian and his family, as well as several of the emperors who succeeded him. While Hadrian’s Mausoleum still stands today, it was later converted into a residence and fortress under the Roman popes and now serves as a museum.

5 – The Decline of the Roman Empire

5.1 – Architecture during the Severan Dynasty

5.1.1 – Introduction

The Severan Dynasty was the last stable period of imperial reign over the Roman Empire until that of Constantine.

The assassination of Commodus in 192 CE once again plunged the Roman Empire into a year of civil war. Five generals succeeded one another until the fifth, Septimius Severus, consolidated power and managed to reign over Rome until his death from illness, 19 years later in 211 CE.

He established the Severan Dynasty that reigned until 235 CE, overseen by five different emperors. Unfortunately for Rome, the economy and the bureaucratic and administrative power of the Emperor and the Senate were declining during this time.

The five Severan emperors faced great difficulties maintaining control over the empire. Their troubles demonstrate the importance of this pivotal period that ultimately led to Rome’s decline.

5.1.2 – Septimius Severus

To strengthen his claim as emperor, Septimius Severus declared himself to be the secret son of Marcus Aurelius and even had his portrait fashioned in a similar manner to him. Like Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus wore his beard thick and curly in the style of Greek philosophers. His portraits show him as old, but fit and without the winkles of wisdom seen in Republican veristic portraiture.

5.1.3 – Triumphal Arches of Septimius Severus

The Arch of Septimius Severus: Detail of a panel relief.

Two triumphal arches commissioned by Septimius Severus still stand today: the first at the northwest entrance to the Roman forum , and the second on the main road leading into the city of Leptis Magna, the Roman colony in modern Libya where Septimius Severus was born. Both were erected in 203 CE and commemorate the emperor’s victory over the Parthians.

The Roman Arch of Septimius Severus recalls the triumphal arch of Augustus, also erected to honor his own victory over the Parthians. Like Augustus’ arch, that of Septimius is a triple arch—the only surviving one in Rome.

Decorative panels depict scenes of conquest echoing the military scenes on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. These, however, depart from the Classical style, stylistically resembling more the figures on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. The figures on the panels are carved in high relief , and each shows multiple scenes.

Small friezes recounting the triumphal procession also frame the panels. Other decorative elements include winged victories in the spandrels and two sets of four columns, one on each side, that frame the archways.

The columns are free-standing, decorative additions to the arch. On the pedestal of each are reliefs of Romans leading captive Parthians away. This arch visually recalls the triumphal arches of the past that stood in the Roman Forum and expresses the continuity of Septimius Severus’ imperial rule and the momentum of the empire.

The Roman Arch of Septimius Severus: This arch visually recalls the triumphal arches of the past that stood in the Roman Forum and expresses the continuity of Septimius Severus’ imperial rule and the momentum of the empire.

The Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna is architecturally distinct and unique in comparison to the triumphal arches of Rome. This arch is four-sided and acts as a gateway into the city. Corinthian columns, eight in total, stand at each corner and support a broken pediment , a common architectural feature in the North African and Eastern provinces.

Despite its very different design, the arch’s components are in dialogue with the triumphal arch in Rome. Depictions of war spoils and captive barbarians line the interior of the arches and a frieze wraps around them, depicting the triumphal procession that occurred in Rome.

This frieze is both a portrayal of the actual triumph that Septimius Severus enjoyed as well as a mythical presentation, as gods and personifications are also present in the procession and at the sacrifice that followed.

Arch of Septimius Severus: The arch at Leptis Magnus demonstrates the emerging artistic style of the second century CE and Late Antiquity.

Most importantly, the arch at Leptis Magnus demonstrates the emerging artistic style of the second century CE and Late Antiquity . The figures in the frieze are squat and square. The limbs are thick, and their clothing is stylistically rendered with incised lines that give no indication of the body underneath. It is a complete displacement of the Classical style that dominated Roman art during the previous three centuries.

5.1.4 – Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla: A reconstructed ground plan of this vast complex.

Caracalla was one of the last emperors of the century who had the time, resources, and power to build in the city of Rome.

His longest-lasting contribution is a large bath complex that stands to the southeast of Rome’s center. It covered over 33 acres and could hold over 1,600 bathers at a time. Bathing was an important part of Roman daily life, and the baths were a place for leisure, business, socializing, exercising, learning, and illicit affairs.

These baths not only held the traditional bathing pools but also exercise courts, changing rooms, and Greek and Latin libraries. A mithraeum has also been found on the site.

Baths of Caracalla: This artist’s reconstruction shows a groin-vaulted interior, Composite columns, and decorative panels on the ceiling. Human figures have been added for scale.

Architecturally, the Baths of Caracalla demonstrate the impressive mastery of Roman building and the importance of concrete and the vaulting systems developed by the Romans to create large and impressive buildings with ceilings that span great distances. The building was lavishly decorated with marble veneer, fanciful mosaics , and monumental Greek marble statues.

5.1.5 – Quirinal Hill Serapeum

Ruins of Caracalla’s Serapeum on the Quirinal Hill: The ruins of the Serapeum show a mixture of brick and concrete with a regular use of the round arch.

In 212, Caracalla erected a temple (called a Serapeum) on Quirinal Hill dedicated to the Egyptian god Serapis, a human-headed deity who shared Greek and Egyptian attributes. This Serapeum was, by most surviving accounts, the most sumptuous and architectonically ambitious of those built on the hill.

The temple covered over three acres. It was composed by a long courtyard (surrounded by a colonnade) and by the ritual area, where statues and obelisks were erected. Designed to impress its visitors, the temple boasted columns nearly 70 feet tall and over six feet in diameter, sitting atop a marble stairway that connected the base of the hill to the sanctuary .

The ruins of the Serapeum show a mixture of brick and concrete with a regular use of the round arch. Symbolically, the temple signified the diversity that the Roman pantheon had reached by the third century.

5.2 – Sculpture during the Decline of the Roman Empire

The Dominate Period, when warring generals controlled Rome, was a time marked by insecurity, anxiety, and a rapid succession of emperors.

5.2.1 – After Caracalla

Emperor Caracalla was assassinated while campaigning against the Parthians in 217 CE. He was quickly succeeded by a member of his personal guard, Macrinus, who ruled for less than a year before his own death.

