Hellenistic-Roman Art
Characteristics, Ara Pacis, Colosseum, Mural Painting, Trajan's Column Historical Relief Sculpture.

2. Hellenistic-Roman Art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE)


Ara Pacis
Augustan Roman Sculpture
Flavian Amphitheatre/ Colosseum
Mural Painting
Trajan's Column


Following the era of Hellenistic Art proper (323-27 BCE), a new phase of Hellenism opened in Rome and soon became the most lively and original movement of the time. The description 'Roman Art' is in modern times applied to what was in fact an amalgam of Etruscan, Italic and, above all, Hellenistic elements that were absorbed and reworked as Roman culture adapted them to her own national demands. But perhaps it would be closer to the truth if we were to call the ancient art of the period, at least up to the Late Empire, by the term Hellenistic-Roman art.

Ara Pacis

Hellenistic characteristics are deep-rooted in the most significant monument of the Augustan epoch, the one, more than any other, that represented its ideals: the Ara Pacis (Altar of Augustan Peace), dedicated in the Campus Martius on 30 January 9 BCE. The figurative decoration of the altar has been almost entirely lost; there remain only a few fragments of the frieze that surrounded the altar table, representing the annual sacrifice of the suovetaurilia. (This was celebrated in front of the altar, and was a purificatory sacrifice consisting of a swine, a sheep and a bull.) The altar is surrounded by a wall screen containing a rich decoration. On the inside walls there is a large frieze with garlands and ox-skulls, alluding to the ritual sacrifices. On the outside a solemn procession is depicted, commemorating the one that took place on 4 July 13 BCE, the day the altar was consecrated.

This work recalls the Panathenaic frieze of the Parthenon, but here the participants are developed with far more realism. The one is a typical representation of the Athens of Pericles, the other seeks to identify in precise detail the Imperial family and the magistrates, senators and other officials of Rome. In the end, though, both express the same faith in a victorious and fortunate humanity- the same illusion of an uninterrupted progress to eternity. On the other hand, there is nothing more splendidly Hellenistic than the acanthus spirals that cover the lower half of the sacred wall and which twist around the four external walls; this was a design of great decorative effect that was to be widely imitated in the Middle Ages. And even the Parthenon-like solemnity of the panel on which Aeneas sacrifices to the Penates, on the right-hand side of the front facade, seems to dissolve into a rather bucolic, perhaps almost Alexandrian scene. Moreover, nothing is more Alexandrian than the most famous of the reliefs on the altar (the most famous by virtue of its academic flavour, but not the most beautiful) which is set on the back wall of the screens and so corresponds with the relief of Aeneas. This shows the land pacified and made prosperous and happy by the Pax Augusta. The animals, the vegetation, the sea, the soft plumage of the swan, the buxom feminine figure are all part of the Hellenistic repertoire, even if the soft Alexandrian modelling has been interpreted here and there with a certain frigidity. There are four reliefs on the short east and west exterior walls and all are symbolic - in contrast to the 'historical' reportage that is unfolded on the other, longer walls.

Around the Ara Pacis are to be found the works promoted by Augustus and his ministers, Maecenas and Agrippa, that gave Rome a new monumental appearance. 'Restitutor aedium sacrarum et operum publicorum, Augustus could indeed be proud that he had transformed the Rome of terracotta and bricks into the Rome of marble' (Becatti). The main episodes of the building programme of the Principate were the completion of Caesar's Forum, the construction of the Forum of Augustus, and the building of the Pantheon. The latter was destroyed by fire and was later rebuilt under Hadrian. Under the vast cupola of this temple, dedicated to the seven planetary gods, a new, all-embracing notion of cosmic unity is apparent: indeed, we are a long way away from the 'human scale' of the architecture and sculpture of the Parthenon. (For information about architectural styles and designs in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, see: Roman Architecture.)

Augustan Roman Sculpture

The classicism dominant in official Augustan sculpture and also clearly visible in the idealized youthfulness of the many portraits of the Emperor, left its mark on succeeding periods. The realistic trend, at first under Claudius, and then in Nero's time, gathered strength once more, but now remained confined to a less official sphere, to a more private and popular kind of art. Thus, beside the famous portrait of Norbanus Sorex or that of the Pompeian man and wife - which almost seems to foreshadow the Fayum Mummy Portraits - are to found a body of 'minor' sculptures dealing with aspects of daily life and the occupations of merchants and shopkeepers as depicted on their various signs.

The realistic current also penetrated Imperial art during the reign of the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian) from CE 69-96. The portraitist would now take his time to carve the wrinkles on the lean face of Vespasian, or to veil with a light shadow the fleshy face of some matron of noble lineage. The representations on the triumphal arch erected by the Senate in honour of Titus, the conqueror of Judaea (CE 70), reveal a style full of movement and narrative ideas, sometimes dramatic and certainly very far from the classical composure of the Augustan reliefs. Now that the neutral background had been eliminated, artists sought to create an illusion of free space in which their action could take place. The background seemed to open out and receive the moving people. The action being narrated became truer and more real in a setting that exploited the idea of depth.

