Among the civilizations of the ancient
world, that of the Romans is far more accessible to us than any other.
We can trace its history with a wealth of detail that never ceases to
amaze us: the growth of the Roman domain from city-state to empire; its
military and political struggles; its changing social structure, the
development of its institutions; and the public and private lives of its
leading personalities. Nor is this a matter of chance. The Romans
themselves seem to have wanted it that way. Articulate and
posterity-conscious, they have left a vast literary legacy, from poetry
and philosophy to humble inscriptions recording everyday events, and an
equally huge mass of visible monuments that were scattered throughout
their Empire, from England to the Persian Gulf, from Spain to Romania.
Yet, paradoxically, there are few questions more difficult to answer
than "What is Roman art?" The Roman genius, so clearly recognizable in
every other sphere of human activity, becomes oddly elusive when we ask
whether there was a characteristic Roman style in the tine arts,
particularly painting and sculpture.
Why is this so.-" The most obvious reason is the great admiration the
Romans had tor Greek art of every period and variety. They imported
originals of earlier date—Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic—by the
thousands and had them copied in even greater numbers. In addition,
their own production was clearly based on Greek sources, and many of
their artists, from Republican times to the end of the Empire, were of
Greek origin. Moreover, Roman authors show little concern with the art
of their own time. They tell us a good deal about the development of
Greek art as described in Greek writings on the subject. Or they speak
of artistic production during the early days of the Roman Republic, of
which not a trace survives today, but rarely about contemporary works.
While anecdotes or artists' names may be mentioned incidentally in other
contexts, the Romans never developed a rich literature on the history,
theory, and criticism of art such as had existed among the Greeks. Nor
do we hear of Roman artists who enjoyed individual fame, although the
great names of Greek art—Polyclitus, Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippus—were
praised as highly as ever.
One might be tempted to conclude, therefore, that the Romans themselves
looked upon the art of their time as being in decline compared with the
great Greek past, whence all important creative impulses had come. This,
indeed, was the prevalent attitude among scholars until not very long
ago. Roman art, they claimed, is essentially Greek art in its final
decadent phase—Greek art under Roman rule. Hence, there is no such thing
as Roman style, only Roman subject matter. Yet the fact remains that, as
a whole, the art produced under Roman auspices does look distinctly
different from Greek art. Otherwise our problem would not have arisen.
If we insist on evaluating this difference by Greek standards, it will
appear as a process of decay. If, on the other hand, we interpret it as
expressing different, un-Greek intentions, we are likely to see it in a
less negative light.
Once we admit that art under the Romans had positive un-Greek qualities,
we cannot very well regard these innovations as belonging to the final
phase of Greek art, no matter how many artists of Greek origin we may
find in Roman records. Actually, the Greek names of these men do not
signify much. Most of the artists, it seems, were thoroughly Romanized.
In any event, the great majority of Roman works of art are unsigned, and
their makers, for all we know, may have come from any part of the
far-flung Roman domain.
The Empire was a cosmopolitan society in which national or regional
traits were soon absorbed into the common all-Roman pattern set by the
capital, the city of Rome. From the very start Roman society proved
astonishingly tolerant of alien traditions. It had a way of
accommodating them all, so long as they did not threaten the security of
the state. The populations of newly conquered provinces were not forced
into a uniform straitjacket but, rather, were put into a fairly
low-temperature melting pot. Law and order, and a token reverence for
the symbols of Roman rule, were imposed on them. At the same time,
however, their gods and sages were hospitably received in the capital,
and eventually they themselves would be given the rights of citizenship.
Roman civilization and Roman art thus acquired not only the Greek
heritage but, to a lesser extent, that of the Etruscans, and of Egypt
and the Near East as well. All this made for an extraordinarily complex
and open society, homogeneous and diverse at the same time. The
sanctuary of Mithras accidentally unearthed in the center of London
offers a striking illustration of the cosmopolitan character of Roman
society. The god is Persian in origin but he had long since become a
Roman "citizen," and his sanctuary, now thoroughly and uniquely Roman in
form, can be matched by hundreds of others throughout the Empire.
Under such conditions, it would be little short of a miracle if Roman
art were to show a consistent style such as we found in Egypt, or the
clear-cut evolution that distinguishes the art of Greece. Its
development, to the extent that we understand it today, might be likened
to a counterpoint of divergent tendencies that may exist side by side,
even within a single monument, and none of them ever emerges as
overwhelmingly dominant. The ''Roman-ness" of Roman art must be found in
this complex pattern, rather than in a single and consistent quality of
form—and that is precisely its strength.
If the autonomy of Roman sculpture and painting has been questioned,
Roman architecture is a creative feat of such magnitude as to silence
all doubts of this sort. Its growth, moreover, from the very start
reflected a specifically Roman way of public and private life. Greek
models, though much admired, no longer sufficed to accommodate the sheer
numbers of people in large public buildings necessitated by the Empire.
And when it came to supplying the citizenry with everything it needed,
from water to entertainment on a grand scale, radical new torms had to
be invented, and cheaper materials and quicker methods had to be used.
From the beginning, the growth of the capital city of Rome is hardly
thinkable without the arch and the vaulting systems derived from it: the
barrel vault, a half-cylinder; the groin vault, which consists of two
barrel vaults intersecting each other at right angles: and the dome (see
figs. 239 and 327). The same is equally true of concrete,
a mixture of mortar and gravel with rubble (small pieces of building
stone and brick). Concrete construction had been invented in the Near
East more than a thousand years earlier, but the Romans developed its
potential until it became their chief building technique. The advantages
of concrete are obvious: strong, cheap, and flexible, it alone made
possible the vast architectural enterprises that are still the chief
reminders of "the grandeur that was Rome." The Romans knew how to hide
the unattractive concrete surface behind a facing of brick, stone, or
marble, or by covering it with smooth plaster. Today, this decorative
skin has disappeared from the remains of most Roman buildings, leaving
the concrete core exposed and thus depriving these ruins of the appeal
that those of Greece have for us.
