Essential Reading: Hellenistic and Roman Art

p68 of the course notes directs us to read the 5th Chapter, on Romans and Hellenistic Art. As an experiment, I tried to make more brief notes (and less of them, to conform to one page of A4 for the assignment) but I think I’ve still overdone it. On reflection, I think I’ll go back to my longer note taking style for these posts and be more ruthless in the assignment summary cut.

Chapter 5: Hellenistic and Roman Art

1 Political, economic or social factors
  • By the 2nd century BC Greek gods had lost much of their influence.
  • The philosophy of the time reflected a shift from those of human relations to the inner life of the individual.  
  • In Hellenistic art the first representations of allegory were seen.  
  • The transformation of Rome into a monumental imperial capital happened in the 1st century BC and an extensive building program was carried out under Augustus.
  • Utilitarian, as opposed to religious structures were seen as more economically justified, and temples were relatively small in size.
  • Luxury objects and art were in demand as a representation of wealth and taste.
  • Copies of Greek and Hellenistic ‘old masters’ were produced for those who couldn’t afford originals.  Collecting may have changed attitudes to the work of artists by demeaning the “copy”.
2 Changes to status or training of artists
  • Architects were highly regarded however, Roman painters and sculptors were not, despite the high prices of their work.
  • Art collecting increased (private collectors first appeared in the 1st century BC), as did the promotion of famous artists.  
3 Development of materials and processes
  • A system of perspective was devised and various pictorial styles were developed and by 79AD all genres of painting were being practised.  
  • The Romans copied Greek statues (often of bronze) and translated them into marble, often at increased scale so having to alter the compositions slightly to include supports to the heavier material.
  • Marble was also used extensively in Roman architecture as a symbol of magnificence.  However, the development of concrete and its use in conjunction with the arch and vault (none of which were Roman inventions) revolutionised architecture.
4 Styles and movements
  • It was a Hellenistic innovation for ruler portraits to idealize the body but represent a likeness in the head. Romans often made full-length portrait statues by adding a portrait head to a body copied from a Greek original.
  • No longer was the young athlete seen as the ‘ideal’, statues were now showing more realism.
  • The structure and movement of the figures beneath the clothing of sculpture were very naturalistic and show a mastery of 3-dimensional form and technical workmanship.
  • The portrait bust was popular with the Romans as a way of immortalising the person, creating very realistic likenesses based on the ancient belief that the likeness preserves the spirit. So much so that their portraits are direct and often unflattering.  
  • In architecture, ‘extreme naturalism’ is used in the representation of figures.  
  • Decorative schemes first appeared in the 1st century BC, visually enlarging the space of the rooms. New importance given to the decoration of private houses, with painted walls and elaborate pebble-mosaic pavements.
  • In 1 AD fake architectural features such as imaginary windows were treated with increasing fantasy.  Still life painting first appears, as well as illusionistic paintings (trompe l’oeil – p181) of fake features painted onto the walls.
  • Romans excelled in urban design and in new construction methods which facilitated programs for roads, drainage, bridges, aqueducts, apartment blocks and public buildings.
  • Architects created an entirely new concept of architectural mass based on axial symmetry (one space flows harmoniously into the next).  
  • The ‘arch’ was an essential element in Roman architecture.  
5 Inside and outside influences
  • Artworks from Italy illustrate a mix of influences – including Hellenistic, Egyptian and Greek.
  • The obvious influence is Greek however,  the intermingling of different cultures is an essential aspect of Hellenistic and Roman art.  
  • Cities were built conforming to Greek orders of architecture and adorned with sculptures embodying the Greek ideal of the human form.
  • The Roman upper class absorbed Hellenistic culture, which had heavy Greek overtones.  
6 Critics, thinkers and historians
  • Hellenistic writers first wrote about the ‘norm’ in art and also the ‘classical moment’ (late 4th century BC), after which art declined.  
  • Aristotle claimed that the form an object took depended on who made it, what it was made of and what its purpose was – emphasising the artist’s individuality. Thus statues, paintings and temples came to be thought of as works of art, created by individuals or artists. He wrote that imitation in itself is pleasurable. ‘Things that repel in everyday life may please when represented in art’.
  • Plato however claimed all imitations are false and harmful.
  • Socrates thought that artists should concentrate on representing the ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’.
  • Pliny claimed an artist of the Augustan period that he painted walls with any scene that took his fancy.  
  • Philostratus the Younger wrote ‘deception in art is pleasurable’ of the trompe l’oeil being created in 300 AD
  • Architect Vitruvius wrote a book on architecture and Roman painting in the age of Augustus.


Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing


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