7 Ancient Roman Sculptures You Need to Know
Augustus of Prima Porta, early 1st century. Photo by Tyler Bell, via Flickr
The history of the Roman Empire, which spans hundreds of years and multiple continents, is chronicled in statues and monuments its citizens left behind. The ancient Romans combined previously unimaginable military might with a similarly vigilant commitment to public art, which served as both political propaganda and a means to commemorate military and diplomatic feats.
However, Roman art owes a significant debt to the Greeks. Although the Romans conquered the Greeks in the Battle of Corinth in 146 B.C.E., the military victory was not accompanied by cultural submission. Instead, elite Romans clamored for reproductions of famed marble sculptures by skilled Greek artists like Praxiteles. Most Roman sculptors, though, never achieved such fame. Their copies were often left unsigned due to the low-class status of the artisans and the general preference among Romans for works by Greek masters.Today, many of the most iconic Greek sculptures survive only as Roman reproductions.
The Romans left their own mark on sculpture by taking portraiture to an unprecedented level of verism and creating vast public works projects depicting complex mythologies and military victories. Starting with Augustus, the first emperor, Roman leaders started to use statues as propaganda; these works, usually made in marble or bronze, frequently idealized their bodies and emphasized (often fictional) connections to great military commanders of the past. Many artifacts and artworks survive from the Roman era. These are the seven sculptures essential to understanding the empire’s vast contributions to the history of art.
The Orator, 1st Century B.C.E.
The Orator (“L' Arringatore”), 1st century B.C.E. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
A life-size bronze statue of a man named Aule Metele, commonly known as The Orator, dates back to the early 1st century B.C.E., and alludes to the origins of the Roman Empire. The Orator raises his arm to a crowd; although he is Etruscan, he wears an outfit typical of a Roman magistrate: a short toga and boots.
The sculptor inscribed his Etruscan name and the names of his parents on the statue, but his appearance is representative of the complete absorption of the Etruscans by the Romans. Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings from the 7th century B.C.E. until the last Etruscan king was expelled in 510 B.C.E. Roman absorption of the thousand-year-old civilization was complete by the 1st century B.C.E. The statue, now housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence, speaks to the value of civil servants in the early Roman Republic, as well as its complete domination over any culture it invaded.
Head of a Roman Patrician, 1st century B.C.E.
Head of a Roman Patrician from Otricoli, c. 75-50 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Head of a Roman Patrician from Otricoli, c. 75-50 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The wrinkled, aged face of this unknown upper-class Roman citizen is representative of the ideals of the Roman Republic, which prized public service and their society’s military strength above all else. Instead of merely copying Greek marble statues by creating idealized images of their leaders as gods, citizens of the Roman Republic wanted to showcase their values in human form. To that end, this bust shies away from presenting the subject as a young, athletic man, but rather emphasizes his age—and therefore wisdom—through distinct wrinkles carved into his face and neck. The bust, dated to the 1st century B.C.E., also alludes to the politics of its time: the early Roman Republic was ruled only by patricians. These aristocratic Romans later established a partnership with wealthy plebeians, but the Republic’s widening social inequality eventually led to its downfall.
Augustus from Prima Porta, 1st century C.E.
After he ended a century of civil war, Augustus ascended to power to become the first emperor of Rome. Augustus was an avid supporter of public art and he used his commissions to legitimize his newly-created role. He ordered around 70 portrait statues of himself. Collectively, they suggest his noble lineage stretching back to Romulus, the founder of Rome.
This full-body marble statue, dated to the 1st century C.E., was found in the ruins of the Villa of Livia (Augustus’s wife) at Prima Porta and is now on display at the Vatican. It highlights Augustus’s military might and refers to the Republic’s past golden age, to which, under his rule, he purported to return. Illustrating those ambitions, Augustus’s breastplate highlights a personal diplomatic victory: it shows a Parthian king reinstating military standards previously captured from Roman legions. And to reinforce the emperor’s divine right to rule (and his divine lineage), Cupid, son of the goddess Venus, stands at Augustus’s right ankle.
Strict verism is rejected here; instead, Augustus is presented as an idealized figure, with an athletic body more representative of a classical Greek sculpture than a realistic Roman emperor. His head and body recall a 5th century B.C.E. statue of Doryphoros, or spear-bearer, by the Greek sculptor Polykeitos. The statue is identifiable as Augustus by the locks of hair that Augustus’s official artists always included to make all statues of the emperor identifiable to the Roman public.