Flavian Amphitheatre/ Colosseum

In the field of architecture, in the second half of the first century BCE, two grandiose monuments arose: the huge Golden House that Nero had built - possibly in imitation of the tastes of the great Oriental princes; and the Flavian Amphitheatre or Colosseum. The amphitheatre was a Roman invention obtained by doubling the measurements of the Greek theatre. With this huge building, Nero solved the problem of presenting circus spectacles, which had been conceived as entertainment for the masses. A severe eruption of Vesuvius in CE 79 buried Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. As well as preserving fine examples of Roman town-planning and domestic architecture, the eruption has also enabled us to follow the complete evolution of painting (even if it was more provincial in style than the art that must have flourished in the capital) during the first century BCE and the first century CE - up to the moment when the lava of the volcano put an end for ever to the life of the three towns.

Decorative Mural Painting

The painting that adorned Roman houses was decorative painting. It had the same ornamental function as the Greek statues that were so sought after at the time-whether in the form of copies or originals. The decorative style at Pompeii developed more or less independently, and it is customary now to distinguish four main styles of Pompeian painting. The oldest, dating from the second century BCE, is the so-called Incrustation Style, and is composed of simple panel paintings of coloured stucco or fresco. The Second Style (Architectural Perspective) dates from the beginning of the first century BCE and is clearly of Hellenistic derivation - as was the majority of Roman painting. The approach to wall painting, with its imitation architectural features, became more complex. The intention was to expand the real space on the wall in an illusionistic manner in the same way as theatre scenery is treated. The Third Style over-lapped with the end of the second. It was more sober and tended to produce decoration without depth. Paintings, almost like miniatures, stood out against a unified background of a dark colour: 'in generally warm-coloured tones such as red, yellow, shiny black, and soft ones like greenish-blue'. And 'a few light brush strokes ... tiny delicious linear or floral decorations ... compositions of figures, landscapes or even actual paintings' (Bianchi Bandinelli).

From the Second Style developed the exuberant fantasy and decorative richness of the Fourth Style; here the architectonic motifs present in the earlier style became more accentuated. The Hellenistic derivation of all these decorative styles is fairly obvious, but not all of them were to have the same success. 'Once the greater consistency of the Third Style is recognized, it is not surprising that its elements dominated the decorative forms of the second century AD, after the phantasmagoria of walls in the Fourth style had been exhausted by the end of the previous century. During the era of Hadrian these forms became more sober and linear, and were in danger of becoming altogether frozen and static. Then, during the Antonine age, they began to grow warmer, and there was a certain renewal of the perspective elements....until the advent of slender architectural forms - from which after CE 180 all trace of illusionism had disappeared, and everything had become completely schematic - gave birth to a linear style in red and green on a white background. From then on this style, with remarkable uniformity, was to cover the walls and vaults of houses and funerary cubicles, including those of the Christian catacombs' (Bianchi Bandinelli).

The subjects of the themes illustrated were generally drawn from Greek myths or from the contemporary period; others were taken from the world of religion (as in the famous cycle in the Villa of the Mysteries). Paintings in the popular style (shop signs, pictures of games and festivals) are a study in themselves, but there too the connection with the Hellenistic world can be seen in the use of a 'summary' technique. This taste for 'summary' painting is characterized by a use of large, impressionistic blobs of colour; this and the vigorous interplay of light and shade are a feature of numerous still-lifes and landscapes (the latter being a favourite theme of Roman painting). The landscapes, either imaginary, idyllic or real, endeavour to present, say, a garden by breaking down the enclosed space of a room and implanting instead in the observer's mind the notion of being out in the open air.

Trajan's Column

The era of Trajan (CE 98-117) played a very important part in the course of Roman art. The new Forum that the Emperor built (designed, it appears, by Apollodorus of Damascus) contained a column erected to celebrate the Dacian campaigns (CE 101-2 and 105-6). This was a new and original type of monument, the heir to the commemorative columns erected in the Forum in honour of important persons, and to the historical and triumphal paintings. The bas-relief frieze on Trajan's Column unfolds like a spiral parchment roll around the shaft for about six hundred and fifteen feet. The story is developed continuously without interruptions and has a rapid, compelling rhythm. This is no longer a simple chronicle but a great and moving epic poem. There is hardly any slackening of tension in the depiction of the battles, the exhausting marches, the fording of rivers, the attacks on cities, the woods, the plains, the fortifications and the camps. For the first time there appears a new feeling of human compassion for the despair of the conquered, the suffering of the wounded and the drama of the prisoners. The immediate, dramatic and relentless rhythm of these reliefs, which Bianchi Bandinelli has rightly compared to Donatello's sculptures in St Anthony's, Padua, introduces a new dimension into the art of the period and, perhaps, represents the noblest expression of Roman art. Possibly there still lingers 'an echo of the sculptures of Pergamum or Rhodes' but the treatment and the language - energetic and passionate, hut now in a human and real sense, no longer heroic or mythological like the Pergamene altars - were already moving away from Hellenism, even if they had not yet become completely differentiated in what eventually became the style of Late Antiquity.

