Ancient History & Civilisation

4. ART8

The enthusiasm for Greek art in the nineteenth century obscured the existence of Roman art, which was regarded as a pale and debased reflection of its Hellenic prototype. Even after Wickhoff’s discovery that Roman art had a separate existence, it was usually identified with the art of the Empire. But this is no longer possible. The existence of the primitive Italic stock, on which Etruscan and Greek shoots were grafted, has been recognized, though it is not always easy to see it distinctly through the luxuriant foreign growth. The Romans were not an artistic people in the same sense that the Athenians had been; their individualistic instincts might offend Greek aesthetic canons, but their realism was no less an expression of national character than was Greek idealism. The products of the Bronze Age and the Villanovans may not have reached a high standard of artistic perfection, but at least they contained the germs of a native art. This was fertilized by the Etruscans whose art had developed rapidly as a result of wider foreign contacts. But the evolution of Etruscan art was carried through on Italian soil and it is impossible to determine the share taken in this process by peoples of early Italic stock. Even if Etruscan art is set at its lowest level as deriving its whole vitality from Greece (and many would demur from so harsh a criticism), yet it cannot be denied that by fidelity to Ionic models it stimulated artistic production in many parts of Italy; and others would concede that the Italic background gave it something of value.9 It was through the Etruscans that Rome first came into contact with Greek art, but early in the fifth century she saw something of it first-hand. During the fifth and most of the fourth century Etruscan art was depressed, but it revived towards the end of the fourth. Rome’s widening influence then brought her first into Campania, where a flourishing Osco-Samnite variety of Italic art had succeeded the earlier culture of Etruscans and Greeks, and secondly into Magna Graecia and Sicily. But though ‘captive Greece overcame her savage conqueror and introduced the arts into rustic Latium’ she did not entirely overwhelm native characteristics.

Of the individual arts reference has been made elsewhere to architecture: to the development of temple and city architecture under the Etruscans at Rome, where the high Italic podium and round hut-like temples were not entirely superseded; to the Greek style used for the temple of Ceres, Liber and Libera; and to the victory of the Hellenistic over the Tuscan style in the second century when Greek basilicas and temples began to adorn the city. The appearance of early Roman statues, the ars statuaria vetustissimamentioned by Pliny, may be judged from the Etruscan Apollo of Veii, which despite its Ionian inspiration and technique retains an Italic accentuation of force and violent effort. Besides gods whom the Etruscans anthropomorphized in statuary, men and women were modelled. The great merit of Roman portraiture under the Empire was not achieved in a day; indeed the origin of the portrait bust and the portrait statue goes back to the ‘canopic’ urns from Chiusi which were roughly shaped into human busts. The Etruscan sarcophagi of the early period and of the third and second centuries and the peculiar ash-chests of Volterra afford numerous examples of vivid portraiture. There are many Italic portrait heads of terracotta, limestone and bronze, which are ‘examples of naturalism untouched as yet by Greek idealism or by the Roman insistence upon detail’ (E. Strong, CAH, IX, 812). The famous bronze head of Brutus, the first consul, illustrates the Roman love of realism. The production of such works was stimulated by the custom, practised by the noble houses of preserving wax imagines of their ancestors in the halls of their houses. These portrait galleries must have greatly influenced the development of Roman portraiture, which was marked by a pitiless realism, far remote from the idealistic strivings of the Greeks to portray a type. The carvings, no less than the figures, on Etruscan sarcophagi and ash-chests influenced Roman work in relief which attempted to grapple with the third dimension; where the Greeks had used a background as a mere screen, the Etrusco-Italic reliefs used it to emphasize the corporeity of the figures. The fondness for human everyday subjects and the beginnings of the fresco-like ‘continuous’ style go back to the pre-Roman period of Italic art. The achievement of native Roman art, freed from specifically Etruscan and Greek influences, is seen in an alabaster urn of the third or second century, now in the British Museum, depicting in relief an equestrian procession, perhaps the parade of Roman Knights which commemorated the battle of Lake Regillus.

How far the excellence of Etruscan metal work was imitated at Rome is uncertain, but we know that the Ficorini cista was made there, and its engravings, though Greek in subject and manner, contain Latin details. Many of the Praenestine mirrors andcistaedepict scenes from Greek mythology, but others show homelier or comic episodes of Latin life: a girl and youth playing draughts or the kitchen scene of the cista Tyszkiewicz. Among the minor arts a series of engraved gems shows distinct Italic workmanship, differing from the Etruscan and Graeco-Roman gems.10 The subjects are often religious and reproduce votive pictures set up in shrines or temples as thank-offerings.

The numerous references to painting in Plautus show that in his day this art was popular in Rome. Pliny records seeing paintings in the Latin temple at Ardea which he declared to be older than Rome itself, while only its friable plaster prevented the emperor Claudius from removing a painting from a temple at Lanuvium. The appearance of these early paintings may be guessed from surviving Etruscan paintings which it is often difficult to distinguish from the different Italic groups. Our earliest Roman example is the military fresco from the Esquiline (? third century); in draughtsmanship and arrangement it displays Hellenic influence, but its details are Italic.11 It is akin to the work of the Osco-Samnite school of Campania, which is illustrated by the splendid Samnite Knight from Capua (c. 300), the gaily-caparisoned cavaliers with plumed helmets and cloaks returning home from war from Paestum, or the two gladiators, fighting to the last gasp, from Capua. Painting became increasingly popular when in the third century generals set up in temples mural pictures of themselves as triumphator or of their military exploits. Portable pictures of victories were carried in triumphal processions and were also used as political propaganda by electioneering candidates. The poet Pacuvius was famed as a painter, while Demetrius of Alexandria, who came to Rome in the second century, started a vogue in maps and geographical pictures, which may have encouraged the growth of a school of landscape painters; the demand for such work, however, probably did not become extensive until the first century. Further, the claims of religion were answered by votive pictures from the humble, as well as by the self-advertising magnificence of the nobility. Naevius caustically refers to a certain Theodotus who painted with an ox’s tail figures of dancing Lares on altars of the Compitalia; recent excavations at Delos have revealed examples of such rough but vigorous little sketches of the Lares. The poster advertisement for gladiatorial shows, which Horace’s slaves admired, may have been used before the end of our period (Horace, Sat., ii, 7, 96). But it is difficult to determine whether all these efforts represent the influence of a distinctive Italic national school of painting or, as is perhaps more likely, merely reflect contemporary Hellenistic art.

Roman art owed much to Greece, but it was not purely imitative. It was eclectic and adapted to its own genius what others might offer. Greek architects were primarily concerned with religious buildings, but the Romans devoted as much attention to secular. In two branches the Roman spirit was pre-eminent: in portraiture and later in historical monuments. Thus it is possible to trace, though dimly, the strivings of a practical, but not altogether unimaginative people to assimilate the glories of Greek art: that the waves of Hellenism did not entirely overwhelm the impulses of the native spirit testifies to a rugged independence that developed realistic tendencies which an idealistic Greek might have despised.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!