Art of the Roman Empire





Caracallaand the Last of the Severans

Rome's independence from the Hellenic world led to a bewildering modernity and experimentation. In contrast to the almost mystic ambiguity of his father, Caracalla (ad211-217) saw himself in terms of an earthy solidity which led to a new definition of heroism. Just as the tide of classicism swept away the distinctive features of the emperors, so it charged everyone with their own destiny - Caracalla's most famous measure, the Constitutio Antoniniana de Civitate introduced in ad212, had given Roman citizenship to all inhabitants of the empire. The new sense of universality surged irrationally from the depths of the individual, almost in denial of the ideal of virtue. As innovations in style renounced traditional aesthetic sensibilities, so they tended to acclaim violence. The signs of mental disturbance, which in the youthful portraits of Caracalla (who killed his brother Geta in ad212) were masked by convention, later became dramatically evident. Biographers claimed that the representation of the emperor with his neck twisted to the left was an intentional reference to Alexander the Great, with whom Caracalla strongly identified, but in some surviving sculptures this movement distorts the subject in a way that is unprecedented in such images of power. The severity of the features banishes any hint of spirituality, while the contraction of the facial muscles and the brow seen in later examples combine to produce a surly and forbidding expression, which seems to probe the very depths of the brutality of fratricide. In this "new Romulus" there is a feeling of menace that could be generated at will towards internal and external enemies of the regime. Such emotional intensity, veering from light to shadowy darkness, was never attained by classical sculptors. Under Caracalla and his successors, the reliance on inner feelings, alternated with irrational outbursts, became characteristic in both art and politics. For many, actions were valued more than words, and experiences counted more than a yearning for the ideal. This was reflected in sculpture and painting, which adopted forms, expressions, and styles drawn directly from reality. During the reigns of Caracalla, Elagabalus (ad218-222). and Alexander Severus (ad222-225). the art of floor mosaics produced by master-craftsmen and generally in polychrome, was extended to the African regions. In place of mythological themes, emphasis was now placed on contemporary life, with scenes from the amphitheatre and the circus, and of hunts in natural surroundings. Interest in the subject arose from the economic importance to North Africa of the export of wild animals destined for the circuses of Rome and other cities. Man's struggle with the forces of nature was revived from antiquity via Oriental cultures. In a mosaic from Hadrumetum (modern-day Sousse in Tunisia), four bestiarii (gladiators) bring down deer, ostriches, antelopes, and wild horses. The desire for realism extended to the authentic portrayal of heroes of the age. The venatores (hunters) of Hadrumetum vary in age and model different hairstyles; the figures wear a variety of richly embroidered tunics, and carry an assortment of weapons. The medium of the mosaic translated the glowing naturalism of a painting into solid materials and served to perpetuate the solid presence of the empire. In funerary sculpture every detail of a face was carefully reproduced, as were the objects or symbols that defined the personality or status of the dead individual. Death exceeded the aspirations of life, offering a freedom that extended beyond the realms of public activity. Recorded in images and inscriptions on luxurious tombs and modest stelae are the achievements of countless unknown citizens, whether bride or widow, drinker or sage, teacher, scholar, musician, or struggling poet. Tomb portraits were often characterized by symbolic and mythical motifs, which registered the social importance of the departed rather than just the individual nature, addressing the dilemma of human existence at the moment of its extinction. Document of a people and mirror of a society, the cold stone revealed the epic stories of everyday life, the activities of the innumerable farmers, artisans, merchants, and soldiers who helped to run the eternal empire.


House of the Vestal Virgins in Rome.
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome

Septimius Severus

Helvius Pertinax, successor to Commodus, was killed by the Praetorian Guard after a reign of three months; he was, in turn, succeeded by Septimius Severus (ad193-211). Of African origin, Septimius added foreign gods to the Olympian divinities, even identifying himself with the Egyptian Serapis. Most portraits of him show the curly hair of the deity flowing down over his forehead. In Leptis Magna, where Septimius was born, a four-sided arch decorated with reliefs launched the dynastic programme that was to substitute continuity for adoption. The monument owes its coherence to the work of sculptors from Aphrodisias. The surface is covered with ornate decoration in the same techniques as the narrative panels, namely with deeply drilled holes and grooves. Two sections show the procession staged for the ten-year celebration of the reign, while the others show the agreement between the father and the sons (Caracalla and Geta) designated to assume power, and the religious devotion of the family in a sacrificial scene.



