Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 BCE-476 CE: Visual Arts

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Pottery in the Bronze Age

Early Developments

Pottery first appeared in the Greek peninsula about 6000 B.C.E., introduced, perhaps, by immigrants from the Near East where pottery was made as early as 8000 B.C.E. The first pots were coarse, gray, handmade ware with simple decorations made by scratching linear designs on them, but in the mid-Neolithic period (5000-4000 B.C.E.) there is evidence of potters in southern Greece using slips, or washes of specially-prepared clay painted on the pot before firing in order to produce a lustrous finish. Pottery was still made by hand, as it would continue to be during both the Early Helladic Period (3000-2000 B.C.E.) on mainland Greece, and the Early Minoan Period which corresponds to it on Crete. Yet on Crete, a change took place once the island entered the Early Minoan Period. The quality of pottery on Crete improved. One type of pottery found on Crete during the Early Minoan period hints at connections with Egypt; the “Vasiliki-ware,” so-called from the site of Vasilike on Crete where it was first discovered, apparently imitated vessels made from fine veined stone of the sort found in Egypt. Vasilikiware is decorated with patches of paint which is then fired to different shades of red, yellow, and dark brown, producing a mottled effect. Typical shapes are the goblet and a jug with a long spout. By the end of the Early Minoan period (2000 B.C.E.), however, this mottled decoration found on Vasiliki-ware had been abandoned. Contemporary ware on the mainland at the end of Early Helladic is typically plain and dark in color, though pots with patterns have also been found that feature interlocking triangles, winding lines, and chevron. The potter’s wheel also made its appearance on mainland Greece before the end of the Early Helladic Period, though it was not much used there until after 1600 B.C.E. By 2000 B.C.E., when the Middle Minoan period began on Crete and Middle Helladic on the mainland, Crete and mainland Greece apparently went their separate ways.

The Protopalatial Period on Crete

The early years of Middle Helladic on the mainland Greece were marked by a new migration into the Greek peninsula, and it is generally agreed that these new immigrants spoke Greek, and were thus the first wave of Greekspeakers to reach Greece. They brought with them a type of ware which archaeologists call “Minyan Ware,” either gray or beige in color and without decoration. For the next three centuries or more, mainland Greece became a backwater. On Crete, however, the Middle Minoan period ushered in a brilliant age, the Protopalatial or Old Palace Period, when great sprawling palaces were built at a number of sites, chief of them Knossos just south of Iraklion, the capital of modern Crete; Phaestos, due south of Knossos; and Mallia on the northern coast of the island. The potter’s wheel was generally used. Potters in the Old Palace Period threw their clay on the horizontal surface of a disk and molded it with their hands as the disk spun around, turned by the potter’s helper. The result was a more symmetrical pot of a finer texture and the best of these can stand comparison with the best oriental porcelain.

Kamares Ware

The most distinctive pottery of the period is “Kamares Ware” which took its name from a cave sanctuary on the slopes of Mt. Ida near the village of Kamares where the first examples of the style were found in the 1890s. Kamares Ware is egg-shell thin and polychrome, that is, it is decorated with designs in several colors: creamy white and reddish-brown against a black background is the favorite color combination. One example, from the palace at Phaistos in south-central Crete, shows a large fish and what appears to be a fish-net on the belly of the vase, and beneath it are spirals, concentric circles and wavy lines, perhaps representing the sea. The development of Kamares Ware was interrupted by a catastrophe about 1700 B.C.E. in which the palaces of the Old Palace Period were destroyed. When the palaces were rebuilt, the Kamares-type vases continued to be made, though they lacked the vivacity of the earlier examples.

Vase-Painting in the Neopalatial Period

By 1600 B.C.E. vase-painters began to experiment with designs in dark paint on light backgrounds, the opposite of the Kamares-style where the background was dark. Vase-painters moved towards a new style, with themes taken from nature; a number of vases show illustrations of papyrus plants which the Minoans must have seen in Egypt, for no papyrus grows on Crete. Then, by 1500 B.C.E. the last Minoan pottery style before the great catastrophe of 1450 B.C.E.evolved: the so-called “Marine Style.” In this style, vases were decorated with life-like paintings of sea-creatures: fish, octopods, and the mollusk with octopus-like tentacles known as “argonauts.” There is nothing stiff or ornate about the Marine Style. Fish, dolphins, and cephalopods were depicted as they appear in real life, and the style betrays familiarity with marine life. Then about 1450 B.C.E. catastrophe overwhelmed all the palaces and only the Knossos palace was rebuilt and reinhabited, apparently by Mycenaean Greeks, for their language is Greek. At Knossos in this period, the last pottery style of Bronze-Age Crete emerged: the so-called “Palace Style,” associated with the palace at Knossos. The cheerful spontaneity of the Marine Style disappeared, and was replaced by a style that aimed at grandeur. Formalism replaced naturalism. The taste is Mycenaean, for at Mycenae on the mainland natural motifs were stylized into symmetrical and often heraldic patterns.

Mycenaean Vases

By the late 1400s B.C.E., Greek-speakers from mainland Greece had probably invaded Crete, and more and more in the later centuries Minoan pottery and the Mycenaean ware from the mainland converged and became standardized. From a technical point of view, Mycenaean vases are often very fine work, with clean shapes and stylized decoration that reuses motifs from Crete. For two centuries after 1400 B.C.E. Mycenaean pottery found markets all over the Mediterranean world. It has been found in Italy, Sicily, Asia Minor, and Egypt. However, with the end of the Mycenaean civilization around 1200 B.C.E., the world became an unsettled place, and the change is reflected in the pottery. The last styles from the aftermath of the Mycenaean collapse—the period from 1200-1100 B.C.E. which archaeologists call Late Helladic IIIC—belong to the “Close Style” and the “Granary Style,” both modern labels. The Close Style has decoration distributed in close rows of concentric half-circles, triangles, and the like over the body of the vase and sometimes there are motifs of fish and birds. One group that has been found has stylized octopods as decoration. Granary Style got its name because a cache of “Granary Style” vases were found at Mycenae in a store-room for grain inside the “Lion Gate” there, and they can be securely dated. Their decoration is simple: wavy lines and festoons on the belly and neck of the pot. “Granary Style” is recognizably sub-Mycenaean. It is the art of the dying Mycenaean civilization which still influenced potters, though the palaces where the god-kings used to rule had been destroyed and the well-to-do customers who used to buy Mycenaean pottery had vanished. Granary Style or “sub-Mycenaean” developed naturally into the Protogeometric style, whereas the Close Style did not survive the final phase of the Mycenaean world.

The Early Pottery of Greece

The Importance of Athens

Athens was relatively unimportant in the Mycenaean period, but after the collapse of the Mycenaean world, it dominated the Geometric Period that followed. Sites from the century following 1200 B.C.E. show destruction by fire all over Greece and, for that matter, the Aegean world, but Athens survived. Athenian traditions told that Athens was attacked by the Dorians—a group of Greek people speaking the Dorian dialect—and in the struggle, the last king of Athens, Codrus, sacrificed his life to save the city. Athens and her territory, Attica, remained unconquered and offered a refuge for other dispossessed Greeks. The evidence of Athenian pottery during this period is particularly important, for not only is it the only evidence for the visual arts during the “Dark Ages” that followed Mycenae’s collapse, but it contributes a major body of evidence about the period’s history. In the Kerameikos cemetery—that is, the cemetery in the Potters’ Quarter in Athens—there is an unbroken series of burials from the end of the Mycenaean age into the classical period, and the pottery found in these burials allows scholars to document pottery decoration from sub-Mycenaean to Geometric.

Movement from Sub-Mycenaean to Geometric

The sub-Mycenaean pottery from the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe ending the Bronze-Age civilization is similar to the Granary Style found at Mycenae. It bears signs of culture shock, as the potters adjusted to the collapse of the civilization they once knew.

