Roman Sculpture

Definition

by
published on 25 August 2013
Marcus Aurelius ()

Roman Sculpture, with artists from across a huge empire and changing public tastes over centuries, is above all else, remarkable for its sheer variety and eclectic mix. The art form blended the idealised perfection of earlier Classical Greek sculpture with a greater aspiration for realism and absorbed artistic preferences and styles from the East to create images in stone and bronze which rank among the finest works from antiquity. Aside from their own unique contribution, Roman sculptors have also, with their popular copies of earlier Greek masterpieces, preserved for posterity invaluable works which would have otherwise been completely lost to world art.  

Evolution

As with Greek sculpture, the Romans worked stone, precious metals, glass and terracotta but favoured bronze and marble above all else for their finest work. However, as metal has always been in high demand for re-use, most of the surviving examples of Roman sculpture are in marble.

The Roman taste for Greek and Hellenistic sculpture meant that once the supply of original pieces had been exhausted sculptors had to make copies and these could be of varying quality depending on the sculptor’s skills. Indeed, there was a school specifically for copying celebrated Greek originals in Athens and Rome itself, the latter headed by Pasiteles along with Archesilaos, Evander, Glykon and Apollonios. An example of the school’s work is the 1st century BCE marble statue of Orestes and Electra, now in the archaeological museum of Naples. Roman sculptors also produced miniaturised copies of Greek originals, often in bronze, which were collected by art-lovers and displayed in cabinets in the home. 

Colossal Bronze Hand of Constantine I

Roman sculpture did, however, begin to search for new avenues of artistic expression, moving away from their Etruscan and Greek roots, and, by the mid-1st century CE, Roman artists were seeking to capture and create optical effects of light and shade for greater realism. By later antiquity, there was even a move towards impressionism using tricks of light and abstract forms.

Sculpture also became more monumental with massive, larger-than-life statues of emperors, gods and heroes such as the huge bronze statues of Marcus Aurelius on horseback or the even bigger statue of Constantine I (only the head, hand and some limbs survive), both of which now reside in the Capitoline Museums of Rome. Towards the end of the Empire, sculpture of figures tended to lack proportion, heads especially were enlarged, and figures were most often presented flatter and from the front, displaying the influence of Eastern art.  

It is in portraiture that Roman sculpture really comes to the fore.

It is also important to distinguish two quite distinct ‘markets’ for Roman sculpture, the first was the aristocratic ruling class taste for more classical and idealistic sculpture whilst the second, more provincial, ‘middle-class’ market seems to have preferred a more naturalistic and emotional type of sculpture, especially in portraiture and funerary works (although the limitations of artists away from the larger urban centres may also have had something to do with the differences in styles). An interesting comparison of the two approaches may be found in Trajan’s Column in Rome and a trophy at Adamklissi commemorating the same Dacian campaigns.  

Statuary & Portrait Sculpture

As with the Greeks, the Romans loved to represent their gods in statues. When Roman emperors began to claim divinity then they too became the subject of often colossal and idealised statues, often with the subject portrayed with an arm raised to the masses and striking a suitably authoritative stance as in the Augustus of the Prima Porta.     

Statues could also be used for decorative purposes in the home or garden and they could be miniaturized, especially in precious metals such as silver. One type of such statues which were peculiar to the Romans was the Lares Familiares. These were usually in bronze and represented the spirits which protected the home. They were typically displayed in pairs in a niche within the house and are youthful figures with arms raised and long hair who typically wear a tunic and sandals. 

Roman Portrait Bust

However, it is in the specific area of portraiture that Roman sculpture really comes to the fore and differentiates itself from other artistic traditions. The realism in Roman portrait sculpture may well have developed from the tradition of keeping wax funeral masks of deceased family members in the ancestral home which were worn by mourners at family funerals. These were very often accurate depictions where even the defects and less flattering physical aspects of a particular face were recorded. Transferred to stone, we then have many examples of private portrait busts which move away from the idealised portraits of earlier sculpture and present the subject as old, wrinkled, scarred or flabby; in short, these portraits tell the truth.