Capitoline Museum, Rome
(formerly Albani Collection)


Having successfully commanded armies all over the empire in his youth, Probus — born at Sirmio in Pannonia (Balkans) -was proclaimed emperor in ad276. An important aspect of his policy was to increase agricultural production, and he made use of legionaries for reclamation work and civil duties. When announcing his plan to assimilate barbarians into the empire. Probus declared, "Soon there will be no need for soldiers". A colossal head in the Capitoline Museum shows the upright posture and direct gaze of a man "worthy of the name he bears" (Storia Augusta). The symmetrical wrinkles on his forehead, the sunken eyes, sharp nose, and pursed mouth with furrows on either sicie are sculpted simply, as if on a wooden mask: neat, separate incisions are used for the short haircut. The realism of the asymmetric eyebrows stands out in the solemn squareness of the face. Lines take precedence over modelling, while contours compress volume. The calm, steadfast expression suggests that the imperial crisis has abated - a short-lived dream - and that all anxieties are now dispelled. The emperor conformed to the ancient model of farmer and settler and planted vines with his own hands when he returned with his army to his homeland. The bust perpetuates the story of the soldier from the frontier, who rose to be emperor. His policy, based on the need for justice and peace, became a programme of universal government.





During the reign of Gordian III (ad238-244), the city offices of works created sarcophagi of high quality and originality. The relaxed articulation of space progressed after a brief interval during Caracalla's rule. New techniques heralded a break with academic tradition. The anatomy of heroic figures surpassed that of Greek models; expressionism took on visionary proportions; and drapes and inanimate objects increased in number and significance. The stylization of the obsessively carved detail gave the whole work a metaphysical coherence: the manes of the horses tamed by Castor and Pollux on one sarcophagus from the Appian Way might have inspired the steeds of the 20th-century Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. In April ad248, Philip the Arabian (ad244-249) celebrated the first millennium of Rome.

Sarcophagus with column decoration depicting a married coupie,
with Castor and Pollux at the sides taming horses.
Via Appia. Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome





(Front and details of the Ludovisi Sarcophagus, showing a battle between the barbarians and the Romans under the command of Erennius Etruscus,
son of the Emperor Declus, outside Porta San Lorenzo, Rome. Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome)





Carved from an exceptionally large single block, the Ludovisi Sarcophagus measures 2.75 metres (9 feet) wide, 1.55 metres (5 feet) high and 1.4 metres (4,5 feet) deep. The monument honours Erennius Etruscus, who died with his father Decius at the battle of Abritto (modern-day Razgrad in Bulgaria) against the Goths (ad251).
The image of the general is known from coins and portraits, one of which, in the Capitoline Museum, has the mark of an initiate of the Mithras cult. Judging by the female bust on the lid. his mother Etruscilla was also laid in the sarcophagus. The dense carving of the relief and the extension to all four sides of the tomb of the battle scene, which teems so thickly with figures as to negate the background, are without precedent. The manner in which the frieze develops upwards, as seen on the panels of the arch constructed by Septimius Severus, reveals an affinity with triumphal paintings. The same method was also used by the Baroque painter Pietro da Cortona in his painting of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge (Palazzo dei Conservatori). The figures are arranged along a diagonal line running from the lower left-hand corner, thus separating the two military formations. Rooted in the Stoic acceptance of the passions that disturb the world's equilibrium, universal Greek art and public Roman art are combined in a stirring vision of individual destiny. The clash of opposing armies reflects the duels of classical tradition, but here it is disfigured by cruelty, as testified by the wounded. The single combatants and the soldiers in their formations are portrayed with unsparing realism and yet assume symbolic value: the two large foot-soldiers in the left foreground declare the solidity of the Roman front which has broken the enemy onslaught. In the triangle on the right-hand side, the horde of defeated barbarians have been trampled by the victors into a small space, their distorted limbs locked together in agony. Their drapery seems to shudder in unison with the writhing bodies and their faces resemble theatrical masks of terror and suffering. Above, the line of horses from the left flank advances on the exposed flank to capture the survivors. The battle is over and prisoners are being taken. A legionary drags a bound old man by the beard, while two more at the sides raise trophies, and yet another delivers the coup de grace to a fallen foe. Amid the frenzy of slaughter and barbarian despair, the light moves rhythmically, giving shape to forms and distances, coordinating events, sending a vibrant wave across the heap of corpses, and announcing the turbulent advance of the horsemen. Roman sculpture and relief was generally coloured and this scene would have been even more stunning when the trumpets, weapons, and armour glittered among the purple and blue cloaks. The young hero stands bareheaded and alone in the centre; with an imperial gesture and distant gaze, lie contemplates his destiny as the eternal conqueror. Transcending everything is the pervading idea of victory as the reason for this dark slaughter.



