Cultures & Traditions

Rome: Art in an Imperial Society

The following essay is from a 1996 publication that highlights prominent Roman art objects from the DMA's collection.

Republican Rome scorned art. The founders of the Roman Republic in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE believed in austere virtue, warlike strength, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and puritanical self-denial. The historian Livy's History of Rome, Book I, paints a picture of early Rome as a community of heroes, dedicated to the common good of the Roman state. Whether this ideological view of expanding Roman society is correct or not, by the late 3rd century BCE Rome had absorbed both the Etruscan city-states to the north and the Greek cities in Magna Graecia to the south. Rome was now poised for the conquest of the entire Mediterranean, a conquest that would bring native Italic cults, arts, and values face to face with the sophisticated civilization of the Hellenistic Greek world. In the next two centuries, Rome became the heir to these Hellenistic kingdoms in the east, and Roman art became the last, and in some ways the greatest, synthesis of Greek style and local taste.

At first, the Roman conquerors of Magna Graecia and the mainland Greek states, in the manner of conquerors anywhere, removed a mass of sculptures and decorative arts to Rome as triumphal loot. They also, in an eclectic manner, adapted their own portrait sculpture and architecture to Greek styles and employed Greek artists. The earlier influence of Etruscan art, with its own rich adaptation of Greek art, meant that Roman Italy was no tabula rasa and that the values of early Roman culture also influenced the way in which Greek art was adopted. This is exempllified by the well-known sculpture of a prominent Roman from Delos, now in the National Museum in Athens, which places a realistic Roman head on a heroic Greek nude body. In a very significant way, the complex Roman confrontation with Greek art was a paradigm for all the later "classical revivals" and "renaissances," in which the enduring images of Greek cult religion were simultaneously embraced and subtly changed by later peoples. The Laocoön, a work apparently made for Roman patrons by Greek sculptors (Agesander, Athanadoros, and Polydoros of Rhodes) in the first century BCE or CE, is significantly different in its veristic violence from dramatic, but still idealized, sculptures of divine combat such as the reliefs on the Hellenistic Great Altar of Zeus from Pergamon.

The Roman Empire succeeded the Hellenistic Greek kingdoms in the East and dominated the entire Mediterranean Basin from the Straits of Gibraltar to the highlands of Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. The empire also extended the trade networks of the Greek East; not only did the Syrian Orontes River flow into the Tiber, as the satirist Juvenal acidly said, but Roman ships and military roads expedited trade everywhere. If Greek art and philosophy were the major gifts of ancient civilization to a future Europe, Roman law, technology, and political organization were an equally important future legacy. It was the image of a majestic, all-powerful state, Roma Aeterna, that was to pass on the concept of civilization, via the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, to Dark Age Europe.

Art played an important role in the crucial symbolic formulations of the early empire under the shrewd politician Octavius Caesar, later to become the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Augustus was fully aware of the publicity value of images. Like Seti I and his son Ramses II in Egypt, Augustus consciously deployed traditional art forms in a new imperial way. The great Prima Porta statue of Augustus of the early first century CE in the Musei Vaticani in Rome, recasts a Greek athlete-hero as a Roman general. Augustus, barefoot and noble in appearance, wears a resplendently decorated suit of realistic armor, although he was neither athlete nor soldier. This is the godlike king visible in the Dallas Museum of Art's bust of Seti I (1984.50): wise, powerful, beneficent, and beautiful.

The value of realistic portraiture in Rome had its roots in early Roman religion. The images of ancestors were carefully preserved in the tombs of patrician families. The first imagines, or death masks, were probably modeled in wax from the actual features of the dead person, but by at least the first century BCE, these images appeared in the form of portrait sculptures. A fusion of this Roman concern with images of the dead and the interest in portraiture found in Hellenistic art led to the remarkable gallery of brilliant portrait sculptures- one of the finest artistic achievements of the Roman Empire. The faces of Rome are unforgettable, from the pudgy portrait of the crazed Emperor Nero to the grand nobility of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor, whose equestrian statue was visible in Rome throughout the Middle Ages and, until recently, graced Michelangelo's Piazza Campidoglio on the Capitoline.

