Rick Steves' Art of Ancient Rome

The Romans gave Europe its first taste of a common culture — and awe-inspiring art. From its groundbreaking architecture to its statues, mosaics, and frescos, Rome engineered bigger and better than anyone before. At its peak, the Roman Empire was a society of unprecedented luxury, with colossal arenas for entertaining the masses and giant monuments to egotistical emperors. And then it fell.

Find names and locations for works of art listed in the Script.


[1B, Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater), AD 80, Rome] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, here with a fascinating chapter in the long and inspirational story of Europe's art. In this hour, it's the grandeur of the Roman Empire — lavish decoration for lavish palaces and massive monuments for massive egos. This is the art of ancient Rome. Thanks for joining us.

[3, Ancient Roman Forum, Rome] Ancient Rome lasted a thousand years, from 500 BC to AD 500. It grew for 500 years, peaked for 200, and fell for 300 years. Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. But ancient Romans, with their vast empire, gave Europe its first taste of a common culture, and left an enduring legacy of great art.

[4] We'll start with Rome's legendary beginnings, then see how it rose to conquer its neighbors and win them over with engineering smarter and mightier than the world had ever seen. At its peak, Rome enjoyed unprecedented luxury, huge arenas for entertaining the masses, monuments to egotistical emperors, and temples with glorious domes…all with a fine eye for beauty. We'll see how the pragmatic Romans came to embrace both Greek gods and the Christian one. Finally, we'll watch as the glorious empire fell, leaving a foundation for the rise of today's Europe.

[5, Roman Forum] With their powerful military, knack for government, and engineering genius, the Romans conquered most of their known world. That magic mix of Roman greatness was born right here — in this valley between Rome's legendary Seven Hills. Back then, six centuries before Christ, "Rome" was just a collection of small tribes.

[6, She-wolf with Romulus and Remus, Capitoline Museums, Rome] It certainly was a humble beginning. In fact, this bronze She-wolf — which many believe is 2,500 years old — reminds us that legend says Rome's founders were raised by a wolf.

[7, Etruscans, c. 700–300 BC] But these earliest Romans were actually ruled by a mysterious Etruscan civilization that had long flourished across the north of the Italian Peninsula. What we know about the Etruscans is mostly from the art discovered in surviving tombs. Covered with frescos and filled with sarcophagi which in turn were filled with treasures.

[8, Hescanas Family Tomb, Etruscan, near Orvieto, Italy] Here, I'm visiting the tomb of the Hescanas family and the farmer, on whose land it was discovered, is giving me a little tour: The entire family was buried in several sarcophagi in this tomb.

Farmer:la Famiglia Hescana.

We can read the family name, spelled what we would call "backwards": HESCANAS. Faint frescoes of an Etruscan funeral take us back to that mysterious pre-Roman world.

[9] Signor Hescanas rides the chariot into the afterlife. It's a pre-Christian Judgment Day as a divine magistrate deliberates his case. A heavenly chamber orchestra plays as women in fine gowns and jewelry dance. The motion and realism captured by the 4th century BC artist is impressive.

[10, Etruscan Museum, Volterra, Italy; Vatican Museums, Rome] With each tomb excavated, archeologists are piecing together the mysterious puzzle of Etruscan culture. Marveling at the etched mirrors, stylized bronze buckles, intricately decorated pot handles, and exquisitely crafted jewelry helps us appreciate the sophistication of this pre-Roman society.

[11] Finely carved funerary urns — stone boxes containing ashes of the dead — suggest the Etruscans were influenced by their ancient Greek contemporaries. But while Greek artists focused on the idealized human form, the Etruscans represented people as unique individuals — portrayed realistically, with wrinkles, crooked noses, and funny haircuts. These urns — with subjects lounging as if munching grapes with the gods at some heavenly banquet — make it seem that the Etruscans believed you'd have fun in the afterlife.

[12, Etruscan Gate (Porto all'Arco), Volterra, Italy; Ancient Roman Forum, Rome] The Romans threw out their Etruscan king in 509 BC and eventually rose to dominate the Continent. It was here that the first Romans gathered to trade in what became their Forum, or market. Shoppers strolled the main street, or via Sacra. They worshipped at the temples. Politicians gave speeches, businessmen did business, and there was a wide-open piazza where they hung out much as Italians still do to this day.

[13, Francesca Caruso, Rome guide] Art permeated ancient Rome. To better appreciate how and why, I've invited my favorite Roman tour guide Francesca Caruso to take us back.

[14] Rick: This is a city of builders.

Francesca: Yes, the Romans were really practical people and great builders. And one thing that's interesting is that the Romans built a lot for people…not just for the gods…not just temples, but roads, sewers, bridges, and all of their buildings have to have three qualities: all their buildings have to be solid, useful, and beautiful.

[15] Rick: So, I know this was the political and commercial center, but I can't imagine what it must have looked like in the day.

