It is well known that ancient Rome was one of the biggest empires to have ever existed in human history. For this reason, the topic of ancient Roman art becomes far broader than one might expect it to be, since it involves observing traditional art practiced for over 1000 years across the vast regions of Africa, Asia and Europe. The earliest recognizable pieces of ancient Roman art date back even beyond 500 BCE. The paradigm of Roman art was clearly influenced by the artistic practices popular at the time of the classical Greek era. The Romans took whatever they could learn from already prevalent practices and then improvised to develop their own practice in art. That being said, here is the list of top 10 ancient Roman arts and sculptures that went recognized throughout history for their sheer artistry and ingenuity.
10. Roman Mosaics
The ancient Romans had a very noticeable instinct in combining wonderful pieces of arts with practicality of daily life. The Roman mosaics truly reflect this artistic flair since they were used to depict everyday life scenes in ancient Rome. These were wonderful yet elaborate paintings or even patterns that the Romans made with small pieces of ceramic tiles. Then these dazzling specimens of art were used to cover counter tops, or walls and sometimes even entire floors. These mosaics not only served for a stunning view, but the ceramic helped to keep the house cool and it was far easier to keep them clean. The Romans used to create different styles of mosaics that varied in terms of shape of each individual ceramic tile or stone. These individually painted stones were then put together in a unique pattern such that it would reflect the daily life aesthetics of ancient Rome.
9. The spear bearer (Doryphoros)
Although this masterpiece is more reminiscent to the ancient Greek art and culture, but the subsequent Roman marble copy of the spear bearer or the Doryphoros is as remarkable in the history of ancient arts. The origin of this gem of art is said to be the Doryphoros of Polykleitos – an astounding Greek sculpture depicting a standing athlete bearing a spear on his left hand with the tip balanced over his shoulder. The earliest of Roman marble copies date back to 120-50 BCE in Pompeii. Instead of making it out of bronze like in ancient Greece, the Romans created their Doryphoros using marble, which was far cheaper. This led to a popular trend among the ancient Romans where it became a common sight to behold one or more such statues in gardens and houses of wealthier patrons. While nothing of the original spear bearer survives today, its popularization among the Roman patrons and Emperors alike culminated into a heritage it has attained today.
8. Ixion Room, House of Vetti
House of Vetti used to one of the most luxurious and famous residents in Pompeii back in the Roman era. Fortunately for the modern day art lovers and enthusiasts, the spectacular insides of this resident were preserved by the eruption of mount Vesuvius somewhere around 79 AD. It boasts a number of visually stunning and aesthetically pleasing wall frescoes of that time. The biggest spectacle of all is within the Ixion room which showcases an artistic display whose root lie within the ancient Greek mythology. Almost all the walls in the House of Vetti are adorned beautiful mosaics, each with their own stories and narrations to tell. But the Ixion room is best known for its depiction of the suffering of Ixion. He was tricked and punished by Zeus when he tried to win the love of Hera. The fresco portrays the scene where Hermes is ruling out the sentence on Ixion while Hephaestus is turning the wheel attached to Ixion and Hera is sitting on the throne listening to a woman pleaded for Ixion. It is the imaginative narration of this famous mythological incident that makes the fresco stand out.
7. Arch of Septimius Severus
The famous arch of Septimius Severus was erected to symbolize and signify the Roman victories over the Parthians towards the end of the second century BCE. Septimius had this triumphal arch put up so that it would reflect his military conquests that played a major role in further extending the Roman empire into areas of present day Iraq and Iran. Standing at almost 21 meters tall and with a width in excess of 23 meters, this monumental arch was made of Proconessian white marble from the sea of Marmara. It is full of some outstanding sculptures depicting scenes from the military campaign against the Parthians, various deities and the changing seasons. But perhaps the most noticeable feature in the arch was the inscription on the attic originally written using gilded bronze in dedication to Septimius Severus himself and his two sons Caracalla and Geta. One of the most stunning pieces of Roman art and sculpture, the arch of Septimius Severus stands to this day as a lasting monument of ancient Rome.
6. Column of Marcus Aurelius
Modeled around its far more popular predecessor known as the column of Trajan, the column of Marcus Aurelius was built in honor of successful military campaigns that Emperor Aurelius undertook against the Germans and Sarmatian tribes. At a current height of 39 meters, it becomes even longer when you account its 7 meters long underground base. This seemingly straight Doric column is covered in relief sculptures carved into 21 spirals – each spiral outlining individual campaigns of Marcus Aurelius against the Germanic and Sarmatian territories between 175 and 172 BCE. Most of these narratives represent the incidents from the two major battles, but there also are some intriguing episodes where Marcus is portrayed as addressing his troops or where the engineering feats of the Romans are highlighted. The carved scenes are more expressive and full of deep symbolism when compared to those on Trajan’s column, but Trajan’s column also has far more exquisitely refined reliefs and a much better built quality.