Simple Mycenaean patterns remembered from the past are repeated as if by rote. By about 1050 B.C.E., however, a new spirit emerged with a generation that never knew the Mycenaean world at first hand. The first stages of a new style of pottery appear which is labelled “Protogeometric” or “Early Geometric.” Vases were made once again on the fast wheel and fired at higher temperatures. The feature that gave the style its name, “Protogeometric,” is the type of decoration that the potters used on their ware: lines, circles, and, as time went on, intricate geometric patterns. Protogeometric artists employed a black background with light-ground stripes around the neck or the belly of the vase, or alternatively, a light background with geometric designs such as concentric circles, wavy lines, or checker-board patterns. The vase painters used compasses to draw concentric half-circles. The technique of producing the fine black gloss from the Bronze Age was not forgotten; it is used to cover more of the surface of the vase.

Geometric Pottery

About 850 B.C.E., the pottery artists moved into the so-called Middle Geometric Period with new and more complex geometric designs. Vases have bands of zigzags, triangle-patterns and meander designs that cover the whole surface of the vase. The patterns used by the Middle Geometric artist seem to owe their inspiration to basket weaving. During this period, the most dramatic change occurred with the introduction of figures, first of animals and then suddenly around 770 B.C.E., human figures. The spirit of these new vases is still geometric as the figures are still marshaled in orderly rows. But there is an effort to depict a scene. In one large vase made in Athens about 750 B.C.E., a central band across the belly of the vase shows a woman’s corpse laid out on a bier, and on either side, rows of women with their hands clasped over their heads in a ritual gesture of mourning. The rest of the vase is completely filled with geometric patterns marshaled in concentric circles. This vase, which stands about one and a half meters (five feet) high, was a grave marker, placed on top of a woman’s grave and partially buried. Another vase made in Athens about the same time shows a war galley with rows of oarsmen. A man is about to embark, and as he does, he turns and clasps a woman standing behind him by the wrist. The man is portrayed with a very slender waist and heavily-muscled thighs, and he grasps the woman’s wrist as if he is trying to drag her with him into the ship. Clearly the vase is telling a story, perhaps from Greek mythology, as one of the first examples of narrative art.

Corinthian Pottery

Vases ornamented with geometric figures were popular among Athenian potters, but this was not the case everywhere in Greece. In Corinth, the potters preferred linear designs coupled with fine craftsmanship, using the local buff-colored clay that is still found there. A new style of vase painting appeared in the early seventh century B.C.E., at the same time as Corinth became a major exporter of pottery to Sicily and Italy: the Corinthian potters began to decorate their vases with figures and motifs that show Eastern influence. The images were more frequently done in outline rather than in silhouette as had been the case in Geometric, but the artists also started to experiment with a new technique they borrowed from metalworking; they made images in solid black paint and drew in details by graving the surface of the paint with a sharp stylus so that the buff clay beneath it became visible. By about 720 B.C.E., this technique developed into the Corinthian black-figure style, with images in solid black, and details engraved with incised lines. Parts of the figures were sometimes highlighted with purplish-red paint. The subjects that the vase paintings depicted were geared to the taste of the market. Battle scenes reflected a time of civil strife in many of the Greek city-states as the old aristocracies which had once dominated the government faced a changed political situation that they would no longer control. There were also many oriental motifs, such as friezes of animals such as wild boars, wild goats, dogs, lions, and griffins, marshaled in rows, that reflected the growing commerce with the Near East. The inspiration was Asian, particularly from Mesopotamia. The Corinthian potters aimed to please their markets, and Corinthian pottery in this period reached Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt, where the Greeks had a trading center at Naucratis on the Nile Delta. In Sicily and southern Italy, Corinth was the major player in the pottery export market until the middle of the sixth century B.C.E., when products from Athens suddenly became popular. Yet the Corinthian potters did not retreat from the market in Italy and Sicily without a struggle. There is a remarkable krater, or mixing-bowl for wine—the Greeks drank their wine mixed with water—found at Cerveteri in Italy north of Rome, which was the old Etruscan city of Caere. It shows how the Corinthian potters tried to adapt their art to counter the new taste for Athenian pottery in the Etruscan market. A tinge of red ochre had been added to the buff Corinthian clay to make it look more like Athenian clay. There is a familiar frieze of animals, lions, and antelopes in black and dark purple. But on the belly of the vase, the artist attempted a polychrome effect: a married couple is shown setting out on a chariot, with attendants and well-wishers standing around. Men are done in black-figure and a white wash is used for the flesh of women—that is by now conventional—but the horses are also white, and the cloaks of both the men and the women are purple. This is an example of innovative vase painting, but it did not secure the Etruscan market for Corinth.

The Dominance of Athens

Early Black-Figure Pottery

In the last quarter of the seventh century B.C.E. the Athenian pottery industry adopted the black-figure technique from Corinth, and perfected it. It would be a mistake to think of Corinth and Athens as the only centers of vase painting, for Sparta produced vases of considerable merit at this time, as did Chalcis on the island of Euboea, the cities of East Greece in Asia Minor, and the Dodecanese Islands. Nonetheless, by 550 B.C.E. Athens overtook its Corinthian rival, and its vases became the dominant imports in the western Mediterranean pottery market. Many of the vase painters who produced the masterpieces of Athenian black-figure ware can be recognized by their individual styles as well as their signatures on their work. The first black-figure artist to have a recognizable style to modern scholars is the “Nessos Painter,” an anonymous artist so named because his best-known vase depicts on its neck Heracles fighting the centaur Nessos. On the belly of the vase he used a stock scene: the three dread sisters with black wings called the Gorgons, galloping in pursuit of Perseus who had just lopped off the head of one of them, Medusa. Any Greek would recognize the myth; the fact that the Gorgons’ quarry, Perseus, is omitted from the scene did not matter. After the “Nessos Painter” the next group of painters with recognizable styles all still betray an artistic debt to the Corinthian pottery industry. Then about 580 B.C.E. an artist signed his name: Sophilos. It appears on four vases, three as the vase painter and one as the potter.

The Development of Vase Decoration

Unlike the early painters who scattered ornaments over the whole surface of the vase, painters in sixth century B.C.E.confined them to definite areas, such as the neck, shoulder, and handles, or they served as frames for figured scenes. Moreover, ornaments were reduced to a limited number of standard motifs, such as the meander pattern, the lotus, palmette, ivy and laurel wreaths, scrolls, tongues, and horizontal bands. The figured scenes showed illustrations from mythology, but as time went on the scenes from everyday life became more popular. Youths are shown exercising, riding, arming for battle, or reclining at banquets and listening to music. Women are shown at household tasks. The figures were at first two-dimensional silhouettes, but after 550 B.C.E. artists experimented with three-quarter views. By 500B.C.E. three-quarter views were completely mastered; drapery is shown with flowing lines and artists were trying linear perspective. One of the treasures of the Florence Archaeological Museum in Italy is a black-figure masterpiece, called the François Vase after its finder, Alessandro François, who discovered it in 1845 in an Etruscan tomb at Vulci in Italy. It is a volute krater—a new shape—signed by the potter Ergotimos and the painter Kleitias. It shows scenes from mythology. In a horizontal band under the rim, Peleus and Meleager face an enormous boar. They are identified by their names, so that the viewer is left in no doubt that this is the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Beneath it are friezes showing other scenes from Greek myth, with the figures carefully labelled. This krater, which was used to mix wine, evidently served as a conversation piece whenever its Etruscan owner gave a banquet. With vases such as these, by about the mid-sixth century B.C.E. Athenian potters were driving their Corinthian rivals out of the markets in the western Mediterranean.

