Art of the Roman Empire

With its vast empire, ancient Rome gave Europe its first common culture. From England to Turkey, we explore the greatest Roman cities, marveling at their over-the-top art, soaring aqueducts, and crowd-pleasing theaters. As Rome fell, saints replaced Caesars and Christianity filled the vacuum with art-filled churches — preserving the grandeur of imperial Rome and inspiring the Europe to come.


[1] 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 the Roman Empire. Consider this: At its peak, the word "Rome" meant not the city but what Romans considered the entire civilized world. Hop on our chariot as we leave the city of Rome for the marvels of its far-flung empire. Thanks for joining us!

[3] Ancient Rome lasted a thousand years, roughly from 500 BC to AD 500. It grew for 500 years, peaked for 200 years, and fell for 300 years. Over those centuries, the Romans, with their vast empire, gave Europe its first taste of a common culture, and left an enduring legacy of great art.

[4, montage] We'll start at the peak of the empire. The first and second centuries, when no one could stand against the emperor — a forced peace called the Pax Romana. Walking streets that still survive and marveling at art that told its story gives a sense of a cohesive empire made possible by great roads and infrastructure as never before seen. Touring the remains of Roman cities from Anatolia to Britannia, we'll see the art of empire. But then, as Rome fell, the empire split and retreated east to Constantinople. Ruled from there, the empire carried on, leaving sumptuous art and a cultural a heritage that would provide a foundation for the rise of today's Europe.

[5] Exploring the far reaches of the vast Roman empire, we'll travel from the capital to Pompeii in the south and to Bath and Hadrian's Wall in the north. We'll see cultural treasures from Southern France to great cities in the East like Ravenna, Ephesus, and Constantinople.

[6, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] Under the Pax Romana, the Romans ruled an empire stretching from the Nile 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:

[7, 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.

[8] Pompeii, an early conquest of Rome, was a typical Roman city in southern Italy — with all those typical features — from forums and temples, to public baths and brothels. 

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

[15, 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.

[16] 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.

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

[18] 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.

[19] 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, it was like Rome away from Rome. 

[20, The baths, art, and artifacts of the Roman spa town of Acque Sulis, present-day Bath, England] 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.

[21, 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.

[22] 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.

[23, 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.

[24, 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.

[25, Roman Aqueduct, Pont du Gard, France] 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.

[26] 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.

[27, 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."

[28, 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.

[29, 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.

[30] 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.

[31 OC]: 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.

[32, 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.

[33] 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.

[34] 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.

[35, 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.

[36, 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.

[37, 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.

[38] 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.

[39] 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.

[40, 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.

[41] 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.

[42, 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.

[43, 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.

[44, 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.

[45, Piazza Santa Maria in 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.

[46] 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.

[47, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, c. 450 AD] 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. 

[48] 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.

[49, 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.

[50, 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.

[51] 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.

[52] 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.

[53] Despite the stabilizing influence of Christianity, Rome's decline was inevitable. 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.

[54] 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.

[55] 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 the Roman Empire…its dramatic rise and a tumultuous fall that left Europe with a political vacuum that lasted for centuries. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!