Roman art

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The Roman Art is a special, from the Romans created, finally alone, artistic expression, the other first from the assimilation of many art forms peoples around arisen around the Mediterranean. It peaked from the time of the birth of Christ to 400 years later.


The Roman art was based on the indigenous culture of the inhabitants of the western Mediterranean, the more kunstarm and sober culture of (Indo-European) Italians who in the 2nd millennium. And finally the Etruscans, whose culture was largely adopted by the Romans. Greek architecture , painting and sculpture served as models for all areas of Roman art .


For a long time, Roman architecture appeared as a copy of Greek architecture. Only at the end of the republic did it develop independently and enrich the Roman Mediterranean area with numerous building types:

  • Thermal baths - bath house with a dome over the water basin.
  • Temple - as a rectangular building a variant of a Greek temple, however not directionless, but axially aligned, with an open staircase and pillared vestibule on the front. Round temples like the Pantheon were built using a vaulted structure.
  • Theater - mostly laid out as an amphitheater with cross vaults (Greek amphi = two).
  • Triumphal arch - a short barrel vault was clad with (structurally unnecessary) columns and architraves .
  • Basilica - it served as a court or market hall and has a raised central nave with 2 or 4 side aisles , which were separated by rows of columns, and a semicircular apse . The basilical system was later used for church buildings.
  • Civil engineering - bridges, aqueducts (water pipes), viaducts , fortifications, roads.

Especially that in the 2nd century BC. Cast masonry introduced in the 4th century BC , in which only the outer wall shells were bricked, and the core with the so-called Roman concrete , a mixture of mortar and rubble with the Latin name opus caementitium ( opus for work or building and caementitium for aggregate or rubble stone) was poured out, gave ancient architecture almost unlimited possibilities not only for civil engineering. In this way, previously inaccessible building structures, multi-storey structures, any type of wall structure as well as wide-span barrel vaults and domes for large rooms without internal supports could be realized. Complexes such as the Imperial Baths ( Caracalla Baths and Diocletian's Baths ), palaces, villas and the dome of the Pantheon would be inconceivable without this technology. The use of marble lost its importance over time due to the newly won architectural freedom.

Construction and design

Little is known of buildings from earlier times. The large public buildings consisted of blocks that were joined without a mortar bond; In addition, a construction made of wood and air bricks was used for the private houses. Until the end of the republic, the mudbrick building was retained . In its place came in the last century BC the brick building together with marble or painted stucco as wall cladding. The Roman house with the previously usual axial sequence of entrance, atrium , tablinum and surrounding living spaces was built in the 1st century BC. Chr. Extended by Greek peristyle , exedra , loggias and several other decorative elements (e.g. sculptures, fountains, stone tables, wall paintings, garden plantings), which - for the first time in antiquity - formed a romantic composition. In the case of villas and palaces, structural and optical connections to the surrounding landscape satisfied the need for spatial expanse.

As in private houses, luxury also unfolded to an ever greater extent in public buildings. Stylistically, this period followed on from the Hellenistic architecture, but more freely designed, towards an independent arch and vault construction with round arches , Etruscan barrel vaults or groin vaults and huge domes ; that of the Pantheon in Rome reached a diameter of 43 m. In addition to the arches and domes, the Greek columns, beams and gables were retained because of the decorative effect, but the old structure was remodeled and expanded, and new elements such as the composite capital were created without regard to stylistic unity . If Etruscan elements (vaults) were used in the construction, the exterior was very much influenced by Greek architecture. Columns were often only used as a facade design or as a facing . The Tuscan column was a shorter form of the Doric , the composite capital combined Corinthian and Ionic elements. Other typical features of Roman architecture were the half-columns and pillars ( pilasters ), column arches and pillar arcades .

Public buildings and facilities

Augustus ushered in a period of major construction projects with the redesign of the then still free Campus Martius into an architectural splendor. The imperial palaces on the Palatine ( Domus Tiberiana ) followed; Nero's name stands for the huge structure of the Golden House and for the new construction of the city after the fire. The Colosseum was built in the time of Titus , and the new palace complex on the Palatine ( Domus Flavia , Domus Augustana ) was built during the Domitians . Under Trajan , the forum named after him was created with its upright column as the center. Hadrian created structures in and outside the city, of which the Villa Adriana near Tibur, with imitations of famous Greek and Egyptian buildings, is the most extensive. The buildings of Antoninus Pius and Marc Aurel complete the heyday of Roman architecture. However, even among the successors, the desire to build does not stop, as the huge complex of the Caracalla thermal baths and other large buildings, especially in the eastern provinces, are evidence of. From the time of Diocletian onwards , Roman architecture maintained its technical level, but in terms of design a decline set in, which, as for example with the Arch of Constantine , was expressed in the increasing use of what was already there. The same tendency shows the developing Christian architecture during this time.

