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Ancient Roman Sculpture

Matthew Herzog, Cassie Beyer
  • Author
    Matthew Herzog

    Matthew Herzog has taught college Classics courses and tutored high schoolers in Latin and general education for over 3 years. He has two Bachelor's, one in Philosophy and the other in Classics & Religion, as well as two Master's in Classical Civilizations and Religions of Western Antiquity, all from Florida State University.

  • Instructor
    Cassie Beyer

    Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Read about Ancient Roman sculptures. Learn about the influence that the Greeks' artistic style had on the Romans, and learn how the Romans influenced Western art. Updated: 08/11/2022

Table of Contents


Ancient Roman Sculpture

Roman sculpture is known for its grandeur and realism. Many Roman sculptures depict ideas, things, or people that are important to Roman culture, such as mythological scenes, historical events, and political figures. Although Ancient Roman sculptors used a variety of materials and methods, it is clear that their work had been influenced by many sources. One culture that the Romans borrowed heavily from is Greek culture. Greek art strived for perfection and illustrated its subjects in that manner, especially when it came to the bodies of heroes, gods, and other characters. Roman art, due to Greek colonization of and trade with Italy, also used many of those same techniques as its Hellenic counterpart. Despite Rome's acquisition of different artistic styles through its own colonial and militaristic efforts, Roman art and sculpture maintain a distinct style that showcases how artists of that time adapted older trends to meet current contexts.

Greek Influence on Roman Sculptures

Ancient Roman sculptors drew from many forms of Greek sculpture, including relief sculpture. Relief sculpture is a type of sculpture in which the subject is carved out of the same piece of material as the background; therefore, the images cannot stand on their own, like a statue would. Both Greek and Roman reliefs are often made of marble; however, Greek reliefs tend to portray more mythological scenes, while Roman ones depict historical narratives and allegories. For example, the Ara Pacis Augustae, or the Altar of Augustan Peace, has relief sculpture on its walls, showing a realistic procession, members of the imperial family, and divine beings. All of these stylistic elements are carved from the marble walls and represent the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) campaign pushed by Augustus Caesar (Octavian).

This relief sculpture on the Ara Pacis is allegorical because the goddess in the middle represents the prosperity promised by Augustus while being carved out of the wall of the altar itself.

The left-side of the eastern wall of the marble Ara Pacis depicts three women, with a goddess suckling twins in the middle.

Aside from relief sculpture, the Romans significantly borrowed aspects of Greek portrait sculpture as well. Portrait sculpture's goal is to recreate someone's personality and convey a certain emotion while closely replicating their facial expressions. Ancient Roman sculpture imitated the Greeks in this style by making realistic statues and busts out of bronze and marble. Not only that, many portraits were direct or slightly altered copies of Greek originals. This adaptation of Greek art stems from the Roman idea that the Greeks have a more traditional, popular, and correct understanding of art, and they should, therefore, be mimicked. The Roman proclivity toward Hellenistic art forms comes and goes throughout history, but Roman sculpture ultimately differed from Greek sculpture in degrees of verism and idealism.

Famous Roman Sculptures

Verism focuses on realism and portraying the desired expression of its subject as accurately as possible. This mode of Roman sculpture highlights scars and other facial features that would stress the humanity of an individual. Idealism, on the other hand, aims to remove those marks and create its subjects in the image of perfect beings, such as gods. Ancient Greek sculptors used idealism in much of their work, especially when depicting divine beings, heroes, and historic figures that shaped Greek culture; most of their bodies are athletic, taller than the average person, and appear to be the same, just in different sizes. The goal of Greek idealism is to emphasize the importance and power of an individual while pointing toward a distinct feature, such as an object or pose. Roman sculptors borrowed elements from idealism by making statues with idealistic bodies; however, Roman sculptors tended to make them average size and lean toward verism for the head.

Although the average one is veristic, there are a few examples of famous Roman sculptures that defy this expectation. One example is the Augustus of Primaporta statue. Standing at about seven feet tall, this marble statue depicts Augustus Caesar standing in a contrapposto pose with Cupid at his feet while wearing a breastplate that ultimately commemorates the Roman victory over the Parthians. This statue focuses more on idealism than verism in that it shows Augustus as a young man without any marks on his face, despite Augustus being around 40 at the time of the statue's construction. The idealistic Greek elements of this sculpture are apparent in its body too, especially since it was modeled after the 5th century BCE Greek Doryphoros statue by Polykleitos.

The Augustus of Primaporta statue embodies borrowed Greek idealism while emphasizing the power of Rome and its leaders.

An image of the marble Augustus of Primaporta statue, showing him pointing, wearing a cuirass, and standing beside Cupid.

Other Ancient Roman statues break away from the norm as well, but in their size. A few sculptures were colossi or huge portraits that towered over where they were built in order to showcase the subject's power. One example is the Colossus of Nero, which was commissioned by the emperor Nero himself. Despite that only the base remains next to the Colosseum, we know from ancient sources that this colossus stood at about 100 feet tall and was built in the image of not only Sol (the sun god), but also the Colossus of Rhodes in Greece, which depicts Helios (another sun god).

Another colossus that once stood was the Colossus of Constantine. Although it only reached about 40 feet in height and dates a few hundred years later, this statue of Constantine was also placed near the Colosseum, in the New Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius. Parts of this colossus remain, including its head, and it appears that this sculpture was intended to make the emperor look like a god-like figure, too. Both colossi are true to verism in that their heads were made to look like their subjects, but they are idealistic in their height and symbolism. Nevertheless, no matter if a Roman statue or bust fell in line with Roman verism or Hellenic idealism, they almost always were created to remember individuals after their deaths.

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  • 0:01 Ancient Roman Sculpture
  • 0:32 Greek Influence on…
  • 1:17 Idealism vs. Verism
  • 2:15 Size Really Does Matter
  • 3:02 Respecting the Dead
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the characteristics of Roman sculptures?

Roman sculptures attempt to make their subjects look realistic, while incorporating idealistic elements from Greek art. Many scenes show events and people that were real. Despite this, these images often attempt to send a message that is not explicit, but allegorical and political in nature.

What types of Roman sculptures are there?

There are several types of Roman sculptures; however, two major types are portraiture and relief sculpture. Portraiture depicts real or realistic-looking people with either whole statues or busts. Relief sculpture involves carving images out of a material where they cannot be free-standing, such as a wall or tomb. Both of these types of sculptures borrow Greek artistic elements and were used to remember events and people, both dead and alive.

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