Important Artists

Among those artists working in the mid-sixth century B.C.E. was one who called himself “the Lydian,” evidently an immigrant from the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor. There was another who signed “Amasis,” a Greek form of the Egyptian name “Ahmose,” whose signature appears on eight surviving vases. His black-figure vases are particularly fine, but even greater than he was Exekias. His great masterpiece is in the Vatican Museum. He signed it “Exekias decorated and made me,” indicating he was both a potter and a painter. On one side he showed Castor and Polydeuces welcomed home, on the other Achilles and Ajax playing a board game. Both heroes wear splendidly embroidered cloaks which Exekias drew with exquisite detail. Achilles wears a helmet; Ajax’s helmet rests on his shield behind him. Both bend intently over the board, but Ajax bends lower. His shoulders are slumped, whereas Achilles has shoulders squared and back comparatively straight. Through the body language of the figures, Exekias subtly conveys the message that Ajax is losing the game. Another Exekias vase, a kylix, or drinking-cup, shows the god Dionysus reclining on a ship, its mast sprouting vines while dolphins surround the boat. The painting illustrates one of Dionysus’ adventures in which he was captured by pirates, who failed to reverence the god; because of their impiety a grapevine sprouted from the mast and the sailors leaped overboard in terror, becoming dolphins as they did so.

The Selling of Athenian Vases

The majority of Athenian vases in modern museums outside Greece itself come from Etruscan tombs in Italy. For the Etruscans, fine Athenian vases were the equivalent of Wedgewood and Royal Doulton china in modern times. Excavations of Etruscan tombs still yield Athenian vases, but the great age of their collection was the eighteenth century. During that century Etruscan tombs were looted for their antiquities, and the Athenian vases that were found were called “Etruscan urns” because it was thought that they were made in Etruria. One pottery workshop in Athens, belonging to an inventive potter named Nikosthenes, made a distinctive type of amphora (an ancient Greek vase with a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck, and two handles that rise almost to the mouth of the vase) with an angular body and broad, flat handles which was made to appeal to Etruscan taste, for the shape mimics Etruscan bucchero-ware: black glaze pottery without decoration which was manufactured in Etruria. Various vase painters worked for Nikosthenes, including “the Lydian.” There is a curious pattern to the find-spots of his vases. The Etruscans at Caere (modern Cerveteri) apparently liked his amphora-type since almost every surviving example is from there. His other types of pottery come mostly from Vulci. It looks as if Nikosthenes targeted these two particular Etruscan markets.

Red-Figure Pottery

A rival of Nikosthenes was a potter who signed his vases “Andokides,” and apparently an anonymous employee in his workshop pioneered red-figure vase painting about 530 B.C.E. If not the first red-figure artist, the Andokides painter was the first to show the potential of the technique. The black-figure technique showed figures in silhouette with details incised in the black glaze with a sharp instrument, while the background was left the natural color of the reddish clay found in Attica (the territory under control of Athens). Red-figure reversed the method: the background was black glaze and the figures were the color of the red Attic clay, with details painted with a fine brush. Some of the early productions were “bilinguals”—red-figure on one side and black-figure on the other. One “bilingual” amphora was painted by the Andokides Painter in red-figure on one side, and by the Lysippides Painter in black-figure on the other. Other painters followed the lead on this new trend, including a painter named “Epiktetos,” who worked in the potteries of both Andokides and Nikosthenes, and a group known to modern scholars as the “Pioneers” composed of Euphronios, Phintias, Euthymides, and a few others who seem to have belonged to a close-knit guild of painters.

By the last years of the sixth century B.C.E., red-figure vases dominated the market, and red-figure ware continued to be made until near the end of the fourth century B.C.E. Black-figure production never disappeared, however. In the Panathenaic Games held each year in Athens, the first prize for the contestants was an amphora filled with olive oil, and the amphora was always decorated in black-figure technique, even long after black-figure had gone out of style.

The Red-Figure Vase Painters

Like the black-figure artists, red-figure vase painters are mostly anonymous. Buyers seem to have been interested in the potter’s workshop that manufactured the vase more than in the artist who painted it. Euphronios, who was active in the years 520-470 B.C.E. was both a potter and a painter; he signed twelve surviving vases as a potter and six as a painter. In his old age he seems to have concentrated on pottery production and employed other vase painters, some of them the finest artists of the period. One artist who worked in Euphronios’ pottery was Douris, who signed his name on 39 vases that have survived, two of which he also potted. Douris worked in the first half of the fifth century B.C.E., and if the number of his surviving works is any indication, he must have been enormously productive. The survival rate for Greek vases is probably no more than an average 0.5 percent of an artist’s work, and if that calculation holds true in the case of Douris, he must have produced some 78,000 vases during his productive life. His specialty was red-figure cups, but he worked in other media as well, including white-ground painting, which was a favorite decoration for lekythoi, oil flasks which were buried with the dead.

White-Ground Vases

In the fifth century B.C.E., the Athenian Empire reached the height of its prosperity, and Athenian artists made their mark on the art world. Great artists such as Polygnotus produced narrative paintings, and they influenced the vase painters. A new spirit can be detected in the years 475-450 B.C.E.; artists decorated large vases with ambitious combat scenes of, for instance, Greeks fighting Amazons, that are set in hilly landscapes where the artists tried to produce an illusion of depth by placing more distant figures at a higher level than those in the foreground. The great murals that inspired these painters have not survived, but descriptions of these works by ancient authors provide a record of them for modern scholars. Yet the skill of the painter’s brushwork can be seen on white-ground vases of the fifth century B.C.E. On these, the artist covered the background with a wash of fine white clay, and then painted his figures on the white surface in the same way as he would paint on a wooden panel. The finish is not as durable as red-figure, and thus it was particularly popular for the oil-flasks that were buried with the dead. The paintings on them are often domestic scenes, but there is a cosmetics jar (a pyxis) in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that shows the “Judgment of Paris” in which Paris, the young Trojan prince, is visited by the god Hermes. Greeks, who knew their mythology very well, would have known what was taking place: Hermes was bringing Paris a message that he was to judge which of the three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—was the most beautiful. Paris seems youthful and innocent, the picture of naivety, and yet he was about to start the Trojan War.

The End of the Red-Figure Period

The workshops in the Kerameikos—the potters’ quarter of Athens—continued to produce red-figure vases in the fourth century B.C.E., though the disintegration of the Athenian Empire meant that there were no more protected markets, and local potters in Italy and Sicily began to offer serious competition. One place where Athenian pottery still found eager customers, it seems, was in the Ukraine, and one fourth-century fashion in pottery is known as the “Kerch Style” after the city on the Black Sea where numerous fourth-century vases imported from Athens have been found. The vases discovered at Kerch improved on the basic red-figure technique by picking out details in color, especially white, yellow, and gold. Among those who were producing Kerch Style pottery was the last notable red-figure artist in Athens: the so-called Marsyas Painter, who is named for a vase of his in Berlin which depicts the flaying of Marsyas, the satyr who had lost a musical contest with Apollo. He embellished his vases with gilding, raised relief, and colors such as pink, blue, white, and green. Yet as the Athens-based workshops declined, production of red-figure vases in old Athenian markets in Italy increased. The customers were not only the Greeks who lived in the colonies planted during the great period of colonization from the mid-eight century to the end of the sixth century B.C.E. but also the native Samnite peoples who were now encroaching on the Greek cities, driven by a sharp increase in their population. They, too, liked Greek vases. About 400 B.C.E., the Greek colony of Poseidonia (now Paestum on the western shore of Italy south of Naples) had been taken over by the Samnites who denied the Greek inhabitants the right to use their own language except for one day a year, but nonetheless the pottery workshops of Poseidonia remained active. Two of their vase painters are known, Python and Assteas, who signed their names in Greek. They took the subjects for their paintings from the theater and Greek myth. Some of their scenes taken from the comic theater show performers wearing padded costumes and grotesque masks, acting on a wooden stage. These represent a type of comedy called phlyax-plays—the word phlyax means a comic parody of Greek tragedy invented by a comedian named Rhinthon. They were evidently very popular in southern Italy, and the vases give a hint of what the plays of the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes may have looked like when they were staged in Athens.