 from the House of the Vestal Virgins, Rome.
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome


Portraits of the Emperor Gallienus (ad260-268) show-great mastery. In his final years, the image of the Emperor lost the descriptive detail and nervous contraction of the face. The new image had a Hellenic element introduced by artists from Athens who had immigrated to Rome after the city was sacked by the Goths in ad267. Tonal nuances were achieved by the contrast of diffused light on the skin with the rough beard in a rare effect of abstraction quite in contrast to the faces of Hadrian and the Antonines. The upward glance, with the iris partly covered by the eyelid, expresses the mystical side of power and suggests the influence of the philosopher and teacher Plotinus and Neo-Platonist philosophy, which stimulated the desire for religious and moral reforms.



Aurelian (ad270-275) restored the unity of the empire, which had been threatened by widespread uprisings both in the west and east. He eliminated the remaining powers of the Senate, and invested himself as god and lord (dens el dominus) of the universe. The destruction of Athens led him to use the military-style architecture of the border provinces for Rome. The city, which in the time of Augustus had expanded in the knowledge that it was secure, was now encircled by turreted brick walls that still remain impressive to this day.



As architecture reached dizzy heights of grandeur, allegorical ornamentation reflected the apparent stability of the empire. Diocletian's reforms brought new respectability to the administrative, political, and moral institutions of the state. They transformed citizens into subjects who were bound by strict discipline, and taxes were introduced to fund the army, repairs to public works, and the construction of grand public buildings. The pyramid of power set tip by the Tetrarchy (the rule by four emperors), reproduced the court of Rome in its new centres of residence: Treviri, Nicomedia, Sirmio, and Milan. The provinces were divided and then grouped into dioceses, and this system was extended to Italy itself. Diocletian (ad285-305), building upon the theocratic ideas of Aurelian, explicitly incorporated within the immense walls of his new monuments signs of the divine power with which he believed the empire to be invested. The largest baths ever built in Rome were dedicated to Jupiter, king of the gods and guardian deity of Diocletian -who adopted the divine surname Jovius. In Milan, the baths took the name of Hercules by order of Maximian, to commemorate his protector. The colossus of Hercules at rest (a fragment of which survives in the Archaeological Museum in Milan) was the centrepiece of the decoration. Diocletian retired to a magnificent palace at Salona, on the edge of the Adriatic ("modern-day Split in Croatia), built like a military camp with polygonal gate-towers, which served as the model for the castle of the Mount of Frederick II on the opposite shore of the Adriatic.


Glass cup depicting the death of Lycurgus.
British Museum London
(formerly Rothschild Collection)



The statues of Tetrarchs (c.ad300) - now immured in St. Mark's basilica in Venice -added a new dimension to the traditional working of porphryry, mined in Egypt at Mons Porphyrites and worked at Alexandria. In the classical style, stone was used exclusiveiy for images of gods or rulers and the St Mark's sculptures combine the two privileged subject types in a metaphor of theocracy. This very hard rock symbolized the primordial essence of sculpture. The three-dimensional mass retains its original weight and character and embraces the rounded figures in a symmetrical, compact group. The faces, aligned vertically, wear the same stiff expression. with a touch of abstraction that prevents any natural variety. The divine nature of the emperors has transformed them into icons with the same surreal look; the gaze is fixed, with prominent eyes, surrounded by a curve accentuated by the brows. Yet for all the facial impassivity and cool formality of the military dress, there is a sense of warm solidarity in the unusual, embracing poses of these imperial figures. Diocletian, Maximianus, Constantius Chlorus, and Galerius stand side by side in their would-be concord like pillars of a iving tetrapylon. The Tetrarchs affirm the natural beauty of the four elements, the four seasons, and the division of the heavens. In this indestructible block, material and form, structure and function are rooted in the belief that the divine manifests itself on earth through dynastic rulers. The arrival of the August! in Milan (ad290) was hailed as the "visible and present" manifestation of Jove; and Herakles was no longer a stranger in Italy, being embodied by Maximianus. The emperor, "born of god", was, in his turn, the "creator of gods" through his creation of a Caesar, He belonged to a superior world, where harmony reigned and where reforms could bring transcendent order to worldly confusion.