The unknown master of the Trajan Column can probably be credited with the remains of the 'Great Trajanic Frieze' that formerly decorated the Trajan Forum - and also commemorated the victories of the Emperor over the Dacians. This frieze was inserted at a later date into the Arch of Constantine, a veritable hotchpotch of sculptures from various periods. The Trajan Column served as the model for another column erected between CE 108-93 in commemoration of the victories of Marcus Aurelius over the Marcomanni and the Sarmatians. In fact, after the Hadrianic period and the Hellenistic restoration work of that most Graecophil emperor, this column helped to instigate a steady movement away from the artistic values of Hellenism. The two columns, the Marcus and the Trajan, are similar not only in their general structure but also in the iconographic repertoire and in the realistic settings. However, the style of the Marcus Column is different: the sculptures are tormented and harsh, rich in shadowing that gives the figures dramatic depth and brings the story vigorously to life. In short, it was an 'expressionist' style.

These same powerful and dramatic tendencies, producing distorted figures and intensely expressive faces, are to be found in numerous sarcophagi of the day. Among the more famous of these is the Ludovisi Sarcophagus, on which is depicted a battle between the Romans and the Barbarians. The movement is convulsive and frenzied, and the strongly drilled relief figures express the violence of their emotions through their bodies as well as their facial expressions. A remarkably different feeling of balance and serenity emanates from the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

The incisive and 'broken' style of the period of Commodus; the exuberant colouring of Severan art; the reappearance of the ancient local substrata during the crisis of the Empire in the third century; the Hellenizing restorations of Gallienus (CE 253-68), and, finally, the spread of Oriental doctrines (the solar and astral cults, among them Mithraism) and the growing taste for abstract and intellectual matters - all these currents contributed to a complex interweaving of motifs up to the time of the Late Empire. They also brought about a crisis in the great Hellenistic background, which until then had remained the dominant factor in Roman art, retaining a particular hold in painting and mosaic art. (To this tradition can be ascribed the mosaics of Piazza Armerina, Sicily, in the fourth century AD, and also those in the Baths of Neptune at Ostia, which date from the third century.) Symbolism and allegory dominated the language of art at the time of the Tetrarchs. The manner of working became simpler but more rigid. In sculpture, the essential features of the figures were executed in relief in hard and precious materials, including bronze and stone, of which porphyry was the most commonly used stone at the time. Official statuary underwent considerable changes: emperors became raised in an emphatic manner above all other mortals, and were apparently more attached to an abstract world of their own than to that of their subjects. It was the beginning of those hierarchical values that were to remain fundamental to Byzantine art and to the figurative expressions of the Eastern Empire.

In architecture, the spacious, monumental style of the Late Antique was given life and movement by niches, porticos and ambulatories that created contrasts of light and shade - as may be seen in the Temples of Baalbek, the Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian, in the Theatre of Sabratha and in the Basilica of Maxentius. In Egypt, from the fourth century AD, the impulse derived from the new Christian civilization, and increased contacts with Byzantium, Syria and even with Persia created a gradual but at the same time systematic movement that ultimately overwhelmed the Hellenistic imprint. Works of interest include woven fabrics as well as sculptures, the majority of the latter being in red porphyry; in them the human figure is portrayed in a rigid frontal position, like the portrait busts of the emperors, with their haughty but rather absent-minded look that recalls the portraits of the ancient Pharaohs. Finally there are the group compositions from Venice and the Vatican: in one such, the embrace of the Tetrarchs, the composition was intended to symbolize the new glory of the Concordia Augustorum.

The word decline had already been used in reference to Hellenism, and now it was used in respect of the Late Antique. Berenson gave his volume on the Arch of Constantine the subtitle: On the Decline of Form. Those parts of the Arch that date from the period of the first Christian Emperor (there are many reliefs from an earlier period) offer in the 'incoherence' of their style, their hard modelling and expressive distortions a new vision, a new way of seeing art. It was no longer Greek and it was to be of the utmost importance in future developments.

Next: 3. Late Roman Art (c.200-400 CE)

More Resources
For more articles about visual art in Ancient Rome, see:

Early Roman Art (c.510 BCE to Augustus 27 BCE)
Roman Empire Art: Celtic Style
Christian-Roman Art (313 CE Onwards)
Roman Sculpture (c.55 onwards)
Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome

• For more about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For more about Trajan's Column, see: Homepage.

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