Ancient Rome: c. 753 B.C.E. – 400 C.E.

The brilliance of ancient Roman art can be seen in the wall paintings of Pompeii, the massive ambition of the Colosseum, and the daring engineering of the Pantheon. According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E. by Romulus, its first king. In 509 B.C.E., Rome became a republic ruled by the Senate (wealthy landowners and elders) and by the Roman people. During the 450 years of the republic, Rome conquered the rest of Italy and then expanded into France, Spain, Turkey, North Africa and Greece. Rome, in turn, was heavily influenced by Greek culture. The Republic collapsed in civil war during the 1st century B.C.E. and the Roman empire began. Starting with Augustus in 27 B.C.E., the emperors ruled for five hundred years. They expanded Rome’s territory and by about 200 C.E., their vast empire stretched from Syria to Spain and from Britain to Egypt.

Still Life with Peaches (left), two dates, a silver tray with prunes, dried figs and dates with a glass of red wine (center), and branch of Peaches, Fourth Style wall painting from Herculaneum, Italy, c. 62-69 C.E., fresco, 14 x 13 1/2 inches (Archaeological Museum, Naples)
Hospitality was key in the ancient Mediterranean— these wall paintings depict the gifts we might have received as ancient Roman guests.

Still Life with Peaches

In ancient Rome, official portraits were an important way for emperors to speak to subjects. What does Vespasian’s chosen image say about him?

Portrait of Vespasian

From monarchy, to republic, and then empire—at its height, Rome controlled territory from Scotland to the Middle East.

Introduction to ancient Rome

Preparations for a Sacrifice, fragment from an architectural relief, c. mid-first century C.E., marble, 172 x 211 cm / 67¾ x 83⅛ inches (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Animal sacrifices played an important role in the ancient Mediterranean, but what was involved in the preparation and practice?

Preparations for a Sacrifice

Maison Carrée, c. 4-7 C.E.
As the Roman empire expanded, so did its religion and culture. This building in modern-day France is a textbook example of a Vitruvian temple.

Maison Carrée

Hadrian: Building the wall
At the remotest point of the Roman Empire, near Scotland, Hadrian erected this fortification—a symbol of control and dominance.

Hadrian: Building the wall

Hadrian's imperial palace, Tivoli
The Empire in miniature, see how Hadrian’s Villa served not only as the emperor’s personal retreat but as a secondary seat of government.

Hadrian: The imperial palace, Tivoli

Capitoline Wolf, 5th century B.C.E. or medieval, bronze, 75 cm (Capitoline Museums, Rome)
Abandoned as infants, the mythical founders of Rome were raised by a she-wolf. The image of this miracle became an eternal symbol of the city.

Capitoline She-wolf

The art of gem carving
How did ancient Roman artists carve small, precious objects such as gemstones? Watch a modern artist engrave a gem using ancient techniques.

The art of gem carving

Capitoline Brutus (detail)
500 years ago, this portrait was identified as the founder of the Roman Republic, but debate over the figure’s true identity continues.

Capitoline Brutus

The Pantheon, Rome, c. 125
The Pantheon contains one of the most perfect interior spaces ever constructed—it’s no wonder it’s been copied ever since.

The Pantheon (Rome)

Portraits of the Four Tetrarchs (detail)
Learn how the solid, abstracted forms of these four co-emperors reject the earlier classical understanding of the human body.

Portraits of the Four Tetrarchs

Veristic male portrait
With age comes experience, and sculptors in the Roman Republic made a point of portraying seniority, warts and all.

Veristic male portrait

The Colossus of Constantine
Does the abstraction of form and faraway look in this colossal portrait of Constantine speak to the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire?

The Colossus of Constantine

The Roman Forum
The dirt and detritus of generations has gradually built up in Rome over the centuries—the modern city now sits well above ancient street level.

Digging through time

Painted Garden, Villa of Livia (detail)
Step into this stunning painted garden, once an imperial dining room, that gives an insight into the flora and fauna of ancient Rome.

Painted Garden, Villa of Livia

Medea Sarcophagus (detail)
Here is one of the great myths of jealousy and revenge carved deeply into a sarcophagus. But why put this story on a coffin?

Medea Sarcophagus

Column of Trajan (detail)
Trajan expanded the Roman Empire to its greatest extent, and marked his victories with this monumental column that still stands today.

Column of Trajan

Arch of Constantine, 312-315 C.E., Rome
For the first time, a Roman emperor celebrated his victory over fellow Romans, and in doing so appropriated the art of earlier rulers.

Arch of Constantine, Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), 9 B.C.E. (Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, Italy) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Augustus is said to have found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble—this elegant altar is a symbol of that golden age.

Ara Pacis

Ancient Rome via the Rome Reborn Project
Fly over a reconstruction of one of the greatest cities in history to experience Rome as the Romans would have seen it in antiquity.

Ancient Rome

Apollodorus of Damascus, The Markets of Trajan, 112 C.E. the Militia Tower is visible in the center, rising above the markets (photo: Vašek Vinklát, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Running out of space to build his monumental forum, Trajan tasked his architect to move an entire hill to make room for this extravagant space.

The Forum and Markets of Trajan

View across the Roman Forum (Forum Romanum) to the Arch of Titus (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
At the end of a Roman triumph, the defeated general was ceremonially murdered. The victim would have been marched under this triumphal arch.

The Arch of Titus

Dioskourides, Gemma Augustea, 9 - 12 C.E., 19 x 23 cm, double-layered sardonyx with gold, gold-plated silver (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Elaborately carved precious stones were only seen by guests of the powerful families that owned them, nevertheless they carried a public message.

Gemma Augustea

Augustus of Primaporta (detaIl)
Nothing was more important to a Roman emperor than his image. What can we learn about Augustus, the first Roman emperor from his portrait?

Augustus of Primaporta

Head of a Roman Patrician from Otricoli, c. 75-50 BCE, marble (Palazzo Torlonia, Rome)
Wrinkled, toothless, and sagging: why would the Romans emphasize these features in a portrait of a nobleman?

Head of a Roman Patrician

Temple of Portunus, Rome
This small temple is a rare example of a building that remains from the Roman Republic, combining innovation and tradition.

Temple of Portunus, Rome

Fourth style wall paintings (from a room off the peristyle), House of the Vettii, Pompeii (photo: Lady Erin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
What’s your dream home? Buried by a volcanic eruption two thousand years ago, this Roman house was the epitome of wealth and style.

Pompeii: House of the Vettii

Example of Second Style painting, cubiculum (bedroom), Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, fresco, 50–40 B.C.E.
Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii two millennia ago, creating a time capsule that exhibits the stunning evolution of Roman painting.

Roman wall painting styles

View of the Forum of Trajan, c. 112 C.E., the Column of Trajan can be seen behind the columns of the Basilica Ulpia
Don’t underestimate the awe inspired by these grandiose public complexes, built to reinforce the political message of the imperial family.

Imperial fora

View of the Forum Romanum toward the Palatine Hill
At the heart of the ancient Roman city, the Forum Romanum was the monumental center of religious, political, and social life.

Forum Romanum (The Roman Forum)

Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E. (Vatican Museums) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
With the lands of Greece, Egypt, and beyond, Ancient Rome was a melting pot of cultures—debates rage on as to what “Roman art” really means.

Introduction to ancient Roman art