Francesca: Imagine standing here at the peak of the empire. We would have been surrounded by these immense buildings covered in marble, gleaming in the sun. All of the bricks here must be imagined with the veneer of marble. White, certainly, but also an element of color.

Rick: I imagine the city as gleaming white marble.

Francesca: No, the classical white never existed in classical times. We have to get rid of this idea that Rome was a forest of white marble only. It's not true. There was color everywhere. And then we have to imagine this city and this place completely filled with statues…thousands of statues, maybe in Rome as many as one for every two people. We imagine them as those empty-eyed white ghosts staring into nothing in museums. But those statues were painted and they looked impressively realistic: painted eyes, painted hair, maybe a skin tone, maybe part of their clothing painted.

[16] Rick: So you could say Rome really was a city of art.

Francesca: It was. The Romans would never understand how we would have to pay a ticket to go see art in a museum behind a rope or behind glass. The art that we see in museums today lived with them, around them, wherever they went.

[17] Rick: And then, on a celebration day, when they had a big procession coming down the main street…

Francesca: Oh, it would have been right here. So, imagine a procession with the prisoners in chains, wagons full of spoils, imagine the trumpets, the flower petals thrown in the emperor's path, the cheering as they passed. They also had these wagons full of art that they brought back from foreign lands as spoils. So, imagine wagons full of statues, and paintings, and objects that people here had never seen. So even the art was shown on these parades.

[18] Rick: And the art and the festival and the pageantry was a kind of propaganda.

Francesca: Yes. It's making everything visual. You're showing that you conquered, you use art and architecture to say that you're in power and that it's better to obey. Yes, it's all propaganda.

[19] Rick: So just how big was Rome at its peak?

Francesca: At its peak the Roman Empire went from Britain all the way to the Middle East. And every inch of land overlooking the Mediterranean Sea was Roman. And they called the Mediterranean, "Mare Nostrum"…our sea. Eventually Rome did not refer just to the city but to the entire Roman world.

[20] Rick: If you had to sum up the key to success for the Roman Empire — they're so successful.

Francesca: The Roman Empire was successful because of brutal military force, without a doubt. But also an incredible talent for assimilation. They assimilated other cultures, they admired them; think of reverence of Greece for example.

Rick: And Egypt.

Francesca: They were fascinated by Egypt and its antiquities and they used Egyptian art both as propaganda and as inspiration. Think of the obelisk. There are more obelisks in Rome than there are in any place, even in Egypt. And they're everywhere today and they were everywhere in antiquity and they stood for the fact that Rome had taken over Egypt. But there was even an ancient Roman who had a tomb made in the shape of a pyramid, so we even have an Egyptian pyramid in Rome.

[21] Rick: And when you think of assimilation, they really included other people's religions.

Francesca: The Romans assimilated the gods of the people they came into contact with and conquered. They actually invited them to come to Rome and protect them, too. So, in the Roman Empire you could worship your own gods and keep your own customs as long as you obeyed…and you paid your taxes.

[22, Colosseum, Rome] The Romans were infrastructure geeks and engineering wonks. If an ancient Roman tourist came to America, their sightseeing bucket list would include a freeway interchange and the Golden Gate Bridge. In many ways, the "art" of Rome was engineering: building the no-nonsense infrastructure of empire and, adding to that, propaganda to celebrate that empire and keep people in line.

[23, Park of the Aqueducts, Rome] As Rome expanded, they built elaborate waterworks — aqueducts you can see to this day — bringing fresh water into the great cities of the empire: to Nîmes in France, to Segovia in Spain, and of course into the city of Rome itself.

[24, Appian Way, Rome] They built roads to connect their conquests and facilitate trade and communication. The Appian Way, Rome's gateway to the East, was the grandest and fastest — a wonder of its day. Very straight — as Roman engineers were fond of designing — it stretched 400 miles past Naples and on to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Palestine. These are the original stones.

[25] By the first century BC, you could have traveled from Jerusalem all the way to Spain on Roman roads like this through an empire enjoying unprecedented stability and peace. Whether you were a traveling tin merchant, a postal carrier, or the commander of some Roman legion, this network of roads made doing your work much easier.

[26, High Corniche, near Nice, France] This modern cliff-hugging road in southern France actually sits upon an ancient highway built by the Romans as they consolidated their control of these hostile lands. And, declaring victory, stood an impressive use of art as propaganda:

[27, Trophy of the Alps, 6 BC, La Turbie (above Monaco), France] the towering "Trophy of the Alps" celebrates that conquest and the quelling of the last hostile tribe.

[28] With this victory, the completion of the main artery connecting Italy and Spain was made possible. This opened the way for the vast expansion of the Roman Empire.

[29] The inscription tells the story: it was erected "by the senate and the people" and lists all the feisty barbarian tribes that put up such a fight. The vanquished lie in chains at the feet of their conqueror — a stern reminder to any who would challenge the growing empire.

