Treasures Of Ancient Rome: Surprising and exquisite


Ever since studying it almost a decade ago I have noticed that people can be sniffy about Roman art.

It's been like that for centuries. Some scholars have even questioned whether or not it existed at all.

Most art historians don't go that far, but traditionally Roman art has presented them with a problem: how much of it is original?

Everybody knows that the Romans were splendid soldiers and engineers, but when it came to art didn't they simply plunder and imitate?

Roman artists were copycats in debt to the Etruscans, the Egyptians, and - most of all - the ancient Greeks. Right?

Well, that's how the story of art in the ancient world is often told. But I believe that this hoary old idea is a myth - and debunking this myth was the starting point for Treasures of Ancient Rome, my new three-part series on BBC Four.

To fathom the nature of ancient Rome we must understand Roman art history

I can understand why some people are lukewarm about the art of ancient Rome. It probably has something to do with the fact that pinning down what 'Roman art' means proves surprisingly tricky.

We all agree that aqueducts and amphitheatres look Roman - but the art of Rome changed dramatically over time.

Art during the Republic was hard-bitten, wrinkled, business-like and tough - think of all the busts that have survived of gnarled and weather-beaten Roman patricians.

After Augustus, in the early Empire, art became much more elegant and classical emphasising the divinity of the emperor and harking back to the triumphantly naturalistic forms of ancient Greece.

And in the late Empire as the classical Greek tradition was challenged and far-flung provinces offered new sources of inspiration, Roman art changed again.

It became gradually more abstract favouring symbolism, geometric shapes and pattern over the illusionistic representation of reality - sowing the seeds for the early medieval and Byzantine styles that would follow.

The art of Rome became the art of the Roman world - and that world was enormous: a vast multicultural super-state stretching all the way from Spain to the Euphrates.

I hope we reflect this in the series by travelling to museums and sites beyond Rome: as well as Pompeii, Naples, Ravenna, Venice, Paris and St Petersburg, we visited Libya where we spent several thrilling days examining extraordinary antiquities many of which were neglected under Gaddafi.

Alastair explores neglected Roman mosaics in Libya

So 'Roman art' is a catchall term to describe artefacts produced across the Mediterranean world over many centuries.

By its very nature therefore Roman art is eclectic, cosmopolitan and diverse - even more so given Rome's policy of assimilating rather than subjugating the cities and people that she conquered.

As a result Roman art is much more surprising and influential than you might think.

Yes Roman artists designed big, bombastic monuments decorated with historical reliefs - but they were also capable of exquisite delicacy.

What we consider minor decorative arts, the Romans thought of as major artistic achievements.

Some of my favourite treasures in the series aren't sculptures at all but beautiful glassware and breathtaking cameo gems.

Roman artists also excelled in silverware, wall paintings, mosaics, carved sarcophagi, and luxury ivory goods.

Anyone who believes that Roman art is the stuff of boring marble busts should think again.

Okay the Romans may not have invented the classical tradition. But - just as they defeated the skilful seafaring Carthaginians by copying and then bettering the design of their ships - so the Romans marshalled the various battalions of art history that they had inherited from the Greeks, before training them up, making them more efficient and marching them out onto the battlefields of culture.

And we can still see the triumphant impact made by ancient Roman artists today.

Alastair Sooke is the presenter of Treasures Of Ancient Rome.

Treasures Of Ancient Rome is on Monday, 3 September at 9pm on BBC Four. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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