Fonseca Bust, 2nd century C.E.
Fonseca Bust, 2nd century C.E. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Fonseca Bust, dated to the beginning of the 2nd century C.E., is currently housed at Rome’s Musei Capitolini. Portraits of elite Roman women tended to be far less realistic than their male counterparts, as they were commissioned to emphasize female beauty and the latest fashions rather than veristic portrayals. The curls piled on top of this woman’s head don’t only make her the most fashionable entry on this list, but also allude to the Romans’ fascination with elaborate hairstyles. Wealthy Roman women hired stylists to curl their hair with irons or to sew in extensions. This look certainly would have required extensions. (Those without the funds necessary for a personal stylist could go to a local barber or hairdresser.)
This bust most likely depicts a woman from the Flavian dynasty (69–96 C.E.). Portraits of men from this era heavily favored realistic portrayals, but this portrait is idealized to emphasize the sitter’s beauty. There are many similar examples of busts from this period showing women with elaborately curled, Marie Antoinette-esque hair; sculptors were able to create the delicate tendrils thanks to new advancements in drills and artistic technique.
Trajan’s Column, 110 C.E.
Apollodorus of Damascus, Trajan's Column, 113 C.E. Photo by Allan T. Kohl / Art Images for College Teaching (AICT).
Trajan’s Column is one of many public works commissioned by Emperor Trajan after he conquered Dacia (in modern day Romania) in 107 C.E., a victory that stretched the Roman Empire to its greatest size. The column, which also served as Trajan’s tomb, is over 100 feet tall and is decorated with a continuous spiral frieze commemorating the two battles against Dacia. Although the column has been used by archaeologists to better understand both Roman military strategy and the elusive Dacian culture, speculation remains as to the accuracy of its narrative.
The frieze contains over 2,000 figures carved in shallow relief and Trajan is represented 58 times. In one scene, Trajan’s soldiers present him with two severed enemy heads. The column was a masterpiece of propaganda. It was erected soon after the battle, around 110 C.E., and still stands in its original location, in the Forum of Trajan in Rome. Although it originally stood between two libraries, the rest of the forum has fallen to ruin, making the column the lone reminder of the emperor’s military prowess.
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, ca. 176 C.E.
A bronze likeness of Marcus Aurelius astride his horse, likely erected around 176 C.E., has served as a model for most equestrian statues throughout the history of European art. The artist depicted the duo in motion: the emperor, who reigned from 161 to 180 C.E., lifts his right arm while his horse raises its right foreleg, showcasing impressively detailed musculature.
Equestrian statues were common in ancient Rome; they honored military and civic achievements, but few survive fully intact. Many pagan statues were destroyed by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, though this particular work was saved because it was mistakenly believed to represent Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. The statue originally stood in the Lateran Palace, a home to noblemen and later a papal residence, in Rome from around the 8th century until it was moved in 1538 to the Piazza del Campidoglio, on top of the city’s Capitoline Hill. There, Michelangelo, an ardent admirer of its realistic sense of movement, refurbished it. In 1981, the statue was relocated to the Palazzo dei Conservatori for preservation; a copy now stands in its place on the piazza.
The Four Tetrarchs, 300 C.E.
The Four Tetrarchs , 4th century B.C.E. Photo by Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons.
Tucked away in a corner of the Piazza San Marco, the Four Tetrarchs are overlooked by many visitors to Venice. However, the sculpture’s subject matter, style, and materials all allude to the enlarged structure of the late Roman Empire. It is made from porphyry, a rare Egyptian rock with a distinct reddish-purple coloring, and is meant to emphasize imperial power. The sculpture represents the Tetrarchy, a government created by Emperor Diocletian to end the civil wars and foreign invaders that had besieged Rome for decades. The empire was becoming too large for any one man to rule, so he created the Tetrarchy, or “rule of four,” where he divided the empire in half and appointed an emperor and vice-emperor to each side.
The four similar-looking figures are divided into pairs, with each half featuring one bearded and one smooth-faced emperor. Each of the four emperors holds his sword with one hand, signifying valor and authority, and embraces his fellow man with the other hand, emphasizing friendship. These figures are likely not meant to represent a particular ruler but rather evoke the power of the office. This style of suppressing individual identity in favor of the collective strays away from both verism and Classicism, and is instead more reminiscent of the Early Christian style. The statue hasn’t always been in Italy—it was stolen from Constantinople in the 13th century, where it had been for close to 1,000 years.