Roman art and culture

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Coloseeum | Author: Jimmy Walker | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

The Roman Empire grew as time passed. Romans themselves made contact with numerous peoples whose cultures were often more ancient and more appealing than Roman one. The Romans were, to an extent, beguiled by those, but still they made their own, original contribution to mankind’s cultural heritage.

Romans felt culturally inferior to the Greeks ever since the Roman state was created. The fascination with Hellenic culture began after establishing contact with Greek cities in the south of Italy. Hellenic influence spread quickly, and early Roman works can be considered copies of the Hellenic originals.

Romans did not develop a new, separate culture, but only assimilated themes from other civilizations. A branch of art at which the Romans excelled most was architecture, which developed under powerful Hellenic and Etruscan influences. Majestic structures like The Colosseum, Pantheon, thermae, temples, aqueducts or Roman roads remain until this day as a tribute to durability of Roman engineering.

Sculpture of an elderly man dated middle of the 1st century B.C.E. The work depicts either a priest or pater familias.
Author: shakko | Creative Commons License Author recognition - same conditions 3.0

Roman culture changed as centuries passed. The development of Roman art is commonly divided into periods: royal (6th century B.C.E.), republican (5th to 1st century B.C.E.), imperial (30 B.C.E. – until the end of 4th century C.E.). At the peak of its development the Roman state covered Western and Southern Europe, Northern Africa and Middle East. This period was characterized by massive interchange of religions, customs and art of all cultures comprising the empire.

Roman civilization, at its most primitive core was a culture of farmers and shepherds, but as the borders of the empire widened, it assimilated much more civilized peoples and took their culture as its own, hence the considerable Etruscan influences present in Roman culture. When the Romans conquered rich Greek city-states in 3rd century B.C.E, statues, paintings and jewels were brought to the capital. Citizens beheld and marvelled at the accomplishments of Greek art and architecture, and gradually altered their attitude to culture and science. Roman youth began travelling to Hellenic science centres. Romans were engrossed in philosophical works concerning ethics and theory of state and society.

One of the fines contributors to Roman culture was Emperor Augustus, who surrounded himself with men like Virgil, Horace and Ovid. Historiography also blossomed in the Roman Empire, whose most renowned historians were Tacitus, Suetonius Tranquillus or Plutarch. Caesar and Augustus also undertook the planned rebuilding of the city of Rome, which was to be an embodiment of greatness and might of the Roman Empire. At the centre of the city was the city square (forum), known in the capital as Forum Romanum, where the most important state buildings and temples were situated, as well as basilicas (large chambers used as markets and courthouses) and thecuria (Senate building). The following rulers added new buildings, as well as new fora. Among other important buildings were thermae – public baths (e.g. Baths of Caracalla), theatres and amphitheatres (like the Colosseum build by the Flavia) and circuses, where horse races were held. Engineering and technical sciences were of more appeal to the Romans than human sciences. The accomplishments of Roman engineering like roads and aqueducts still impress us today. A branch of art particular to Rome was portrait sculpture, naturalistically portraying visages of rulers, leaders and commoners.

Typical Roman mosaic depicting a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.

Sources

  • Kumaniecki Kazimierz, Historia kultury starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu
  • Piszczek Zdzisław (red.), Mała encyklopedia kultury antycznej, Warszawa 1983
  • Winniczuk Lidia, Mały słownik kultury antycznej: Grecja, Rzym, 1968

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