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Roman Art

Randy H. Sooknanan Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

August 24, 2020

Roman art was a diverse and influential form of artistic expression that reflected the cultural, social, and political values of the Roman Empire. The art of ancient Rome includes sculpture, painting, mosaic work, and architecture, among other forms. Roman art was heavily influenced by the art of ancient Greece, but also incorporated elements from other cultures, such as Etruscan, Egyptian, and Persian art. Roman art is significant because it provides a rich and detailed record of the history and culture of the Roman Empire, as well as the artistic achievements of this ancient civilization. It also had a lasting impact on Western art, particularly in the areas of sculpture, architecture, and engineering, and continues to inspire and influence artists and scholars today.

Let's survey some monuments and discuss their culture a  bit...

Trajan's Column

We can attempt to understand the history of the Classical Mediterranean through various forms of art and visual culture, but ‘when we encounter such pieces, we often see them abstracted from their original social and historical contexts, and it is not clear what we can learn from them as classical archaeologists or ancient historians'. With many large-scale works of visual culture, it is essential to remember it was the rich and powerful who could commission such works on a grand and unprecedented scale, and in ancient Rome, it was the emperors themselves who almost always brought forth these great works of public art and architecture. Furthermore, under an emperor, as is often the case throughout ancient Rome’s history, art often took on an aspect of propaganda. We can explore this notion of distortion further with Trajan, born in 53 AD (ruled from 98 to 117 AD), and his infamous Column (Fig 1), which today is the only intact remnant of the original forum (Fig 2-3) he had built to glorify his victories in two wars he fought against the Dacians.

Trajan's architect, named 'Apollodorus' (Kershaw 2013), designed the forum, now gone, and the column which still stands today. The forum was once set in a crowded area in the centre of old Rome, amongst three other forums of previous emperors. It was surely placed there to ensure that the citizens and visitors of the grand city would encounter Trajan's immense success as embodied in the column's design. We can note two forms of Greco-Roman idealism that Apollodorus incorporated into the monument: 'The Column of Trajan represents an appropriation of Greek art—the column was a Greek form, and the figures adorning the monument are firmly rooted in the older classical tradition. The combination of column form and narrative relief sculpture, however, is decidedly Roman, as is the quest for immortality through the commemoration of individual achievement in monumental sculpture and architecture. (Annenberg Learner, 2022)

Viewing the column invokes the idea of a tremendous historical feat filled with ideological importance. At 39-metres/128-foot tall, it is covered by an iconographic frieze in a continuous 190-metre/625-foot narrative band circling up from the base to the top. ‘The lower half of the column corresponds to the first Dacian War (c. 101–102 C.E.), while the top half depicts the second Dacian War (c. 105–106 C.E.).’ (Becker 2022)  This ‘created a space that befitted a more highly articulated monument than the previous ones, with more striking dimensions and greater splendour, which also appeared in the extensive use of polychrome marble’ (Adriano La Regina 2007 p.186) In its time, it was like an invention of a new artistic mode, offering an easily digestible composition and readily comprehensive storyboard for its audience. ‘Art historians have likened the sculptured frieze winding around the column to an illustrated scroll of the type housed in the neighbouring libraries of the Forum of Trajan.’ (Kleiner 2016 p.104)  The column was also originally painted to enhance its visual prominence (although the colours have long since disappeared), and the reliefs, cut shallowly, depict the two Dacian military campaigns in a very meticulous manner. 

As purely a visual narrative, we wonder how accurate this story is to the actual events of the wars. As we see a tale of conquest told in over 150 episodes with over 2500 figures, most of the focus is not on battles but instead on the readying of troops, preparation, moving prisoners or equipment and, of course, on the great emperor himself. We frequently see Trajan overlooking his powerful military, keeping a dutiful watch over his men and ensuring that tasks are carried out from afar. He is depicted in postures and manners that make him easily distinguishable from the rest of the soldiers and scenery. The overall collection of scenes seems to provide a detailed picture of a very civilized army at war while in perfect harmony under their exceptional leader. 'Trajan is portrayed as a strong, stable, and efficient commander of a well-run army, and his barbarian enemies are shown as worthy opponents of Rome.' (Stockard 2017 p.195) From this, we may find the symbolism and imagery is less concerned with the horrors of war, key battle events, or Rome's military prowess and more inclined to be panegyric to the emperor's logistical leadership abilities. Perhaps this was the main message behind Trajan's propaganda. The scenes intend to spotlight the prestige of Roman army life, its dominance, and control as it conducts its operations with hyper-efficiency. Perhaps the column was meant to recruit soldiers as well as show the poise of the emperor. 

The images shown in Trajan's column give us a sense that the military has mastered the logistical elements of war, as troops are engaged with clearing forestry, building forts, taking prisoners, collecting spoils and quickly slaughtering the enemy. However, we cannot be sure that was the case. There are contradictions peppered throughout. For example, some depictions on Trajan’s column ‘shows the spoils heaped up after each battle, including rather sophisticated armour and weapons- yet in the battles themselves the ‘barbarians’ are shown wielding considerably more primitive arrangements.’ (Matyszak 2004 p.214) Thus we should scrutinize the scenes when learning about the Roman and Dacian armies' uniforms, weapons, equipment, and tactics. We may also question the clues regarding how the Dacians may have looked, dressed and fought. The column's narrative seems to say the Dacians were sometimes worthy opponents, and at other points, they were not. It tends to lean toward reiterating that Rome has the skill to conquer formidable opponents at one turn and slaughter barbarians at the next.