Elagabalus, the grandson of Julia Domna’s sister, and his cousin Alexander Severus were the last in the Severan line. Both men managed to maintain control of Rome , and Alexander Severus was even able to improve the economic condition of the empire. Following Alexander’s death at the hands of his own soldiers, Rome plunged into a long period of uneasy, rapid successions referred to as the Crisis of the Third Century, a crisis that lasted for fifty years.

5.2.2 – Soldier Emperors

The first 26 emperors of this period were generals who either proclaimed themselves or were officially acknowledged as the emperor. Their reigns lasted from a couple of months to a couple of years. The fact that they were all generals in the Roman army underscores the military insecurity of the empire at this time.

Instead of protecting the border or trade routes, legions of soldiers were often fighting each other in support of one emperor or another. Since Roman power was still centered in Rome, the only building project that succeeded through this period was the building and maintaining of the city’s Aurelian Wall, under the emperor Aurelian (r. 270–275 CE).

The portraits of Trajan Decius (r. 249–251 CE) and Trebonianus Gallus (r. 252–253 CE) serve to illustrate the instability of the period and the need for soldier-emperors to assert power to maintain some semblance of control.

5.2.3 – Trajan Decius

Trajanus Decius: Instead of depicting a hyper-realistic portrait of an old and wise man, this portrait reveals the anxiety and nervousness of the emperor.

Trajan D’s portrait at first seems to take its artistic style from Republican veristic portraiture, but a closer look reveals something else. Instead of depicting a hyper-realistic portrait of an old and wise man, this portrait reveals the anxiety and nervousness of the emperor. His brow is furrowed with worry and wrinkles, and his eyes and mouth impart a feeling of fear and anguish.

5.2.4 – Trebonianus Gallus

Trebonianus Gallus: This portrait takes a different style, relying on old sculpture and narrative conventions to depict the emperor as a contemporary hero.

The portrait of his successor, Trebonianus Gallus takes a different style, relying on old sculpture and narrative conventions to depict the emperor as a contemporary hero. This larger-than-life bronze statue depicts a muscled, nude man with his right arm raised in a gesture of speech. He seems to be in adlocutio pose, addressing the troops or perhaps the people of Rome. His head is notably smaller than his torso and disproportional to his body. This places emphasis on his bulk and reminds the viewer of the emperor’s power and the stability he hoped to create.

5.2.5 – Late Antique Art: The Ludovisi Sarcophagus

Sculpture during this period demonstrates the style and design of Late Antique art that was initially developed during the late second century CE from plebeian models. The emergence of the style corresponds with the social, political, and economic upheaval of the empire that began during the reign of Commodus.

This style removes Classical conventions of realism . It pushes its characters into the foreground and almost entirely removes the background.

In the scenes shown on the Ludovisi Sarcophagus, the undercutting of the deep relief exhibits virtuosic and very time-consuming drill work that conveys chaos and a sense of weary, open-ended victory. It differs from earlier battle scenes on sarcophagi in which more shallowly carved figures are less convoluted and intertwined.

Unlike earlier Roman depictions of warfare, this scene does not differentiate the general by his attire or engagement in battle. Rather, he is only slightly larger than the figures around him.

Ludovisi Sarcophagus: In the scenes shown on the Ludovisi Sarcophagus, the undercutting of the deep relief exhibits virtuosic and very time-consuming drill work that conveys chaos and a sense of weary, open-ended victory.

From the late second century, Roman art increasingly depicted battles as chaotic, packed, single-plane scenes that emphasize dehumanized barbarians who are subjected mercilessly to Roman military might, at a time when in fact the Roman Empire was undergoing constant invasions from external threats that led to the fall of the empire in the West. Although armed, the barbarian warriors, usually identified as Goths, are depicted as helpless to defend themselves.

5.2.6 – After the Soldier Emperors

The Crisis of the Third Century continued after the reign of the Soldier Emperors as the title of emperor was auctioned off to the highest bidder by the Praetorian Guard and various men, not always generals, from around the empire seized power for brief periods of time. This process continued until the reign of Diocletian, beginning in 284 CE.

5.3 – Imperial Sculpture under the Tetrarchy

Emperor Diocletian institutionalized the Tetrarchy, a co-rule that re-established stability in the empire for the period of Diocletian’s reign.

5.3.1 – The Tetrarchy

Diocletian , a military general from the cavalry, was declared emperor by his legion in 284 CE. He re-established stability in the empire and paved the way for fourth-century political and social developments.

Portrait of Diocletian: Diocletian achieved stability by establishing the Tetrarchy, Greek for rule by four.

Diocletian achieved stability by establishing the Tetrarchy, Greek for rule by four. The Tetrarchy consisted of four emperors who reigned over two halves of the empire. Each pair of emperors was given control over either the eastern or western portion of the empire. Of the pair, one was given the title Caesar (a junior emperor) and the other Augustus (the senior emperor).

This allowed Diocletian and his fellow emperors to organize the administration of the provinces, separate military and civic command, and restore authority throughout the realm. They further solidified their commitment to each other and communal rule by marrying into each other’s families.

5.3.2 – Portraits of the Tetrarchs

Imperial portraiture of the Tetrarchs depicts the four emperors together and looking nearly identical. The portraiture symbolizes the concept of co-rule and cohesiveness instead of the power of the individual. The idea of the Tetrarchy, which is apparent in their portraits, is based on the ideal of four men working together to establish peace and stability throughout the empire.

The medium of the famous porphyry sculpture of the Tetrarchs, originally from the city of Constantinople, represents the permanence of the emperors. Furthermore, the two pairs of rulers—a Caesar and an Augustus with arms around each other— form a solid, stable block that reinforces the stability the Tetrarchy brought to the Roman Empire.

Portrait of the Tetrarchs: Portrait of the Tetrarchs from Constantinople; since the Middle Ages it has been fixed to a corner of the facade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.

Stylistically, this portrait of the Tetrarchs is done in Late Antique style , which uses a distinct squat, formless bodies, square heads, and stylized clothing clearly seen in all four men. The Tetrarchs have almost no body.

