Social Status & Artistic Expression in Ancient Rome

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  • 0:02 Art for All
  • 0:44 Roman Art for the…
  • 2:12 Roman Art for the Wealthy
  • 3:44 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 the various styles of Roman art that were available to people of different social classes. You can then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Art for All

Do you like art? Of course you do! Who doesn't? The ability to appreciate art is not dependent on your wealth. The ability to buy art, well, that's a slightly different story. The ancient Romans, like all of us, loved their art. From the formation of the Roman Republic in 509 BCE to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, the Romans filled their world with paintings and statues, mosaics and monuments. However, art was never free. Some art was cheap, and some art was expensive. Which art you could afford said a lot about your social status. So, today, let's send you on a shopping trip through ancient Rome. We'll give you a budget - let's see what you can do with it.

Roman Art for the Working Class

Ok, welcome to ancient Rome. Nice place, isn't it? As you can see, there are many arts vendors. Right now, let's give you a working class budget. You are a free citizen of Rome, but not a wealthy landowner or politician, so you're called a pleb. Just an average citizen, and you live where the average Romans live, in an apartment building in the city. Ta-da.

Roman art vendors

Now, with this budget, you can afford rent and groceries from the food vendors, and you've got a little bit extra for art. This is great - art is a huge sign of social status in ancient Rome. Plus, it can really brighten up that drab apartment. From these vendors you could buy small terracotta statues, made of baked clay. Most of these are good luck charms or devotional items for the house gods of your apartment.

For you apartment itself, let's get you some art for those walls. Wall art is common in ancient Rome and is fairly cheap. Of course, the cheaper murals are going to be less detailed and generally involve painting a fake window on the wall that shows a pleasant landscape outside. That's really all of the art you can afford for your apartment, but you can also buy small pieces of jewelry for yourself. Oh - one more thing you might want to think about is saving up for a funerary relief. Most Romans are cremated after death, and the urns are placed inside large communal tombs, with a small relief portrait of the deceased placed on the wall next to the urn. These are within your price range, but it still may be worth saving up for and getting a nice one.

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