[30, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] Of all the cultures Rome conquered, there was one that was even more sophisticated than their own — and that was Greece. While Rome conquered Greece militarily, in many ways it was conquered in return by Greek culture — religion, philosophy, art, and so on. And that assimilation actually elevated and refined Roman civilization. And, thanks to this Roman reverence for all things Greek, much of ancient Greek culture has survived until today.

[31] As Rome respected and even co-opted Greek culture, we see parallels between the two societies. For example, while Zeus was king of the Greek gods, Jupiter was his Roman counterpart. Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea…while Neptune protected Roman sailors. Greek lovers embraced Aphrodite while Roman Romeos prayed to Venus. And like the Greeks, the Romans earned the favor of their many gods by sculpting them beautifully.

[32] The Romans built Greek-looking temples. But rather than carved out of stone they were built more economically, no-nonsense structures of cement mixed with rubble, faced with brick, and then decorated with a stucco or marble veneer and a Greek-style facade.

[33, Maison Carrée, AD 2, Nîmes, France] This Roman temple, built in what is now the south of France, is a good example of Greek culture shaping Roman. It's fundamentally an early Roman-style temple — a rectangular building on a high podium with steps leading up to a deep porch. But it came with a Greek facade and a Greek-style colonnade all around the building, much of it decorative, with no structural function at all.

[34, Roman theater, first century AD, Orange, France; Roman Library of Celcus, AD 110–135, Ephesus, Turkey] Romans used the Greek look for their grandest buildings, from arenas to theaters and libraries. The three Greek orders appeared everywhereDoric, Ionic, and the Roman favorite: leafy Corinthian — putting that Greek veneer of sophistication and architectural grace over the more pragmatic Roman building and culture.

[35, Capitoline Museums, Rome] Romans emulated the high culture of the Greeks and when it came to capturing beauty, their forte was making excellent copies of Greek originals.

[36, The Discus Thrower (Roman copy of c. 450 BC Greek original), National Museum of Rome] In fact, many original Greek masterpieces, like this discus thrower (while lost today), survive thanks to the Romans, who cranked out copies of them in mass quantities to decorate their temples, villas, and baths.

[37, Capitoline Venus, Capitoline Museum, Rome] This Venus — another roughly 2,000-year-old Roman copy of a 2,500-year-old Greek original — only survives as a Roman copy. It's one of the purest representations of idealized feminine beauty from ancient times.

[38] These fine Greek-style statues — tangled wrestlers, kissing cupids, and playful characters — which once adorned the courtyards of wealthy families are constant reminders of the sophisticated Greek culture that made wealthy Rome even richer.

[39, Raffaello Romanelli, Studio Galleria Romanelli, Florence] By the way, whether in ancient times or in modern times, sculpting with marble is essentially the same process. The sculptor generally starts with a clay model. Making this is the creative work of the artist. Once this is finished, it's copied — an artisan can take it from there. From the clay model a plaster cast is made. And then with a pointing machine corresponding points are copied. Of course, the sculptor starts with a raw piece of marble, chipping at first with a big chisel…then various finer chisels…then a rasp…and finally polished with sandpaper, creating the same timeless beauty as the ancients.

[40] By the first century BC, Rome had grown so vast that its original government — a more democratic republic — had become unsuited to rule such a far-flung territory. That's when Rome went from republic to empire — from a focus on the collective good to the personal ambition of its ruler — and two dynamic men entered the scene…"Hail, Caesars."

[41] Julius Caesar and the next ruler, his great nephew who became the first emperor, Caesar Augustus, made sure the art of their time gave citizens confidence in their government. Portrait busts made it clear: looking into the eyes of the man who called himself "the first among equals," you're confident that the ship of state was in good hands.

[42, Pax Romana, 27 BC–AD 180] Augustus ushered in that 200 years of relative peace and prosperity known as the "Pax Romana," or Roman Peace. This glorious Altar of Peace embodies the dawning of that optimistic era.

[43, Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), 9 BC, Rome] For the next two centuries, the vast Roman Empire — the entire Mediterranean world including much of Europe — enjoyed a Golden Age of good living and stability under Roman rule…at least according to the propaganda. These exquisite reliefs celebrate Rome's success and its prosperity. The goddess of fertility is surrounded by symbols of abundance. And the message is clear: we should be thankful for our emperor.

[44, Arch of Constantine, AD 312, Rome] It's a nice message, but the "peace" that altar celebrates came by oppressing and exploiting people in faraway lands. Throughout history, the victors get to shape their legacy through their art.

[45] The empire's great wealth — booty, taxes, and slave labor — flowed inward to the capital creating the greatest city ever seen, with a population of over a million.

[46, 3D animation of ancient Rome by Flyover Zone Productions] The city of Rome was the wonder of its age — adorned with marble temples, grand arenas, gleaming statues, a chariot racecourse to accommodate a quarter million fans and more, all on a scale never before seen.

