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Important Artworks of the Roman Republic

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  • 00:01 The Roman Republic
  • 00:40 Sculpture in the Roman…
  • 2:18 Art in the Roman Republic
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore some of the important trends in art during the Roman Republic and see some famous examples. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Roman Republic

In 509 BC, the people of the Kingdom of Rome did something rather drastic. They overthrew the king. Even more daring was their determination to never have another king again. To ensure this, the Romans developed a new style of government called the republic, controlled by elected officials who represented the will of the people in the Roman Senate. For nearly 500 years, the Roman Republic thrived until being replaced in 27 BC with their new empire. But for those nearly 500 years, they set the political, social, and artistic foundations for the rest of Western history.

Sculpture in the Roman Republic

With no king, a new system of government that spread power, and a wealthy class of landowners, art became popular in the Roman Republic. One of the most important styles of art was sculpture. Roman elites, like the Greeks before them, very often paid to have their images sculpted in bronze. However, Roman attitudes about this were very different.

While Greek statues presented an idealized figure, Roman sculptures were true portraits, capturing every wrinkle and dimple and strand of hair. The extreme devotion to a realistic depiction is called verism. Look at this statue of a Roman general, carved around 75 BC. The body is idealized, but the head is not. It is realistic and faithfully records the appearance of this general.

Note the realistic appearance of the head
Example of verism

The focus on verism, especially for the head, defined Roman sculpture. In fact, the Romans of the Republic were the first to start commissioning sculptures of just their heads, called 'busts'. The ancient Greeks believed that the head and body needed to remain connected. Ok, yes, most of us agree with this sentiment in general, but in art, the Romans believed that a portrait from the neck up was enough to capture the essence of the subject.

Two different busts

Just look at how different these are. The one on the left is Marcus Licinius Crassus; the one of the right is Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Totally different senses of their personalities, right? Look at these ones, portraits of Roman politicians, each one unique. Roman portraits used personal appearance to communicate the values of that person - strength, loyalty, bravery, patriotism, wisdom, or a number of other traits.

An assortment of busts showing verism
Busts of Roman politicians

Home Art in the Roman Republic

The statues and busts of people were most likely kept in their homes, and if you could afford a portrait bust, then you had a really nice home. So, you'd want to decorate it, right? The Romans decorated their homes with several forms of art, but one of the most prestigious was mosaic, images created by arranging several tiny pieces of colored tiles. Mosaics most often displayed images of Greek history or mythology, showing the increased connection between Rome and Greece at this time. For example, this Roman mosaic from the 3rd century BC is from the Greek legend of Odysseus.

Mosaic of Odysseus
Mosaic of Odysseus

And this one is a battle scene of Alexander the Great.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great
Mosaic of Alexander the Great

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