Hellenistic and Roman Pottery

Megarian Bowls and Terra Sigillata

During his brief lifetime, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) brought mainland Greece under his control and also conquered Persia and Egypt to form a “Hellenistic” kingdom composed of diverse peoples. Not surprisingly, the pottery from the period after Alexander the Great shows many diverse cultural influences. One type of pottery, however, became enormously popular in the Hellenistic period and, after 30 B.C.E., in Italy. From Italy its popularity spread to Roman Gaul and from there to Germany and Roman Britain. Its precursors were the “Megarian bowls” in Greece, tableware made in molds which seems to have had no particular connection with Megara, a Greek city on the Isthmus of Corinth. No later than the early third century, Athenian potters were producing crockery with relief ornaments which imitated the designs on metal vessels which were too expensive for most people. These so-called “Megarian bowls” were the forerunners of red-gloss terra sigillata, also known as “Samian Ware,” though it has no connection with the island of Samos. Terra sigillata means “earthenware decorated with figures,” which describes the pottery well, for on the exterior of the dish there are relief designs and figures which are imprinted from the mold. The place where this type of pottery may actually have been invented was the kingdom of Pergamum in Asia Minor, and the date was probably the mid-second century B.C.E. It was perhaps there that the black-ground ware inherited from Athens was modified into bronze or dark red gloss, which was its distinctive color.

The Popularity of Terra Sigillata

Terra sigillata was pottery that could be easily mass-produced: clay was put in a mold, and the interior of the vessel scooped out using a fast wheel, and then the vessel was fired. With its smooth, red glossy surface, it was serviceable tableware and relatively cheap. Yet it was elegant and artistic, for it copied designs from silverware, and it must have appealed to customers for whom silverware was beyond their means. It brought style to the tables of the common man. As the first half of the first century C.E. wore on, production of terra sigillata in Arretium in Italy declined as potters migrated to Roman Gaul. The Roman army was also a factor in this “hollowing-out” of pottery manufacture in Italy. The legionary soldiers liked the sort of pottery that they knew in Italy or the Romanized provinces where they were recruited, and exports from Italy to the regions along the Rhine and Danube Rivers, and Roman Britain, where the military units were concentrated, were common. The corps of craftsmen attached to the army who knew how to make bricks and roof tiles for military use would also turn their hands to making pottery in the Roman style.

The Decline of Terra Sigillata

From the end of the first century C.E. the common ware that came into fashion was “Red Slip” pottery, once called “African Red Slip” since the center of production seemed to be in North Africa. It is now clear that not only Roman Africa but also Asia Minor manufactured and exported Red Slip ware all over the Mediterranean. Land transportation may have been exorbitantly expensive, but transportation by sea, though slow, was very cheap. Yet though Red Slip ware displaced terra sigillata as the common table crockery of the Roman Empire, it shared a common origin and it was recognizably Roman. It continued in use until the seventh century C.E.

Sculpture in Archaic Greece

The Daedalic Style

By the mid-seventh century B.C.E. Greek sculptors were experimenting in free-standing figures, influenced, no doubt, by their discovery of the art and architecture of ancient Egypt earlier in the century. Once the Assyrians were driven out of Egypt, the pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty cultivated close relations with Greece and allowed the Greeks to build a trading station at Naucratis on one of the mouths of the Nile River. The Greeks themselves attributed many of their early efforts at sculpture to the legendary craftsman Daedalus, whose name means “Cunning Worker,” and hence modern art historians apply the label “Daedalic” to the earliest Greek sculptures. An early example comes from the sanctuary of Apollo and Artemis on the island of Delos, and it must be one of the first made. It is made of the white marble from the island of Naxos, which was the stone of choice for early sculptors until the quarries on the neighboring island of Paros were opened. The statue is of a woman wearing a wig and the garment known as the peplos, shaped awkwardly from an oblong piece of marble. She faces the onlooker, her arms hanging by her sides. On her skirt there is a verse inscription disclosing that this statue was dedicated to Artemis by Nikandre of Naxos, whose father, brother, and husband are also named. Nikandre’s statue is the first of many. One, a statuette of solid bronze from Apollo’s other great sanctuary at Delphi from the mid-seventh century B.C.E., shows a boy naked except for his wig and a belt at his midriff. He stands stiffly at attention, except that the left leg is slightly forward, the right leg slightly back. Except for the Daedalic wig and the belt, this is the stance of the later kouroi, that is, statues of naked youths.

The Kouroi

The word kouros (plural: kouroi) means “boy” or “youth,” and it is a term that describes the archaic statues of nude youths produced from about 650 B.C.E. until the last quarter of the sixth century and the early years of the fifth, when they lost their archaic features and became the male nudes of the classical period. Some 200 known examples of kouroisurvived to modern times, although most of them are badly damaged and in fragments. The kouroi began to appear about the mid-seventh century B.C.E. One of the earliest examples, dating to about 600 B.C.E., is the “MetropolitanKouros,” now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is rigidly frontal; the statue has a front, two sides, and a rear—four independent faces that preserve the four sides of the marble block from which it was carved. A comparison between it and an Egyptian statue of a standing male figure reveals the source of the Greek sculptor’s inspiration. The Egyptian figure and the Metropolitan kouros have the same proportions. In both, the arms hang at the sides, and the left leg is thrust forward. Yet there are differences: the Egyptian figure wears a skirt held up by a belt whereas the Metropolitan kouros is entirely nude; and unlike the Egyptian sculptor, the Greek artist did not try to give the face any individuality. The lips are drawn back at the corners into what has come to be known as the “archaic smile.” Not much later than the Metropolitan kouros, about 580 B.C.E., two kouroi of Cleobis and Biton were erected at Delphi. According to the historian Herodotus, Cleobis and Biton were the two sons of the priestess of Hera at Argos who dragged their mother’s ox-cart from the city of Argos to the sanctuary of Hera in the countryside. For this act of piety, their mother prayed to the goddess to confer on them whatever reward was best for mortal men. The two youths then lay down to rest after their exertion and never awoke again, proving that, for men, death at the height of their renown is the best reward. The kouroi of Cleobis and Biton show them as two sturdy youths with well-developed pectoral muscles, smiling the “archaic smile” and staring with large eyes into the distance. These were two athletic young men who died at their physical peak and the sculptor tried to convey in stone the ideal they represented. They are dwarfed, however, by the contemporary “Sunium kouros,” the best preserved of several over life-size kouroi found at Sounion, the eastern tip of Attica, where there was a sanctuary of the god of the sea, Poseidon. Over three meters (9.84 feet) high, it stood with its giant companions overlooking the treacherous waters off Cape Sounion, perhaps commemorating men lost at sea. Slightly later, belonging to the second quarter of the sixth century B.C.E., is a kouros found at Tenea south of Corinth, a small place whose inhabitants claimed to be captive Trojans whom the Greeks settled there. The sculptor of the Teneankouros had observed the male anatomy carefully; the shoulders, pectorals, stomach muscles, and thighs are well-shaped and well coordinated. The pose remains the same: left leg slightly forward, right leg drawn slightly back and arms hanging loosely at the sides. Yet there is a new plasticity to the modelling of the body that signals a leap forward.