[47] Soon, the city of Rome was ornamented with the Roman specialty: supersized monuments built on a colossal scale.

[48, Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater), AD 80, Rome] Of all the grand monuments of the empire at its peak, the most colossal must have been the Colosseum, a huge sports stadium, where trained gladiators fought to the death. The Colosseum — solid, useful and beautiful — is a great example of ancient Roman architecture and aesthetics. While this megastructure is a no-nonsense Roman design, again, the façade is Greek, decorated with the three Greek orders of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

[49] Stepping inside, you can almost hear the roar of ancient Rome. Romans filled and emptied the Colosseum's 50,000 seats as quickly and efficiently as we do our super-stadiums today.

[50] It's built with two theaters facing each other — that's what an amphitheater is — so twice as many people could enjoy the entertainment.

[51] The Colosseum was a huge stone metaphor for the empire itself: well-designed, really big, filled with violence, and practical for the people — in this case keeping the restless masses entertained.

[52, Trajan's Column, AD 113, Rome] Emperor Trajan's Column — essentially a propaganda billboard — marked the empire at its peak, around the year 100. It trumpets the glories of the army and the emperor who ruled Rome in its heyday. Like a 200-yard-long scroll carved in stone, this "continuous narration" winds all the way to the top. The purpose (like so much art from ancient Rome): telling the story of yet another great military victory…the way the empire wanted it remembered.

[53, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] The Romans realized you can't build really big with Greek-style marble, columns, and beams. So, they invented or perfected the round arch, domes, and the use of concrete, brick, and mortar. And they put it all together with brilliant engineering.

[54, Pantheon, c. AD 125, Rome] A fine example of that is the magnificent Pantheon, the best-preserved building surviving from ancient Rome. The portico with its stately pediment shows their Greek-inspired sophistication. But behind that is more non-nonsense Roman engineering. The columns are one single piece of granite, quarried in Egypt, and shipped to Rome. They're massive. It takes four tourists to hug one.

[55] Stepping inside, you enjoy the finest look anywhere at the artistic splendor of ancient Rome — the colored marble, the mathematical perfection. Its dimensions are classic — based on a perfect circle, as wide as it is tall: 142 feet…just add incense and togas and you're there.

[56] The dome — the biggest ever built until then — is made of poured concrete. It gets thinner and lighter with height — the highest part is actually made with pumice, an airy volcanic stone. Pan…theon. It means "all gods." With 12 altars, it was where the many gods of the empire were worshipped. And the oculus, along with the door the temple's only source of light — still seems to connect us mortals with the heavens. The Pantheon — which survived so well because it's been in continuous use for nearly 2,000 years, first as a pagan temple and then as a Christian church — has inspired architects to this day.

[57, Temple of Hadrian, AD 145, Piazza di Pietra, Rome] By the way, throughout the ages, people mined once glorious buildings as quarries. Imagine, they were stacked with pre-cut stones, free for the taking. Block by block, they carted away most of this temple and then incorporated what was still standing — like these columns — into a modern building.

[58, art and artifacts mostly from National Archaeological Museum, Naples; the Capitoline Museums, Rome; Vatican Museums, Rome] While we often think of Roman art as grandiose, it was also intimate, especially when it decorated ancient homes. The wealthy covered their floors in what became a Roman specialty — mosaics. These are made from thousands of small colorful stone tiles laboriously pressed into wet cement.

[59] The Romans took mosaic-making to the level of fine art. At first glance these pictures look like paintings, but they're actually exquisite micro-mosaics, made of thousands of tiny, pixel-like chips of stone and glass. Notice the natural poses, shading, perspective. This is the Roman realism that would inspire Renaissance artists over a thousand years later in Florence.

[60, KoKo Mosaico workshop, Ravenna, Italy] And this art form is timeless. From ancient times until modern, artists have made delightful mosaics. The art of mosaic-making is still alive and well. The process is much the same today as in ancient Roman times. Minerals are baked into glass to make a rainbow of colors. The colored glass and gold leaf pieces are broken with a hammer, then artfully set in wet cement. The results: beautiful today as they were in the days of Caesar.

[61, Paintings and statues mostly from Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, National Museum of Rome; Capitoline Museums, Rome; National Archaeological Museum, Naples; Pompeii Archaeological Park; Ostia Antica Archaeological Park] Romans also decorated their homes with colorful frescoes, giving them a creative outlet to celebrate things they valued. They added depth — believable 3-D — to make it more realistic…again, typical of the artistic skills that would be lost with the fall of Rome and not rediscovered until the Renaissance, centuries later. These delightful surviving frescoes bring color to our image of daily life back then. Romans liked to think of themselves as somehow living in parallel with the gods, so these domestic scenes come with a twist of mythology. And this painted garden — once wallpapering a Roman villa — showed an appreciation for nature while creating an atmosphere of serenity.

