Understanding Roman History Through Art

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  • 0:01 Art and History
  • 0:45 Changing Styles
  • 3:33 Recording History
  • 5:20 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 both Roman history and Roman art and discover how they interact to give us a complete picture of ancient Rome. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Art and History

This is a course on art history, which is the history of art. But did you know that you can also study history through art? Oh, yeah, it's true. Art can tell us a lot about the history of a civilization. Styles change due to political or social factors, new materials become available, and new ideas are introduced. And sometimes, when you're really lucky, cultures will use art to actually record their history, which is particularly helpful to an art historian. Well, ancient Rome was one of those helpful cultures who clearly had future art historians in mind. Roman civilization lasted from 753 BCE- 476 CE, and the many political and cultural changes of this era were all captured in their art.

Changing Styles

One of the ways that we can study history through art is by looking at the ways that artistic styles changed. For a culture that lasted so long and had so much art, we really could look at a dozen different things. For example, the painted wall murals preserved at Pompeii famously captured the changing styles of domestic art. But, we're going to start by looking at portrait sculpture.

The Romans were big on their portraits, starting back in the early Roman Republic, which were noted for their verism, or high degree of realistic detail. Busts and statues of this era captured every wrinkle, every dimple, and every line as a way to capture the emotion and psychology of each subject. With the transition into the Roman Empire, this changed.

The first Roman emperor, Augustus began having his portrait created as an idealized youth, displaying his eternal power. However, a few emperors later, styles changed again. Emperor Nero was a tyrant, and the emperor who replaced him, Vespasian, reverted back to Republican styles of veristic portraiture. Vespasian wanted to be seen as an emperor who respected the people, not a tyrant like Nero. Politics changed, and art reflected that. That's one way we can track history through art.

Let's keep following Roman history through portrait sculptures. Vespasian brought verism back to Rome around 69 CE, but around 117 CE, a new emperor changed styles again. Hadrian wanted to be seen as an intellectual, artist, and philosopher, not a warring emperor, and began to consciously emulate the Greeks. So, his portraits reveal a major change; he has a beard. Romans, generally, did not have beards, but after the rise of Hadrian, we can see that personal styles changed, and Roman men adopted this style to display their intellectual connection to the Greeks.

After Hadrian, the beards mostly disappeared, and Roman artists continued creating portraits that were personal and emotional. The devotion to verism faded when Rome was divided between four rulers, the Tetrarchs in 293 CE. Rather than being displayed individually, they are usually depicted together and look identical, reflecting their equal power.

Statues of the Tetrarchs reflect changes in Roman society
Image of Tetrarchs faces

Also, see how these look less Classical? Styles were changing to be less realistic, partly due to the rise of a powerful new social force in Rome that had been slowly growing over the last 200 years: Christianity. Finally, under Constantine, emperor in 312 CE, the style of the idealized youth returned to portraiture, as Constantine tried to stabilize Rome under his power and used art to connect his image to the first great emperors.

Recording History

Watching styles change is one way to study history through art. Another way to do this is to just look at the ways a culture recorded their history. Like I said, the Romans were very nice to art historians and recorded major moments in long narrative reliefs, continual sequences of carvings that tell one great story.

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