As opposed to Classical sculptures, which acknowledge the body beneath the attire, the clothes of the Tetrarchs form their bodies into chunky rectangles. Details such as the cuirass (breastplate), skirt, armor, and cloak are highly stylized and based on simple shapes and the repetition of lines .

Despite the culmination of this artistic style, the rendering of the Tetrarchs in this manner seems to fit the connotations of Tetrarch rule and need for stability throughout the empire.

5.3.3 – Portrait of Galerius

Portrait Bust of Galerius: This bust from the emperor’s palace features a face that is largely naturalistic with large expressive eyes and eyebrows, similar to those on the group portrait of the Tetrarchs, that lean toward abstraction.

Galerius served in the Tetrarchy from 293 to 311 CE, beginning his career as the Caesar of the West (293–305) under Diocletian, and eventually rising to Augustus of the West (305–311) after Diocletian’s retirement.

During his reign he campaigned, aided by Diocletian, against the Sassanid (Neo-Persian) Empire, and sacked their capital in 299. He also campaigned across the Danube against the Carpi (in present-day eastern Romania), and defeated them in 297 and 300.

He opposed Christianity and oversaw the carrying out of the Diocletianic Persecution, which rescinded the rights of Christians and ordered that they comply with traditional Roman religious practices. However, toward the end of his reign in 311, he issued an edict of toleration.

A porphyry bust of Galerius (c. 300 CE) shows the direction that portraiture was taking in the fourth century. This bust from the emperor’s palace features a face that is largely naturalistic with large expressive eyes and eyebrows, similar to those on the group portrait of the Tetrarchs, that lean toward abstraction.

These attributes follow those of other sculptures of the Late Antique style and foreshadow the increasingly geometric form that facial features would assume in imperial portraiture and sculpture in general.

5.4 – Diocletian’s Palace

Despite increasing abstraction in Late Antique sculpture, Diocletian’s Palace maintains the tradition of Classicism in Roman architecture.

Diocletian abdicated power in 305 CE and left the Tetrarchy to his co-emperors and Severus, the newly inaugurated general. Diocletian then retired to his boyhood palace in Dalmatia.

The palace’s remains became the center of the modern city of Spilt in Croatia. Diocletian’s palace was built as a fortress, demonstrating that despite Diocletian’s success as emperor, he still required security living in a hostile Roman environment. Despite the stylistic changes in sculpture , Diocletian’s palace serves as a reminder that the style of Roman architecture continued to be based on Classical models and forms.

In addition to its numerous round arches and Classical columns, the palace also contains a vestibule with a domed ceiling that has an oculus somewhat reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome.

Vestibule: Note the domed ceiling with a wide oculus in Diocletian’s Palace, in Split, Croatia, c. 305 CE.

The palace was set up in a similar fashion to a castrum and contained courts, libraries, and other features found in imperial villas. It was constructed from local materials including limestone , marble, and brick. Some material for decoration was imported: Egyptian granite columns, fine marble for revetments , and some capitals produced in workshops in the Proconnesos (present-day Marmara Island off the coast of Turkey).

The southern wall, which was the only unfortified part of the palace, was practically built on the waterfront and appeared to rise out of the Adriatic Sea.

Diocletian’s Palace: An artist’s reconstruction of the original structure.

Diocletian’s palace demonstrates the Roman use of vaults in the substructure and the use of columns, peristyles, and entablatures to create monumental spaces . For example, the central court of the palace, known as the Peristyle, demonstrates the stylistic and monumental use of these architectural elements.

Furthermore, the central court was sunken and a flight of stairs enclosed the court and led up to the decorative Peristyle and surrounding rooms. This increased the feeling of monumentality while emphasizing Diocletian’s imperial power, as members of the court had to stand several steps below the entrances to the temples, mausoleum , and court rooms.

The Peristyle at Diocletian’s Palace: The arcuated pediment is a rare feature in Roman architecture. Resting on four Composite columns, the pediment contains a round arch that rises into its base toward its apex.

A main feature of the Peristyle is the portico that marks the entrance to Diocletian’s private apartments. Following the format of a traditional Roman temple to a degree, the portico rests atop a raised platform. Behind it rests a marble-faced brick wall with three entrances: an archway flanked by a rectangular portal on each side.

Perhaps its most unique feature is the arcuated pediment that sits atop the temple facade. Resting on four Composite columns, the pediment contains a round arch that rises into its base toward its apex . An arcade supported by Composite columns stands to either side of the facade.

Sphinx from the tomb of Thutmose III: Diocletian adorned his new home with numerous 3500-year-old granite sphinxes, originating from the site of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III.

The northern half of the palace, divided in two parts by the cardo leading from the northern gate to the Peristyle, is not as well preserved as the rest of the palace. Scholars posit that each part was a residential complex that housed soldiers, servants, and possibly some other facilities. Both parts were apparently surrounded by streets. Leading to the perimeter walls there were rectangular buildings that were possibly storage magazines.

Headless sphinx in front of the Temple of Jupiter: Located in Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia, c. 305 CE.

While the architectural aspects of the palace follow Roman traditions, several decorative choices hail from Egypt. Diocletian adorned his new home with numerous 3500-year-old granite sphinxes, originating from the site of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III. Only three have survived the centuries. One is still on the Peristyle, the second sits headless in front of Jupiter’s temple, and a third is in the city museum.

5.5 – Architecture under Constantine

Constantine seized sole power over Rome to establish authority and stability, and then moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople.

5.5.1 – Constantine

Diocletian and his co-emperor Maximian abdicated power on May 1, 305 CE. However, over the course of the next five years, Maximian made several attempts to regain his title, and then committed suicide in 310. In the meantime, power passed to Maximian’s son Maxentius and Constantine, the son of a third co-emperor, Constantius.

Unfortunately for Diocletian’s legacy and the stability created by the Tetrarchy , a power struggle between the two heirs erupted a year after the former Augustus’ abdication. When Constantius died on July 25, 306, his father’s troops proclaimed Constantine as Augustus in Eboracum (York, England).

In Rome, the favorite was Maxentius, who seized the title of emperor on October 28, 306. Galerius, ruler of the Eastern provinces and the senior emperor in the Empire, recognized Constantine’s claim and treated Maxentius as a usurper. Galerius, however, recognized Constantine as holding only the lesser imperial rank of Caesar.