[62] In their everyday lives, Romans enjoyed the finer things. From exquisite jewelry to this delicate golden hairnet, we can only marvel at lifestyles of the rich and Roman.

[63] While centuries earlier, the Greeks idealized — with each goddess a classic beauty — the Romans added their own characteristic twist: realism…more down-to-earth, showing an intimate side of everyday Roman life. They decorated their homes with often-whimsical statues and fountains.

[64] This statue captures a peaceful moment, as a boy patiently pulls a thorn from his foot. And this tipsy faun is a playful reminder of a Roman trait that survives to this day — their fondness for good food and fine wine. Besides noble gods, they sculpted real people from all aspects of Roman life…no longer so idealized…but realistically.

[65, Farnese Bull, second–third century BC, National Archaeological Museum, Naples] Not only did the Romans copy the Greek style, they supersized it. These huge statues once decorated a bath house. The centerpiece — the largest intact statue from antiquity — tells a story that comes with a moral. Roman mythology was part of their religion, and it was often used to teach preferred societal values.

[66] This art tells a story with a message: once upon a time, an evil queen was tied to a raging bull. The action is masterfully captured. You can almost hear the bull snorting. While the myth is a long story, anyone visiting this bath house and passing this statue would be reminded quite graphically of its moral — that in Rome, justice prevails.

[67, marble busts mostly from Vatican Museums and Capitoline Museums, Rome] The Romans sculpted ultra-realistic, warts-and-all portrait busts of themselves — people like you'd meet on the streets, 2,000 years ago. The Romans revered their ancestors and family (much like Italians do today), so wealthy Romans commissioned statues of dad and grandpa for their homes. They also needed busts of their leaders to post (as we do even today) at official places all over town. As you look into their eyes, you really get a sense of these everyday people — the proud citizens who built and ran Rome.

[68] While ancient Rome's architecture was monumental, its portraits — whether sculpted or painted — humanize the Romans. They were just people like you and me…without electricity.

[69, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] Under the Pax Romana, the Romans ruled an empire stretching from the Nile all the way to Britain. And it was laced together with an extraordinary network of roads. Travelers today can find remains of the empire throughout most of Europe. And, everywhere, you'll find the same features:

[70, Pompeii (near Naples), Pont du Gard (southern France), Arena (Arles, France), Roman Baths (Bath, England), toilets and temples (Ephesus, Turkey), monumental arch (Orange, France)] The same grid-planned streets, the aqueducts, Colosseum-inspired arenas, baths public toilets, temples, monuments, and, on pedestals far and wide, a statue of the emperor.

[71] Pompeii was a typical Roman city in southern Italy with all those typical features — from forums and temples, to public baths and brothels.

[72] But with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in AD 79, life in Pompeii was stopped in its tracks. Tragic, I know, but for archaeologists, Pompeii was a shake-and-bake windfall. The excavated art and architecture of this once busy town offers an intimate look at the richness of ancient Roman life.

[73] The main square, or forum, was Pompeii's commercial, religious, and political center. The Curia housed the government. It was built of no-nonsense brick and mortar, originally faced with a veneer of gleaming marble.

[74] The basilica, or law court, was nearby. The basilica floor plan — a rectangular space divided into a central nave and side aisles by two rows of columns — was ideal for a meeting hall.

[75, House of the Vettii, Pompeii] Remains of homes at Pompeii give a glimpse into how the wealthy lived and enjoyed their art. The House of Vettii, the home of a rich merchant, shows the typical layout of a mansion. Its colonnaded inner courtyard — a formal garden with water flowing to give freshness — was ringed by colorfully frescoed rooms. Dining rooms were often richly decorated. Here, little cupids go about everyday life in Pompeii: harvesting crops, taking your knocks on a chariot, and enjoying the local wine.

[76] Water was abundant in this well-plumbed city. Fountains provided a social center at intersections. And a steady stream of water flushed the chariot rutted streets clean.

[76A] Rick: So why the stones in the street here?
Gaetano: Well there was always water flowing along the roads and washing the roads so that's why the sidewalk all over and the stepping stones.
Rick: So the pedestrians walk across and did not get wet?
Gaetano: Yes to the crossroad avoiding wet feet.
Rick: Very smart.

[77, most of the art treasures of Pompeii are at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples] Pompeii's artifacts show off the ancient city's love of art and the good life. These bronze statues, like so much of the art from Pompeii, are first century BC Roman copies of fourth century BC Greek originals. Resting Hermes — with his tired little heel wings — is taking a break…but it's clear, he'll be flying off again soon. This wine-loving woodland god, or satyr, singing and snapping his fingers to the beat, is clearly living for the moment — true to the Epicurean "seize the day" philosophy many Romans embraced and celebrated.

[78] Pompeii's many finely crafted mosaics reflect the sophistication and wealth of the city and its people. Culture, including music and theater, thrived at Pompeii. This mosaic takes us backstage just before curtain time…actors get dressed, instruments tuned, and the masks of comedy and tragedy are ready to go.

