Art during the era of Augustus and his successors (44 BCE-64 AD). Part I. Buildings and Monuments

The roman general Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE by a group of senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus.  By then a series of civil wars broke out and ended in the demise of the Republic.  Caesar’s adopted heir Octavian, later known as Augustus, rose to sole power and the era of the Roman Empire began.  Julius Caesar began the transformation of the Roman Republic later continued by Augustus the first emperor of Rome.  Augustus, an adept follower of Hellenistic art, and with him all of Rome accepted the ideas of the Greek world of their time.  Even after the reign of Augustus, his descendants, Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero, transformed Rome into a marble city with clear Hellenistic influences.  Therefore the Roman art of the imperial era of the Caesars deserves a special chapter because remained faithful to purely Hellenistic styles.

After the reign of the Caesars of the House of Augustus, two large families of emperors, the Flavian and Antonine, occupied another century.  With them, the more mature Roman art spread its own particular style with its large vaults and monuments, new types of forums*, porticos, basilicas* and baths*.  This era of the imperial Roman art will have its own separate chapter.  Finally, during the reigns of several emperors until Constantine, the Roman art changed with interesting innovations, thus paving the road for the formation of the medieval schools.  This evolution of artistic forms in Rome and its provinces until the founding of Constantinople will be the theme of the last chapter devoted to Roman art.

[In the pictures below: Left: Perseus sets Andromeda free, bas-relief, (Capitoline Museum, Rome). Right: Endymion asleep, bas relief, (Capitoline Museum, Rome).]

During the first period of the Roman empire, called the age of the Caesars, Rome became the new capital of the world.  Examples of works from the early days of the reign of Augustus made by artists with strong Greek influence include a group of beautiful reliefs believed to be part of a series of small sculpted paintings that possibly were used to decorate rooms.  The most exquisite of these reproduced a Greek theme: the liberation of Andromeda by Perseus.  In this relief, Andromeda walks down wet rock steps as the dragon, slain by Perseus, lies at her feet, Perseus extends his arm offering his hand to Andromeda who tries to reach it.  Another of these reliefs shows Endymion asleep, the young man rests while his dog howls in a background marked by the relief’s horizontal shadows giving the impression of the darkness of the night.  Two important features can be seen in these reliefs, the moisture on the rock steps from the Perseus’ relief and the dark ambiance of the Endymion’s relief both effects with great pictorial realism so characteristic of Roman art.

Grimani reliefs, ca. 0 AD – 50 AD (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

The same impression of Latin realism is seen in other two reliefs known as the Grimani reliefs representing a sheep and a lioness, this last with her cubs, both used to decorate a fountain.  The reliefs’ background still reproduce the idyllic landscapes of clear Hellenistic influence.  In the relief of the sheep we can see a shepherd pouch hanging from a tree and a barn with its door opened; on the other relief, it was portrayed the wild environment of the lioness’ cave, with an altar adorned with a thyrsus and a wreath.

Later, Roman artists would mimic reality more faithfully to the original model.  The oldest known work of art depicting a historical theme are the reliefs of a frieze that adorned the altar erected by Domitius Ahenobarbus in commemoration of his victory at Brindisi.  Some of these reliefs depict a procession of nereids and tritons accompanying the carriage of Venus and Neptune all carved in a pure Hellenistic style.  In the reliefs of the altar’s front, for the first time Roman artists represent a scene that will be repeated a thousand times in the history of the Roman art: the ritual sacrifice of thanksgiving with which a commander always ended a campaign.  Domitius himself is represented wearing the sacrificial toga and standing to one side of the altar where several assistants take the victims for the sacrifice.  Domitius as well as his assistants are crowned with laurel leaves.  In other area of the relief a group of veterans visibly excited say goodbye to his general.  This is the genuinely Roman part of the frieze where all the details were copied from reality: Domitius’ head must be a portrait and perhaps also those of some of his companions.  The three victims led to slaughter, always used in the Roman ritual, a pig, a sheep and a bull, appear on the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus in reverse order (with the bull first) because the ceremony was to celebrate the end of a war campaign.  But instead, when a campaign was inaugurated, the order of these victims was the opposite thus following the liturgical ceremony, with the pig first and the bull at the end.  The representation of this scene with the three victims, or Suovetaurilia* as it was called, abounded in columns, friezes, triumphal arches*, and altars.  The Roman art felt a special fondness for this scene.

