The main Roman innovations in sculpture were in portraiture (often brutally realistic) and in the recording of actual events in low relief (such as on Trajan's column).


Do I not seem to you to have good reason for staying at, living in, valuing my retreat, which, if you don’t envy it, labels you a complete townee? I wish you would envy it, so that the commendation of your company may be added to the many charms of my modest country house” Pliny the Younger, Letters II. 17 (to Gallus).

Pliny's villa: click to enlarge

One of several homes, Pliny’s villa at Laurentum was where he spent some of the winter months. (Plan adapted from H. L. Rogers and T. R. Harley, The Life of Rome, Clarendon Press 1927)

Roman sculpture, learned from the Greeks and the Etruscans, reached a peak in the first and second centuries AD. It was, however, the development of the arch, the vault, and the dome, and the use of concrete, which gave distinction, serviceability, and grandeur to Roman domestic and public architecture and civil engineering.

Julia Paula

Bust of Julia Paula, wife of Elagabalus, emperor AD 218--22. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)


Marble head of Caracalla, emperor AD 211--17. (VRoma (Riley Sculpture Collection): John Gruber-Miller)

Two influences in particular drove the Romans fully to explore and develop the art of sculpture: the worship and reverence of images, not only of gods and goddesses, but also of dead ancestors, and the recording of ritualistic and triumphant events in bas-relief on pillars, arches, and tombs. Whereas the faces of Greek portrait sculptures tend to display neither expression nor emotion, Roman sculptures, particularly those carved in the time of the Flavian emperors and after, have character and animation. Reality before flattery was demonstrably the rule rather than the exception.

No less effective are some of the portraits on coins of the later republic and early empire.

Julia Domna

Gold aureus of Septimius Severus AD 193--6, depicting his wife Julia Domna with her title of Augusta. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Trajan's Column

(VRoma: Lisanne Marshall)

Typical among outstanding historical reliefs are those on the column of the emperor Trajan, erected during his lifetime in AD 113 in the forum which bears his name, to celebrate his conquest, and acquisition for the empire, of Dacia. It is 30 metres high, with a staircase inside lit by forty-three slit windows.

Detail of Trajan's column

Trajan’s column, detail.(VRoma: Leslie Flood)

A spiral band about 1 metre deep and 200 metres long winds twenty-three times round the shaft from bottom to top, carrying 155 continuous scenes. Though there is not a great deal of attention given to perspective, the effect is of activity and action in which there are more than 2500 different human figures.

The story of Trajan’s campaign is built up stage by stage, from the commissioning of the army, its march and crossing of the fast-moving Danube on a bridge which took a year to construct, through preparations for the fighting, the siege, and battle, to the grim aftermath of the torture of prisoners-of-war and the suicide of the Dacian chief.

Trajan and a Dacian prisoner

Trajan himself appears frequently in the scenes. Here a Dacian prisoner is brought before him. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Believe it or not:

The first recorded bronze statue to be cast in Rome was in 484 BC.

It was customary in Rome to make wax masks of distinguished men after their death, which were kept by their relations and descendants. These masks were usually displayed in the atrium of the house and were brought out for funeral ceremonies. Marble busts began to replace wax masks at the end of the second century BC.

The Romans invented and developed the technique of bringing life to their portrait heads by using a drill to indicate the ring of the iris and the reflection of light on the pupil. This is particularly evident in sculptures dating from the time of the emperor Hadrian.

Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect of Trajan’s column, also constructed the bridge across the fast-moving Danube which enabled Trajan to conduct his campaign. The Romans were in awe of the river and its attendant god Danubius, and the bridge took a year to build