The ancient Romans were characterized by a strong practical feeling. They had immense organizing, governing power; but they had little of that fine aesthetic sensitiveness which is necessary as the foundation of an indigenous, native art with a people. Still, the position of Rome with reference to the general history of art is very important. It is marvellous, indeed, that a people who seemed originally to have had so little native talent for art should have become the most extensive patrons of art in all history. The inability of the Roman people to originate works of high art was recognized by their own writers. Virgil wrote: "To others it is granted to give life to marble and to lend breath to bronze, but the art of Rome is to govern nations, to conquer the proud, and to spare the weak." The Romans may be compared to rich people in our day who desire to possess works of art without knowing how to appreciate or understand them. Or who wish to use them as a means of displaying their ostentatious luxury. The presence of works of high art also created a proud rivalry among the aristocratic and wealthy which is altogether distinct from the patronage to art which comes from native, artistic impulse. During the first two hundred and fifty years of her existence, Rome might be considered as an Etruscan city, so fully did the Etruscan spirit prevail in all her temples and other works of art. During the first two centuries of the republic, almost no works of art were executed within this great capital, though the names of a few Greek artists in Rome are recorded as early as five hundred years before Christ.
With the conquest of Carthage first, followed by the conquest of Greece and Egypt, a new epoch was opened in the artistic life of the Roman people. Rome now became the great storehouse of the art treasures of the entire world. Greece especially was despoiled to enrich the private palaces and majestic public buildings of the great metropolis. With this gathering of the art treasures of the world into the great capital commences what may with propriety be called the beginning of the development of a true Roman art. The chief development of Roman art lay in the department of architecture. Profusely as painting and sculpture were employed in ornamenting public and private buildings of all grades, both in Rome itself and in all the remotest cities of the vast empire, these arts were practiced exclusively by Greek sculptors and painters. The great majority of architects, also, in the Roman dominions were Greeks, though their work was characterized by Roman elements and was executed in the Roman spirit.
The Romans used both stone and brick with extraordinary skill in their buildings. These materials were employed with great ingenuity and variety, both with and without mortar. The Romans adopted from the Etruscans the round arch and its consequence, the round vault. Arching and vaulting are the chief characteristics of Roman architecture. By using these they were able to erect massive and lofty structures of pleasing lightness and with economy of material. Indeed, without the arch Roman architecture would not have had an existence. By the use of the arch and the vault Roman architecture has given rise to the Byzantine style, and, through this, has inspired all subsequent architecture. Through the arch Roman architecture forms the connecting link and the transition medium from the art of antiquity to the art of mediaeval and modern times. The Romans used the vault as the transition to the dome, and thus, through half domes, to the light and airy architecture of the Byzantines. They also built circular temples, which, originally at least, were more usually consecrated to Vesta, with a simple circular cell, surmounted by a dome, as in the Pantheon. From the traditions of their early Etruscan neighbors they preferred the square cell to the Greek rectangular oblong cell in their rectangular temples. Especially was this the case in Rome itself. The temples they built in other parts of the empire, especially in Greece and the former Greek colonies, were built after the plan of Greek originals; but these were decorated after the modified Greek manner, which the Romans adopted at the metropolis.
The Romans greatly modified all the styles of Greek architecture. To the Doric they added the Tuscan base. This gave the order much wider adaptability to the uses for which the Romans wished to employ the style; that is, in forming colonnades and pilasters to many kinds of buildings, whether circular, elliptical. or rectangular. They were less fortunate in the modification of the Ionic order, which they adopted from a single known Greek original, making volutes face all four sides of the capital. As half columns or pilasters this modification was more fortunate. The Ionic order was only used by them as an intermediate style, in the second story of buildings, never in temples or other buildings a single story in height. The Corinthian order, which had hardly obtained its full capacity of development under the Greeks, was most happily used by the Romans. The Ionic volute, in a modified form, was introduced in the midst of the Acanthus. Thus was taken the first step to the complete union of the Ionic and Corinthian styles in the so called composite order, which is the most characteristic and original decorative feature in Roman architecture, though it was doubtless elaborated by the hands of Greek workmen under the Roman rule. The capitals of columns and the entablatures were often covered with an amount of elaborate decoration which finally became overpowering, and almost destructive of good architectural effect. SEE ORDER.