The Tetrarchs,
exterior of St Mark's basilica,

Maxentius and Constantine

Struggles for the succession brought about the dissolution of the system of the Tetrarchy. Maxentius (ad306-312) revived the myth of Rome's foundation and restored the city as the central seat of power. He enlarged the House of Augustus on the Palatine (and was the last emperor to live there), and built on the Appian Way a dynastic complex comprising palace, circus, and the mausoleum of his son Romulus, which in its Pantheon-like form celebrates the immortal memory of Rome's founder. Constantine the Great (ad306-337), who defeated Maxentius at the gates of Rome, had his dreams of a universal monarchy fulfilled in ad313 through the grace of the Christian God - he was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. In the colossal head from the Basilica Nova (built by Maxentius) his despotic nature is underlined in the strong chin, furrowed cheeks, and irregular nose. In contrast to the portraits of Caracalla, Constantine's heroism attains divine majesty in an image that is marked by pride, solemnity, and detachment. The eyes are abnormally large and the wrinkled forehead denotes fixed concentration. The fringe of hair, reminiscent of Trajan's military haircut, is more compact, tracing the line of the weighty crown worn by the emperor. The victory of Constantine over Licinius in Thrace (ad324) was represented allegorically through the death of Lycurgus,
the avowed enemy of Dionysius. The scene is shown on a glass cup in the British Museum, with Lycurgus being overcome by vine shoots. The addition of small quantities of gold and silver to the glass produces a transformation, from green to red, in the transparent colour of the vessel when light shines through it. The achievement of bright colours on such a thick medium implies workmanship of great virtuosity, and suggests that this traditional material was deliberately chosen by the emperor. From the birth of the empire, the technique of glass-blowing made it possible to produce glass that was absolutely pure, easy to handle, capable of being moulded with maximum speed into a variety of shapes, and which lent itself to engraved decoration. The cost-effective production, with an organization that paralleled modern industry, meant that glassware was widely exported and came to characterize material culture. From the capitals of the Tetrarchy to Cologne, Alexandria, and Syria spread techniques of glass manufacture originally used in cameos, namely exquisitely carved "cage cups" (diatreta vasa). In recognition of the need to free his policies from class-ridden conservatism and to pave the way towards a new Europe, Constantine took the following measures: he founded Constantinople or "New Rome" (ad325); he was present as Emperor at the Council of Nicaea (which earned him the description of the "thirteenth apostle''); he reformed the coinage with Christian symbols; he undertook to tie farmers to the land; he permitted the large-scale entry of barbarians into the army; and he accorded privileges to the army under the direct control of the sovereign (comitatentes) in comparison with the border troops (limitanei).

Colossal head of Constantine Basilica of Maxentius, Rome.
Capitoline Museum. Rome



Crispus, later renamed Caesar by his father, Constantine, lived at Treviri from ad316 until ad326, when his villa was razed to the ground to make way for the construction of a church. Fragments of a ceiling fresco from a reception room, painted in about ad321, have been retrieved, carefully restored, and are displayed in the Diocesan museum of Treviri. The church was erected in atonement after Crispus was exiled to Pola for committing incest with his stepmother Fausta. who was killed soon afterwards. The coffers in the fresco contain pairs of cupids who are playing with symbols of power (a prophetic allusion). These figures alternate with portraits of two pedagogues (one of whom may be Lattantius, the Christian writer of African origin) and of the imperial women, who are distinguished by a circular halo of light. Constantia, half-sister to Constantine, takes a pearl necklace from a jewellery box; Helena, wife of Crispus, plays the lyre as a Muse; Flavia Helena, Constantine's mother, in the centre of the fresco, is represented as Juno, holding a golden bowl in her left hand and raising a veil with her right hand; finally, Maxima Fausta, wife of Constantine and instigator of the fatal love affair, is depicted as Aphrodite gazing at herself in a mirror. The face of Crispus himself is removed as part of his "damnatio memoriae".