Despite a mutiny against Galerius’ co-emperor Severus in 307, and Galerius’s subsequent failure to take Rome, Constantine managed to avoid conflict for most of this period. However, by 312, Constantine and Maxentius were engaged in open hostilities, culminating in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, in which Constantine emerged victorious.

Although he attributed this victory to the aid of the Christian god, he did not convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed. The following year, however, he enacted the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity and allowed its followers to begin building churches. With the Christian community growing in number and in influence, legalizing Christianity was, for Constantine, a pragmatic move.

Following a rebellion from Licinius, his own co-emperor in 324 CE, Constantine eventually had his former colleague executed and consolidated power under a single ruler. As the sole emperor of an empire with new-found stability, Constantine was able to patronize large building projects in Rome. However, despite his attention to that city, he moved the capital of the empire east to the newly founded city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

5.5.2 – Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine demonstrates the continuance of the newly-adopted artistic style for imperial sculpture . This arch was erected between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, the home of the imperial palace. It stands over the triumphal route before it enters the Republican Forum . This forms a dialog with the Arch of Titus at the top, overlooking the Forum, and the Arch of Septimius Severus, which, in turn, stands at the other end of the Forum before the Via Sacra heads uphill to the Capitolium.

Arch of Constantine: The Arch demonstrates the continuance of the newly-adopted artistic style for imperial sculpture.

The Senate commissioned the triumphal arch in honor of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius. It is a triple arch and its iconography represents Constantine’s supreme power and the stability and peace his reign brought to Rome.

The Arch of Constantine is especially noted for its use of spolia: architectural and decorative elements removed from one monument for use on another. Those from the monuments of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius—all considered good emperors of the Pax Romana—were reused as decoration.

Trajanic panels that depict the emperor on horseback defeating barbarian soldiers adorn the interior of the central arch. The original face was reworked to take the likeness of Constantine. Eight roundels, or relief discs, adorn the space just above the two smaller side arches. These are Hadrianic and depict images of hunting and sacrifice .

The final set of spolia includes eight panel reliefs on the arch’s attic, from the era of Marcus Aurelius, depicting the dual identities of the emperor, as both a military and a civic leader. The incorporation of these elements symbolize Constantine’s legitimacy and his status as one of the good emperors.

A detail of the northern frieze of the Arch of Constantine: This detail shows Constantine distributing gifts from his throne down to his supporters.

The rest of the arch is decorated using Late Antique styles. The proximity of different artistic styles, under four different emperors, highlights the stylistic variations and artistic developments that occurred, both in the second century CE, as well as their differences to the Late Antique style.

Besides the decorative elements in the spandrels , a Constantinian frieze runs around the arch, between the tops of the small arches and the bottoms of the roundels. This frieze highlights the artistic style of the period and chronologically depicts Constantine’s rise to power. Unlike previous examples of Late Antique art, the bodies in this frieze are completely schematic and defined only by stiff, rigid clothes. In one scene, featuring Constantine distributing gifts, the emperor is centrally depicted and raised above his supporters on a throne.

5.5.3 – Basilica Nova and the Colossus of Constantine

When Constantine and Maxentius clashed at the Milvian Bridge, Maxentius was in the middle of building a grand basilica. It was eventually renamed the Basilica Nova, and was located near the Roman Forum. The basilica consisted of one side aisle on either side of a central nave.

Basilica Nova: The ground plan of the Basilica Nova in Rome.

When Constantine took over and completed the grand building, it was 300 feet long, 215 feet wide, and stood 115 feet tall down the nave. Concrete walls 15 feet thick supported the basilica’s massive scale and expansive vaults . It was lavishly decorated with marble veneer and stucco . The southern end of the basilica was flanked by a porch, with an apse at the northern end.

Basilica Nova: As it stands today in Rome, Italy.

The apse of the Basilica Nova was the location of the Colossus of Constantine. This colossus was built from many parts. The head, arms, hands, legs, and feet were carved from marble, while the body was built with a brick core and wooden framework and then gilded.

The head of the colossus of Constantine: The head is over eight feet tall and 6.5 feet long.

Only parts of the Colossus remain, including the head that is over eight feet tall and 6.5 feet long. It shows a portrait of an individual with clearly defined features: a hooked nose, prominent jaw, and large eyes that look upwards. Like the porphyry bust of Galerius, Constantine’s portrait combines naturalism in his nose, mouth, and chin with a growing sense of abstraction in his eyes and geometric hairstyle.

He also held an orb and, possibly, a scepter, and one hand points upwards towards the heavens. Both the immensity of the scale and his depiction as Jupiter (seated, heroic, and semi-nude) inspire a feeling of awe and overwhelming power and authority.

The basilica was a common Roman building and functioned as a multipurpose space for law courts, senate meetings, and business transactions. The form was appropriated for Christian worship and most churches, even today, still maintain this basic shape.

5.5.4 – Rome after Constantine

Following Constantine’s founding of a New Rome at Constantinople, the prominence and importance of the city of Rome diminished. The empire was then divided into east and west. The more prosperous eastern half of the empire continued to thrive, mainly due to its connection to important trade routes, while the western half of the empire fell apart.

While Byzantium controlled Italy and the city Rome at times over the next several centuries, for the most part the Western Roman Empire, due to being less urban and less prosperous, was difficult to protect. Indeed, the city of Rome was sacked multiple times by invading armies, including the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, over the next century.

The multiple sackings of Rome resulted in the raiding of the marble, facades, décor, and columns from the monuments and buildings of the city. Parts of ancient Rome, especially the Republican Forum, returned once again to the cow pastures that they originally were at the time of the city’s founding, as floods from the Tiber washed them over in debris and sediment.

5.5.5 – Constantinople

Constantine laid out a new square at the center of old Byzantium, naming it the Augustaeum. The new senate-house was housed in a basilica on the east side. On the south side of the great square was erected the Great Palace of the Emperor with its imposing entrance and its ceremonial suite known as the Palace of Daphne.

