Substantive Education

March 20, 2009

Art of the Roman Republic

In a previous post we looked at the art of the Etruscans, now we are going to move forward into the art of the time when Rome was a republic.

First we need to know a little history. A group of Roman Aristocrats overthrew the last Tarquin king in 509 BC . For the next 450 year a small group of men, the senate, would rule Rome. By 275 BC Rome would control the entire Italian peninsula. For more than a century the Punic wars would rage finally coming to their conclusion in 146 BC. With the end of the Punic wars and the defeat of Carthage, Rome gained control of the entire western Mediterranean. By the mid second century BC Rome had conquered Greece, and by 44 BC they had acquired most of Gaul. ( modern day France.)

Aulus Metellus Bronze

Aulus Metellus Bronze

The sculpture of the Roman Republic period was influenced by the art they found in Greece but with their own twist. The Romans practiced ancestor worship. They venerated their deceased relatives and had death masks and sculptures made of them allowing the past generations to continue to participate in some ceremonies. This led to a desire to render realistic portraits.

This bronze of Aulus Metellus is life-sized. We know his name because it is inscribed on the hem of his clothing. The statue has been known since ancient times as ‘The Orator’ and the man stands as if addressing a crowd. He wears sturdy leather boots, an interesting thing to note…gods and goddesses were depicted barefoot and later on we will see that Augustus was sculpted barefoot, perhaps hinting at his deification.

The Romans were well aware of the propaganda value of portraits. This is why the

Denarius with portrait of Julius Caesar

Denarius with portrait of Julius Caesar

used them on coins. This relief sculpture of Julius Caesar on a Denarius accurately shows his careworn face and receding hairline. Roman coins are actually one of the ways we have accurate pictures or portraits of their many rulers.

The Romans developed the use of concrete to aid them in their massive building projects. Their use of concrete was a huge breakthrough that we probably take for granted. They were able to make massive building for less money and effort by building out of concrete and then applying a veneer of stone or marble over the concrete. This gave them greater freedom in the forms they could use, they didn’t have to transport as many heavy stones, and they could stretch their resources. Here we see a picture of how the concrete was used. There was a fill in the center, then often a layer of brick, and then a stone veneer. So while Greek buildings revealed their building materials, the Romans covered their up.

Model of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia

Model of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia

Another architectural feature of the Romans is the use of the round arch and vault. While other civilizations had used these, none to the degree that the Romans did. Here we can see the remains of the Sanctuary of the Fortuna Primigenia dedicated to the godess of fate and chance. The sanctuary was not discovered until after World War II when the area was being cleared of debris caused by bombings. It is a fine example of Republican architecture. It is built of concrete and is covered with a veneer of stucco and limestone.

There are seven terraces that ascend with long ramps and stairways connecting them. You can see the use of arches and colonnades. As you reach the upper levels there is a large semi-circle staircase leading to the actual temple of Fortuna. The temple is a rock cut cave where the actual acts of divination occurred.

More common temple structures were smaller urban temples built in the cities commercial centers. This temple sits

Roman temple

Roman temple

on a raised platform next to the Tiber River. While unsure, historians think it may have been dedicated to Portunus, the god of harbors and ports. It has a porch, a single set of steps, and a rectangular cella. It echoes the Greek temple plans that we have already looked at. Their are Ionic columns and two engaged columns…meaning part of the column is set into the wall. There is a frieze going around the entablature. This combining of designs and orders from the Greeks is typical of Roman buildings.



  1. Have you traveled to Europe at all Kelly? I can’t remember… With all your research and studies it would be wonderful for you to go to some ancient sites…

    Comment by Ellen — March 25, 2009 @ 11:23 pm | Reply

  2. Yes, the summer after high school when I studied at Cambridge I got to Italy…saw Rome and Venice and went on a cruise in the Mediterranean. Saw the Minoan sites, Athens, Ephesus etc. Was great, Fortunately I already had the 4 years of Latin and 2 years of Greek and both classes included a lot of ancient history study otherwise at that age I don’t know if I really would have appreciated what I was seeing. I’d love to go back. So you up for a trip to Italy instead of England sometime?

    Comment by kbagdanov — March 25, 2009 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t know about the instead part but it would be cool to go to Italy…

    Comment by Ellen — March 26, 2009 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

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