By far the majority of the surviving structures are useful buildings, in which Roman architecture performed its main services, while temple construction receded. The temples are usually rectangular buildings consisting of the pillared, open pronaos and the closed cella . In addition to the rectangular, there are also round temples ( Pantheon , Vesta temple and Temple of Hercules Victor in Rome, Vesta temple in the city of Tivoli ). Only Hadrian's Temple of Venus and Roma on the Via Sacra in Rome externally shows the shape of a Greek directionless building with a ring hall and a multi-level surrounding substructure. The Roman temple, on the other hand, is clearly aligned axially. At the front, a wide flight of stairs leads to a podium with a pillared vestibule; behind it is the cella, which is only open to the front. On the flanks and the rear of the temple there were mostly only half columns. The forms and proportions of the building are based on the choice of column order (Doric-Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian). Most frequently the Corinthian order was used, the artistic design of which can be studied using examples from various times ( Mars-Ultor temple , columns from Aedes Castoris and from the temple of Vespasian and Titus at the Roman Forum , temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina, etc.) leaves. For the overall impression of the whole, the rich exterior and interior, designed in marble, granite or painted stucco, were of decisive importance.

Fresco from a villa in Boscoreale


see also: Roman wall painting

Greek painters did not only come to Etruria , but also to Rome. So have Damophilos and Gorgasus the 493 v. The temple of Ceres built in BC is decorated with wall paintings. The work of individual Greek painters in Rome is also passed down from the following centuries. However, because no works from this period have survived, nothing is known about the influence of their art on local painters.

Lost panel paintings

The situation was different from the time when Rome came into direct contact with Greek culture through its wars in the Orient. As with the plastic works, Rome now adorned itself with the masterpieces of the greatest Greek painters. As early as the 3rd century BC, panel paintings are attested that were carried on triumphal procession and displayed in public. According to the descriptions available, these were mainly folk history paintings that reported the triumphs of the generals, described the battles won and the countries conquered.

Panel and canvas paintings are completely lost, so that today's knowledge of Roman painting is based on the decorative wall paintings from Rome and especially on the frescos preserved by the ash layer from cities such as Pompeii and Herculaneum , which were buried by Vesuvius . Certainly there are copies of older panel paintings among them, but with this technique neither the coloring nor the details could be reproduced faithfully.

Decorative wall painting

Since the 1st century BC A new style developed for decorative painting on large wall surfaces. The whole wall was divided into differently decorated sections. The so-called First Style was content with imitating colored marble cladding. In the second style of Roman painting, architectural depictions with columns, beams and friezes were added, into which scenes were inserted based on famous models. This architectural style was in the 1st century BC. Very popular, and the painters increased its effect in the course of this development through illusion painting in the form of false windows, with which they gave the viewer the view of landscapes or contemporary gardens.

The mosaic flooding of the Nile from Praeneste

At the same time, another style emerged that treated the wall as a surface rather than breaking through it. In the middle of each wide wall field, either a small landscape or, more often, a graceful figure, an amazon or a member of the Arimaspen tribe , was depicted. Their harmonious lines combine with fantastic architectural elements, unreal columns, flags and curtains that delimit the field. Depending on the size of the architectural composition, a distinction is now made between a third and fourth style . The Golden House of Nero was adorned with third style paintings and low stucco reliefs. Renaissance artists admired the graceful figures, which they called grotesques because they had been discovered in underground vaults (grotta).

In terms of proportions , plasticity (light and shadow), perspective (vanishing point) and bluing principle ( spatial depth ), Roman painting was already of high quality.

Early Christian art began in the Western Roman style between 200 and 700 AD.


