Art of the Roman Empire






During the reign of the Antonines. society was more prosperous and content than ever before. In particular, the reign of Marcus Aurelias marked the peak of ancient civilization as well as the beginning of its end. The orator Aelius Aristides commented on the universal benefits brought about by Roman rule yet sought in vain a vestige of personal happiness through mystical remedies. The government's authoritarian actions, though far-sighted and efficient, left a spiritual void. In the reliefs on the Antonine Column, begun by Commodus after his father's death in ad180, the Romans continued their disciplined offensive against the world but they were troubled by the irrational. Faith in the Olympian divinities was questioned. In comparison with Trajan's Column, fewer and shorter sacrificial scenes are shown. In the former, the appearance of Jupiter was enough to encourage the army. Now the earthly results of divine intervention must be shown - such as the thunderbolt that sets on fire a war engine close to the fort sheltering the emperor. When the thirstv Romans were saved by a rainstorm, the cloud assumed the guise of a terrifying old man, who stretched his enormous wings over the enemy hosts to wash them away. Such a miracle could be attributed to the prayers of the Christians, many of whom now marched with the legions. In addressing the troops the Emperor stands on a tall
podium between two generals. Crushed by the repetitive burdens of service, the figures of soldiers lack variety in individual features and spontaneous gestures. The same faces are seen in the marches of soldiers fatigued by the constant readiness for battle. Whereas the frieze on the Trajan Column held minute details that could be read from surrounding balconies, everything on the Antonine column had to be viewed from below, so the illustrated narrative band was larger, the separation of the episodes was clearly defined, and the figures were taller and stood out against the landscape, which was no more than conventional map markings. There was no more place for mercy towards an enemy. Hence countless images of defeated, humiliated, and slain barbarians with the spears, swords, and even the feet of the Romans immobilizing the barbarians in an effort to exorcize their growing threat.

Stone relief work from the base of the Antonine Column depicts the
military parade that marked the cremation of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius.
Marcus Aurelius erected the monument in honor of Antoninus,
whom he had succeeded as emperor in 161ad


Detail of the Antonine Column, Rome.
Here Marcus Aurelius addresses the army during the war against the Quadi


Detail of the Antonine Column, Rome.
In this section, German nobles are decapitated in the presence of the army



Marcus Aurelius

Rome's system of adoption, which produced the most enlightened rulers the Western world has ever seen, was celebrated by Marcus Aurelius (AD161-180) in the frieze of the Parthian monument built at Ephesus in memory of Lucius Verus. who died prematurely in ad169. One panel portrays three generations of the family, with Hadrian on the right. Antoninus Pius in the centre, his hand on the shoulder of the young Lucius Verus and, on the left, Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian's Neo-Hellenic features are reminiscent of the sad funerary groups of Attic stelae, which were used to bring humanity to the imperial message. In a display of theoretical speculation allied to Roman pragmatism, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius combined meditation with military action, defending the Danubian frontiers in person. Equally, the figurative art in canings that illustrate his ritual activities (such as those kept in the Palazzo dei Conseivatori and others re-used in the Arch of Constantine) reveal a variety of subjects illustrating Roman custom: merciful treatment of the defeated enemy; triumph and sacrifice to the gods; return from war; purification of the army; investiture of a foreign prince; address to the troops; presentation of prisoners; surrender of barbarian chiefs; donation of gifts to the people; and departure of a new-expedition. These are the peaceable images of the twilight of the dynasty.



Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (before restoration), bronze.
Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome


In this bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius. the emperor's features powerfully convey his strong personality and his disposition for abstract thought. The face is elongated, making him resemble his son Commodus. who was represented together with his father in the equestrian group on the latter's death in ad180. The maker of the statue used the bold, simplifying technique that is commonly found on tombs: rounded, juxtaposed geometric forms and regular planes, taking inspiration from Greek models. Hellenic influence is also evident in the beard, which radiates evenly from the clean shape of the face. A solid, archaic structure emphasized the sanctity of the subject. The impassioned tone of the images of the Antonines is also felt in the dynamic tension. The facial features are defined by light. Preserved for eternity in his philosophical pose (ethos), he returns to the living world to extend his hand to his son who rode alongside. Marcus Aurelius is now remembered particularly for his twelve books of Meditations, in which he records his Stoic-views on life.


Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (before restoration), bronze.
Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome





On the death of Antoninus Pius (ad161), his sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus dedicated a column to him. The shaft was a monolith of granite measuring almost 15 metres (50 feet) in height, surmounted by a statue of the divine Emperor. All that remains of the column is the carved base with the inscription and scene of the apotheosis. The scene is set by the goddess Roma, who wears a helmet and is sitting by a pile of weapons, and opposite the personification of the Roman people, significantly linked by the left arm to the obelisk of Octavian from the Campus Martius - the place where the funeral pyre was set and where the column itself would be raised. Gathered together in memory of the first Augustus who was buried there, the inhabitants of Rome pay their last respects to the dead emperor. The people look forward, as if to their glorious and lasting destiny, to Aion (eternity), which in the form of a winged guardian spirit bears Antoninus and his wife Faustina (died ad141) up to heaven. The flying figure, associated with the revival of the Golden Age. assumes the guise of a cosmic deity. The spirit of the world is represented by the sphere in the youth's left hand and symbolizes the universality of imperial rule. Only the busts of the two rulers, seated side by side with their sceptres, are shown, as was funerary custom; this detail would have made the solemn deification scene familiar to the eyes of the citizens. A pair of eagles in flight complete the work.


Apotheosis of Antoninus and Faustina,
from the base of the Column of Antoninus in fhe Campus Martius (now Piazza di Montecitorio), Home.
Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City





Marcus was succeeded by his son Commodus, whose reign (AD180-192) saw the empire drop its offensive policy in favour of a defensive stance. The philosophical soliloquies of Marcus Aurelius ended the period of rational search for truth. Art now broke the structural bonds of classical composition as humanity entrusted itself increasingly to mysticism. Until then, Rome had borne the banner of Greek tradition, remaining faithful to the models of classicism and Hellenism. After the Danubian wars and the plague that killed the emperor, the new avant-garde threw off the fetters of convention and embarked on a course of ideological discover)' that would bring about radical changes in culture and customs and hasten the end of Greek influence.


Allegorical group representing imperial succession through adoption,
from the Parthian Monument Ephesus.
From right: Hadrian, Lucius Verus, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna



side figure of a group with Commodus as Hercules,
from the Esquiline.
Palazzo del Conservatori, Rome

head affixed in ancient limes to the statue of Hercules Resting,
copy of the Lysippos statue, from the Palatine in Rome.
Palazzo Pitti, Florence


Compared with the equestrian figure of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio, the portraits of Commodus are more human and intimate. The harmony of naturalism and formal style is nowhere better evident than in the final bust of the emperor (ad192), which is displayed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Never have the signs of alcoholism been portrayed in so noble a setting: the wasted cheeks, bags under the eyes, and heavy eyelids partly hiding the watery, unfocused eyes.
In Storia Augusta, one senatorial historian described the emperor as having the stupid face of a drunkard but, in fact, these features are allusions to the watery gaze of Alexander and to Dionvsian inebriation. The individual depicted no longer shows any distinction between the human and the divine, the solidity of sculpture and the light of painting. The beard and hair, ruffled by shadows, encircle the smooth skin of the face set in its waxy pallor. The various attributes of the bust differ in their treatment. Commodus, the "Roman Hercules", like his Macedonian predecessor, is dressed in the hide of the Nemean lion — Alexander the Great had also been depicted as Herakles. Drapery billows around the emperor's head, lending it flashes of light and shade. The bust stands on a plinth, concealed at the front by carved marble decoration. The whole work balances on the heavenly sphere (another reminder of the ideology of Alexander), on which sits the pelta, the characteristic-shield of the Asiatic people, and the double horn of plenty, a symbol of prosperity in the Ptolemaic kingdom, and thus a reminder of Africa. The western boundary of the empire is represented by the apples of the Hesperides (mythical islands at the western extreme of the world) in the sovereign's left hand.
Carrying a club on his shoulder, the hero who has completed his deeds, introduces mankind to the "Commodian" golden age. The Amazons flanking the trophy illustrate the epithet Amazonius, adopted by the Emperor. It was as an Amazon that he dressed his lover Marcia. who now plotted his death.

Commodus as Hercules,
bust from the Esquiline.
Palazzo del Conservatori, Rome

Detail of the bust of Hercules
showing the marble decoration
that masks the plinth of the bust



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