New Exhibition: How Greek Culture in the Age of Conquest Changed Roman Art

The Age of Conquest, an exhibition just opened in the Capitoline Museums, explores the question: how did Rome’s conquest of Greece (146 BC) influence Roman art?

The answer is of course that the influence was huge: Roman copies of canonic Greek masterpieces ensued, there were aesthetic influences in the decoration of sanctuaries and funerary monuments, while every-day domestic objects mimicked Greek styles too.

That’s not to say that Roman art was particularly inferior to its Greek counterpart in the second century BC. Roman art at that time owed much to the sophisticated and accomplished artworks of the Etruscans (such as the famous Sarcophagus of the Spouses), who had themselves been influenced by Greek artists during the Etruscan orientalizing period in the seventh century BC.

Greek and Roman artistic styles weren’t that far apart but one key difference was that portraits during the Roman republic became increasingly realistic and less stylized, while Greek art at that time was more focused on portraying the perfect human form.

The Ideals of Greek Art: Turning Roman Heads

Greek sculptors developed their ideal of male (and female) beauty, which they expressed in marble or bronze statues of the gods such as the second century BC Venus de Milo, possibly by the Greek artist Alexandros of Antioch.

The Romans readily absorbed this idea of the benchmark of beauty and made copies of many famous Greek statues. Ironically most of these Greek masterpieces, now lost, are only known to us through their Roman copies.

So from the mid-second century BC onwards, Roman sculpture developed to incorporate the ideal aesthetic of beauty into the realism that it had already adopted. This elevated Roman art to another level and produced some of the renowned works of the Augustan age, such as the detailed friezes on the Ara Pacis.

The Greek Revolution Driven by Consumer Demand?

But nevertheless, when Greek sculptures, paintings, mosaics and other treasures were displayed in Rome in the triumphal parades of conquering generals such as Flamininus, Mummius and Pompey, they would have been quite an awe-inspiring sight for the Roman people. It’s no wonder that all things Greek acquired a bit of kudos in Roman society and people started to decorate their houses in the Greek style.

The exhibition highlights a golden age in Roman artistic development. It’s a time when art began to move from the public space into the private spaces of individual houses and when Greek culture, with its strong associations with philosophy, artistic appreciation and learning, was embraced by elite Romans, who began to acquire Greek-inspired artworks or objects for their private houses (as shown by excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum) perhaps as status symbols.

Examples of everyday objects on display in the exhibition include a candle holder in the shape of a boy and the Rhyton of Pontius, a large Greek drinking fountain (rhytons were common in ancient Persia and were brought back to Athens following Greek conquests). Roman demand for Greek art created quite a market and Roman ships full of statues, vases and other objects from Greece were shipped back to Rome, where they would have been sold to private individuals.

The Age of Conquest: My Verdict

The exhibition is divided into four parts and is spread (confusingly, I thought) over three floors of the museum. The inaugural press conference was an amusing scene of disorder as members of the media (some swinging over-sized camera equipment on their shoulders) got lost on the second floor trying to find the start of the exhibition, while getting distracted along the way by the museum’s other famous attractions such as the equestrian bronze of Marcus Aurelius, or the gilded Hercules of the Forum Boarium. The latter is itself pretty pertinent to the Age of Conquest, having been inspired by the Greek sculptor Lysippos‘s ideal of male proportion.

In my opinion, the inclusion of some more iconic pieces would have raised the game of this exhibition.

Once arrived at the exhibition itself, a section on god and sanctuaries puts artworks from Greek artists side-by-side with the works of some of Rome’s great sculptors. The other sections on triumphal and funerary monuments and Greek styles seen in every-day Roman objects are set out along similar lines, with Roman pieces lined up next to Greek artworks.

Some of the star pieces of the exhibition include statues such as a bronze head of a young athlete (50 BC) found in Herculaneum, on loan for the exhibition from the Louvre, or the bust of Dionysis from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. These are examples of Roman art influenced by Greek style and craftsmanship, while the Spinario (Boy with Thorn) is another example of Hellenic-Roman bronze sculpture from the first century BC, which was based on previous Hellenic models.

Iconic Roman Art Inspired by Greece

While many of the pieces on display provide plenty of food for thought for someone who is seriously interested in the finer details of Roman art from the age of expansion, maybe it’s a shame that this exhibition doesn’t include some of the more well known Greek-derived Roman statues.

There isn’t a lack of impressive and well known sculptures that could conceivably have been part of the exhibition, such as the Apollo Belvedere, a marble statue derived from a fourth-century BC Greek bronze original. It has been considered to represent the perfect male body and is now housed in the Vatican Museums.

Other examples to mention are the Roman copies of the Doryphorus, a ground-breaking male figure possibly by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos (the original is now lost). The marble statue of Augustus of Prima Porta is based on the ideal athletic proportions of the Doryphorus, while a Roman marble copy of the Greek statue was found at Herculaneum (now in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples) and a basalt bust of the same statue is on display in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. The Doyphorus, like the Apollo Belvedere and also the famous Greek Discobulus and its Roman copies (some in the Vatican and Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome), epitomised the aesthetic ideal of male beauty. In my opinion, the inclusion of some more iconic pieces would have raised the game of this exhibition.

Other Areas of Conquest

While the by-line of the exhibition is ‘the fascination for Greek art in Rome’ there is also an example from another part of the expanding republic/empire. A charming coloured mosaic on the third floor of the exhibition depicts a scene from the Nile showing a crocodile and exotic flora dating from between 50-10 BC (Egypt fell fully to Roman rule after the suicide of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC).

This gives a small tantalizing taste of the influence of Egypt on Roman art. It is one of the few exhibits to nod at cultures (other than Greece) that came under Roman rule during the second and first centuries BC. While the Egyptian artistic influence may not have been as profound as that of Greece, a small section on this would have been an interesting addition.

Nevertheless, the exhibition brings together some interesting pieces from the all over Europe. It’s the first leg of a five-part project called the Days of Rome (I Giorni di Roma), which will consist of five exhibitions over the next five years concentrating on the themes of powerful faces, construction of the empire, the age of stability and the age of anguish, as shown through Roman sculpture.

The Age of Conquest is at the Musei Capitolini, Saturday 13 March 2010 to Sunday 5 September 2010.