In considering the classes of buildings erected by the Romans, the student of Egyptian or Greek art is surprised at the small number of temples constructed by the Romans in comparison with other edifices. The noblest monument of Roman architecture is the Pantheon, which is preserved almost in its entirety. Of other famous temples, as that of Jupiter Capitolinus, there are now no remains. The most magnificent temple built under the Roman dominion was that of Jupiter Olympus at Athens. The temples at Palmyra and Baalbec surprise by their size and the magnitude of the blocks of stone used in their erection, but in architectural elegance and purity they are very defective.
Of buildings of civil architecture the forum may first be considered. The forum was used, as by the Greeks, as a place for marketing, for assembling the people for the transaction of public business, for the election of officers, and for other purposes. The forum was surrounded by colonnades. These were frequently richly decorated. Besides the original Roman forum, various emperors laid out others, which served similar purposes. In the further development of the public life, the transaction of a portion of public affairs was transferred to special buildings, of which the basilicas are the most important. In the basilicas were held the courts of justice and the exchange for merchants; finally shops and libraries were added, and the basilicas almost served the varied purposes of the forums. The basilicas were generally rectangular and oblong in shape, though some were nearly square and were vaulted. The oblong basilicas usually had a round apsis at one end. These two forms furnished the starting points for the two great early styles of Christian architecture the oblong, for the so called basilican churches in Italy; and the vaulted ones, for the Byzantine style in Constantinople. Thus we find in the Roman basilica the most important specific connecting link between classical and Christian architecture. SEE BASILICA.
Triumphal arches form a most, important feature of Roman architecture. They were very stately in form and costly in execution. This use of the arch they had doubtless derived from the Etruscans. The most important arches to signalize victories are those of Septimus Severus, Titus, and Constantine. The arch of Titus has peculiar interest to Christians, inasmuch as upon a bas-relief on the inside of the arch are cut models of the seven branched candlestick and other vessels of the Temple service which Titus carried with him to Rome after his conquest of Jerusalem. Arches were erected in many cities to commemorate also the erection of public works of great extent by the emperors or other public officials. SEE ARCH.
Originally, the Roman theaters, like those of Greece, were semicircular in form. But, while the Greek theaters were cut in the solid rock on the side of some lofty hill with a beautiful landscape for the scene, the Roman theater was built up, like other edifices, in the midst of the most populous cities, and the walls were decorated with colonnades, with vaulted arcades leading through the different stories to the seats. Theaters of vast size were built in Rome and in many provincial cities. The best preserved is at Orange, in France. But the amphitheatre was the specially characteristic form of theater building with the Romans. This was built of vast size in even the most distant provincial cities. The largest are the Colosseum at Rome and the amphitheaters at Capua, Verona, Pola, Nismes, and Constantine in Africa. It is estimated that the Colosseum could contain over sixty thousand spectators. In its arena gladiatorial sports of the most cruel character took place, and by their ferocity hastened the depravation of manners and morals which largely caused the downfall of the empire. SEE THEATER.
The public baths form another characteristic feature in Roman architecture. These were laid out upon a scale of immense grandeur. The baths of Caracalla covered thirty-six acres. The vast edifices in this structure were highly decorated, and contained almost innumerable works of sculpture and painting. Several thousand bathers could be accommodated at one time. Elegant halls were also provided for reading, conversation, music, boxing, and other lighter games of various sorts. Other baths of vast size were built by various emperors, as Diocletian, Agrippa, Titus, and Vespasian. SEE BATHE.