Nearby was the vast Hippodrome for chariot races, seating over 80,000 spectators, and the famed Baths of Zeuxippus. At the western entrance to the Augustaeum was the Milion, a vaulted monument from which distances were measured across the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Imperial district of Constantinople: Present-day Istanbul, Turkey.

The Mese, a great street lined with colonnades , led from the Augustaeum. As it descended the First Hill of the city and climbed the Second Hill, it passed the Praetorium or law-court. Then it passed through the oval Forum of Constantine where there was a second Senate house and a high column with a statue of Constantine in the guise of Helios, crowned with a halo of seven rays and looking toward the rising sun. From there the Mese passed on and through the Forum Tauri and then the Forum Bovis, and finally up the Seventh Hill (or Xerolophus) and through to the Golden Gate in the Constantinian Wall.

5.5.6 – The Aula Palatina, Trier, Germany

Aula Palatina: Known today as the Church of the Redeemer in Trier, Germany, c. 310 CE.

Constantine built the Aula Palatina (c. 310 CE) as a part of the palace complex. Originally it was attached to smaller buildings (such as an antehall, a vestibule, and service buildings) attached to it. The Aula Palatina has a simplified Roman basilica plan, consisting of a wide nave that ends in a north-facing apse.

Aula Palatina: The Aula Palatina has a simplified Roman basilica plan, consisting of a wide nave that ends in a north-facing apse.

Although round arches repeat throughout the interior and exterior, the building deviates from the traditional basilica with the flat ceiling that covers the nave and the flat roof that tops the apse.

6 – Early Jewish and Christian Art

6.1 – Early Jewish Art

Early Jewish art forms included frescoes, illuminated manuscripts and elaborate floor mosaics.

6.1.1 – The Second Commandment and Its Interpretations

The Second Commandment, as noted in the Old Testament, warns all followers of the Hebrew god Yahweh, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” As most Rabbinical authorities interpreted this commandment as the prohibition of visual art, Jewish artists were relatively rare until they lived in assimilated European communities beginning in the late eighteenth century.

Although no single biblical passage contains a complete definition of idolatry , the subject is addressed in numerous passages, so that idolatry may be summarized as the worship of idols or images; the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols or images; the worship of trees, rocks, animals, astronomical bodies, or another human being; and the use of idols in the worship of God.

In Judaism, God chooses to reveal his identity, not as an idol or image, but by his words, by his actions in history, and by his working in and through humankind. By the time the Talmud was written, the acceptance or rejection of idolatry was a litmus test for Jewish identity. An entire tractate, the Avodah Zarah (strange worship) details practical guidelines for interacting with surrounding peoples so as to avoid practicing or even indirectly supporting such worship.

Attitudes towards the interpretation of the Second Commandment changed through the centuries. Jewish sacred art is recorded in the Tanakh and extends throughout Jewish Antiquity and the Middle Ages . The Tabernacle and the two Temples in Jerusalem form the first known examples of Jewish art.

While first-century rabbis in Judea objected violently to the depiction of human figures and the placement of statues in temples, third-century Babylonian Jews had different views. While no figural art from first-century Roman Judea exists, the art on the Dura-Europos synagogue walls developed with no objection from the rabbis.

6.1.2 – Illuminated Manuscripts and Mosaics

The Jewish tradition of illuminated manuscripts during Late Antiquity can be deduced from borrowings in Early Medieval Christian art. Middle Age Rabbinical and Kabbalistic literature also contain textual and graphic art, most famously the illuminated Haggadahs like the Sarajevo Haggadah , and manuscripts like the Nuremberg Mahzor. Some of these were illustrated by Jewish artists and some by Christians. Equally, some Jewish artists and craftsmen in various media worked on Christian commissions.

Byzantine synagogues also frequently featured elaborate mosaic floor tiles. The remains of a sixth-century synagogue were uncovered in Sepphoris, an important center of Jewish culture between the third and seventh centuries. The mosaic reflects an interesting fusion of Jewish and pagan beliefs.

In the center of the floor the zodiac wheel was depicted. The sun god Helios sits in the middle in his chariot, and each zodiac is matched with a Jewish month. Along the sides of the mosaic are strips that depict the binding of Isaac and other Biblical scenes.

Mosaic floor at Sepphoris synagogue: This fifth-century mosaic is a depiction of the Zodiac Wheel.

The floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, built during the reign of Justinian I (518–527 CE), also features elaborate nave mosaics. Each of its three panels depicts a different scene: the Holy Ark, the zodiac and the story Isaac’s sacrifice . Once again, Helios stands in the center of the zodiac. The four women in the corners of the mosaic represent the four seasons.

Beth Alpha mosaic: The Byzantine synagogue at Beth Alpha features elaborate nave mosaics.

As interpretations of the Second Commandment liberalized, any perceived ban on figurative depiction was not taken very seriously by the Jews living in Byzantine Gaza. In 1966, remains of a synagogue were found in the region’s ancient harbor area. Its mosaic floor depicts a syncretic image of King David as Orpheus, identified by his name in Hebrew letters. Near him are lion cubs, a giraffe and a snake listening to him playing a lyre.

Gaza synagogue mosaic: This mosaic from the ancient synagogue at Gaza is an unusual example of figurative depiction in early Jewish art.

A further portion of the floor was divided by medallions formed by vine leaves, each of which contains an animal: a lioness suckling her cub, a giraffe, peacocks, panthers, bears, a zebra, and so on. The floor was completed between  508 and 509 CE.

6.1.3 – Dura-Europos

Dura-Europos, a border city between the Romans and the Parthians , was the site of an early Jewish synagogue dated by an Aramaic inscription to 244 CE. It is also the site of Christian churches and mithraea, this city’s location between empires made it an optimal spot for cultural and religious diversity.

The synagogue is the best preserved of the many imperial Roman-era synagogues that have been uncovered by archaeologists. It contains a forecourt and house of assembly with frescoed walls depicting people and animals, as well as a Torah shrine in the western wall facing Jerusalem.

The synagogue paintings, the earliest continuous surviving biblical narrative cycle, are conserved at Damascus, together with the complete Roman horse armor. Because of the paintings adorning the walls, the synagogue was at first mistaken for a Greek temple. The synagogue was preserved, ironically, when it was filled with earth to strengthen the city’s fortifications against a Sassanian assault in 256 CE.

