Ancient Rome was a turning point in history. It is considered by many to be one of the most important and influential societies to ever dominate Earth. At Rome’s peak in the history of civilization, one could not go anywhere from Spain to Saudi Arabia without being influenced in some way or another by the empire. Over the twelve centuries of Rome’s existence, it produced hundreds upon thousands of architects, musicians, playwrights, actors, sculptures and many other artists of all kinds. Arguably though, Rome is most known for its stunning architecture, classic sculptures and beautiful paintings.
The architecture of ancient Rome was born out of necessity rather than for beauty. Rome was the most populated city of its time and was more populated than any city ever up until that point. At its height, it was the home to approximately one million people, with some researchers reporting populations up to 18 million. Comparatively, it was about the size of London during the beginning of the 19th century. This large population created the need of efficient buildings that could be made fast and made to house many at a time. The necessity for these types of houses became the birth of the modern day apartments, known then as “Insulate.” These structures were built exclusively for large scale housing and, much like the apartments we know of in this day and age could reach stunning heights. However, these buildings were not known for their stability and would often collapse in on themselves, catch on fire and were just generally unhealthy. However, Roman architects met the needs of their residents on many other occasions.
A great example of architects meeting the requirements of a massive population was Rome’s stunning sanitation system. They created massive, beautiful public baths, known as “thermae” as well as indoor plumbing and complex sewer systems. One of the most particularly famous bath houses is called the Baths of Diocletian. The Baths of Diocletian were considered to be the greatest bath house ever created in the entire Ancient Roman Empire and its beauty and grandeur still shock and awe visitors to this day. It was dedicating in 306 AD and it took approximately eight years to build. Although many baths created in Rome were similar in design, the Baths of Diocletian were exceptional by the sheer size of the building. The baths are approximately 120,000 sq. meters in size and could hold upwards of 3000 citizens at any given point in time. Bath houses like these were especially important to Roman citizens because this is where a large portion of the citizens would go to get fresh water and to clean themselves since many of them, save for the extremely rich, did not have water running directly into their houses.
The baths are indeed an amazing part of Roman architecture, but how did these massive bathing houses get the water that made them so important to Roman society? The answer is another remarkable Roman architecture feet; the aqueducts. The aqueducts were used to constantly bring and circulate water through Roman cities and towns from places far away. They worked by wonderful architecture ingenuity. They used only gravity to move the water into and out of towns. The architects would build these aqueducts down a slight, constant, descending gradient. The first Roman aqueduct simply supplied water to a fountain built by the cattle-market. However, by the beginning of the 3rd century, eleven aqueducts had been created that flowed directly to the city to sustain Rome’s outstanding population.
The insulate, bathhouses and aqueducts are all well-known architectural features of Ancient Rome, but pinnacle of the art of Roman architecture came in the form of the most popular building in the city; the Colosseum. The construction on this building started in 72 AD and was finished by 80 AD. It was capable of seating approximately 50,000 visitors and was used for a large variety of different activities. These could range from the famous gladiator fights to public speeches to even mock sea battles. Over the years however, it was used for an even larger variety of purposes such as a fortress, quarry, workshops, housing and even a Christian shrine. It stood as the shining point of the Roman Empire. Any visitors from foreign lands would come into the city and see the massive structure and be awed. It was four stories high, had access to running water, was surrounded by artificial lakes, gardens and pavilions and could seat comfortably a large portion of Rome’s ever growing population. The building still stands today even after the devastating natural disasters, such as earthquakes and the Great Fire of Rome, and stone robbers.
Roman architecture is something to be awed by. It combined ingenuity with a great usage of tools and materials. This begs the question of how in the world did the Romans build such large and incredible structures so long ago? The answer is they discovered a building material so impressive it is still used today, and every day, in construction sites all over the world; concrete. It is hard to find a historically accurate date in which concrete was discovered, but scholars believe it was put into use around the middle of the first century. It was used throughout the entire Roman Empire for all of their building and construction needs and concrete was the answer. It was “hydraulic-setting cement” and shared many of the same qualities as the modern Portland cement. The cement consisted of volcanic dusts, gypsum and lime as binders and it is thought that the cement could even set under water. Throughout the years Romans refine the technology of their concrete to better suit their environment. The Mediterranean area is very prone to earthquakes and the Romans tweaked their concrete to hold up to the damage the quakes could bring. It is thought that this is the reason buildings from that time period are still around to this day, thousands of years later.