The arch was most successfully applied to the erection of bridges and aqueducts. Many of these were erected with surprising boldness, and of a size and length to excite the wonder of the modern beholder. Though frequently without much architectural decoration, the aqueducts generally have graceful outlines, and by their long lines, as they sweep for miles over the plain, mark the power of the people who ruled the world. SEE BRIDGE.
The lack of perfect artistic taste was manifested by the Romans in the erection of columns of victory, which received long sculptured portrayals of the achievements of victors. As the sculpture is thus placed utterly out of the reach of the eye, its effect is lost upon the beholder. SEE COLUMN.
The history of the Roman domestic residence is to be traced in the progress of Roman luxury. In the early career of the state, private houses were extremely simple. During the empire, all the luxurious richness of decoration that wealth and art could supply was employed in adorning the houses of the wealthy. Good taste was soon overwhelmed in costly decoration. The houses in the provincial city of Pompeii indicate what may have been the luxurious decoration of the capital. Even greater profligate expenditures were made upon the villas of the rich on beautiful mountain sides or by the coasts of the sea. SEE HOUSE. The palaces of the emperors presented the climax of luxurious domestic architecture. These palaces, especially in provincial summer resorts, were built on an immense scale, and were rather a vast group of edifices within a fortified enclosure, all laid out and decorated with the fullest luxury of the period. Two of the most famous of these imperial palaces were that of Diocletian at Spalatro, and that of Adrian at Tivoli. SEE PALACE.
The tumular architecture of the Romans is very striking, both with reference to the number and the style of the monuments. Of the tombs of the kingly period, there remain only the monuments attributed to the Curiatii. Of the republic, there remain only the tomb and sarcophagus of Scipio. The tombs of the period of the empire seem to have been decidedly of Etruscan style, both in shape and construction. The earliest of these is that of Cecilia Metella, on the Appian Way; but the grandest and most splendid was that of Adrian, now known as the Castle St. Angelo. The basement was three hundred and forty feet square; the height to the pine cone on the summit was three hundred feet. It was decorated with an immense number of statues. The building called the tomb of Santa Helena, mother of Constantine, shows how the feeling for interior decoration had in that period displaced the earlier feeling for exterior decoration in all classes of structures. Parallel to these tombs erected above the ground are the columbaria, or underground tombs, with niches for containing a number of cinerary urns. In general structure, these have their antitype in the subterranean tombs, or catacombs, of the Etruscans. Many of these columbaria are exquisitely decorated with arabesques of stucco, which have been the delight of medieval and modern artists. Tumular monuments of more slender upright form, often with highly appropriate architectural decoration, and evidently with a marked Greek impress, are found in a few provincial cities in the north and west of the empire. But in Cyrene in Africa and in Petra in Arabia are found a large number of elaborate and imposing tombs. Those at Petra are deeply cut in the rock, like many Egyptian tombs, but with elaborate Corinthian decorations. Of this same Roman period are a large number of tombs in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and other countries in the Orient. See Toam.
The catacombs of the Etruscans were imitated by the Jews and Christians in Rome, as these classes, like the Etruscans, did not burn their dead. But the Romans themselves, so far as is known, did not imitate fully the Etruscan catacombs for their own dead. SEE CATACOMB.
The Romans invented almost no original sculpture, but they brought from the conquered cities and colonies of Greece countless statues of the first rank. They also had marble copies of many masterpieces made for the decoration of their baths, forums, circuses, palaces, and tombs. SEE SCULPTURE.
Painting, both in tempera and in mosaic, they employed very extensively in decorating the floors and walls of the interiors of all rooms, even of those of shops and smaller houses. SEE PAINTING.
The objects of daily use of every kind, even down to the utensils of the kitchen or the shop, were richly decorated. Artistic decoration had become a necessity in all material objects. But, withal, it is remarkable that they should have depended upon foreign workmen to supply them with all their artistic objects, both large and small. SEE ROME.
In more ways than can be traced, the art of Rome, or rather the art in Rome, furnished the channel for the transmission of the art of classical antiquity, in modified forms, to mediaeval Christianity. SEE ROMANESQUE ART. (G.F.C.)