Treasures Of Ancient Rome: Surprising and exquisite

Monday 3 September 2012, 17:00

Alastair Sooke Alastair Sooke Presenter

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.

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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.

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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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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.


    The problem is not Alastair Sooke
    The problem is this obsession with personality at the expense of art
    The first episode in this series could be easily divided like Gaul into three parts
    For about one third of the programme Alastair Sooke talked to the camera
    For another third Alastair Sooke walked –or cliché as ever drove –and spoke to the camera
    For a third we were actually allowed to look at the art/artefacts : but even with one of the most amazing - a head of Augustus – Alastair Sooke’s reflection was clearly visible and disturbing one’s viewing of the sculpture

    The job of a presenter is not to help reveal the art-not to become the centre of attention.

    Alan Jenkins

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    Comment number 3.

    This is a truly dreadful programme, a sad indication of the state of historical research perhaps given over to the fashions and interests of modern day television programming. If you are really interested in the treasures of ancient rome, do not whatever you do, watch this programme but instead spend the money on a winter holiday to rome itself. Sadly this is another example of the dumbing down of so called modern culture - enjoy ?

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    Comment number 4.

    Well I thoroughly enjoyed this programme, my knowledge of ancient art begins and ends with ancient Egypt, so this held some interesting content and ideas, without being dry or swamping me with too much fine detail. I'm not sure how much objective validity the previous comments have: I don't recall the same level of concern over David Attenborough back in the day when he interacted with animals large and small, for example.

    I was always aware that while much ancient art was stylised, Greek and Roman art hit unprecedented levels of realism, so I was surprised to hear it isn't always held in high esteem: the exploration of the realism of the Republic, versus the new era's idealisation of Augustus was informative because it seems like such a regressive move.

    And it was particularly interesting to see the bronze of Alastair Sooke, and to compare the cast image of a much younger living man to the ancients: his character and manner (insofar as one can judge from a TV show) seemed quite accurately captured in the bronze, which gave added resonance to the Roman bronzes with their very detailed demeanours. Looking forward to the second & third parts.

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    Comment number 5.

    I rather enjoyed it, apart from its having the usual problem of more presenter than things presented, but since the whole premise was that the Romans produced their own original art, could it not have pointed out that the Alexander mosaic, while magnificent, is generally accepted as a copy of a Greek original?

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    Comment number 6.

    This programme is great and Alastair Sooke is clear and informative. Just because he isn't like reading an academic history of art text book doesn't mean he is failing to inform. I'd say the opposite is more likely. I'd say his presence makes the art accessible to a wide range of viewers without dumbing down. It's like the history series "If Walls Could Talk". It's another way into the subject and shedding more light rather than less. If you know enormous amounts about this already you are unlikely to find anything new or as densely packed with information as a university text book but then you never will get that on television. Few people will sit through that but this is still good stuff and Alastair Sooke is likeable like Lucy Worsley in "If Walls Had Ears". Thank goodness the BBC seems to have renewed vigour when it comes to interesting and educational programmes like these, Horizon etc.

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    Comment number 7.

    Oh yes and to the person who said you'd be better off saving up for a holiday in Rome to go and see these things - perhaps you should have a look outside your window now and again. There's a recession on.
    How many people randomly visit Rome without prior knowledge of these subjects anyway? I don't think history of art should be just for people who might pop to Rome to see it rather than have to put up with "an inferior representation".
    Sorry but some people poorer than you might want to know about this stuff using the cheapest method available. You don't even have to pay transport costs to get to a library if you watch this on television and this might help decide what books to look up next time you are near a library.
    If you leave art history to those who are already interested and wealthy enough to pop to Rome for it then you might as well just bury it right now.

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    Comment number 8.

    could you give me a reference for the book he's referring to tonight [Sept 10th]
    Thank you

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    Comment number 9.

    @cambrose I think it's Suetonius the twelve Caesars that you mean. Although he also referred to Vitruvius on architecture.

    The problem with this programme is that it indulged in too much speculation for which the evidence is at best equivocal. Mary Beard makes much better programmes which balance scholarly consideration with enough excitement to generate and sustain interest from those who know little about he subject.

    The errors are too many to mention. But he presenter was very engaging, it's just the substance was rather lacking.

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    Comment number 10.

    I watched the first two episodes yesterday, and was absolutely transfixed. I usually find presenters irritating, and often wish there was just a voiceover commentary. However, in this case, the presenter lacked annoying tics, and added to my enjoyment. Evidently, if you already know a lot about Ancient Rome and its art, this programme will not have been for you. However, as an introduction, it is excellent. I feel inspired to look into the subject more, and to go to see some of the artefacts in situ.

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    Comment number 11.