In the end, the column has stood for almost 2000 years and continues to do what it was designed to do for the most part, which is to be a universal and visual narrative device to highlight the military skills of Rome while engaged in frontier warfare. Trajan's column remains an extraordinary monument to an important conquest of which we are unsure of many details. It still sends the message that the Roman military was a massive and powerful force to be reckoned with under Trajan's rule. At the same time, it demonstrates the Romans honoured their leaders, idolized them and created ways to keep their accomplishments eternal using art.


Trajan's Column

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

Take a look at this spectacular work of visual and material culture in The Column of Marcus Aurelius (Fig 4.). This column is is a Roman victory column in Piazza Colonna, Rome, Italy. It is a Doric column featuring a spiral relief: it was built in honour of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and modeled on Trajan's Column. We can again appreciate, beyond belief, the incredible skills of those craftsmen from the ancient times.


Fig 4. Column of Marcus Aurelius detail
Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ferragosto Holiday

—'Ferragosto' is a public holiday celebrated every August 15th throughout all of Italy. It originates from Feriae Augusti, the festival of emperor Augustus, who made the 1st of August a day of rest after many weeks of hard work in the agricultural sector during ancient times.

Anyone who has traveled to Italy at least once in August knows that Italians love to go on vacation this month and on the 15th they celebrate the “Ferragosto”, a day dedicated to parties with relatives and friends with good food. But what is the origin of this festival? The name of the feast of Ferragosto derives from the Latin 'feriae Augusti' (meaning the rest of Augustus), in honor of Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor, from whom the month of August takes its name.


Fig 5. Roman Emperor Augustus, Vatican Museums(Left)
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fig 6. The god Neptune (Right)
Neptune was worshipped by the Romans as a god water, but also of horses, here we see him under the name Neptunus Equester, a patron of horse-racing.
Photo from Flickr,

It was a period of rest and celebrations, established by the emperor himself in 18 BC, which originated from the tradition of the Consualia, festivals that celebrated the end of agricultural work, dedicated to Consus, who, for the Romans, was the god of granaries and supplies and were celebrated on August 21 during the harvest period. All the rites for Consualia were celebrated in front of an underground altar of the Circus Maximus, and then, were brought to the surface for the occasion of a great feast. This altar symbolizes the seed, which is first hidden in the earth, subsequently comes out of it, and then becomes prosperous. The god Consus was also identified with Neptunus Equestris (Latin) or the god Neptune who was the protector of equines (horses), which are a symbol of the ancient myth that saw the god offering a horse as a gift to Athenians. Throughout the empire, parties, along with horse, donkey, or mule races were organized, and all non-competing draft animals were adorned with flowers and did not work on that day.


Fig 7. Circus Maximus horse racing
Mosaic showing the Roman tuba and its size in relation to its player, circa 4th century A.D. Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy.
psub, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

It was also customary that, in these days, the peasants wished the owners of the land their best wishes and received a tip in return. In ancient times, as a pagan festival, it was celebrated on August 1st. But the days of rest (and celebration) were in fact many more: even the whole month, with day 13, in particular, dedicated to the goddess Diana.

Now, today, Ferragosto is still celebrated in all of Italy as the festivities have been maintained for political reasons and have even taken on some religious significance as well. This is because August 15th is also when Roman Catholics celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven - the day when Catholics believe Mary ascended to heaven "body and soul" after the end of her life on earth. The Catholic Church decided, long after the era of Augustus to move their festivity to the 15th of August, thus allowing them to be included in the overall celebrations.

Colosseum Architecture

In the Colosseum during ancient times up to 50,000 spectators would be watching long games and Gladiatoral fights while they could be exposed to direct sunlight and uncomfortably dangerous hot weather conditions. Thus, ancient Rome's architects and engineers came up with a way to shade the seats of said spectators, with a large awning curtain called 'velarium' (Fig 8) It was affixed along the outer roofing rim of the great and storied building, as we can see here in this artistic rendition along with an accompanying diagram (Fig 9).


Colosseum Architecture

The Classical tradition of art in history

The classical tradition of art dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, where art was seen as the embodiment of the idealistic and rational world. The classical tradition continued during the Renaissance, where artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael celebrated classical art and architecture.

During the classical period, art was also seen as a medium for educating people about philosophy, history, and religion. Artists, therefore, used their skills to create pieces of art that embodied the values and beliefs of their society. Greek and Roman sculptures of gods, goddesses, and heroes, for example, were meant to inspire awe in the viewers and teach them moral lessons. Similarly, during the Renaissance, religious paintings and sculptures were used to teach people about the life of Christ and the teachings of the Bible.

If we look before the Renaissance, we can compare Classical art to medieval art that was prevalent in Europe during the Dark Ages. Medieval art was largely focused on religious themes, and the technique was characterized by flat compositions, minimal movement, and lack of perspective. In contrast, classical art emphasized realism, individuality, and perspective, and artists were encouraged to study nature more closely.

The classical tradition of art also influenced the development of architecture through out many periods, even the present. The Greek and Roman civilizations built structures like temples, amphitheaters, and aqueducts, which were designed to be functional, beautiful, and enduring. During the Renaissance, architects like Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Palladio studied classical architecture and incorporated its principles into their designs. The result was buildings that were aesthetically pleasing, proportionate, and harmonious.

Classical art continued to influence the art world throughout the modern period. Artists like Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau were known for their neoclassical paintings, which celebrated the classical ideals of beauty, order, and reason. In the 20th century, artists like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and René Magritte used classical themes and motifs in their works, but in a more abstract and modern way.

In conclusion, the classical tradition of art has played a significant role in the history of art, architecture, and culture. Its influence can still be seen in the works of contemporary artists and architects, and its ideals of beauty, order, and reason continue to inspire people around the world.

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