Ancient Roman sculptures are other works of arts that can still be found in museums to this day. Sadly, the study of these sculptures is problematic due to their similarity to the Ancient Greek style of work. However, over the years, many art historians changed their views from thinking that Ancient Romans had a very narrow and imitational style to considering that many types of Greek art may, in fact, be a copy of Roman art. The forte of the Ancient Roman sculptures was in portraiture, or the representation of somebody. Romans were particularly concerned with the portraiture of their gods such as Jupiter, Mercury and Neptune as well as their emperor “gods” Augustus, Julius and Nero.
Romans emperor were notoriously known for creating extravagant sculptures in their honor. Hands down the most famous of all statues was the world-famous Colossus of Nero. It was a gigantic bronze stature of the Emperor Nero. However, after Nero’s death, the statue was modified many times to resemble a variety of different things from the Roman’s sun god to the mythological hero Hercules. The construction of the statue began at approximately 64 A.D. and was done by 68 A.D. The statue reached 106.5 “Roman Feet”, or 30.3 meters and some sources suggest it was even taller. It was changed from Nero to Sol Invictus right after Nero’s death at around 68 A.D. The succeeding emperor Vespasian added a crown made into the likeness of the sun and renamed the Colossus of Nero into the Colossus Solis. The statue was commissioned to be moved to create space for the Temple of Venus and Roma in 70 A.D. and it is said the statue was so massive it took twenty-four elephants to move it. Emperor Commodus, the emperor after Hadrian, took it upon himself to convert the statue into himself as Hercules. After the death of Commodus, the statue was restored and it remained so until it was destroyed.
There are many different ideas and hypothesis about how the statue was destroyed. The last recorded mention of the Colossus of Nero was in the Chronography of 354. Nothing is left of the statue today except for its pedestal. Many researchers believe that it could have been lost in the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D. It could have also been taken down by one of the many earthquakes in the fifth century. Whatever happened to the Colossus of Nero, it is still known today as one of the most awe-inspiring works of Ancient Rome.
Another famous Roman sculpture is the Ara Pacis Augustae, or most commonly known as the Ara Pacis. It is an altar to the Roman goddess Peace was commissioned by the Senate in 13 B.C. to celebrate the homecoming of the Emperor Augustus after three years away in war. It was built to remind the Roman people of the accomplishments of Julius Ceaser and his era. It could be found in the outskirts of Rome near the floodplains of the Tiber River. Ironically, its location is what caused the Ara Pacis to be lost after a flood buried the altar in four meters of dirt and silt for centuries. It was eventually rediscovered in the 20th century where it was moved away from the floodplain to its current location at around 1937 A.D.
The last famous outlet of Ancient Roman art was the paintings. The Ancient Romans lived in a society that was extremely visual. You could not step a foot outside without seeing some sort of art, be it architectural, sculptural or even paintings on the wall. This made Ancient Rome a zenith for artists from all around the world. This included a vast majority of painters. There were several documented types of paintings and a large variety of subjects such as animals, scenes from everyday life, still life, mythological subjects and portraits.
Roman artwork can be compared to the Greek’s simply because the Greeks and Romans influenced each other’s art so much. However, Ancient Roman art’s main innovation compared to Ancient Greek art was in landscapes and their development by the Romans. Romans incorporated the technique of perspective 1,515 years before true mathematical perspective. They also applied surface textures, coloration, and shading. The landscapes scenes were mostly of pure nature, usually of gardens with trees and abundant flowers, while others showed famous scenes from mythology. Another strong form of Roman paintings was their famous portraits. Their most prestigious type of art, other than sculptures, was panel paintings. They were paint their scenes and portraits on wooden panels. Sadly, because wooden panels are perishable materials, not many of these types of works of art still survive.
However, the portraits that have survived show a single person, with only their head and upper chest visible. The background of these portraits is almost always neutral and plain, which sharply contrasts the remarkably realistic painting of the person. Besides landscape and portrait paintings, Ancient Romans were constantly painting triumphal paintings as well. They showed the triumphant entries of the military after their victories as well as signifying countless episodes from war and the cities and regions the Roman Legion conquered. As you can imagine, these paintings were very popular in the proud and conquering city of Rome.
These paintings, as well as many other Ancient Roman paintings, are no longer around in modern times. Be that due to Rome’s countless earthquakes, floods, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii, or even simply just the decaying effects of time Despite the ever going flow of time, natural disasters, human sieges and any of the innumerable things that could have happened to Ancient Roman art, there are still so many pieces left today that us humans can enjoy at art exhibits and museums around the world. From Ancient Roman buildings such as the Colosseum or the bath houses which still stand all the way to wall art left intact by the thick layer of ashes left by Mt. Vesuvius in the houses of Pompeii, there are many works of art we can still enjoy today.
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