Portraits of people associated with the imperial family were the most important creations of Roman sculptors; the prototypes were created in imperial workshops in Rome and then duplicated for distribution across the empire. Such statues served as visual icons for the Roman administration, and were especially important because many emperors received divine honors in the provinces. However, portraits were valued throughout Roman society. Those who could afford a funerary monument immortalized their life in portrait form. Often this goal was achieved before death by purchasing a ready-made figure to which a portrait head could be attached in life or added by the family after death. Egypt, Greece, and Rome shared the custom of memorializing the dead person in portrait sculpture, which served as a testimonial to the value of his or her life. Whatever an individual's view of the afterlife, it was a Roman family's duty to preserve images of the dead for posterity. Potraits also reaffirmed the identity, personality, and ideal value of living people, as they were to do in Renaissance and post-Renaissance suclpture derived from Roman portraiture. Jean-Antoine Houdon's plaster bust of George Washington (1980.113) in the DMA's collections is a good example of later attempts to achieve immortality through idealizing portraits.

The DMA has two fine marble busts of this type. An Antonine head, (1984.163) formerly a part of the Norbert Schimmel collection, is close to the type of the young Marcus Aurelius in the Museo Capitolino in Rome. A rich example of early Antonine baroque style, the boy has the innocent pathos of youth; his delicate features and wide eyes are almost overpowered by the great mass of elaborately drilled curls.

Another Roman portrait head of a young man (1981.169) in the DMA collection, also formerly from the Schimmel collection, is a stylistic and psychological contrast to the portrait bust discussed above. The treatment of the young man's features is crisp and austere; the effect is both more complex and more ambiguous. The youth glances sideways, almost evasively, and his pursed lips create a troubled expression. There could hardly be a better example of the range of possibiblities opened up by the unique combination of plastic power and psychological penetration in Roman sculpture. Roman imperial sculptors raised portraiture to the ideal level of Greek art through their brilliant treatment of hair, flesh, and facial forms, while at the same time dramatizing the actual appearance of a real person through idiosyncratic features and an expressive glance. The head of this young man is superbly modeled and textured, with a subtle glow in the marble suggestive of the energy of youth, but the spirit speaking through those side-cast eyes is as elusive as life itself.

The second-century CE statue of a woman (1973.11), like the Antonine head of a youth, represents some of the main values of Roman society. That statue is a monument to a well-to-do mater familias, an honored wife and mother. As in the Prima Porta Augustus, the woman's symbolic role is emphasized by the use of a much earlier Greek sculptural type. The woman's body type probably goes back to Greek sculpture of the fourth century BCE. This Small Herculaneum figure type, named after a statue found at Herculaneum, appears frequently in Roman sculpture. The heavy drapery and concealing mantle indicated, for a Roman audience, purity, modesty, and virtue. Although these may be thought to have become archaic values by the second century CE, the original Roman idea of marriage based on chastity and loyalty retained its religious sanctity throughout Roman history. In Roman eyes, the virtue of marriage paralleled the virtue of the Roman state and was one of its supports. Consequently, distinguished Roman men and women were often shown clasping one another's hands, in the formal bond of marriage, on their sarcophagi.

The head of the statue would have been a contemporary addition to the stock body type. Gentle distinguished, and sad, the sculpture speaks of the best traditions of Roman society. It is quite unlike some of the harder and more theatrical personifications of Roman imperial women. The lady does, however, embody the fundamental Roman belief in family, marriage, and ancestral traditions, which, like Roman law, were to become an integral part of Roman Christianity.

The funerary significance of a traditional Roman marriage is described in the Augustan poet Propertius's elegy to a great lady related to the emperor's family:

_When the maid's robe of purple was laid aside before the torch of marriage, and a new wreath caught up and bound my hair, I was wedding to your couch, my Paullus, doomed, alas! to leave it thus. Behold the legend on this stone: To one and and one alone was she espoused. _

My life was changeless; through all its days it knew no slander: between the torch of marriage and the torch of death ours was a life of high renown. (Propertius, The Elegies 4.33-36, 45-46)

Excerpt from:

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 93-95.

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