Ancient Roman Art

Roman art includes sculpture, painting, architecture, and mosaic work, as well as luxury glass objects, gem engraving, metal-work, and ivory carvings. Roman artists were very creative, and often borrowed artistic styles from several cultures, including Greek, Etruscan, native Italic, and Egyptian.

Sculpture and figure painting were considered the highest forms of art by the Romans, but unfortunately, while a great deal of sculpture has survived to the present, very few paintings have survived. The best known and most important paintings to have survived are the wall paintings from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other nearby sites. These paintings show how wealthy residents of a seaside resort decorated their villas in the period preceding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, which decimated these areas. A large number of paintings from 3rd century CE Roman Catacombs, parts of painted rooms from Rome and elsewhere, and Fayum mummy portraits from Roman Egypt have also survived (prior to 200 CE, the themes of Catacomb paintings were pagan in nature, but after that, Christian themes were mixed in with the pagan themes).

Roman painters used a variety of themes, including portraits, mythological subjects, animals, still life, and scenes from everyday life. During the Hellenistic period, scenes of the countryside were common. These scenes included rural mountainous landscapes, shepherds with their herds, country houses, and rustic temples. Also, erotic scenes were quite common.

Roman sculpture borrowed heavily from both the Greeks and the Etruscans. As a result of the Roman conquests of Greek territory, many Greek sculptors were enslaved by the Romans and it was reported that, by the 2nd century BC, the majority of the sculptors working in Rome were Greek. Because of the vast numbers of Greek statues that were imported into Rome, and the large number of Greek sculptors working there (and presumably using their Greek training and experience in producing their works), it has been very difficult to identify which of the surviving sculptures were of Greek design and which were of uniquely Roman design (even Roman temples were often decorated with re-used Greek statues).

The Romans did not attempt to compete with the magnificent free-standing Greek statuary. Instead, they produced historical works in relief. The most famous works of this type are the great Roman triumphal columns, which were made with continuous narrative reliefs winding around them (the columns commemorating Trajan and Marcus Aurelius still survive in Rome).

All forms of luxury small sculpture (often of extremely high quality) were very popular, as well as molded relief decoration of pottery vessels and small figurines.