Once again, for official portraits of the ruling elite, in contrast to lower class subjects, the subject continued to be idealised, for example, the statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus has the emperor looking much more youthful and fresh-faced than he actually was at the time of sculpting (end of the 1st century BCE).  However, by the time of Claudius in the mid 1st century CE, and even more so under Nero and the Flavian emperors, official portraiture on occasion strove for more realism. In the same period female portraits are also notable for their elaborate hairstyles and they no doubt were prime instigators in fashion trends.

Under Hadrian there was a return to idealised images such as in Classical Greek sculpture (e.g. the colossal statue of Antinous, c. 130 CE) but there was an important innovation in terms of a more natural rendering of the eyes in marble works. Previously, pupil and iris had only been painted on to the sculpture but now these also came to be sculpted as had been the case in bronze and terracotta works. 

The Braschi Antinous

Realism once more returned with the Antonines, and such features as crow’s-feet and flabbiness return. There was also at this time a trend for polishing the skin parts of the marble which then contrasted, in particular, with the hair, which was deeply carved and left unpolished. In addition, in this period it became fashionable to have a complete torso rather than just the shoulders below the head. (See, for example, the bust of Commodus as Hercules, c. 190-2 CE in the Capitoline Museum, Rome). The bust of Caracalla (c. 215 CE) in the same museum is another good example of the abandonment of idealism in elite portraiture for the emperor has a closely cropped beard, determined turn of the head, taught mouth and mean-looking eyes which clearly betray his character. 

By the late Empire elite portraiture becomes formulaic and abandons all attempts at realistically capturing the physical attributes of the subject. Representation of emperors such as Diocletian, Galerius and Constantine I (see the colossal bronze head in the Capitoline Museums), for example, have hardly any distinguishable physiognomic features, perhaps in an attempt to assert the emperor’s distance from ordinary mortals and proximity to the divine. 

Ara Pacis Augustae

Architectural Sculpture

Sculpture on Roman buildings could be merely decorative or have a more political purpose, for example, on triumphal arches (which most often celebrated military victories) the architectural sculpture captured in detail key campaign events which reinforced the message that the emperor was a victorious and civilizing agent across the known world. A typical example is the Arch of Constantine in Rome (c. 315 CE) which also shows defeated and enslaved ‘barbarians’ to ram home the message of Rome’s superiority. Similarly, on columns such as Trajan’s Column (c. 113 CE), the sculpture could show the emperor as a fine leader - meticulously prepared, militarily innovative and suitably inspiring to his troops. Such a portrayal of real people and specific historical figures in architectural sculpture is in marked contrast to Greek sculpture where great military victories were usually presented in metaphor using figures from Greek mythology like amazons and centaurs such as on the Parthenon.  

Altars could also be used to present important individuals in a favourable light, perhaps the first such piece is the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus from Rome (c. 100 BCE) which may depict the orator Marcus Antonius. The most famous altar of all is the Ara Pacis of Augustus (completed 9 BCE) in Rome, a huge block of masonry which depicts spectators and participants at a religious procession. Unlike later official sculpture the representation of the emperor is understated but what makes the monument significant is the rendering of the figures in a state of action. It seems as though they have been captured in a single moment as in a photograph, a child pulls on a toga, Augustus’ sister tells two chatterers to be silent and so on.

Roman Sarcophagus (Detail)

Funerary Sculpture

Funeral busts and stelae (tombstones) were one of the most common forms of sculpture in the Roman world. These sculptures could portray the deceased alone, with their partner, children and even slaves (see the 1st century CE gravestone of the corn-merchant Ampudius, now in the British Museum). Figures usually wear a toga and women can hold the pudicitia pose with hand on chin in remorse. Grave altars were also common and these could carry relief scenes from the deceased’s life or stock scenes and those of the more wealthy could portray different generations of family members.

From the 2nd century CE burial (as opposed to the more traditional cremation) became more common and so a market developed for sarcophagi. These were carved in stone and often had scenes from mythology sculpted in high relief on all four sides and even the lid. ‘Asiatic’ sarcophagi were the most highly decorated with reliefs cut almost in the round. The Proconnesian type had sculpture above maidens holding garlands and the ‘Rome’ type had a blank side for placing the sarcophagi against a wall. By the 2nd century CE the sculpture could also include a portrait of the occupant, usually in heroic guise, perhaps as a victorious general or, later still, in a dedicated panel or tondo on the front side. 

Outstanding Examples

The two large relief panels from the Arch of Titus in Rome are celebrated as the first successful attempt to create depth and space in sculpture. The panels depict scenes from the emperor’s triumphal procession in 71 CE following his campaigns in Judaea, one shows Titus riding a four-horse chariot whilst the other shows the spoils from the temple of Jerusalem. A perspective is successfully achieved by having the figures recede into the background, carving the figures in higher relief the closer they are to the foreground, having the relief higher towards the centre of the scene and having the background of the panel curve slightly inwards. Thus a bustling scene of depth and movement is created.  

Panel, Arch of Titus

The 3.52 m high gilded-bronze equestrian statue of  Marcus Aurelius is one of the most imposing bronze statues surviving from antiquity. It was probably erected between 176-180 CE at an unknown location in Rome. The statue commemorated either the emperor’s victories over the Germanic tribes in 176 CE or his death in 180 CE. The remarkable survival of the statue has been credited to the fact that the emperor may have been mistaken for Constantine. Much needed restoration work was carried out in the late 1980s CE as the statue had been slowly withering away in the open air but it now takes pride of place in a purpose built room in the Capitoline Museums of Rome.    

The portrait of Commodus as the hero Hercules (c. 190-2 CE) is a striking example of how elite portraiture in Roman art could be both realistic and idealistic at the same time. The features of the emperor are distinctly recognisable and his expression shouts a self-assured indifference of the onlooker. However, the artist too, has, either intentionally or not, revealed something of the arrogance and weakness of this infamous emperor. In a powerful description by Mortimer Wheeler:

The smooth and effeminate Emperor with his weak arms, his flaccid feeble face in its aureole of drilled and over-barbered hair, reeking of pomade, the property lion-scalp and club and the tiny ‘apple of the Hesperides’ in that tenuous manicured hand, is delicate but brutally expressive charade. No doubt it delighted, as it revealed, the sadistic pervert whom it has so faithfully immortalized. (1964, 170)

Commodus As Hercules

Conclusion

Roman sculpture, then, has provided us not only with a priceless record of earlier Greek masterpieces but it has also contributed great works in their own right. Unique contributions to the art form include the use of historical narratives and an unprecedented realism in portraits which could take the form of grandiose emperors dressed as gods or more humble depictions of lesser mortals which, with the rendering of particular physical features and emotional expressions, allow us to feel a little closer to a people that lived so long ago.



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 10 BCE
    Statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus sculpted.
  • 9 BCE
    A massive altar the Ara Pacis is completed by Augustus in Rome.
  • c. 100 CE
    In Roman marble sculpture the pupil and iris of the eye begins to be sculpted rather than merely painted onto the statue.
  • 113 CE
    Trajan’s column is constructed in Rome which commemorates the emperor's campaigns in Dacia.
  • c. 130 CE
    The idealised colossal marble statue of Antinous is sculpted.
  • c. 176 CE
    A huge bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback is erected in Rome.
  • c. 180 CE
    The Column of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina is erected in Rome. It depicts in relief sculpture the emperors' campaigns across the Danube.
  • 190 CE - 192 CE
    The bust of Commodus as Hercules is sculpted.
  • 203 CE
    Arch of Septimius Severus built in Rome to commemorate victories over the Parthians.
  • c. 315 CE
    Arch of Constantine I built in Rome to commemorate victory over Maxentius in 312 CE.

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