Roman Sculpture


Table Summary

Summary of Roman Sculpture
Pax Romana
ca. 0-200
Late Empire
ca. 200-500
Augustus of Prima Porta, Equestrian Marcus Aurelius Colossus of Constantine
Early Christian
sculpted sarcophagi

General Features

Roman art is founded upon that of the Greeks; Roman sculpture is essentially the continuation and expansion of Greek sculpture. The formative age of Roman sculpture (and art generally) was the Republic (ca. 500 BC-0), while the mature age was the Empire (ca. 0-500). In addition to mythological works, the Romans produced a great volume of civic sculpture celebrating statesmen and their achievements.

Roman sculpture can be divided into three main forms: statues, busts, and architectural. Statues, discussed below, are the main concern of this article. Busts of emperors and other public figures were common throughout the Empire. Civic pride was also expressed in the form of architectural sculpture, including narrative reliefs upon triumphal arches and columns.

Bust of Augustus
Bust of Constantine
Triumphal Arch in Rome (Arch of Constantine)
Narrative Relief Sculpture on the Arch of Constantine
Triumphal Column in Rome (Trajan's Column)
Narrative Relief Sculpture on Trajan's Column

Main Article

Pax Romana

ca. 0-200

Two types of Roman statues may be identified: the standing figure and mounted figure. The most famous examples of each are Augustus of Prima Porta and Equestrian Marcus Aurelius. Note that the infant in the former work is not part of the statue proper, but rather an embellishment of the buttress against the statue's leg (which is only present as a structural requirement of marble statues).

Augustus of Prima Porta
Equestrian Marcus Aurelius

Late Empire Period

ca. 200-500

The foremost Roman statue of the Late Empire period is the enormous Colossus of Constantine. The head and limbs were carved from marble, while bronze plates on a wooden frame served as the body.2 Various marble parts survive, including most of the head. (A colossus, or colossal statue, is simply a statue of exceptional size. "Exceptional size" may be interpreted as "much larger than a human being".)

Colossus of Constantine (head)
Colossus of Constantine (hand)
Colossus of Constantine (foot)

Early Christian Period

ca. 200-500

Early Christian art embodies the transition from Roman to medieval art (see Early Christian Art). Until official tolerance of Christianity was effected by Constantine (in 313), Christian art was necessarily small-scale and hidden away in private places, especially catacombs (underground tomb complexes). Early Christian sculptors mainly produced small works in stone, metal, and ivory.

Early Christian sculpture culminated in the form of sculpted sarcophagi. (A sarcophagus is a coffin made from stone or stone-like material, e.g. ivory, terracotta.) Realism was somewhat subdued in Early Christian sculpture, as anatomy and posture were stiffened and stylized (see Realism vs. Stylization). This tendency reflects the unimportance of physical realism for conveying biblical characters and events.

Early Christian Sarcophagus
Early Christian Sarcophagus
Early Christian Sarcophagus
Early Christian Sarcophagus
1 - "Roman art and architecture", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Colossus of Constantine", Wikipedia. Accessed August 2010.