[79] This detailed and realistic mosaic shows street musicians boisterously entertaining those not quite up to a night at the theater.

[80] Venus, the goddess of love, was a Pompeii favorite. Statues are intimate and impressively realistic. The much copied Three Graces celebrated elegance, beauty, and a love of life — a reminder of how fleeting life is, and was on the fateful day nearly 2,000 years ago, when that volcano blew.

[81] The comforts of Roman life stretched to the far reaches of the empire…even to the cold, rainy British Isles. For example, the Roman city of Bath was famous as a spa town. Taking full advantage of its mineral hot springs,

[82, The baths, art, and artifacts of the Roman spa town of Acque Sulis, present-day Bath, England] …it was like Rome away from Rome. This pool is still lined with its original lead — nine tons of it. You can almost imagine those Romans lounging around, sipping wine, schmoozing… just like they did faraway in the city of Rome. Colorful mosaics and mysterious reliefs are a reminder of the elegance and artfulness of Roman life even in distant Britannia. The hot thermal water still bubbles past ancient bricks. Enjoy some quality time looking into the eyes of Minerva, goddess of the hot springs. Then pop upstairs to enjoy a glass of the same healing waters ancient Romans choked down so long ago.

[83, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] The emperor's agenda was to Romanize his people — to create a populace that was thoroughly Roman. Wherever they lived in the empire, people expected and got the standard features of a Roman city: roads, running water, arenas, and theaters. And this was for good reason. It was a bribe: conquered people would accept Roman rule in exchange for the infrastructure of good living.

[84] Rome's legacy shines to this day in huge construction projects across its vast empire. Wherever they conquered, they built — and that included walls to protect it all.

[85, Hadrian's Wall, c. AD 122–128, northern England] This once mighty wall, built by Emperor Hadrian, stretched 70 miles across northern England — close to today's border with Scotland — to protect Britannia and mark the northern-most reach of the empire.

[86, Pont du Gard aqueduct, mid–first century AD, France] Water infrastructure was a Roman engineering forte…and vital for the empire. The Pont du Gard (in southern France) is just one of many ancient aqueducts surviving across Europe. They heralded the greatness of Rome, reminding the far-flung empire's subjects how fortunate they were to be on the winning team. This perfectly preserved Roman bridge supported a canal, or aqueduct, on the very top. The Pont du Gard was a critical link, helping keep a steady river of water flowing cross-country and across this river. Remarkably, it was engineered so that the water dropped only one inch for every 300 feet for 30 miles, harnessing gravity to flow all the way to the city of Nîmes. A chance to walk through the top level shows how it all worked.

[87, inside Roman Aqueduct, Pont du Gard, France] This is what Roman aqueducts were all about. This is part of a 30-mile-long channel — a man-made river flowed through this for 400 years. You can still see the original stones, a thin layer of mortar that waterproofed the channel, and, after centuries of use, a thick mineral build-up.

[88] The Pont du Gard's main arch is the largest the Romans ever built. The bridge itself has no mortar, just ingeniously stacked stones. Taking full advantage of that Roman specialty — the round arch — the structure is held in place by gravity.

[89] Simple as it may seem, the round arch was key to Roman architectural greatness. Previous structures were limited by two vertical posts spanned by a lintel, which was structurally weak. A round arch could span a much wider gap. And once the central keystone is placed, the arch can support just about whatever you want to build on top of it. Without the round arch, none of Rome's greatest structures would have been possible.

[90, ancient Roman arenas, Arles and Nîmes, France] Arenas, like this one in southern France, are another fine example of Roman engineering… and Roman propaganda. In the spirit of "give the masses bread and circuses," admission to arenas and theaters was free — another perk for subjects of "Team Rome."

[91, Library of Celsus, AD 110–135, Ephesus, Turkey] The ancient city of Ephesus (on the west coast of today's Turkey) was Greek before it became Roman — a good example of cultural Romanization. Its main street, once lined with fine buildings, leads past a striking temple dedicated to the Greek-loving Roman Emperor Hadrian. And the city's library — filled with books in both Latin and Greek — showed off the Romans' cosmopolitan flair. This striking façade — featuring statues of women who symbolize the virtues of learning and wisdom — inspired the citizenry.

[92, Roman theater, first century AD, Ephesus, Turkey] Like any great Roman city, Ephesus had a fine theater. With good acoustics designed into the semi-circular seating and the sound wall behind the stage, huge gatherings could enjoy the plays and events here with unamplified voices. Its acoustics, remarkable back then, remain so to this day.

[93] To estimate an ancient city's population, archaeologists consider the capacity of its theater. Ephesus was big; it needed a theater that could seat 25,000. And imagine: it was just one city in the vast Roman Empire.

[94] From Egypt and Greece to Spain and Britain, the Roman world seemed united. And, it seemed the Roman Empire would last forever. But there was just one small flaw in the plan: people.