The Korai

The female figures dating to the same period as the kouroi are called korai (singular: kore). Males are shown nude and women clothed, the convention that will not be breached until the fourth century B.C.E. Sometime in the sixth century, a person whose name was Cheramyes dedicated a kore at the great temple of Hera on the island of Samos. The kore is now headless, but the body is intact except for the left arm. It is basically a cylindrical figure. A long tunic or chiton drapes the body, falling in tiny pleats from the waist to the toes which peep out from under it, and she wears a cloak that once veiled her hair. It falls over her shoulders, covering her right arm completely, and it is drawn diagonally across her breasts. Under her clothes the contours of her body are visible; her breasts are full and her stomach bulges slightly below her belt. Unlike the nude kouroi, the korai were clothed, and this required the sculptors to portray garments which were originally painted to reproduce the patterns on the clothes that the korai wore—usually a chiton and over it a cloak known as ahimation. The Acropolis of Athens in the late sixth and early fifth centuries must have been full of kouroi and koraiwhich were dedicated there. In the course of the Persian Wars, the Persians captured the city in 480, and again in 479 B.C.E., laying the whole area waste and leaving the shattered remains of these statues on the ground. The Athenians buried the decimated statues reverently, and they remained in their graves until archaeologists, clearing the Acropolis in the 1880s, stumbled on an amazing collection of archaic sculpture, including a cache of korai from the century before the Persian Wars. They stand, facing forward, left foot thrust slightly forward as if they were dancing. The treatment varies, but in the standard pose the kore’s left hand pulls the skirt of her chiton across her legs, sometimes so tightly that the legs can be seen beneath it, and over it she wears a himation, a wrap that is slung over the right shoulder and hangs diagonally across her bosom and under her left arm. The reason for their burial is unclear, although the statues did commemorate an untimely death on occasion. They were, however, erected all across Greece in the archaic period.

“Ripe Archaic” Sculpture

“Ripe Archaic” is a convenient label for the style of sculpture from the period dating from about the second quarter of the sixth century to the time of the Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.E.). This is also the period when Greek craftsmen learned how to make hollow bronze statues using the so-called “Lost Wax” technique. In this technique, a model of the figure was made of wax over a clay core, then a mold was made from the wax model; the wax was then melted out and replaced by molten bronze and finally, after the bronze had cooled, the mold was removed. Before the discovery of this technique, large bronze statues could be made only by hammering bronze plates over a wooden core, in the same way as bronze armor continued to be made. Most of the bronze statues of the ancient world disappeared long ago, melted down in many cases for their metal, and so it is easy to forget that all the great sculptors of Greece worked in bronze. Only one bronze kouros, dating to about 525 B.C.E., survived, discovered in 1959 in Piraeus, the port city of Athens. It is the exception, however; the kouroi and korai that still exist are generally of marble. The type changed very little. Kouroi and korai still face the viewer head-on as if their movements were constrained by the block of marble from which they were sculpted, and they still wear their archaic smiles which make them look a little smug. Yet the sculptor’s chisel was surer, as the sculptors became more skilled at representing the anatomy of the male body. A kouros found intact at Tenea, a village south of Corinth, illustrates what the type was like at the beginning of the “Ripe Archaic” period. The kouros still smiles at the viewer with the corners of his lips pulled back in an archaic smile. His arms hang by his sides and his left leg is thrust forward in the familiar pose that was borrowed from Egypt, but his torso is modeled with skill. The sculptor paid close attention to the pectoral and stomach muscles. Yet a comparison between the kouros from Tenea with one made a generation later, the Anavysoskouros, shows the great strides forward in just a short time. Sometime after 540 B.C.E., at Anavysos in the countryside outside Athens, a kouros-statue was erected on the grave of a young man named Kroisos (Croesus) who had died in battle. The Anavysos kouros is intact; in fact, some of the original paint on it survives.

It is not a portrait of Kroisos, but it is somehow intended to represent the spirit and life-force of the dead warrior. The lips still smile the “archaic smile,” and the kouros stands, hands hanging at his sides with his left leg still thrust slightly forward and the right leg pulled slightly back. The traditional pose of the kouros-statue is unchanged, yet the spirit is different: the sculptor had observed the musculature of the male body carefully and attempted to reproduce it accurately. Kroisos was evidently a powerfully-built young man, unlike the lithe youth that the kouros from Tenea represented, and the sculptor tried to convey an impression of his physical power in the statue that marked his grave.

The Korai in the “Ripe Archaic” Period

The korai demanded stone carving that was even more proficient, for these were statues wearing clothing that had to be recreated in stone. The fashions of the day were elaborate and the garments that the korai wear reflect it. The garments were originally brightly painted and on a few of them that have escaped weathering some of the pigment has survived. One of these, dating to 530-515 B.C.E. which is now in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, shows a young woman with an elaborate coiffure and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wears a mantle with heavy folds that contrast with the soft, crinkly folds of the tunic (chiton) beneath it. The color is well-preserved; the tunic is dark and the mantle has a pattern on a white background and a dark fringe along its edges. Another almost contemporary statue, also in the Acropolis Museum, is the so-called peplos kore, so-called because she is wearing a simple peplos with an over-fold that falls down as far as her waist. Her right arm hangs by her side, and she may have held something in her left hand, though the left forearm is broken off. The simplicity of her dress is more apparent than real for the fabric was originally brightly patterned. Only a few remnants of the paint survive, but enough to suggest what the statue must have once looked like. Her hair hangs down her back in multiple braids; three are slung over each shoulder. She has a lively face with almond-shaped eyes and pupils picked out in paint.

Sculpture in Relief

Relief sculpture appeared as decoration for monumental temples about the middle of the seventh century B.C.E., the colonial period of Greece, when various city-states in both mainland Greece and East Greece on the western fringe of Asia Minor sent out colonies to Sicily, Italy, southern France, and the north-east coast of Spain, as well as to the northern Aegean region and the shore of the Black Sea. The earliest Greek temples were one-roomed structures, entered through a porch at one end, with a place for burnt sacrifices in the middle. This style developed into a long narrow room with the entrance-porch at the east end, and the cult statue facing it at the other end. The earliest examples of cult statues were what the Greeks called xoana: primitive statues of wood, hardly more than wooden posts with some human features carved roughly on them. The sacrificial pit was moved to an open-air altar, often outside the east door. The Doric temple evolved from this style in the Peloponnesos, while in East Greece the Ionic temple developed; the first use of relief sculpture decorated both of these temple types. At each end of the temple there was a triangular gable called a “pediment,” surrounded by cornices, leaving a recessed triangular space called the “tympanum” in which sculpture could be placed. On Doric temples, a frieze of triglyphs and metopes appeared below the pediment. The triglyphs were plaques carved with two vertical channels separated by three moldings, one over each column and one in the space between. Themetopes were the empty spaces between the triglyphs, and they could be filled with relief sculpture. Some of the earliest examples of metope-sculpture comes from the Greek colonies in Sicily and Italy. One, which comes from a ruined temple at Selinunte (ancient Selinus) in western Sicily shows the hero Perseus cutting off the head of the Gorgon, Medusa, a monster who could turn anyone who looked at her face into stone. The relief tells a story familiar to Greeks, who believed that Perseus was not a mythical hero but a man who actually lived in an earlier era when gods walked the earth; the Gorgon’s head was also a well-known terror-symbol that struck fear into men’s hearts. Both Perseus who holds his sword at Medusa’s throat, and Medusa, whose head is being severed, confront the onlooker, their facial expressions unmoved. From a small mid-sixth-century B.C.E. temple built to Hera at the mouth of the Sele River in Italy comes a remarkable series of 36 metopes, some of which are only roughed out and left incomplete. The finishing of the relief sculptures was evidently done after the metopes were in place, and the builders of this temple never got around to it. Some of the best metopes show the Labors of Heracles or events from the Trojan War.

