Cultures & Traditions

The Romans

The early Romans lived in a small village by a crossing of the lower Tiber River on the Italian peninsula. According to Roman mythology, the settlement descended from the Trojan hero Aeneas, who escaped the Trojan War and came to Italy. Another popular legend focuses on Romulus and Remus, twin sons of the god Mars, who were abandoned on the banks of the Tiber and nursed by a she-wolf. When they reached adulthood, the twins built a city near the place of their rescue. Archaeologists and historians point to Neolithic settlements south of the Tiber and on the Palatine hill that date to the middle of the eighth century B.C.E.

In its early stages, Rome was ruled by Etruscans kings. But, by 509 B.C.E. the Romans overthrew them and formed a republic centered in Rome. By the 3rd century B.C.E, they had conquered the Greek cities in southern Italy. And by 100 B.C.E., the Roman Republic had defeated the Carthaginians in North Africa and dominated much of the Mediterranean world.

The Republic was replaced by an empire in 31 B.C.E. under the first Roman emperor, Augustus. This powerful empire would come to rule from Arabia to Britain. Rome remained the imperial capital until 327-330 C.E., when the emperor Constantine founded the new capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul). Roman art was a celebration of this vast, law-abiding, prosperous empire. Over time, the Roman emperor, a living embodiment of imperial power, came to be worshiped as a god. The powerful portrait heads in the DMA collection refer to this imperial ethos.

At its height, the Roman Empire spanned three continents, and within its borders lived millions of people of numerous races, religions, languages, and cultures. Many Roman temples and basilicas have an afterlife as churches, and other sections of ancient Roman buildings form the cores of modern structures in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa today. Ancient Rome also lives on in the Western world in concepts of law and government, languages, in the calendar, and even coins. The Roman use of art and visual language to manipulate public opinion is similar to the role and power of images in modern society.

Drawn from

  • Anne Bromberg, Gallery text, Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Galleries, transcribed November 10, 2016.
  • Fred S. Kleiner, ed, Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History, Fourteenth edition, (Wasworth Cenage Learning: Boston), 2013, 180.

Related Multimedia

Mary Beard, one of the world's foremost classicists, presents a revolutionary history of the Roman Empire. Rome was a sprawling imperial city of more than a million residents and a seat of power for one of the largest empires in history. Emerging from what was once an insignificant village in central Italy, the city transformed itself through imperial rule. In response to terrorism and revolution, this powerful city invented new ideas of citizenship and nationality. Beard separates fact from fiction, myth from historical record, bringing forth a grand picture of Roman history.