[95, busts mostly from Capitoline Museums; Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, National Museum of Rome; Vatican Museums, all in Rome] After centuries of relative stability, Rome began its fall — partly because of some bad emperors. Sure, some were good and some were mediocre, but many were downright evil. As they were invested with immense, almost god-like power, with egos as supersized as their empire, they left plenty of portrait busts. There were empire builders like Augustus, wise leaders like Hadrian, and crazy rulers like Caligula.

[96] The last great emperor of the Pax Romana, Marcus Aurelius, sits on his horse atop Capitoline Hill in Rome. The original (housed nearby out of the acidic modern air) is a rare surviving equestrian statue from antiquity and a great symbol of Rome at its peak.

[97] Reliefs — as if part of a PR campaign — show off the emperor ably performing the duties of state, keeping his empire humming: As the chief priest, or "pontifex maximus," he sacrifices a bull. He vanquishes the barbarians and parades through Rome on a chariot, trumpets proclaiming the glory of Rome...winged victory on his shoulder.

[98] But after Marcus Aurelius, Rome was ruled by an unfortunate string of ineffective, incompetent, and now-mostly-forgotten emperors. The son of Marcus, Commodus, was a cruel tyrant. He declared himself a god, dressed up like Hercules, and clubbed innocent subjects to death. By this time, the fall of Rome was inevitable. But its decline was gradual, stretching across two centuries, and even during its fall, Rome produced some wonderful art.

[99] As Rome fell, the wealthy still had their countryside estates — this one's 500 miles south of the capital in Sicily — where they continued to live in the lap of luxury.

[100, Villa Romana del Casale, fourth century AD, Sicily] This rich merchant carpeted his palace with fine mosaics. Each room had a theme, like this dining room with its scenes of Romans hunting. This room features cupids fishing. Far from the sea, only the very wealthy could afford seafood. Serving fish for dinner was showing off. This scene is as much an extravagant menu as a piece of art.

[101] Any top-end villa came with baths and a gym. These athletes are demonstrating Olympic-style events: discus throwing, racing, and some kind of ball game. For the winner? A victory palm and a crown of roses. And I thought bikinis were an invention of the 1950s.

[102] These mosaics give us a colorful peek at the lifestyle of Rome's elite. The expressive and realistic faces are a vivid reminder that it took a lot of people — real people — to run the empire.

[103, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] With its imperial might and all the stories of persecutions and hungry lions in the Colosseum, it's easy to forget that in Rome's later years it was both threatened by — and then energized by — an obscure new religion creeping in from the East: Christianity.

[104, Catacombs of San Sebastiano, first century AD, Rome] At first, pagan Rome persecuted the Christians. They worshipped secretly and buried their dead in underground catacombs scattered outside the walls of the city. The tomb-lined tunnels stretch for miles and are many layers deep. Some of the early Christians buried here had been killed for their faith, and later Christians carved out niches nearby to be buried close to these early saints and martyrs.

[105, early Christian art from Vatican Museums, Rome] Even before Christians could worship openly, they communicated through art — and much of that was funerary art, as seen on these sarcophagi. The anchor was a symbol of salvation before the cross was used. In ancient times, Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd. And people prayed or praised God with hands raised.

[106] Christianity became increasingly popular. Finally, Emperor Constantine made a bold and perhaps pragmatic move. Following a vision that he would triumph in battle under the sign of the cross, Constantine legalized the upstart religion in the year 312.

[107] Once legalized, Christianity spread all across the empire. Pagan Europe soon morphed into Christian Europe, the emperor converted and before long the once-obscure Jewish sect became the state religion of the entire Roman Empire.

[108, San Giovanni in Laterano, 17th century, Rome] In the year 300 you could be killed for being a Christian; in 400 you could be killed for not being a Christian. Church attendance boomed. And Emperor Constantine built the first great Christian church right here: San Giovanni in Laterano…St. John's.

[109] Grand churches sprang up everywhere. San Giovanni in Laterano became the "first Vatican," the original home of the bishop of Rome, or pope. Today's 17th century Baroque church, which sits upon its ancient foundations, is filled with symbols of Christianity's triumph: the gilded bronze columns that once adorned a pagan temple, the original doors from Rome's Senate house, and, in a box above the altar, the supposed skulls of those early Christian pioneers and martyrs, Peter and Paul. With the acceptance and growth of the Church, Christian art and architecture could now blossom.

[110, Scala Santa (Holy Stairs), Rome] As Rome was the empire's capital, it now became the capital of Christianity. It was a magnet for pilgrims. The Holy Stairs were a major stop. They're supposedly from the palace of Pontius Pilate, brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine's mother. Pilgrims, believing Jesus climbed these very stairs, hoped — as pilgrims still do — to be blessed if they scaled them on their knees. And the great art all around them inspires to this day.