Sculpture in an Age of Tyranny

The sixth century B.C.E. was a period in Athenian history when Athens moved from aristocratic government to tyranny and finally to democracy, though democracy was not fully in place until the fifth century B.C.E. In 560 B.C.E., Pisistratus, an outsider in Athenian politics who belonged to neither of the main political factions, staged a coup d’étatand seized power, but he did not last long. The two main factions forgot their bickering long enough to unite against him, and he was expelled. Yet once he was gone, the factions returned to their rivalry, and the leader of the weaker faction made Pisistratus his ally and brought him back. He was soon driven out again, but he made a third attempt, backed by armed force, and this time it took only one battle to scatter his enemies. He remained tyrant of Athens from 546 to 527 B.C.E., and his son Hippias carried on as tyrant until 510. After the tyrants were gone, the Athenians of a later generation looked back on the tyranny as a time of oppression, although in actuality both Pisistratus and Hippias kept their iron fists well camouflaged in velvet gloves. They allowed the Athenian constitution to function and only manipulated from behind the scenes. Likewise during this time period Athens prospered and new temples arose on the Acropolis. Some of the sculpture that adorned their pediments was found among the debris left when the Persians sacked Athens in 480 B.C.E. One group portrays the three-headed serpent Typhon; the long serpentine coils must have filled the corners of the tympanum, and Typhon’s three torsos filled the space under the central peak. His three faces still have blue beards and moustaches, and the lips are curved into the familiar archaic smile. One other sculpture that belonged to the time when Pisistratus was trying to secure his hold on power is a variation of the kouros-type: a statue of a man bearing a calf on his shoulders, and its inscribed base reveals that it was dedicated by Rhonbos. Whoever he was, Rhonbos is almost certainly the man whom the sculpture represents, and he is shown bringing a calf for sacrifice. Over his shoulders, he wears a thin cloak; the paint which once set it off from his naked flesh has long disappeared. His upper body, the muscles of his arms, and the calf slung over his shoulders are realistically modeled, though the modeling of his lower body is more stiff, and his legs are broken off at the knees. His face, which is bearded, smiles the “archaic smile.” Rhonbos’ statue was erected about 560B.C.E., the year when Pisistratus first seized power and held it briefly. Perhaps Rhonbos erected this statue to commemorate his thank-offering to Athena for delivering Athens from the tyrant. He did not yet know that the tyrant would return.

Sculpture of the Classical Period

The Early Classical Period

About 480 B.C.E., just before the Persians under King Xerxes sacked Athens, someone dedicated a kouros (a Greek male nude statue) on the Acropolis which has been labelled the “Critian Boy” because of the resemblance of its head to a statue group by two sculptors, Critias and Nesiotes, erected a few years after the Persian invasion had been defeated. The Critian Boy faces the onlooker like earlier kouroi, but he stands relaxed, his weight on one leg, his head inclined. His body is skillfully modeled. It is that of an athletic youth aged eighteen or nineteen. There is no vestige left of the “archaic smile,” typical of earlier statues, indicating its stylistic alignment with sculpture from the classical period. The sculptors who produced the kouroi and korai (female versions of the kouroi, only clothed) are generally nameless, though one battered kore bears the signature of the sculptor Antenor. The preferred medium of the great sculptors of the classical period was bronze, although copies of the sculptures were done in marble for Roman customers. It is these copies which survived antiquity, since most of the bronze statues were melted down for scrap metal during in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, marble cannot reproduce bronze exactly because it is a heavier, more inflexible medium, and the sculptor working in marble must distribute the weight of his statue evenly or it will not be stable. Therefore, the copies do not reveal the evolution of sculpture in the classical period from the stiffness of the archaic period, a development made possible by the more flexible medium of bronze. The bronze kouros found in Piraeus which dates to about 525 B.C.E. is already less stiff than contemporary marble kouroi; its head is slightly inclined and its forearms stretch out towards the onlooker. The “Discus-Thrower” of the sculptor Myron whose career began just after 480 B.C.E. shows a naked youth in the act of throwing a discus. Though the original is lost, the survival of several Roman copies reveal that the statue is an action figure, a type developed by early classical bronze-workers. It is still two-dimensional; the onlooker can view it from the figure’s right side or from the rear. Other viewpoints are an unsatisfactory jumble of lines. The original in bronze was balanced, though it has been argued that Myron altered the natural stance of a youth about to throw a discus in order to give the statue stability. The copyist, however, introduced a strut to stabilize the figure.

The Bronze Originals

While it is fortunate that Myron’s work was preserved in good marble copies of his “Discus-Thrower” and his statue group of Athena and Marsyas, there are no surviving Roman copies of the work of the other two outstanding sculptors of the period, Pythagoras and Calamis, that can be attributed to them with any certainty. Despite the widespread destruction of bronze works during the Middle Ages, some bronze originals of the early classical period did manage to survive. One is the Delphic Charioteer found at Delphi, where it was preserved by a landslide. Of the chariot, horses, and groom that were part of the statue group, only fragments remain. Another is a bronze statue of Zeus hurling a thunderbolt that is now in the National Museum of Greece in Athens. It was found in the waters off Artemisium at the north tip of the island of Euboea in the Aegean Sea. Zeus strides forward, his right arm raised to hurl the thunderbolt. The sculptor is unknown, but Ageladas of Sicyon, a famous artist who taught both Myron and Phidias, is known to have sculpted a Zeus hurling the thunderbolt. If the Zeus in the National Museum is not his, it may at least have served as the inspiration for it. The sea off southern Italy at Riace Marina also yielded two Greek bronze statues in 1972. They are dated to shortly before 450 B.C.E. Both are nudes and both portray bearded warriors; one has the remains of a shield on his right arm, and the other originally wore a helmet which has mostly disappeared. On the first, the eyes are of ivory and glass paste, the teeth—visible between his parted lips—are inlaid silver. His lips, his nipples, and his eyelashes are of copper, precast and inserted into the mold when the statue was made. The warrior that once had a helmet also has copper for his nipples, lips, and eyelashes, and his one surviving eye is made of marble and glass paste. Both statues were made by the “lost-wax” technique (in which a mold is made from a wax model over a clay core; then the wax is melted out and replaced by molten bronze) and, when found, they still had their clay cores, though these are now removed. Both are about six and a half feet tall, the helmeted one slightly shorter than the other. Better than any other bronze statues that have survived, these powerfully built warriors provide a clue as to what Greek bronzes in the early classical period must have looked like.

The High Classical Period

By the middle of the fifth century B.C.E., Greece had fully recovered from the ravages of the war with Persia. After the Persian invasion was repelled, Persia remained a powerful enemy, and the Greek states in Asia and northern Greece still felt threatened. They willingly joined an alliance under Athenian leadership to continue the fight and make sure that Persia could not launch a counter-offensive. The center of the alliance was on the island of Delos, sacred to Apollo and Artemis, and there the treasury of what was called the “Delian League” was kept, and all members of the alliance contributed to it according to an assessment drawn up by Athens. But more and more the Delian League developed into an Athenian Empire. In 454 B.C.E. the treasury was moved from Delos to Athens, and in mid-century the campaigns which the Delian League had once launched annually against Persian territory came to an end; there may even have been a peace treaty signed at last, though that is a matter of debate. Yet Athens decreed that the yearly tribute to the Delian League treasury should still be paid and used the money not only to maintain the most powerful fleet in Greece, but also to finance a building program in Athens. On the Athenian Acropolis, a splendid temple to the goddess Athena Parthenos was built that was larger than the temple of Zeus at Olympia, and unlike the temple at Olympia which was built of limestone, the Parthenon was built of marble from the Athenian quarries on Mt. Pentele. The architect of the temple was Ictinus, but the artist who oversaw the project and made the great gold-and-ivory statue of Athena to stand inside it was Phidias. It was probably Phidias, too, who drew up the designs for the sculpture that decorated the temple: the sculptures that filled the pediments at the east and west ends, the relief sculptures that filled the metopes, and the frieze that ran around the whole of the cella—inner room of a Greek sanctuary or temple—wall inside the colonnade. An examination of the relief sculpture of the frieze shows that it was done by several hands. The same was probably true of the other sculptures, but much has been lost. In 1687, during one of the wars between the Venetians and the Turks, the Turkish garrison on the Acropolis was being besieged by the Venetians and a Venetian cannon lobbed a shell into the Parthenon. The Turks were using the Parthenon as a powder magazine, and the shell ignited an explosion that blew out the center of the temple. The pedimental sculptures affected by the explosion as well as some undamaged specimens were taken to England in the early nineteenth century before the Greek War of Independence by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which still ruled Greece. They are now in the British Museum and known as the “Elgin Marbles.” There is no agreement about what the pediments of the Parthenon looked like before the explosion of 1687, for most of the sculpture is lost. The frieze is thought to represent the Panathenaic procession that was part of the festival of the Great Panathenaea, but even that is not completely certain. Also uncertain is what part Phidias played in carving the sculptures that do survive, if any, but at least it can be said with confidence that he was the presiding genius who drew up the designs that other stone carvers executed. Phidias’ activity extended beyond Athens. In fact, he spent his last years in exile. From Athens he went to Olympia and made the gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus there; Olympia is also the site of the discovery of his workshop and the terracotta molds used to fashion the gold drapery of the statue, which was not pure gold as at Athens but gold inlaid with glass.