The decoration of Roman villas and palaces also included the mosaic , which Sulla had made known in Rome as a special genre of painting technique after his campaigns in Greece. The technique of creating patterns or pictures from many small pieces of stone or glass, including pieces of paper or fabric, reached its peak in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Decorative elements and figurative representations related to fresco painting initially spread like carpets on floors, later also on ceilings and walls. The number of motifs was almost unlimited; there are scenes from Greek mythology, everyday Roman life, or depictions of historical events such as the Battle of Alexander in Pompeii , others are in Delos . The colorful depictions of landscapes and nature from Pompeii and Praeneste are particularly attractive .

Roman sculpture

Most of the free sculptures created in Roman times are more or less free copies of Greek originals. Independent achievements of Roman art are statues and portrait busts created at the end of the republic . They differ from the Greek in their natural, soberly conceiving representation of reality; the associated individualization reached its peak under Augustus .

Public sculptures

In addition to private portraits, it was common in Rome early on to publicly display statues of deserving men. Statues and busts of the emperors were produced in innumerable quantities, whereby the emphasis naturally lay on an idealizing design.

But the simple individualization also had its place; in such portraits emperors were depicted in the peacetime costume , toga , or in armor, often on horseback or on the triumphal chariot . The most beautiful preserved work of this kind is the marble statue of Augustus in the Vatican . The famous equestrian statue of Marc Aurel on the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome also belongs to this category. In the course of the more and more clearly worked out individual characteristics, character portraits finally emerged in the 3rd century that are not afraid of distorting expression ( Caracalla ).

Historical reliefs

Late Hellenistic art also developed independently on Roman soil in the historical relief on public monuments, on triumphal arches and columns that glorified the Roman victories . This applies to both the content of the representation and the style, for which the strong elevation of the relief, the amount and compactness of the figures, the movement of the composition and the insertion of landscape motifs are characteristic.

Relief on the Trajan Column

The transition is erected in the 1st century, two-story cenotaph of Julier in Saint-Remy-de-Provence (southern France) with his big fight representations; it is the only surviving work of its kind from the time of Augustus. It is followed by the reliefs on the triumphal arch of Titus with the depictions of the apotheosis of the emperor and the triumph over Judea . Then the Trajan Column at the Roman Forum , the reliefs of which are spiraling around the entire shaft and depicting 2500 figures celebrate the Emperor's victory over the Dacians . A similarly figurative description, which relates to the Marcomann Wars and which is interesting because of the realistic, faithful representation of the Germanic peoples, adorns the Mark Aurelian column on the Piazza Colonna in Rome. The last, larger independent work of this kind, the Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus with the scenes from the campaigns on the Euphrates and Tigris , dates from the year 203. Already here, in the overload and lifelessness of the depiction, the traces of the beginning decay, which in the subsequent period progresses rapidly.

Private sculptures

In contrast to the public monuments, which perpetuate the historical events, the national-Roman element in the private sculptures receded strongly, especially in the later imperial period. Among them, at least in number, the grave monuments predominate . The great productivity of art can still be seen in the masses of preserved sarcophagi in the 3rd century. Most of these sarcophagi, however, are of mediocre quality in terms of art and craftsmanship, and artfully and carefully executed pieces are relatively rare.


(sorted chronologically)

  • Meyers Konversationslexikon . Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig / Vienna, 4th edition, 1885–1892, Volume 13, p. 971.
  • Pierre Grimal: Roman Cultural History . Droemersche Publishing House, Munich / Zurich 1961.
  • Meyer's Encyclopedic Lexicon . Bibliographical Institute, Mannheim / Vienna / Zurich 1973, Volume 20, p. 302.
  • Heinz Kähler: Art of the World. Rome and its empire. Baden-Baden 1979.
  • OJ Brendel: Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art , New Haven / London 1979; German: What is Roman art? , Cologne 1990.
  • Wilfried Koch: Architectural style . Bassermann Verlag / Bertelsmann Lexikon Verlag, Gütersloh / Munich 1998, ISBN 3-8094-5007-3 .
  • Nancy H. Ramage, Andrew Ramage: Roman Art. From Romulus to Constantine. Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft, Cologne 1999, ISBN 3-8290-1720-0 .
  • Paul Zanker: The Roman Art , Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-406-54688-4 .
  • Bernard Andreae : Roman art from Augustus to Constantine. Philipp von Zabern, Darmstadt / Mainz 2012, ISBN 978-3-8053-4191-2 .

See also