“The ritual sacrifice” relief from the frieze of the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb (Louvre), ca. 2nd century BCE.
“The carriage of Venus and Neptune” relief from a frieze of the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb (Munich Museum), ca. 2nd century BCE.
Tomb of the Julii in Provence, ca. 5 AD.

The essential character of the Roman art of imposing historical sense to artistic representations is already present during the reign of Augustus.  Even in the Empire’s provinces there were eloquent examples of the Roman preference for social and political affairs.  See for example the Tomb of the Julii in Provence, probably built during the early years of Augustus’ reign which includes reliefs depicting fighting scenes that were almost contemporary with the wars against the Gauls.  Mask-bearing-garlands hold by cupids hang from the frieze, and in the relief depicting the battle per se realism prevails in the characters and in the confusion of the different terms of combatants which were a true novelty in ancient art.  The characters in the frieze of the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus were still in a single plane; in this monument at Provence the figures intersect and blend seamlessly as happens in real life, only the Victory appears in the middle carrying a trophy and a reclining figure seen on the left seems to be the personification of the place: both are the only mythological elements present in this relief, the Victory and the Genius loci*, a figure that Roman artists always featured in their depictions of historical issues.

Relief from the Tomb of the Julii depicting a scene from the Iliad and Trojan War, the Greeks and Trojans fighting for the body of Patroclus.
Relief from the Tomb of the Julii with the Victory (at the center-left) carrying a trophy and the Genius loci reclining at the lower left corner.
The Temple of Augustus and Rome in Ancyra (modern Ankara, Turkey), also known as Monumentum Ancyranum, 25-20 BCE. Main entrance.

The architecture also followed Greek types, although imposing the new Roman style.  A famous example is the temple of Augustus in Ankara.  It is a building with a single cella, with a floor plan similar to that of a Greek temple but with different proportions and taller: in many occasions the Romans were concerned more about dimensions rather than beauty.  The door is huge, it’s like a gigantic expansion of the gates of the Erechtheus of Athens, but above the lintel has a very distinctive frieze representing a braid of laurel leaves which will become a favorite ornament of the imperial Roman art.

The Temple of Augustus and Rome in Ancyra, side view showing the frieze with the laurel leaves braid.

The famous Altar of Peace or Ara Pacis is a monument that Augustus had built in Rome on his return from peacekeeping campaigns in Spain and Gaul in 13 BCE.  It is a square building standing on a podium containing a small temple within a colonnaded precinct.  This monument was actually a fanum or area dedicated to a numen, in this case the numen of Peace.  This numen, as befitted his Roman character, was not represented by an effigy or statue, so in this sanctuary there was no closed room or reliquary to house the image.

The Ara Pacis Augustae or Ara Pacis, consecrated on January 30th, 9 BCE (Museo dell’Ara Pacis, Rome).

The floor plan of the Ara Pacis was squared with a simple altar inside, and outside on its walls had two areas filled with reliefs: one of acanthus leaves and above it other area with figures.  This upper frieze of the Ara Pacis is, to present, the most important monument of the Roman sculpture; for its significance in the History of Art has been compared to the Panathenaic frieze of the Parthenon.  This frieze has the new philosophical deities of the three elements: the Earth crowned with spikes, the Air and the Ocean.  These deities were on one side of the door, on the other side was a symbolic character representing the people or the Roman Senatus (an old strong man crowned with laurel and wearing a mantle over his head like a priest) who is ready to practice the sacrifice of the three ritual victims.  The last remnants of the Hellenistic style in Roman art are seen both in the image of the three elements’ deities, which is reminiscent of the Hellenistic group of the Nile, and in the relief of the sacrifice where there is a background representing an ideal landscape with trees in a Hellenistic fashion and with a small mound or temple that represent the hut of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome according to tradition.