The Argive Style

Although Athens was the dominant center of art and literature in Greece from the mid-fifth century B.C.E. on, one other center retained its artistic independence: Argos and its neighbor Sicyon. While the Parthenon was being built in Athens, in Argos the workshop of the sculptor Polyclitus was perfecting its own idea of what the proper proportions of a male nude should be. Polyclitus also made statues of deities, and though he was primarily a bronze-caster, he made a chryselephantine statue of Hera for her temple at her holy site in the Argive countryside. Chryselephantine statues (from the Greek khrysos meaning “gold” and elephantinos meaning “ivory”) were made of gold and ivory: the drapery was made of gold and the flesh of ivory, and the statue was supported on a wooden frame. They were considered the pinnacle of Greek sculpture. Polyclitus, however, was especially known in the ancient world for his bronze statues of athletes, two of which survive as good Roman copies: the Doryphoros or “Spear-bearer,” and the Diadoumenos, a youth adjusting his diadema or headband. These male nudes form the climax of the long development towards naturalistic form. Both statues portray arrested motion: the Spear-bearer, for instance, is in the midst of a step forward, with all his weight on his right leg and the musculature of his torso responds to the movement of the body. The right hip that supports the Spear-bearer’s weight is slightly raised, and the left hip droops while the left shoulder is tensed and slightly raised to compensate for the weight of the spear that the Spear-bearer holds in his left hand. In these two nudes, Polyclitus achieved a balanced, harmonious, and naturalistic whole. He was particularly interested in proportion; in fact, he wrote a book on the proper proportions of the body titled the Canon. Polyclitus’ Canon would be recycled in the Roman Empire for imperial statuary. Statues from this era showed the emperors as military leaders wearing armor, but under the armor their physiques adhered closely to the proportions which Polyclitus set forth.

Wind-Blown Drapery

In the late fifth century B.C.E. sculptors turned their artistic energy to exploiting the wind-blown style of drapery which the sculptors of the Parthenon pediments had developed. Figures were portrayed as having cloaks blown by the wind. The drapery sometimes appears almost transparent as the wind presses it against the body, showing the anatomy underneath. The style stressed both elegance and technical virtuosity. One example of this style was found at Olympia, an original sculpture by the little-known sculptor Paionius of Mende, who carved a figure of Nike (the goddess of Victory) for a victory monument dating to about 420 B.C.E., erected by the Messenians at Naupactus to commemorate a defeat they had inflicted on the Spartans. Messenia was a region west of Sparta that the Spartans had subjugated in the early archaic period, reducing the Messenians to serfdom; the Messenians who erected this monument had escaped from the Spartan yoke and had been settled on the Gulf of Corinth at Naupactus by Athens. To mark the victory, they erected this victory monument at Olympia where all the Greeks who came to the Olympic Games could see it. The Nike of Paionius stood on a high triangular base some 9.14 meters (thirty feet) high before the front end of the Temple of Zeus. To viewers below, it looked as if the Nike was alighting on the pillar as the air swirled around her, pressing her chiton (tunic) against her body, while her himation (outer cloak) billowed out around her. The himation is now largely broken away, but it is still possible to appreciate the technical virtuosity which this statue displays. Battered though it is, this is a masterpiece of the “flying drapery style.”

Scopas of Paros

Early fourth-century sculpture retained the artistic conceptions of the fifth. Figures stand with the same easy balance, their facial expressions have the same calm serenity, and the drapery is transparent though it is often combined with heavier, agitated folds. The fourth century did develop its own style, however, in introducing a more human quality. Poses became more sinuous, drapery was more naturalistic, and a dreamy gentleness appeared in the faces. Three sculptors dominated the period: Scopas of Paros, Praxiteles of Athens, and Lysippus of Sicyon. Of Scopas little remains to form a judgement of his art. He worked on three important monuments of the first half and middle of the fourth century B.C.E.: the temple of Athena Alea at Tegea, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and the great Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum in Turkey). From the pediment of the temple at Tegea, some battered heads survive and they are arresting, with deep-set eyes that gaze upwards and furrowed brows. While they cannot be attributed with certainty to Scopas, he was the architect of the temple and these sculptures must have been approved by him at the very least. The sculptural remains from Halicarnassus and Ephesus add little to modern knowledge of Scopas although Roman copies do exist of one famous free-standing sculpture of Scopas, the so-called Pothos (“Yearning”). The statue is of a youth standing with crossed legs, leaning on a pillar, with a goose at his feet. He stands with raised head, looking upwards with a melting gaze. The upward gaze seems to have been a mark of Scopas’ sculpture.


The most famous work of Praxiteles was his statue of Aphrodite which he made about 370 B.C.E. for the Dorian city of Cnidus. It was extravagantly admired in its own day for its beauty and its daring, for it showed Aphrodite naked, one hand shielding her pudenda from the onlooker’s gaze, and the other resting on a water jar (loutrophoros) with a towel draped over it—Aphrodite has been surprised as she was preparing for her bath, it appears. Many Roman copies of the statue have survived. The best example is in the Vatican Museum in Rome but even though it is a competent replica, it gives little idea of the statue’s original appearance, when its paint was fresh. At Cnidus it was placed in an open shrine where it could be viewed from all sides. It is the first of a whole series of female figures, some nude, some partially clad, the most famous of which is the Venus di Milo, the Aphrodite found on the island of Melos which is now in the Louvre museum in Paris. Praxiteles worked in bronze, but he was at his best working in marble, which he knew how to polish to a finish that represents the softness of female flesh. He was also a master of the tender gaze. A statue by Praxiteles was discovered during the archaeological excavations at Olympia, and though there has been a long debate as to whether it is a genuine Praxiteles or a later but very fine copy, the reasons for rejecting it as genuine are not convincing. This statue shows the god Hermes holding the infant Dionysus. Hermes holds the child with his left arm, and with his right he dangles a bunch of grapes. The right arm is broken, but other depictions of the statue show that Hermes is teasing Dionysus with a bunch of grapes and Dionysus recognizes his special fruit, infant though he is. Hermes’ head is particularly fine, and the finish of the marble and the impressionistic method used to portray Hermes’ hair are all marks of Praxiteles’ style.