Painted ceiling from the palace of Crispus at Treviri depicting princes
of the second Flavian dynasty, relations of Constantine.
Museo Diocesano, Treviri


Funerary stela of Publius Clodius.
Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn


In the frontier regions, away from the city with its elegant busts, artists produced powerful portraits, modifying the Hellenistic interpretation of the classical style and providing models for later European art. A particular form of 15th-century Flemish painting, for example, derived inspiration from the art of the Roman provinces. Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Boy exhibits certain features - the cutting off of the bust, the inscription, the scroll in the hand, and a kind of fluted drapery — that show a clear link with Rhenish stelae of the imperial age. For a thousand years, the incomplete dream of the empire continued to find expression, not so much on an official level, convulsed by military defeat, economic collapse, and invasions, but in lesser parts of society. The variation between the Italic-provincial style and the centralized form of propaganda art was reflected during the medieval age in the contrast of "everyday" art and the aristocratic art that was typical of the intermittent phases of revival (Carolingian. Ottoman. Frederican, and Burgundian). In the Roman imperial age. the most truly authentic art had from the start been found in the provinces, where it did not have to suffer comparison with courtly models, and where, both in the colonial settlements and the army, the plebeian class were in the majority. The quantity and durability of Roman provincial artefacts inspired the architecture and decorative arts of Christian Europe in its many forms, from Romanesque to Gothic, culminating in the Renaissance. Many of the elements that contributed to these styles and that appeared to be novelties in Italy were actually born from these peripheral aspects of Italic art. The so-called "French" style was, in fact, "antique" in that it was a steady uninterrupted development of the popular art of the Roman age. but from beyond the Alps. It differs from the antique style of the Italian Renaissance, which was modelled on a revival of Roman urban art, similar to the styles that evolved around the centres of royal power during the previous periods of cultural renaissance.



The Christian Empire

The monogram of Christ was the ultimate unifying symbol of the empire, which pursued its course with renewed faith in its eternal future. The dynastic role was exaggerated by Constantine's son, Constantine II (au337-361). who isolated himself from his subjects in a court that was indifferent to the pressing needs of the moment. Ammianus Marcellinus described the emperor's entry into Rome (ad357): "He stared ahead so fixedly that he seemed to be wearing an iron collar round his neck, moving his head neither to the right nor the left, so that he appeared not so much a person as an icon." In a colossal bronze of the emperor, now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, the forehead is concealed by an archaic skullcap of hair. The reign of Julian (ad36 1-363) was marked by a desperate attempt by the senatorial class to revive the cult of polytheism. A portrait statue in Paris shows the emperor wearing a sheathed beard and cloak, resembling a Greek scholar. The link between imperial authority and the army was reinforced by Jovian (ad363-364) and the two succeeding Augusti who co-ruled the empire, Valentinian I (ad364-375. west) and Valens (ad364— 378, east). Gratian (ad367-383), son of Valentinian, shared office with his father and uncle during part of his reign. A portrait, discovered at Trevisi, shows a return to the vision of the Christian emperor and to the figures of Constantine's descendants, with a revival of former motifs from Caracalla to the Tetrarchs. This retrospective trend prevailed in luxury items such as ivory diptychs and jewellery produced for the court. The base of the obelisk erected by Theodosius (ad379-395) in the hippodrome of Constantinople, shows the imperial family surrounded by high dignitaries in the presence of the public, while the barbarians prostrate themselves in submission. On the death of Theodosius, his sons Arcadius and Honorius formally divided the kingdom, into east and west. It was a total partition without either claiming supremacy and proved definitive as each empire hereafter pursued a separate and independent course.

Relief portraying Constantine's speech in the Roman Forum, Arch of Constantine, Rome.
The arch was built in ad313 in honour of the emperor after victory over
his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy