Roman sculpture was a unique adaptation of Etruscan and Greek styles that developed over several hundred years. The earliest sculptures found in Rome were made by local Etruscan artists who worked in Rome from 500 B.C. or even earlier. Then, from about 200 B.C., as Rome conquered the Mediterranean world, Romans began to adopt many aspects of Greek culture. Greek sculpture became increasingly popular in Rome. By about 100 B.C., the blending of Etruscan and Greek styles had led to a uniquely Roman style of sculpture.
Sculptors in Rome worked with a variety of materials, including clay, bronze, precious metals, marble, and other types of stone. Most of the surviving works are made of marble, so this material is most often associated with Roman sculpture. In addition to utilizing many different materials, Roman sculpture also took on several forms, the most common being statues, reliefs, and busts*.
* bust statue showing only the head, neck, and shoulders of the subject
Large statues generally showed the complete figure. Because subjects were usually important leaders or gods, using the full figure of the subject enabled sculptors to erect impressive and majestic works. Relief sculptures, which are raised pictures carved on a flat surface, were another prevalent Roman form. Reliefs were often used to adorn temples and monuments. The bust also became an important form, but unlike the glorifying statue, it captured a more intimate, realistic portrait of its subject.
Sculpture served a variety of purposes in Rome. One of the most common was to commemorate particular individuals. These works were known as portraits. Sculpture was also used for religious reasons. Sculptures were created to honor the gods and to decorate their temples. Public buildings, private homes and gardens, and sarcophagi* were also decorated with sculptures. In addition, sculptures depicting the deeds of Roman emperors and the victories of the Roman army were displayed on public monuments in order to show the glory of Rome and generate a sense of patriotism in its citizens.
Greek Influence. Rome’s increasing contact with the Greek world after about 200 B.C. led to a rapidly growing Roman market for Greek sculpture. At first, Greek statues arrived in Rome as booty*. Then, when plundering* could no longer keep up with the growing demand for Greek sculpture, new works were created specifically for the Roman market. Starting in the 100s B.C., Greek sculptors came to Rome in large numbers. They were hired by wealthy Romans to make copies of Greek originals and to create new works in the Greek style. Many of the new works these artists created were a blend of different styles drawn from the history of Greek sculpture.
The Greek influence on Roman sculpture reached its peak under Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. Augustus turned Rome into a city of marble. During his reign, magnificent new buildings were erected, and these were heavily decorated with sculptures. Through the choice of subjects and the ways in which they were portrayed, the sculptures expressed Augustus’s ideals—victory, peace, security, prosperity, and the rule of law. Although the sculptures of the Augustan age represent Roman subjects and express Roman ideals, they were clearly modeled on earlier Greek works. Especially popular as models were sculptures from Athens and Pergamum, which were noted for their impressive sculptures throughout the ancient world.
After Augustus, the Greek influence on Roman sculpture declined. However, there were several revivals of the Greek style, including a major one during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. Like Augustus before him, Hadrian was a great patron* of the arts and his artistic tastes strongly favored the Greek styles. During his rule, Roman sculptures once again followed Greek models.
The Roman Style. Despite the strong Greek influence, the Etruscan roots survived in Roman sculpture, giving it a distinctive style. Compared to Greek sculpture, the Roman style that evolved differed in several important ways. Roman sculpture usually depicted historical events, especially military victories, whereas Greek sculpture usually portrayed myths. Roman sculpture paid greater attention to particular details, especially with regard to historical events, individuals, and even costumes. On the other hand, in Rome, there was much less concern with the representation of the body a feature that was very important to the Greeks.
* sarcophagi ornamental coffins, usually made of stone
* booty riches or property gained through conquest
* plunder to steal property by force, usually after a conquest
* patron special guardian, protector or supporter
In the A.D. 100s and 200s, well-to- do persons throughout the empire began to purchase carved marble sarcophagi to house the bodies of their deceased inside the tomb. Craftsmen specializing in this work could be found in many of the larger cities of the empire, especially in Asia Minor near the marble quarries from which semifinished sarcophagi were shipped. One of the finest surviving Roman sarcophagi of the period is the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus. It depicts a battle scene between the Romans and a barbarian tribe. The relief seems bursting with figures struggling in a space so small that their bodies have no room to move. The patterns of curly- headed men and horses' manes seem intertwined. A triumphant Roman leader is seen rising above the combat, his body facing front with his right arm outstretched. Historians have identified him as Hostilianus, a young prince whose reign lasted only two brief years.
Relief Sculpture. One of the most distinctive forms of Roman sculpture was the relief. Roman sculptors used Greek techniques at first, but then developed their own. The techniques they developed produced the distinguishing features of Roman relief sculpture. For example, they repeated images in order to make events clearer, and they made important figures larger and faced these toward the front to give them greater prominence. The Romans also were fascinated with descriptive detail.
The marble relief from the Tomb of the Haterii, crafted between A.D. 100 and A.D. 110, shows the Roman interest in the magical power of detail. The relief represents a number of different places, spaces, and moments in time within the same frame. In the upper right corner, the deceased lady of the house participates—as if alive—in her own funeral feast. At her feet are some children playing and the stooped figure of an old woman tending an altar fire. This scene is placed on top of a large and ornate temple-like building, thought to be the tomb where the woman and her family were buried. The building is decorated on one side with the busts of three children and on the front with the bust of a woman. To the left of the tomb is a third scene, consisting of a gigantic crane and a huge wheel being operated by a construction crew. This was probably a sign that the family was in the construction business. All three scenes are fitted very closely together in a way that differed from the style of Greek relief. However, this representation suited the Romans’ desire for including lots of detail and for telling a family’s story by covering a number of times and places.
Roman relief sculpture reached its peak with the Column of Trajan, which the emperor Trajan built in Rome around A.D. 110. Wrapped around the shaft of the column for hundreds of feet are about 100 distinct scenes that tell the story of Trajan’s military campaigns. The highly detailed scenes show Roman soldiers marching, building, and fighting. Furthermore, Trajan was made the focus in almost every scene.
Individual Portraits. Another distinctive form of Roman sculpture was the individual portrait, which usually took the form of the bust. Portraits were first developed around 100 B.C. and used to honor important state officials. Unlike Greek portraits, which show the subject in a very favorable and often unrealistic way, Roman portraits tended to focus on the subjects’ most distinguishing features. In fact, they were such realistic and honest portrayals of the subjects that they sometimes seemed harsh and unattractive. Even the style of carving is harsh, with sharp ridges and lines. All the attention was given to the head. The draped shoulders seem more like a prop than a part of the body. Under Augustus, idealized portraits were done, modeled on those in Greece, but realistic Roman portraits reappeared under later emperors. (See also Sculpture, Greek.)