Remains of the synagogue at Dura-Europos: This is the best preserved ancient synagogue to be uncovered by archaeologists.

Dura-Europos, a border city between the Romans and the Parthians , was the site of an early Jewish synagogue dated by an Aramaic inscription to 244 CE. It is also the site of Christian churches and mithraea, this city’s location between empires made it an optimal spot for cultural and religious diversity.

The synagogue is the best preserved of the many imperial Roman-era synagogues that have been uncovered by archaeologists. It contains a forecourt and house of assembly with frescoed walls depicting people and animals, as well as a Torah shrine in the western wall facing Jerusalem.

The synagogue paintings, the earliest continuous surviving biblical narrative cycle, are conserved at Damascus, together with the complete Roman horse armor. Because of the paintings adorning the walls, the synagogue was at first mistaken for a Greek temple. The synagogue was preserved, ironically, when it was filled with earth to strengthen the city’s fortifications against a Sassanian assault in 256 CE.

A fresco depicting a scene from the Book of Esther: From the synagogue at Dura-Europos, c. 244 CE.

The preserved frescoes include scenes such as the Sacrifice of Isaac and other Genesis stories, Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law, Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, scenes from the Book of Esther, and many others. The Hand of God motif is used to represent divine intervention or approval in several paintings. Scholars cannot agree on the subjects of some scenes, because of damage, or the lack of comparative examples; some think the paintings were used as an instructional display to educate and teach the history and laws of the religion.

Others think that this synagogue was painted in order to compete with the many other religions being practiced in Dura-Europos. The new (and considerably smaller) Christian church (Dura-Europos church) appears to have opened shortly before the surviving paintings were begun in the synagogue. The discovery of the synagogue helps to dispel narrow interpretations of Judaism’s historical prohibition of visual images.

6.2 – Early Christian Art

Early Christian, or Paleochristian, art was created by Christians or under Christian patronage throughout the second and third centuries.

6.2.1 – Early Christianity

By the early years of Christianity (first century), Judaism had been legalized through a compromise with the Roman state over two centuries. Christians were initially identified with the Jewish religion by the Romans, but as they became more distinct, Christianity became a problem for Roman rulers.

Around the year 98, Nerva decreed that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax upon the Jews, effectively recognizing them as a distinct religion. This opened the way to the persecutions of Christians for disobedience to the emperor, as they refused to worship the state pantheon .

The oppression of Christians was only periodic until the middle of the first century. However, large-scale persecutions began in the year 64 when Nero blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome earlier that year. Early Christians continued to suffer sporadic persecutions.

Because of their refusal to honor the Roman pantheon, which many believed brought misfortune upon the community, the local pagan populations put pressure on the imperial authorities to take action against their Christians neighbors. The last and most severe persecution organized by the imperial authorities was the Diocletianic Persecution from 303 to 311.

6.2.2 – Early Christian Art

Early Christian, or Paleochristian, art was produced by Christians or under Christian patronage from the earliest period of Christianity to, depending on the definition used, between 260 and 525. In practice, identifiably Christian art only survives from the second century onwards. After 550, Christian art is classified as Byzantine , or of some other regional type.

It is difficult to know when distinctly Christian art began. Prior to 100, Christians may have been constrained by their position as a persecuted group from producing durable works of art. Since Christianity was largely a religion of the lower classes in this period, the lack of surviving art may reflect a lack of funds for patronage or a small numbers of followers.

The Old Testament restrictions against the production of graven images (an idol or fetish carved in wood or stone) might have also constrained Christians from producing art. Christians could have made or purchased art with pagan iconography but given it Christian meanings. If this happened, “Christian” art would not be immediately recognizable as such.

Early Christians used the same artistic media as the surrounding pagan culture. These media included frescos, mosaics, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts.

Early Christian art not only used Roman forms , it also used Roman styles. Late Classical art included a proportional portrayal of the human body and impressionistic presentation of space . The Late Classical style is seen in early Christian frescos, such as those in the Catacombs of Rome, which include most examples of the earliest Christian art.

Early Christian art is generally divided into two periods by scholars: before and after the Edict of Milan of 313, which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. The end of the period of Early Christian art, which is typically defined by art historians as being in the fifth through seventh centuries, is thus a good deal later than the end of the period of Early Christianity as typically defined by theologians and church historians, which is more often considered to end under Constantine, between 313 and 325.

6.2.3 – Early Christian Painting

In a move of strategic syncretism , the Early Christians adapted Roman motifs and gave new meanings to what had been pagan symbols. Among the motifs adopted were the peacock, grapevines, and the “Good Shepherd.” Early Christians also developed their own iconography. Such symbols as the fish (ikhthus), were not borrowed from pagan iconography.

Fish and Loaves: This fish-and-loaves fresco—iconography particular to Christians and representative of the Eucharist—is found in the Catacombs of San Callisto.

During the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, Christian art was necessarily and deliberately furtive and ambiguous, using imagery that was shared with pagan culture but had a special meaning for Christians. The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the late second to early fourth centuries on the walls of Christian tombs in the catacombs of Rome. From literary evidence, there might have been panel icons which have disappeared.

6.2.4 – Depictions of Jesus

Initially, Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the ichthys, the peacock, the Lamb of God, or an anchor. Later, personified symbols were used, including Daniel in the lion’s den, Orpheus charming the animals, or Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale prefigured the interval between the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, the depiction of Jesus was well-developed by the end of the pre-Constantinian period. He was typically shown in narrative scenes, with a preference for New Testament miracles, and few of scenes from his Passion. A variety of different types of appearance were used, including the thin, long-faced figure with long, centrally-parted hair that was later to become the norm. But in the earliest images as many show a stocky and short-haired beardless figure in a short tunic , who can only be identified by his context. In many images of miracles Jesus carries a stick or wand, which he points at the subject of the miracle rather like a modern stage magician (though the wand is significantly larger).

Jesus Healing a Bleeding Woman: Typical of a depiction of Jesus for its time, this fresco depicts a clean-shaven man with short hair. From the catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter. , c. 300–350.

The image of The Good Shepherd, a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the most common of these images and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus. These images bear some resemblance to depictions of kouroi figures in Greco-Roman art.