"TEMPLE OF FORTUNA VIRILIS."
Any elements borrowed from the Etruscans or Greeks were soon marked with
an unmistakable Roman stamp. These links with the past are strongest in
the temple types developed during the Republican period (510-60 B.C.),
the heroic age of Roman expansion. The delightful small "Temple of
Fortuna Virilis" is the oldest well-preserved example of its kind (fig.
240). (The name is sheer fancy, for the sanctuary seems to have been
dedicated to the Roman god of harbors, Portunus.) Built in Rome during
the last years of the second century B.C., it suggests, in the elegant
proportions of its Ionic columns and entablature, the wave of Greek
influence following the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C. Yet it is
not simply a copy of a Greek temple, for we recognize a number of
Etruscan elements: the high podium, the deep porch, and the wide cella,
which engages the columns of the peristyle. However, the cella is no
longer subdivided into three compartments as it had been under the
Etruscans; it now encloses a single unified space (fig. 241). The
Romans needed spacious temple interiors, since they used them not only
for the image of the deity but also for the display of trophies
(statues, weapons, etc.) brought back by their conquering armies. The
"Temple of Fortuna Virilis" thus represents a well-integrated new type
of temple designed for Roman requirements, not a haphazard cross of
Etruscan and Greek elements. It was to have a long life. Numerous
examples of it, usually large and with Corinthian columns, can be found
as late as the second century A.D., both in Italy and in the provincial
capitals of the Empire.
240. "Temple of Fortuna Virilis,"
Rome. Late 2nd century B.C/
241. Plan of the "Temple of Fortuna
TEMPLE OF THE SIBYL.
Another type of Republican temple is seen in the so-called "Temple of
the Sibyl" at Tivoli (figs. 242 and 243), erected a few
decades later than the "Temple of Fortuna Virilis." It, too, was the
result of the merging of two separate traditions. Its original ancestor
was a structure in the center of Rome in which the sacred flame of the
city was kept. This building at first had the shape of the traditional
round peasant huts in the Roman countryside. Later on it was redesigned
in stone, under the influence of Greek structures of the tholos type,
and thus became the model for the round temples of late Republican
times. Here again we find the high podium, with steps only opposite the
entrance, and a graceful Greek-inspired exterior. As we look closely at
the cella, we notice that while the door and window frames are of cut
stone, the wall is built in concrete, visible now that the marble facing
that once disguised it is gone.
242. "Temple of the Sibyl," Tivoli. Early
1st century B.C.
243. Plan of the "Temple of the Sibyl"
SANCTUARY OF FORTUNA PRIMIGENIA.
Roman buildings characteristically speak to us through their massive
size and boldness of conception. The oldest monument in which these
qualities are fully in evidence is the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia
at Palestrina, in the foothills of the Apennines east of Rome (fig.
244). Here, in what was once an important Etruscan stronghold, a
strange cult had been established since early times, dedicated to
Fortuna (Fate) as a mother deity and combined with a famous oracle. The
Roman sanctuary dates from the early first century B.C. Its size and
shape were almost completely hidden by the medieval town that had been
built over it, until a bombing attack in 1944 destroyed most of the
later houses and thus laid bare the remains of the huge ancient temple
precinct. (The semicircular edifice is of much later date.) The site
originally had a series of ramps leading up to a broad colonnaded
terrace, and the entire structure was crowned by a great colonnaded
court. Arched openings, framed by engaged columns and architraves,
played an important part in the second terrace, just as semicircular
recesses did in the first. These openings were covered by barrel vaults,
another characteristic feature of the Roman architectural vocabulary.
Except for a niche with the columns and entablature on the lower
terrace, all the surfaces now visible are of concrete, like the cella of
the round temple at Tivoli. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a complex
as enormous as this could have been constructed otherwise.
244. Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia,
Praeneste (Palestrina). Early 1st
What makes the sanctuary at Palestrina so imposing, however, is not
merely its scale but the superb way it fits the site.
An entire hillside, comparable to the Acropolis of Athens in its
commanding position, has been transformed and articulated so that the
architectural forms seem to grow out of the rock, as if human beings had
simply completed a design laid out by nature itself. Such a molding of
great open spaces had never been possible, or even desired, in the
Classical Greek world. The only comparable projects are found in Egypt
(see the Temple of Hatshepsut, figs. 74 and 75). Nor did
it express the spirit of the Roman Republic. Significantly enough, the
Palestrina sanctuary dates from the time of Sulla, whose absolute
dictatorship (82-79 B.C.) marked the transition from Republican
government to the one-man rule of Julius Caesar and his Imperial
successors. Since Sulla had won a great victory against his enemies in
the civil war at Palestrina. it is tempting to assume that he personally
ordered the sanctuary built, both as an offering to Fortuna and as a
monument to his own fame.
Perhaps inspired by the Palestrina complex, Julius Caesar, near the end
of his life, sponsored a project planned on a similar scale in Rome
itself: the Forum Julium, a great architecturally framed square
adjoining the Temple of Venus Genetrix, the mythical ancestress of
Caesar's family. Here the merging of religious cult and personal glory
is even more overt. The Forum of Caesar set the pattern for all the
later Imperial forums, which were linked to it by a common major axis,
forming the most magnificent architectural sight of the Roman world (fig.
245). Unfortunately, nothing is left of the forums today but a
stubbly field of ruins that conveys little of their original splendor.
245. Plan of the Forums, Rome.