The first art that can be called Roman art dates back to almost 500 BC with the defeat of the Etruscans in the establishment of the early old Roman Empire (Hemingway, 2012). However, the official start of the Roman Empire was in 31 BC. By this time Roman art had developed into a distinctive style that could be recognized by its features (Thompson, Blum, Norris, and Watts, 2007). At first, Roman art resembled Greek art, which was already established. However, as the history of the Empire wore on, they develop their own style which was intentionally distinguishable from that of the Greeks (Hemingway, 2012). Roman art would eventually become a symbol of the greatness and power of the Roman Empire.
Roman art began to use a number of different mediums as it grew. Art mediums in the Roman empire included terracotta figures, painted pottery, bronze statues, and everyday objects that were decorated in bronze or painted (Picon, Mertens, Milleker, Lightfoot, and Hemingway, 2007). As Roman art strayed from its original similarity to the Greek form, both the form and subject matter changed. The Greeks enjoyed depicting their mythological heroes in the art. The Romans used art as a political statement to portray real world leaders and heroes (Richter, 1970). Often the portrayal of their leaders was altered in a way that made them appear to be larger than life.
One of the most unique features of Roman art derives from the expansiveness of the territory that it covered. The Roman Empire was the first civilization to achieve unity of people of many different cultures, religious faiths, and ideologies. They achieved this by adopting a policy of acceptance, rather than destruction of foreign concepts. Different languages were spoken throughout the Empire, different religions were practiced, different foods were consumed, and when conquered by the Roman Empire, many of the citizens found that their daily lives did not change significantly (Thompson, Blum, Norris, and Watts, 2007). This principle of retaining multiculturalism was also reflected in the art of the Roman Empire (Thompson, Blum, Norris, and Watts, 2007).
Roman art of the common people often took on the local characteristics of the artisans. It often showed the influences of other cultures and ideals. This artwork was allowed to remain in became an integral part of Roman society. Artwork in the Roman Empire differed between that which was produced by local artisans and that which was produced intentionally by the Roman state. These are two different classes of artwork. The formal art of the Roman Empire was sanctioned by the state and had to adhere to strict guidelines and forms (Thompson, Blum, Norris, and Watts, 2007). This is because the formal art of the Roman Empire was meant to convey a certain message, in a similar way that advertising does today. It was used as political propaganda to further political ideals or to convey a certain message about a certain Roman leader or family (Thompson, Blum, Norris, and Watts, 2007). Artwork was used to secure power in the Roman Empire.
The Romans took their art seriously and owning art showed one’s status and prestige within the society. The Romans were a tolerant society in terms of the cultures that they conquered, but they were also highly structured when it came to government and military affairs. These ideals were reflected through their artwork in its many different forms. One can clearly trace the development and influence of the Roman Empire throughout the ages by examining how art changed from the beginning of the Empire until it would meet its final demise in the fifth century A.D. It is possible to trace the development of Roman technology through advances in their artwork. The Romans left the world many artefacts from their great empire including roads and structures, but their artwork is what truly tells the history of the development of the Roman empire and its quest for world domination.
- Hemingway, S. (2012). Art of the Aegean Bronze Age. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. 69 (4): 1-52.
- Picón, C., Mertens, J., Milleker, E., Lightfoot, C. & Hemingway, S. (2007) Art of the Classical World in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Greece, Cyprus, Etruria, Rome. New York, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Richter, G. (1970). The Department of Greek and Roman Art: Triumphs and Tribulations. Metropolitan Museum Journal. 3: 1-23.
- Thompson, N., Blum, F., Norris, M. and Watts, E. (2007). Roman Art: A Resource for Educators. New York, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.