Art History for Normal People: Rome

Alternately titled: “Upsetting classicists with broad generalizations about the Romans”

Art History for Normal People
IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I) • Ancient Greece (Part II)

There is a persistent idea that the ancient Greeks were sophisticated urbanites concerned with the arts, democracy, and philosophy, while the ancient Romans that followed them were belligerent brutes who cared only for law, justice, and war.

This is only partially true.

One thing — an accidental discovery — allowed the Romans to surpass anything the Greeks thought possible: concrete. Concrete allowed the Romans to lay down roads quickly, transport troops and their heavy equipment, build aqueducts and sewers, supply their colonies, and travel more-or-less freely across the Mediterranean world. In short, concrete allowed the Romans to build a largely peaceful and prosperous empire, one in which the arts could flourish.

Art and Liturgy - Pont du Gard ancient Roman aqueduct in southern France
The Pont du Gard, in southern France, is the textbook example of Roman engineering prowess. This aqueduct carried water from the mountains to a town apx. 30 miles away
Art and Liturgy - Column of Trajan ancient Rome
The 115-foot Column of Trajan is a rare example of Roman art that rivals Greek skill. It is decorated with a continuous sculpture that winds up to the top.

Of course, the art of the Roman world never quite equalled the elegance and technical skill achieved by the Greeks. On a few occasions, they came close. Many sculptures, bronze and marble alike, previously thought to be Roman, were actually copies of Greek originals.

In architecture, as with nearly everything else, Romans adopted Greek forms and then surpassed them. When we think of a Greek temple, we think of white marble glistening in the Aegean sun. As it happens, that marble was almost always concealing a wooden framework within. This wooden framework limited the size the Greeks were able to achieve. They simply didn’t know how to build massive buildings, and I mean that in the least condescending way possible.

Thanks to the development of caementum, the Romans were able to expand (literally) on these Greek forms. The chief example of this is the Pantheon in Rome, which looks from the front like an average Greek temple, with the white marble portico and columns surrounding the main entrance. On the inside, however, you enter into a vast, enclosed space, the likes of which had never been seen before in the ancient world. The idea of a dome that size was simply inconceivable, before the development of cement. The Pantheon, and other buildings like it, was meant to stun, and it did.

Art and Liturgy - Pantheon interior dome - Ancient Rome
Interior view of the Pantheon, with cement dome

With cement at their disposal, Romans began building for size. This is why the scale of Roman works is so much larger than that of their Greek forerunners. It isn’t that the Romans were meathead troglodytes who thought BIGGER = BETTER, but the size of their buildings was a testament to Romans’ skill as architects and engineers, and therefore was a statement about the size and strength and progress of Rome.

It is worth mentioning here that, while Greeks were, in general, concerned with straight lines and determining perfect proportions, Romans tended to be more interested in arches, domes, curves, and so on. This was almost certainly an effect of the ubiquity of concrete, which allowed the architects and engineers — who enjoyed extremely high social status throughout Rome — to experiment with these previously unattainable forms.

Art and Liturgy - Colosseum - Ancient Rome arches
The Ancient Roman love for arches and curves on full display

In 312, the emperor Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. This is the only date I remember from sophomore Church History with Mr. Royals.

Two things resulted from Constantine’s victory: first, Maxentius was sentenced to damnatio memoriae, which, HOLY SMOKES. WHAT A PUNISHMENT. Second, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan the following year, which gave Christianity legal status within the empire.

Prior to this event, early Christian art in Rome was largely private, like frescos inside catacombs. As more and more Romans became Christians, particularly the wealthy elite, art and architecture begin to develop quickly, and Christianity began to adopt Roman architectural forms, like the basilica. Mosaic was wildly popular throughout Rome even before this point, but now we begin to see mosaic used in sacred settings, a tradition that would be continued by the Byzantine empire and is used even today.


Pont du Gard photo by Benh LIEU SONG – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Column of Trajan photo by Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Pantheon interior photo by Richjheath – Own work, Public Domain,

Colosseum photo by Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

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