Ara Pacis: “The Roman frieze” or the “Tellus Allegory” has been thought to represent either the deities of the three elements: the Earth crowned with spikes, the Air (to her right) and the Ocean (to her left); or a goddess (either Italia, Tellus -the Earth-, Venus, or more accurately Peace -Pax-, amid a scene of fertility and prosperity with twins on her lap.
Ara Pacis: relief with a representation of the Roman Senatus (the old strong man crowned with laurel and wearing a mantle over his head) ready to practice the ritual sacrifice.

But the most pure Roman style of the Ara Pacis is reflected in its side and posterior walls which are the most original part of this frieze: it represents a civic procession headed by Augustus himself, clothed with the attributes of Pontifex Maximus, accompanied by judges and a group of sergeants, and behind, the procession with his family: the Empress Livia with his son in law Agrippa and his son Tiberius, the young Druze with Antonia holding the hand of little Germanicus.  At the end is the procession of senators and patricians who parade wearing their robes.  This procession of people from the imperial family and state dignitaries includes portraits of unsurpassed realism.  What sets this frieze apart from that of the Parthenon is that the Ara Pacis includes a big novelty by introducing all these portraits.

Ara Pacis: Detail of the north face of the processional frieze showing members of the Senate.
Ara Pacis: Processional frieze (south face) showing members of the Imperial household.

Below this upper frieze with the civic procession is a frieze with plant decorations. This relief alone is a wonder of the ornamental Augustan art.  From a large central bunch of acanthus leaves, located at the base, spread delicate spirally curved curls tufted with palmettes, small leaves and flowers, animals and the swan, Apollo’s favorite animal protector of Augustus.

Ara Pacis: Ornamental frieze with plant decorations.

Inside the Ara Pacis there was another frieze with  garlands of laurel leaves, roses and fruits all supported by the typical oxen skulls or bucrania, a traditional element of the art in times of the Republic.

Ara Pacis: Section of the internal frieze, with garlands supported by bucrania.

The Emperors’ fondness of commemorative triumphal arches begun in the time of Augustus and his immediate successors.  As a memorial, Roman triumphal arches were also a Hellenistic influence: in Asiatic Greek countries the superb Stoa gates were very frequent and used to decorate the entrance of their cities, a type of construction that was very similar to the Roman triumphal arch.  The difference with the Greek type is that, although the imperial architecture often used these arches at the entrance of cities as a door or at the entrance to a religious precinct or a Forum such as those in the so-called Triumphal Via of the Roman Forum (one the Arch of Titus and the other that of Septimius Severus), these arches also appeared isolated, located in the precise place where Romans wanted to commemorate a historic event or as signs to delimit provincial borders, and thus this “door” became a memorial monument.  The scenes carved on the reliefs of these Arches sought to represent the significance of the historical event or the illustrious man whose memory inspired the construction of the arch.  The great triumphal arch of Orange in Provence comes from the time of the Caesars and was  built in the time of Tiberius and decorated with reliefs alluding to the wars with the Gauls.

The Triumphal Arch of Orange (Orange, southeast France), built between 27 BCE to 14 AD.

A type of monument which was essential to every Roman town was the Circus* or hippodrome for the chariot races.  Its origin is also Greek.  But it is very possible that the Romans copied it based on Etruscan models namely the amphitheater type and the games that took place there, and that the Etruscans, in turn, would have imported them from their place of origin: Asia Minor.  The first circus in Rome (the Circus Maximus) was in the valley that lies between the Aventine and Palatine hills.