    Thank you lucilus - it was the 12 Caesars book that interested me- the one his grandmother enjoyed so much. [I did catch one or two of Mary Beard's which seemed to be very considered, thoughtful and scholarly as well as very enthusiastic].

    I agree with other postings that there is too much emphasis on the presenter-charming though he seems- and not enough of the camera lingering on the fabulous art and artefacts -or even recommended book titles. I know so little about Ancient Rome and have been amazed at how much remains and the quality of it.

    I think I like fergusson elliott's suggestion: saving for a flight and seeing for myself - and thanks to this series I know where to start looking.

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    Comment number 12.

    I like the series. If mr Sooke was given a £5 million budget and 10 episodes, I am sure he would have been able to indulge everyone. It's clear he knows his subject and can pass information on to a lay audience. You have to accept that with only 3 hours of film, sacrifices had to be made. Mary Beard had one hour on Pompeii! I thought it was a good shoe in with the series on the three colours in art, especially the last episode on white. I was a little lost with the making of his own bust, but looking at other blogs and fellow classics students comments elsewhere, I can assure Mr Sooke that their responses have been positive.

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    Comment number 13.

    I've no idea why you'd call this a 'truly dreadful programme' and another example of the 'dumbing down' of BBC TV. It's very, very good and it inspires you to delve into the world of Roman art. Yet again, Alastair's enthusiasm for his topic shines through and he engages you for a whole hour at a time. Not an easy thing to do (e.g. remember all those boring lecturers at uni?) Alastair's a really engaging and informative presenter. If ever he's on telly I try and tune in - whether it be a 5-10 min slot on the Culture Show or a lengthier series like 'Modern Masters'. The 'Treasures of Rome' is not a PhD viva-style session - but, lord help us, who'd want that on prime time telly?! Zzzzzzzzz...... In contrast, Alastair's latest show has made me want to pick up that book his granny liked - the one by Suetonius. So if that's not recommendation enough, I don't know what is. I don't pretend to be an expert on Italian art, but with Alastair I find you get so infected by his enthusiasm that you go out and read up on the topics he presents to you. Matisse is a case in point. I read up Hilary Spurling's biog on the back of Alastair's 'Modern Masters' series. And now I'll do the same with 'Treasures of Rome' by reading Suetonius. Bravo Alastair!

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    Comment number 14.

    what was the name of the book used as referance, replayed it over and over and cant make it out?

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    Comment number 15.

    pms01 - see lucilus's comment above (#9). It was Seutonius's '12 Caesars'.

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    Comment number 16.

    Although I am finding the images and visual content of the 'Treasures of Rome' series very pleasing I wish to comment on other aspects of the programmes.
    I find it unrealistic for the series to make no reference at all to the works of , earlier, Greek or Etruscan artists. A classic(!) example was the ecstatic observation and comments regarding the 'Alexander' mosaic in Pompeii. This is now generally accepted as being a reinterpretation of a Greek painting, including statements by Pliny, and cannot do anything but show that the Greeks were as able as the later Romans in creating realistic and lifelike imagery. Equally so their development of portrait sculpture, limited use of arches and domes in their architecture and a wholehearted representation of erotic art in and to all forms and fancies and of course the depiction of classical myths and characters. Each and all of these were to be more extensively developed by the Romans for their own purposes. It is also well known and documented that many Roman scultures are copies and reinterpretations from the Greek and other cultures, even where the originals are now lost.
    That these influences are not refered to all in the programmes is a misjustice to both the Greek works and the Roman developments . To make these references does not diminish the values and qualities of the Romans' works, but does put them into an artistic and social context.
    The reasoning is, of course, that 3 programmes limit the presentational content of a very extensive field of works ! But ........!


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    Comment number 17.

    I have found this series to be very interesting and have thoroughly enjoyed it. Would be very interested in a book and dvd of the programmes if these are available. Good stuff BBC and more of the same please

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    Comment number 18.

    Well I liked the series lots. I liked Alastair's style too. You need a personality to put over cultural stuff; I wish my teachers had had a teaspoonful of his enthusiasm. I'm fairly educated, but I learned a lot and enjoyed soaking this up. I can NOW go and dig out more info, having had such a stimulating introduction.

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    Comment number 19.

    I liked the series, very informative and stimulating. I have never given much thought to the art of the Romans, but will now take a greater interest in this fascinating period of art. The series was enthusiastically and beautifully presented. Look forward Alastair's next series.

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    Comment number 20.

    I absolutely loved this series. The presenter was superb - clear, blokey, modern and a great communicator. The material was fascinating and the photography stunning. Episode 3 a particular triumph. This is precisely what we appreciate about the BBC and especially BBC4.


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