5. Arch of Constantine
The Roman emperors had a thing for establishing larger than life triumphal monuments that glorified major achievements and victories of their reign. So when the last great Roman Emperor Constantine marched back into Rome after a successful campaign against Maxentius in the battle of Milvian bridge, he decided to get a monumental arch built that would remind the Roman people of his decisive victory over an imposing enemy. And as fate would have it, the arch of Constantine is the largest surviving triumphal arch and since the Roman empire collapsed when Constantine’s reign ended, it is also the last great monument of Imperial Rome. At an imposing height of 21 meters and an even larger width, this giant monument consisted of three separate arches – one larger one at the center and two shorter ones on each side of it. The lower part of the arch has art depicting the battle of Milvian bridge.
4. Dionysus frieze, Villa of Mysteries
The Villa of Mysteries also had to face the prospect of being turned into ruins when mount Vesuvius blew in 79 AD. But fortunately, it only suffered minor damage and most of its walls along with their sculptures and frescoes survived possible damages. What made this villa stand out was a room within it which was decorated with visually mesmerizing scenes. This room located on the front right of the villa is now known to us as ‘The Initiation Chamber’. The word ‘mysteries’ refers to the initiation rituals which in this context were rites that helped individuals attain adulthood. Another interpretations, states that the frescoes on the wall of the room depict a young girl in a ceremonial marriage, following the rituals to achieve womanhood. Rather than commemorating the achievements one earns in a lifetime as the rites of initiation, the artful frescoes in this room signify the moral development of a person in various stages of life.
3. Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae)
The altar of Augustan Peace was built by the Roman senate during the 13th century BCE to honor Emperor Augustus, who was returning from a successful campaign in Spain and Gaul. On its completion in the 9th century BCE, it was arguably one of the finest pieces of Roman art and sculpture, and a huge leap in the Roman era portraiture. Surrounded by high walls, Ara Pacis has two entrances – one on the east and another on the other side. Almost all the outer and inner walls have been carved into beautiful sculptures and decorative friezes. But it is the decoration on the exterior of precinct walls that stand out, along with depictions of a procession of Imperial house members on the north and south wall. The east and west walls are carved with sculptures that highlight themes of peace and Roman civic rituals. The Romans enjoyed a period of remarkable peace during the reign of Augustus, and the altar itself became symbolic to Pax (meaning peace), something that Augustus was able to maintain for a significantly large period of his regime.
2. Column of Trajan
This monumental column stands as a landmark in the city of Rome and is one of the best preserved monuments left today of what used to be ancient Rome. A visually stunning structure in itself, there are a total of 2662 figures carved into its structures, depicting 155 different scenes – giving it a story of its own to tell. The various scenes portray the history of some remarkably famous marches by the Roman legions, huge battles, especially the ones from the Dacian wars, negotiations, sacrifices, Trajan’s speeches and many more contemporary political happenings. In the scenes from the battles in Dacia, Trajan himself is a prominent figure present in the scriptural narrative performing various military related tasks. Needless to say, Trajan’s column and its spiral narrative give a detailed insight on the coordination, administration and operation of the Roman army. Given its historical significance and prominence as a long standing monument, the Column of Trajan has been attracting artists and historians alike since a very long time.
1. Fresco wall from house of Livia
House of Livia is an almost 2000 years old Roman resident that boasts some of the most stunning wall frescoes and floor mosaics one could have witnessed back in the time of Imperial Rome. And fortunately for all the modern day art enthusiasts, the house of Livia still retains almost all of its spellbinding beauty to this day. The house is said to be the resident of Augustus’ wife Livia, a woman who was so powerful and influential in her time that even the Roman senate had tried to give her the recognition with the title of Mater Patriae (“Mother of the Fatherland”). The inner walls of the house of Livia have some captivating and realistic wall paintings with primary impression on visualization the scenic beauty of surrounding nature. Exotic birds, common plants, flowers, trees – the flora and fauna are painted with such great attention to detail that researchers were even able to identify the species of those painted beings. Even though it has almost surpassed almost two millennium worth of time, it still exemplifies such natural beauty that it almost feels like an illusion.
One can conclude from the list above, the ancient Roman art enveloped a wide range of artistic means and offered the use of pretty much any resource that could be constructed into a long last art and sculpture. They used ceramic marbles to create wonderful mosaic paintings, and at the same time they also used variation and an amalgamation of marbles to create sculptures of lasting historical significance. Being the capital of a thriving empire, Rome remained the cradle of all the artistic flair that adorned civilization in both Republic and Empirical era. It is only reasonable to see a Greek, Mediterranean and even Egyptian influences in ancient Roman art. But the long standing monuments and villas with some of the most amazing pieces of art are the testimonies to the artistic history of ancient Rome.