The Circus Maximus (Rome), located in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, it could accommodate about 150,000 spectators.
A reconstruction of the Circus Maximus.

In times of the emperors of the family of Augustus, Rome was enriched with several great public buildings which ultimately would give Rome its final appearance of imperial metropolis: the Baths of Agrippa, the giant aqueduct* ordered by Claudius (the Aqua Claudia), Nero’s Circus at the Vatican (where now lies Saint Peter’s Basilica), the Golden House or Domus Aurea a luxury mansion with gardens constructed under Nero (located below the ruins of the Baths of Trajan).  But perhaps the most exquisite constructions of this period are those that Augustus ordered himself, like his famous Forum built next to the old Republican Forum, a monumental group consisting of a portico with the temple of Mars at one end and the temple of Apollo right next to the house of Augustus in the Palatine.

The Baths of Agrippa (Rome), the first of the great thermae constructed in the city.
Aqua Claudia, an aqueduct of ancient Rome built between 38 AD to 52 AD.
Reconstruction of The Circus of Nero or Circus of Caligula.
The Domus Aurea (Rome), a large landscaped portico villa built by the Emperor Nero between 64-68 AD.
Remains of the Forum of Augustus with the Temple of Mars Ultor in the foreground (Rome), built between 20-2 BCE.

The Caesars not only beautified the city of Rome, but also contributed to the Romanization of the first provinces of the Empire by building memorials and civil monuments everywhere.  In Spain they built a marble temple dedicated to Augustus in Tarragona.  In Gaul still survive several monuments of the time of the Caesars.  The most important was the massive altar of Lyon dedicated to the numen of Rome, an immense marble altar decorated with garlands and bucrania.

The Pyramid of Caius Cestius, 12 BCE (Rome).

The construction of gigantic tombs also begun in Rome at the time of the Caesars.  One of them is dedicated to Caius Cestius and is a pyramid completely built in marble.  The Pyramid of Caius Cestius is a proof of the good relationship and sympathy between the first century Roman Empire with Ptolemaic Egypt.  However, the pyramid-type tomb was not popular in Rome.  Another gigantic tomb is located in the Via Appia outside Rome, known as the tomb of Caecilia Metella a patrician contemporary of Augustus.  Within its huge solid mole is a small chamber with a conical roof where the coffin was laid.  The great patricians not only built splendid mausoleums, but also the simple burghers and craftsmen did, like Eurysaces the baker, whose monumental tomb with large holes resembling oven openings has a frieze at the top depicting scenes of his job as baker.

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella (Rome) built during the 1st century BCE to honor the daughter of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus, a Consul in 69 BCE. The battlements were added during the 13th century when the building was used as a fortress.
The tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the baker, built around the end of the Republic (ca. 50-20 BCE) (Rome).

During the imperial era the Roman house retained the traditional atrium.  Just as the Greek house was developed around a central courtyard, the Roman house was developed around the atrium, another central element.  The atrium was a covered room, unlike the uncovered Greek courtyard, and had a single opening in the roof called compluvium*.  Through the compluvium sunlight entered as did the rain (hence its name) that was why, under the compluvium, there was a shallow cistern called impluvium* used to collect the water that fell from the roof.

Reconstruction of a Roman house.

With the passing of time the Roman house, which initially was just an atrium functioning as a common room for everything and everyone, increased its dependencies.  The first atrium was surrounded by smaller rooms (or triclinia) on all four sides; later, another atrium was added with new rooms, and often a garden was placed at the rear part of the house which sometimes included a back porch.  The structure and layout of the ancient Roman house also suffered the influence of Hellenistic ideas and though they still retained the traditional atrium, the Roman house was transformed with the inclusion of patio, porches and columns into a Greek house.