[LEFT]: The Good Shepherd: A fresco from the catacombs of San Callisto.
[RIGHT]: The Good Shepherd: This painting of the Good Shepherd motif is a fusion of pagan and Christian symbolism.

The almost total absence from Christian paintings during the persecution period of the cross, except in the disguised form of the anchor, is notable. The cross, symbolizing Jesus’s crucifixion, was not represented explicitly for several centuries, possibly because crucifixion was a punishment meted out to common criminals, but also because literary sources noted that it was a symbol recognized as specifically Christian, as the sign of the cross was made by Christians from the earliest days of the religion.

6.2.5 – House Church at Dura-Europos

The house church at Dura-Europos is the oldest known house church. One of the walls within the structure was inscribed with a date that was interpreted as 231. It was preserved when it was filled with earth to strengthen the city’s fortifications against an attack by the Sassanians in 256 CE.

Remains of a house church at Dura-Europos: House churches, where Christians congregated secretly, were common prior to the legalization of Christianity.

Despite the larger atmosphere of persecution, the artifacts found in the house church provide evidence of localized Roman tolerance for a Christian presence. This location housed frescos of biblical scenes including a figure of Jesus healing the sick.

When Christianity emerged in the Late Antique world, Christian ceremony and worship were secretive. Before Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, Christians suffered intermittent periods of persecution at the hands of the Romans. Therefore, Christian worship was purposefully kept as inconspicuous as possible. Rather than building prominent new structures for express religious use, Christians in the Late Antique world took advantage of pre-existing, private structures—houses.

The house church in general was known as the domus ecclesiae , Latin for house and assembly. Domi ecclesiae emerged in third-century Rome and are closely tied to domestic Roman architecture of this period, specifically to the peristyle house in which the rooms were arranged around a central courtyard.

These rooms were often adjoined to create a larger gathering space that could accommodate small crowds of around fifty people. Other rooms were used for different religious and ceremonial purpose, including education, the celebration of the Eucharist, the baptism of Christian converts, storage of charitable items, and private prayer and mass . The plan of the house church at Dura-Europos illustrates how house churches elsewhere were designed.

Plan of the house church at Dura-Europos: Domi ecclesiae emerged in third-century Rome and are closely tied to the domestic Roman architecture of this period, specifically to the peristyle house in which the rooms were arranged around a central courtyard.

When Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, Christians were no longer forced to use pre-existing homes for their churches and meeting houses. Instead, they began to build churches of their own.

Even then, Christian churches often purposefully featured unassuming—even plain—exteriors. They tended to be much larger as the rise in the popularity of the Christian faith meant that churches needed to accommodate an increasing volume of people.

6.3 – Architecture of the Early Christian Church

After their persecution ended, Christians began to build larger buildings for worship than the meeting places they had been using.

6.3.1 – Introduction

After their persecution ended in the fourth century, Christians began to erect buildings that were larger and more elaborate than the house churches where they used to worship. However, what emerged was an architectural style distinct from classical pagan forms .

Architectural formulas for temples were deemed unsuitable. This was not simply for their pagan associations, but because pagan cult and sacrifices occurred outdoors under the open sky in the sight of the gods. The temple, housing the cult figures and the treasury , served as a backdrop. Therefore, Christians began using the model of the basilica, which had a central nave with one aisle at each side and an apse at one end.

6.3.2 – Old St. Peter’s and the Western Basilica

Plan of Old St. Peter’s Basilica: One of the first Christian churches in Rome, Old St. Peter’s followed the plan of the Roman basilica and added a transept (labeled Bema in this diagram) to give the church a cruciform shape.

The basilica model was adopted in the construction of Old St. Peter’s church in Rome . What stands today is New St. Peter’s church, which replaced the original during the Italian Renaissance.

Whereas the original Roman basilica was rectangular with at least one apse, usually facing North, the Christian builders made several symbolic modifications. Between the nave and the apse, they added a transept, which ran perpendicular to the nave. This addition gave the building a cruciform shape to memorialize the Crucifixion.

The apse, which held the altar and the Eucharist,  now faced East, in the direction of the rising sun. However, the apse of Old St. Peter’s faced West to commemorate the church’s namesake, who, according to the popular narrative, was crucified upside down.

Exterior reconstruction of Old St. Peter’s: This reconstruction depicts an idea of how the church appeared in the fourth century.

A Christian basilica of the fourth or fifth century stood behind its entirely enclosed forecourt. It was ringed with a colonnade or arcade, like the stoa or peristyle that was its ancestor, or like the cloister that was its descendant. This forecourt was entered from outside through a range of buildings along the public street.

In basilicas of the former Western Roman Empire, the central nave is taller than the aisles and forms a row of windows called a clerestory . In the Eastern Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire, which continued until the fifteenth century), churches were centrally planned. The Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy is prime example of an Eastern church.

6.3.3 – San Vitale

The church of San Vitale is highly significant in Byzantine art, as it is the only major church from the period of the Eastern Emperor Justinian I to survive virtually intact to the present day. While much of Italy was under the rule of the Western Emperor, Ravenna came under the rule of Justinian I in 540.

The church of San Vitale is highly significant in Byzantine art, as it is the only major church from the period of the Eastern Emperor Justinian I to survive virtually intact to the present day. While much of Italy was under the rule of the Western Emperor, Ravenna came under the rule of Justinian I in 540.

The church was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 527, when Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths, and completed by the twenty-seventh Bishop of Ravenna, Maximian, in 546 during the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna. The architect or architects of the church is unknown.

The construction of the church was sponsored by a Greek banker, Julius Argentarius, and the final cost amounted to 26,000 solidi (gold pieces). The church has an octagonal plan and combines Roman elements (the dome, shape of doorways, and stepped towers) with Byzantine elements (a polygonal apse, capitals , and narrow bricks). The church is most famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics —they are the largest and best preserved mosaics outside of Constantinople.

The central section is surrounded by two superposed ambulatories, or covered passages around a cloister. The upper one, the matrimoneum, was reserved for married women. A series of mosaics in the lunettes above the triforia depict sacrifices from the Old Testament.

