Ancient Roman Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations 

The Romans wanted their art and architecture to be useful. They planned their cities and built bridges, aqueducts, public baths, and marketplaces, apartment houses, and harbors. When a Roman official ordered sculpture for a public square, he wanted it to tell future generations of the greatness of Rome. Although the practical uses of art were distinctly Roman, the art forms themselves were influenced by the ancient Greeks and Etruscans.

In the late 600's B.C., the most powerful people in Italy were the Etruscans, who had come from Asia Minor and settled in Tuscany, an area north of Rome. Although the Etruscans imported Greek styles of art, they achieved much by themselves. They developed a very realistic type of portrait sculpture. They were also the first to introduce the use of the stone arch into architecture.


The Romans put the lessons of the Etruscans to practical use. The baths and arenas are tributes to the skill of Rome's great builders. Because of the use of the arch, the Romans could build on a greater scale than the Greeks, who used the post and lintel (a beam supported by two columns). The arch can support much more weight than the post and lintel. Roman aqueducts were often three levels of arches piled one on top of another. And their buildings, such as the Baths of Caracalla, enclosed huge open areas.

In the 1st century B.C. the Romans developed the use of concrete. It could be poured into any shape for arches, vaults, or domes. Concrete enabled architects to build structures of immense size. One such gigantic construction was the Temple of Fortune at Praeneste, built by the ruler Sulla about 80 B.C. The architect used concrete to support terraces and to build what was in effect a skyscraper. To build their open-air theaters, the Greeks had scooped out the sides of hills, using the hills to support the sloping tiers of seats. But the Roman engineers used concrete to support the three gigantic tiers of the Colosseum, their main stadium for public entertainment. The tiers held seats for more than 45,000 spectators.


The Romans used a great deal of sculpted decoration to embellish their architecture. Columns were often placed on the walls of buildings as part of the decoration. (They actually supported no weight themselves.) Many of these decorations were copied from Greek styles. In fact, many Greek forms were simply placed on the facades of Roman buildings without any practical reason for being there.

In portraying their gods, the Greeks had been influenced by their ideas of form and beauty. Roman sculptors were greatly influenced by the Greeks. But the Romans showed their skill and originality in their portraits. They portrayed their emperors, generals, and senators with a degree of realism unknown to the Greeks. Thinning hair, double chins, crooked noses--all the physical traits that make one person look different from another--can be found in Roman portraiture.


In A.D. 79, an eruption of the volcano Vesuvius destroyed the city of Pompeii, covering it with layers of lava that hardened into rock. The wall paintings preserved in this rock tell us nearly everything we know about Roman painting.

Painting was usually done as a form of decoration. In Pompeii, for example, paintings were executed on the inside walls of the houses in fresco (painting on wet plaster). Often these murals were used to make the room seem larger, by giving the illusion of depth, or to create a pastoral landscape where there was no window or view.

Columns and other forms of architecture were often painted into the compositions or used to frame the murals and add to the feeling of depth. A system of perspective was known and used by the Romans. Red, black, and cream-white were among the most popular colors.

Roman painting achieved a high degree of naturalism through the artists' understanding of perspective and use of light and shade. The Romans painted many charming scenes from nature and portraits of children and beautiful young men and women. Religion, too, inspired their art.

Reviewed by Lee Hall
President Emerita
Rhode Island School of Design

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