The Meaning of Early Roman Empire Art

The Meaning of Early Roman Empire Art

By the time of the Roman victory over the Corinthians in 146 BC, the prevailing culture of the Mediterranean was already Greco-Roman. The Romans admired the Greeks, and tales of Grecian battles and gods adorned Roman homes in the form of grand paintings and sculptures, pottery and bronze mirrors. 

 The marble tombstone pictured above (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England) is of a doctor with a Greek name and his wife (Claudius Agathemarus and Myrtale) from around AD 100, yet he is wearing a Roman toga and his wife a fashionable Roman wig. Greek doctors were highly esteemed in Roman cities.

Marble statue of man wearing a toga, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK

Marble statue of man wearing a toga (AD 100-150), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK

Early Roman Empire art moved from a focus on the gods to a glorification of Roman battles, leaders and the elite of society.

The Roman Empire was vast in size and military strength. It conquered much of the known world, building a network of roads across and throughout Europe, the Near East and North Africa. Roman leaders were given the title Pontifex Maximus and Roman citizens were told to worship the “spirit of Rome and the genius of the emperor.” 

The march of Roman expansionism was, at its core, religious. Despite the fact that Western democracy is based on Roman Empire example, there was not separation of church and state in ancient Rome, as I will go into in depth in my next blog. Romans believed in divine destiny and improved the landscape along the way with those straight Roman roads, bath houses, the aquifers, and, of course, grand architecture, such as the Colosseum (c. 80 AD) and the Pantheon (c. 130 AD).

As for early Roman Empire art, as in paintings and sculpture, the quest was on for more lifelike portraits and artistic renderings. It was customary for families to carry wax images of ancestors in funeral processions. The importance of getting the features right had a connection to their religious belief in preserving the soul for the afterlife.

Wooden face panels placed on mummified corpses, Rome (about 193-235 AD)

Wooden face panels placed on mummified corpses, Rome (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England)

The portraits shown here on encaustic (a mixture of wax and pigments) on wooden panels once fitted over the faces of mummified corpses. The woman dons a hairstyle, jewelry, and clothing fashionable about 100-120 AD, while the young man, perhaps a soldier, wears a cloak fastened with a gold brooch of around 193-235 AD. 

There is no attempt to make the depictions idealized or even complimentary. The result is that we have very real notions of what Pompey, Augustus, Titus and Nero looked like.

Bust of Emperor Vespasian, c. 70 AD.

Bust of Emperor Vespasian, c. 70 AD.

The bust of Emperor Vespasian is without flattery. Yet, we know from that age that citizens were required to burn incense in front of such busts of leaders to show loyalty and allegiance. We also know that a reason for early persecution of Christians was their refusal to do so.

In the first centuries AD, Greece and much of the Roman east came under the influence of the early Christians. The Apostle Paul of Tarsus preached in Macedon and Athens, challenging pagan beliefs and encouraging people to question the religious doctrine forced upon them by rulers.

Thoughts and ideas about the pagan gods of Egypt, Greece and Rome, the worship of early ancient leaders, the monotheistic God of the Hebrews and then the Christians, were all coming together in the vicinity of Athens, which became an educational and cultural center by the 2nd century AD with the opening of the University of Athens. 

This is also a subject for another blog, as early Roman Empire art moved forward on the heels of the religious, philosophical and political discussions of the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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