[111, Roman ruins near Ghetto neighborhood, Rome] The Roman Empire that had united Europe for centuries was crumbling. Government was collapsing, the city of Rome had been sacked, and marauding tribes ravaged the landscape. But in all that turmoil, one last institution was standing strong against the chaos: the Roman Church.

[112, statue of St. Peter, St. Peter's Basilica; Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome] Christianity transformed the ancient city of Rome: The pagan Pantheon temple was rebranded as a Christian church. Statues of senators were rechristened as saints. An emperor's tomb became the pope's fortress. Trajan's Column would be topped with a saint. And the spot where Peter had been executed and buried would eventually be crowned by the grandest building in the city — St. Peter's Basilica.

[113, Piazza Santa Maria, Trastevere, Rome] By the way, many churches are called basilicas even though that term pre-dates Christianity. When their religion became legal, Christians suddenly needed a large public place in which to worship.

[114] Rather than invent something new, they adopted the long-established "basilica floor plan" — which ancient Romans used for meeting halls. This gave churches their standard layout: a nave lined by columns leading up to the altar with aisles on either side. And they were decorated with the signature artwork of the Roman Empire: stunning mosaics.

[115, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, c. AD 450, Ravenna] Rome's decline was gradual and fitful. But rulers still commissioned great art. In Ravenna, this 5th-century mausoleum was intended for the sister of one of Rome's last emperors. Its precious mosaics, while dating from the fall of Rome, are considered the finest from ancient times. The light that sneaks through the thin alabaster panels brings a glow and a twinkle to the early Christian symbolism. The dome is filled with stars. Doves drink from fountains, symbolic of souls finding nourishment in the word of God.

[116] This fifth-century work shows the standard ancient Roman portrayal of Christ as the good shepherd. Jesus, dressed in gold and purple like a Roman emperor, is the king of paradise welcoming the faithful, who were represented by lambs, and surrounded by this timeless beauty.

[117, Justinian Mosaic and other mosaics from the Basilica of San Vitale, AD 547, Ravenna] This church captures the last chapter of Roman glory. Its sanctuary, an oasis of order, was meant to assure everyone that — despite the chaos around them — all was right with the world. Its familiar Roman mosaics — countless vibrantly colored cubes the size of your fingernail — give the church an ethereal glow. Christ is calmly in charge, overseeing the peaceful world below. And running things here on earth is his partner, the last emperor to rule a united Rome, Justinian. Sporting both a halo and a crown, he unites both Church and state… supported by bishops and generals, who, with steady gazes, radiate a sense of stability.

[118, Theodora Mosaic, AD 547, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna] Facing the emperor is his powerful wife, Theodora, and her elegant entourage. The former dancer who became his mistress, then empress, is decked out in rich jewels and pearls and carries a chalice to consecrate the new church.

[119] The art here is propaganda: a celebration of the Roman world. Everything is in good order…the ancient portrayal of Christ symbolizes perfection… the stylized cross is flanked by two angels, declaring victory… the ceiling is a festival of God's creation, with nearly a hundred different birds — most still flying around this part of Italy. And everything swirls around a sacrificial lamb — which symbolizes Christ — supported by four angels.

[120] Notice how this Christ is beardless — the style of the ancient Romans — while, just steps away, this bearded Christ is the standard medieval portrayal of Jesus. These are some of the last artworks of ancient Rome and the first of medieval works to come, bridging the ancient and medieval worlds. With its harmonious atmosphere, it's a poignant reminder of the peace and stability of a Roman order that was coming to an end.

[121] Despite the stabilizing influence of Christianity, Rome's decline was inevitable. The fall of Rome had many causes: There was a string of terrible emperors. Especially near the end, emperors were routinely assassinated. The infrastructure crumbled, critical ports silted up. Subjugated people — the so-called "barbarians" — rose up. Rome's legions were sent backpedaling as the once-invincible empire gradually shrank. Even the walls of Rome itself were breached and the city was looted and sacked vandalized by a tribe actually called "the Vandals."

[122, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] Finally, in 476, the last emperor checked out, flicked out the lights, and plunged Europe into a political vacuum — ushering in centuries of relative darkness — poverty, chaos, and war.

[123, excavation at Largo Argentina, Rome] The once-great capital city of a million people, repeatedly ravaged by barbarians and plagues, eventually lost over 95% of its population. The place where Rome began — the Forum — was abandoned, later nicknamed the "cow field." Rome's grand structures crumbled, were built over, and eventually got buried under centuries of rubble, silt, and today's modern city.

[124] Yes, Rome fell. But its spirit lived on: in the Latin language. In laws and literature. In the Roman Catholic Church. And in its monumental art and architecture — grandeur that would inspire Europe for centuries to come.

[125B, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] Rome — nick-named the "Eternal City" — gave European civilization a strong cultural foundation. Strong enough to help it get through a thousand years of Middle Ages. And that's another story. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves, celebrating the joy of European art.