Ancient Roman Art

We follow Rome's rise through its awe-inspiring art, starting at Rome's humble birthplace in the Forum. Soon Rome is graced with supersized monuments like the majestic domed Pantheon and the Colosseum, where gladiators battled to the death. We also get a glimpse of Rome's more intimate side: the colorful mosaics, luxurious frescoes, and realistic portraits of the solid citizens who made Rome great.


[1, Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater), AD 80, Rome] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling anywhere that theme takes us. This time, it's the art of ancient Rome. Friends, Romans, countrymen: put on your togas for the ancient wonders of the Eternal City. Thanks for joining us!

[3] The magnificence of ancient Rome — lavish decoration for lavish palaces and massive statues for massive egos — shows itself in great art. While the grandeur of the empire eventually spread across Europe, this time we'll stick to its capital city.

[4, montage] 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 ancient sculptors carved all that marble and how the pragmatic Romans came to embrace both Greek gods and Christian one. Finally, we'll watch as the glorious empire fell, leaving a foundation for the rise of today's Europe.

[5, Roman Forum, Rome] Ancient Rome lasted a thousand years, from 500 BC to 500 AD. 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.

[6, She-wolf with Romulus and Remus, fifth century BC, Capitoline Museums, Rome] It certainly was a humble beginning. In fact, this bronze She-wolf — which some believe is 2500 years old — reminds us that legend says Rome's founders were raised by a wolf. But beyond this origin myth, the Romans grew from a small settlement into a city. And with a combination of military strength and astute treaties, they began to expand their territory rapidly.

[7, 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.

[8] And through it all, from settlement to city to empire, this little valley was the center of government and culture.

[9, Etruscan Gate (Porto all'Arco), Volterra; Roman Forum, Rome] 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.

[10, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[19, 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.

[20, 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, Segovia in Spain, and of course into the city of Rome itself.

[21, 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.

[22] 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.

[23, 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.

[24] 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.

[25] 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.

[26, 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.

[27, 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.

[28, 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.

[29, Capitoline Museums, Rome] 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.

[30, 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. 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.

[31] 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."

[32] 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.

[33, Pax Romana, 27 BC–180 AD] 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.

[34, 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.

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

[36] 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.

[37, 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 race course to accommodate a quarter million fans and more, all on a scale never before seen.

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

[39, 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.

[40, 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.

[41, 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.

[42] 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.

[43] The dome — the biggest ever 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.

[44, art and artifacts mostly from National Archaeological Museum, Naples; 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.

[45] 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.

[46, 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.

[47, 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.

[48] 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.

[49] 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.

[50] 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.

[51, 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.

[52] 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.

[53] 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."

[54, 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.

[55, 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.

[56] 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.

[57] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through the highlights of ancient Rome. From this great city grew a vast empire that laid the foundations for what we now know as Europe. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!