Roman Art & Architecture




The Etruscans

The origins of Roman architecture can be traced to the Etruscans, who migrated from Asia Minor to Italy in the 12th century B.C. What little is known about their architecture has been ascertained from clay models and tomb interiors. Etruscan architecture is thought to have derived from prototypes found in the nearby Greek colonies in southern Italy established during the 8th and 7th century B.C. The Etruscans are thought to have used arches and vaults in their later architecture.

Structural Characteristics

Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in the 5th century B.C., Roman architects began to absorb and synthesize influences from both the Etruscans and the Greeks, adapting earlier building types to their specialized urban needs. A characteristic feature of Roman design was the combined use of arcuated and trabeated construction (employing arches and constructed with post and lintel). Although at first tentatively employed in the spaces between the classical columns, the arch eventually came to be the chief structural element. Flanking columns, usually engaged and superimposed (partly embedded into a wall and laid over it), served merely as buttresses or for decoration.

The cut-stone construction of the Greeks was largely replaced after the invention of concrete in the 2nd century B.C. This enabled architects to cover vast interior spaces with vaults of increasing complexity and without interior supports. These included the barrel vault, the cross or groined vault, and the dome and semidome. Vault buttresses, instead of forming exterior projections, became an integral part of the interior support system. Although unfired brick was employed in all periods, under the empire baked bricks became popular as a facing for concrete walls. From early times stucco was used as a finish for important buildings. For the more luxurious finishing of exterior and interior walls, sheathings of alabaster, porphyry, or marble were used. Of the Republican period (500-27 B.C.), the great aqueducts outside the city of Rome are the most impressive remains.

The principal monuments of Roman architecture belong chiefly to the period between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300, including the Colosseum (A.D. 70-82), the Pantheon (A.D. 118-125 ), and the Baths of Caracalla (A.D. 215). Beginning with the reign of Augustus (30 B.C.-A.D. 14), the Roman architectural output proceeded on a vast scale to accommodate the needs of the rapidly expanding empire. Provincial towns were laid out according to logical plans, particularly in North Africa. In Syria, arcaded streets were built.

Each town's focus was the forum, or open public square, surrounded by colonnades and the principal buildings in axial arrangement. The great forum in Rome itself was built in stages, as each emperor sought to glorify his achievements. The last large forum to be built was that of Trajan (2nd century A.D.), and was the most extravagant. Within each forum, a temple, conforming to Etruscan type, was usually elevated on a high base with steps ascending to a deep portico. Since the temple was to be seen only from the front, the Roman architect utilized pilasters or engaged columns along its sides. This pseudoperipteral type is seen in the Maison Carrée (1st century A.D.) at Nîmes, France. Examples of circular temples include the temple of Vesta at Tivoli (1st century B.C.) and the 3rd-century temples of Jupiter at Split and Venus at Baalbek.

Roman Architectural Innovations

Most important among the structures developed by the Romans themselves were basilicas, baths, amphitheaters, and triumphal arches. Unlike their Greek prototypes, Roman theaters were freestanding structures. The auditorium was semicircular, with movable seats at the orchestra level. Distinctly Roman innovation were the uniting of stage and auditorium as a single structure and the rich architectural embellishment of the stage itself. For the oval amphitheaters such as the colosseum, there are no known Greek precedents. The monumental or triumphal arch was also a purely Roman invention. The baslisca, probably a Roman development based on the Greek temple, provided a large and relatively open interior space. From its original use as a Roman law court, the basilica form was adapted by the Christians for their churches.

The baths, while probably derived from Greek gymnasia, were constructed on a totally unprecedented scale, the complexity of their plan competing with the luxury of their detail. In the typical Roman dwelling, the rooms were grouped about the atrium, which, by means of an opening in its roof, also served as a court. Multistory houses in the larger cities, called insulae, anticipated modern apartment buildings, as can be seen for example at Ostia (3rd century A.D.). A third type of Roman dwelling was the luxurious country villa built by wealthy citizens to escape the congestion and squalor of the cities.


Early Influences

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


Large polychrome terra-cotta images, such as the Apollo of Veii, sandstone tomb effigies, and tomb paintings reveal a native feeling for voluminous forms and bold decorative color effects and an exuberant, vital spirit. From 400 B.C. through the Hellenistic age, the vitality of the archaic period gave way to imitation of the Greek classical models combined with a native trend toward naturalism. The merging of these trends produced the establishment of Hellenistic realism in Roman Italy at the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mosaic and the Minor Arts

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

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