The presbytery at San Vitale: The cross-ribbed vault in the presbytery is richly ornamented with mosaic festoons of leaves, fruit and flowers that converge on a crown encircling the Lamb of God.

On the side walls, the corners, next to the mullioned windows, are mosaics of the Four Evangelists, who are dressed in white under their symbols (angel, lion, ox and eagle). The cross-ribbed vault in the presbytery is richly ornamented with mosaic festoons of leaves, fruit, and flowers that converge on a crown that encircles the Lamb of God.

The crown is supported by four angels, and every surface is covered with a profusion of flowers, stars, birds, and animals, specifically many peacocks. Above the arch , on both sides, two angels hold a disc. Beside them are representations of the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. These two cities symbolize the human race.

6.4 – Sculpture of the Early Christian Church

6.4.1 – Introduction

Despite an early opposition to monumental sculpture, artists for the early Christian church in the West eventually began producing life-sized sculptures.

The Early Christians were opposed to monumental religious sculpture. Nevertheless, they continued the ancient Roman sculptural traditions in portrait busts and sarcophagus reliefs. Smaller objects, such as consular diptychs, were also part of the Roman traditions that the Early Christians continued.

6.4.2 – Small Ivory Reliefs

Consular diptychs were commissioned by consuls elected at the beginning of the year to mark his entry to that post, and were distributed as a commemorative reward to those who supported his candidature or might support him in future.

The oldest consular diptych depicts the consul Probus (406 CE) dressed in the traditional garb of a Roman soldier. Despite showing signs of the growing stylization and abstraction of Late Antiquity , Probus maintains a contraposto pose. Although Christianity had been the state religion of the Roman Empire for over 25 years, a small winged Victory with a laurel wreath poses on a globe that Probus holds in his left hand. However, the standard he holds in his right hand translates as, “In the name of Christ, you always conquer.”

Consular diptych of Probus: Despite showing signs of the growing stylization and abstraction of Late Antiquity, Probus maintains a contraposto pose.

Carolingian art revived ivory carving, often in panels for the treasure bindings of grand illuminated manuscripts , as well as in crozier heads and other small fittings. The subjects were often narrative religious scenes in vertical sections, largely derived from Late Antique paintings and carvings, as were those with more hieratic images derived from consular diptychs and other imperial art.

One surviving example from Reims, France depicts two scenes from the life of Saint Rémy and the Baptism of the Frankish king Clovis. Unlike classical relief figures before Late Antiquity, these figures seem to float rather than stand flatly on the ground .

Carolingian treasure binding scenes from the life of Saint Rémy and King Clovis.: Note the Carolingian attempt to recapture classical naturalism with a variety of poses, gestures, and facial expressions among the figures.

However, we can also see the Carolingian attempt to recapture classical naturalism with a variety of poses, gestures, and facial expressions among the figures. Interacting in a life-like manner, all the figures are turned to some degree. No one stands in a completely frontal position.

6.4.3 – The Revival of Monumental Sculpture

Golden Madonna of Essen: This statue has a wood core covered by thin gold leaf, c. 980.

However, a production of monumental statues in the courts and major churches in the West began during the Carolingian and Ottonian periods. Charlemagne revived large-scale bronze casting when he created a foundry at Aachen that cast the doors for his palace chapel, which were an imitation of Roman designs. This gradually spread throughout Europe.

There are records of several apparently life-size sculptures in Anglo-Saxon churches by the tenth and eleventh centuries. These sculptures are probably of precious metal around a wooden frame.

One example is the Golden Madonna of Essen (c. 980), a sculpture of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus that consistes of a wooden core covered with sheets of thin gold leaf . It is both the oldest known sculpture of the Madonna and the oldest free-standing, medieval sculpture north of the Alps.

It is also the only full-length survivor from what appears to have been a common form of statuary among the wealthiest churches and abbeys of tenth and eleventh century Northern Europe, as well as one of very few sculptures from the Ottonian era.

In the Golden Madonna of Essen, the naturalism of the Graeco-Roman era has all but disappeared. The head of the Madonna is very large in proportion the remainder of her body. Her eyes open widely and dominate her nose and mouth, which seem to dissolve into her face. In an additional departure from classical naturalism, the Baby Jesus appears not so much as an infant but rather as a small adult with an adult facial expression and hand gesture.

6.4.4 – Sculpted Crosses

Monumental crosses such as the Gero Crucifix (c. 965–970) were evidently common in the ninth and tenth centuries. The figure appears to be the finest of a number of life-size, German, wood-sculpted crucifixions that appeared in the late Ottonian or early Romanesque period, and later spread to much of Europe.

Charlemagne had a similar crucifix installed in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen around 800 CE. Monumental crucifixes continued to grow in popularity, especially in Germany and Italy. The Gero Crucifix appears to capture a degree of Hellenistic pathos in the twisted body and frowning face of the dead Christ.

Gero Crucifix: This appears to be the earliest and finest of a number of life-size German wood sculpted crucifixions that appeared in the late Ottonian or early Romanesque period that later spread to much of Europe.

Engraved stones were northern traditions that bridged the period of early Christian sculpture. Some examples are Nordic tradition rune stones, the Pictish stones of Scotland, and the high cross reliefs of Christian Great Britain.

Large, stone Celtic crosses, usually erected outside monasteries or churches, first appeared in eighth-century Ireland. The later insular carvings found throughout Britain and Ireland were almost entirely geometrical, as was the decoration on the earliest crosses. By the ninth century, reliefs of human figures were added to the crosses. The largest crosses have many figures in scenes on all surfaces, often from the Old Testament on the east side, and the New Testament on the west, with a Crucifixion at the center of the cross.

Muiredach’s High Cross: Muiredach’s High Cross (tenth century) at Monasterboice is usually regarded as the peak of the Irish crosses.

Muiredach’s High Cross (tenth century) at Monasterboice is usually regarded as the peak of the Irish crosses. Whereas the Carolingian treasure binding and the Gero Crucifix attempt to recapture the attributes of classical sculptures, the figures on Muiredach’s High Cross lack a sense of naturalism.

Some have large heads that dwarf their bodies, and others stand in fully frontal poses. This departure from the classical paradigm reflects a growing belief that the body was merely a temporary shell for—and therefore inferior to—the soul.

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Art History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.