Bucrania: Bucranium (plural bucrania; Latin, from Greek, referring to the skull of an ox) was a common form of carved decoration in ancient Classical architecture. A bas-relief or painted decor consisting of a series of bucrania draped or decorated with garlands of fruit or flowers was a typical Roman motif. The name refers to the practice of garlanding sacrificial oxen, the heads of which were displayed on the walls of the temples, a practice with a long history reaching back to the Neolithic.


Compluvium: A space left unroofed over the court of an Ancient Roman house, through which the rain fell into the impluvium or cistern.

Impluvium: The sunken part of the atrium in a Greek or Roman house (domus). Designed to carry away the rainwater coming through the compluvium of the roof, it was usually made of marble and placed about 30 cm below the floor of the atrium. The combination of the compluvium and impluvium formed an ingenious, effective and attractive manner of collecting, filtering and cooling rainwater and making it available for household use as well as providing cooling of the living spaces.


Genius loci: In classical Roman religion, a genius loci (plural genii loci) was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, patera (libation bowl) or snake. Many Roman altars found throughout the Western Roman Empire were dedicated to a particular genius loci.

Roman aqueduct: The Romans constructed numerous aqueducts in order to bring water from distant sources into cities and towns, supplying public baths, latrines, fountains and private households. Waste was removed by complex sewage systems and released into nearby bodies of water, keeping the towns clean and free from effluent. Aqueducts moved water through gravity alone, being constructed along a slight downward gradient within conduits of stone, brick or concrete.


Roman basilica: The Latin word basilica was originally used to describe a Roman public building (mainly a tribunal), usually located in the forum of a Roman town. After the Roman Empire became officially Christian, the term came by extension to refer to a large and important church that has been given special ceremonial rites by the Pope. Thus the word retains two senses today, one architectural and the other ecclesiastical.  In architecture, the Roman basilica was a large roofed hall erected for transacting business and disposing of legal matters.

Roman circus: The Roman circus (from Latin, “circle”) was a large open-air venue used for public events in the ancient Roman Empire. The circuses were similar to the ancient Greek hippodromes, although circuses served varying purposes and differed in design and construction. Along with theatres and amphitheatres, Circuses were one of the main entertainment sites of the time. Circuses were venues for chariot races, horse races, and performances that commemorated important events of the empire. For events that involved re-enactments of naval battles, the circus was flooded with water.

Roman forum: The Roman Forum (Latin: Forum Romanum) was a rectangular forum (plaza) surrounded by several important ancient government buildings always located at the center of cities during ancient times. Citizens of the ancient city referred to this space, originally a marketplace, as the Forum Magnum, or simply the Forum.  The Forum was for centuries the center of Roman public life: the site of triumphal processions and elections; the venue for public speeches, criminal trials, and gladiatorial matches; and the nucleus of commercial affairs. Here statues and monuments commemorated the city’s great men.

Suovetaurilia: The suovetaurilia or suovitaurilia was one of the most sacred and traditional rites of Roman religion: the sacrifice of a pig (sus), a sheep (ovis) and a bull (taurus) to the deity Mars to bless and purify land (Lustratio).  The ritual is preserved in Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura, “On Agriculture”.



Thermae: In ancient Rome, thermae (from the Greek thermos meaning “hot”) and balneae (from Greek balaneion meaning “bath”) were facilities for bathing. Thermae usually refers to the large imperial bath complexes, while balneae were smaller-scale facilities, public or private, that existed in great numbers throughout Rome. Most Roman cities had at least one, if not many, such buildings, which were centers not only for bathing, but socializing.


Triumphal arch: A triumphal arch is a monumental structure in the shape of an archway with one or more arched passageways, often designed to span a road. The main structure is often decorated with carvings, sculpted reliefs, and dedications. More elaborate triumphal arches may have multiple archways. Triumphal arches are one of the most influential and distinctive types of architecture associated with ancient Rome. Thought to have been invented by the Romans, the triumphal arch was used to commemorate victorious generals or significant public events such as the founding of new colonies, the construction of a road or bridge, the death of a member of the imperial family or the accession of a new emperor.