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Art & Design

  • Rethinking the Romans: New Views of Ancient Sculpture

    Ancient Art

    April 6, 2001 – January 2, 2009

  • Introduction

    The variety and number of Roman sculptures that survive today attest to the important role that statuary played in the lives of the Romans. Throughout the empire, sculpture enlivened the public spaces of their cities and decorated their homes and gardens. In order to understand and appreciate such works, their original contexts and functions must be considered. Only then can they be viewed for what they are – purposeful creations that embody the intentions, values, and attitudes of Roman artists and patrons.

    Objects of Luxury

    To Romans of early imperial times, an object fashioned of marble indicated that its owner was a person of taste and relative wealth. Any item made of marble was expensive, often relying on imported stone from the Greek mainland and other more distant sources. Recent recoveries of ancient shipwrecks have shown that several types of luxury goods that had seemed typically Roman were actually first produced in Greece, to be eventually copied and developed on Italian soil. Objects so recovered include marble column shafts, vases, candelabra, roundels or disks with mythological creatures in relief, statues, lamps, and furniture. The Romans loved such works with a passion and displayed them with pride in their homes, gardens, baths, and grottoes.

    Sculptural Fragments

    Through the years, fragments of ancient statues have evoked a variety of responses, each reflective of then-current cultural attitudes. During the Renaissance, for example, sculptors began to restore missing limbs, heads, and attributes to ancient statues for aesthetic reasons. Early in the 19th century, however, attitudes began to change with the British government’s acquisition of marble sculpture from the Athenian Acropolis, gathered under Lord Elgin’s authority. Asked by the British for advice on treating this group, the eminent Italian sculptor Antonio Canova declared that since no living artist was capable of matching their style, the marbles should not be restored. The effects of his opinion were far-reaching, contributing to a decreased interest in restoring ancient sculpture. Over time, fragmentary sculptures have come to be valued as romantic objects evocative of a long-distant past, while also being viewed as physical evidence of life in ancient times.

    The Trade in Marble

    Roman networks of marble trade and artistic exchange were surprisingly international. Although cities across the Roman empire (particularly Rome, Cyrene, and Leptis Magna) displayed quantities of marble sculpture, there were only a select few quarry sites. These included Mt. Pendeli near Athens, the islands of Thasos and Paros in the Aegean Sea, Dokimeion and Aphrodisias in Asia Minor (now Turkey), Proconnesos in the Sea of Marmara, and Luna (modern Carrara) in Italy.

    Correlating information from sites where marble was quarried with evidence from sites where marble was used indicates patterns of marble trade around the Mediterranean. Such information has suggested date ranges for quarry sites and objects, as well as political links between cities during certain periods. As a result, marble testing and quarry research have become important tools in evaluating sculpture, at times revealing not only where the stone of a statue originated, but when and how it was carved.

    Copies, Variants, and Adaptations

    Over the last two centuries, Western culture has placed high value on the originality and singularity of artwork, celebrating both the differences from that which came before and the unique properties of an individual work. Such modern attitudes have fostered a devaluation of Roman ideal sculptures – images of gods and goddesses, personifications of nature, heroes, and athletes – that survive today in multiple versions. These works often depict familiar subjects rendere d in poses and styles evocative of earlier Greek works, which were part of the Romans’ cultural inheritance.

    The context of the creation of these works by artists during the first few centuries of our era was a complex world dominated by Rome without benefit of modern mass media. In this world, visual art objects were primary agents of communication. Images became recognizable through consistency of form. As a result, originality and singularity carried less importance than they do today.

    Many traditional Greek images took on new meaning when employed in a Roman context, while others were adapted slightly for their display in Roman settings. These reflective sculptures should be thought of as thoroughly Roman works of art: intentional creations that embody the values and attitudes of Roman artists and patrons, rather than as illustrations of ancient texts, clues to absent masterpieces, or slavish copies.


    Roman patrons commissioned pieces of sculpture to convey particular, often self-promoting, messages. Portrait statues of the emperors, for example, often served to announce significant events of their reigns. In funerary portraits, Romans often had themselves depicted in the guise of particular deities or with features resembling those of imperial family members, in order to evoke certain associations.

    There were also clear ideas behind the commissioning of idealized sculptures of gods and goddesses, personifications of nature, heroes, and athletes, which the Romans displayed in their public squares, baths, markets, libraries, and theaters, as well as in houses, villas and gardens. Always mindful of the appropriateness of sculpture to its setting and context, the Romans mixed and matched traditional elements of pose, attribute, and style to create new artworks and sculptural groupings with specific meaning for their world.

Selected objects from Rethinking the Romans: New Views of Ancient Sculpture