750 BC - 300 AD

The Romans grew from monarchy to republic to become one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. The Romans started as one of many groups of indigenous Italians, but over the course of centuries became a sprawling multicultural civilization. They conquered to the east, west, north and south, imposing Roman values and order at the highest levels, but also allowing each subjugated region to retain its local character. Roman civilization is sometimes considered to peak at the time of Augustus (first century BC to first century AD), the transitional phase during which Rome shifted from Republic to Empire. Much extant, recognizably Roman art dates from the Imperial period.

The unique nature of what is “Roman” leads us to ask, “Is there a Roman art?” There is certainly a rhetorical device in the question, but it does highlight a problematic point. At the moment from which the label “Roman” started to be attached to artistic activity on Italian soil, Greek--and later, Hellenistic--art held sway over it. To make a long and still debated story short, Greek art was remodeled and transformed into a form that was inherently Roman, expressing and reflecting Roman reality, though the artist was often Greek. Where the Greeks admired and exalted the human form, the Romans used their art to pay homage to their political, social and religious institutions. They commemmorated events and glorified political heroes in the form of busts, statues or slabs set into the walls of buildings or architectural monuments. We owe to Roman art a remarkable series of portraits with detailed features and expressive character, which also bear witness to the fashion of the particular reign.

We also owe the survival of the great works of Classical and Hellenistic art to the Romans, for the Greek sculptors of the Roman world probably made the copies which are the origin of most of our collection. Some even signed their name, recommending their workshop but having no pretence to authorship. Actually, the prestige of earlier Greek works and the demand for their copies were such that sheer copying was much better rewarded than was original creation.