Lysippus of Sicyon, who was active not long after 370 and was still at work in 312 B.C.E., marked the period of transition to the Hellenistic Age. When he was born, the city-states of Greece were squabbling in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War that had ended in 404 B.C.E. with the defeat of Athens. When he died, the Hellenistic Age had already begun, and Lysippus pioneered the new sculptural style. His workshop in Sicyon produced hundreds of statues—he is supposed to have turned out 1,500 works—but one was particularly famous: hisApoxyomenos or “Athlete Scraping Himself,” referring to the process by which athletes removed the residue of the olive oil they rubbed on themselves prior to exercise. The Apoxyomenos broke with the tradition established by the Canon of Polyclitus that the head should be one-eighth the total height of the statue; the head of the Apoxyomenos is one-ninth the total height. Nor is the Apoxyomenos a “square” statue like Polyclitus’ “Spear-bearer.” Lysippus’ statue constantly draws the viewer’s eyes around the figure, for he has given it no clearly defined front, unlike the defined front and back approach of Polyclitus. The Apoxyomenos represents a figure in motion, caught in the act of shifting its weight from one leg to the other. Lysippus had absorbed what Polyclitus had to teach him, and moved forward.

The Farnese Heracles

Heracles was a subject of interest to Lysippus. Lysippus did a miniature sculpture of the famous Greek hero that was much copied, showing Heracles sitting on a table, somewhat drunk and looking a little flabby. His most famous Heracles-figure, however, is the “Farnese Heracles” in the Naples Museum, so called because it was once part of the collection belonging to the Farnese family in Rome. It is a marble copy of a bronze original by Lysippus, and the copyist has signed his name: Glycon of Athens. There is reason to suspect that the copy by Glycon gave Heracles a more exaggerated physique than the original to please his Roman customers, for there is a copy of the same statue in the Louvre in Paris where Heracles’ muscles are less overwhelming, though he still has the appearance of a body builder. He is shown resting after completing the last of his legendary Twelve Labors: fetching the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. He leans on his club, his gaze tilted down and towards the left. He is weary; his labor has exhausted him, for he is clearly no longer a young man. His face expresses utter fatigue. His right arm is tucked behind his back, and his right hand holds the three golden apples. Like the Apoxyomenos, the “Farnese Heracles” prompts the viewer to circle around it, and only upon seeing the apples is it possible to comprehend the cause of Heracles’ fatigue. This is a good example of three-dimensional sculpture, a style that Lysippus pioneered.

The Hellenistic Period


The Hellenistic period spans the years from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 to 30 B.C.E., when Rome annexed the last independent Hellenistic kingdom, Egypt, which was ruled by a royal dynasty that was descended from one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy. The year 30 B.C.E. does not mark a sharp break in the artistic tradition. Athens maintained its reputation as a center for the visual arts, but it was now only one of many. The world of the Greek artist expanded enormously. This period of artistic development was ushered in by Alexander’s favorite sculptor Lysippus of Sicyon. He was not the first to portray figures in motion, but he was the first to make them fully three-dimensional. Yet there is a rational organization to their composition which Lysippus inherited from the classical age and passed on to his successors. Sculptors were fond of using a “pyramidal design,” so-called because a pyramid can be drawn around the figures, enclosing them. Hardly less influential than Lysippus was Praxiteles, whose nude Aphrodite of Cnidus set the style for the female nude, a type which sculptors throughout the Hellenistic period exploited with even more flair and ingenuity than their classical predecessors had lavished on the male nude. Then about 240 B.C.E. a new style burst upon the artistic scene. The impression it conveys is almost baroque—to borrow a label that is applied to the grandly ornate art of southern Europe in the period 1550-1750 C.E. The Hellenistic “baroque” loved struggling figures in violent action, with muscles straining and bulging, and faces contorted with desperate striving or bitter anguish. The Roman presence, however, began to exert influence. In 197 B.C.E. Rome defeated Philip V, king of Macedon, and in 167 she dethroned the last king of Macedon, Perseus. By 146, Greece had become the Roman province of Achaea. The creative fire that had informed the visual arts of the Hellenistic period began to burn low following this domination by the Romans. Late Hellenistic sculpture returned to the styles of the classical Greece of the fifth century B.C.E., perhaps an artistic expression of the yearning for Greece’s heyday. From the late second century B.C.E. on, a group of sculptors known as “Neo-Attic School” specialized in producing reliefs based on classical designs. Sculptors became increasingly satisfied to recall and imitate the past. It was safe, unadventurous art, and it was what the market wanted. The baroque style continued into the first century C.E., but it was the taste and preferences of the market that dictated style. The sculptors catered to the tastes of their patrons, who were more and more the Romans, the new masters of the Mediterranean world, and the preference of the Augustan Age (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.) was for Neo-Attic.

The Popularity of the Female Nude

Praxiteles’ famous Aphrodite of Cnidus set the style for the female nude and there were many variations on the theme. The subject is always Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexual desire. One variation, by an unknown sculptor, showed her either untying her sandal or putting it on again after taking a swim. Another famous nude, the Capitoline Venus, is simply a variation of the famous Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles. It exists in more than 100 copies, of which the best is in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. It shows Aphrodite naked; there is a tall water-jug called a loutrophoros beside her with a towel draped over it, and so she has presumably just taken a bath. Evidently she has been surprised, for one arm tries to hide her breasts and with her other arm she shields her pudenda. In spite of the enormous popularity of this statue, both the original statue and its creator are lost. One other experiment with the female nude in a different pose became a favorite ornament of the gardens and courtyards of great Roman houses, to judge from the number of Roman copies that have survived. The sculptor of the original, Doidalsas of Bithynia, worked in the mid-third century B.C.E., and the statue for which he is known shows a naked Aphrodite washing herself. She is shown in a crouching position, glancing over her right shoulder. Many copies have turned up in the region of Naples in Italy, which was dotted with villas in the heyday of the Roman Empire.

The Partially-Clothed Female Nude

Both Praxiteles and Lysippus have a claim to be the first to produce a partially-clothed female nude. In 1651, in France, a statue of Aphrodite, without her arms, was found in an old cistern at Arles. The “Venus of Arles,” as she is known, is now in the Louvre with arms restored by order of King Louis XIV. The statue shows Aphrodite with her garment slipping down over her hips far enough to give a glimpse of her groin. Her head turns to the left in a pose similar to the Hermes of Praxiteles found at Olympia, and the creator of this copy’s original may have been a work of Praxiteles, too. The claim of Lysippus is based on the Aphrodite of Capua, a Roman copy found in the ruins of the Roman amphitheater in Capua north of Naples and now in the Naples Museum. Praxiteles, Scopas, and Lysippus have all been suggested as the sculptor of the original, but Lysippus is the favorite. The most famous partially-clothed Aphrodite, however, is the Venus di Milo, now in the Louvre. It was found in 1820 on the island of Melos, one of the Cyclades archipelago, by a young French naval officer and a Greek farmer. Her arms are lost, but a hand holding an apple was found as well as the statue base, which identifies the sculptor. The first four letters of his name cannot be read with certainty, for the inscription is mutilated, but he was probably Alexandros of Antioch-on-the-Meander River in Asia Minor, to be distinguished from the more famous Antioch-on-the-Orontes River in Syria. The apple must be the “Apple of Discord” that started the legendary Trojan War. According to the myth, the goddess Eris(Discord) had not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles, and avenged the slight by hurling a golden apple inscribed “For the fairest” among the guests. The goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite all claimed it, and they entreated the young Trojan prince, Paris, to judge which of them was the most beautiful and therefore the rightful owner of the apple.

Alexandros’ statue portrays Paris’ choice, Aphrodite, at the moment of her victory. One lost arm was outstretched and her hand held the apple, and her other hand probably held up her garment which is about to slip off her hips. There is more than a hint of suggestiveness to her pose. Yet the softness of her flesh and the subtle curves of her body have been masterfully rendered, and she is justly famous, though she is not a masterpiece of the classical period of Greek sculpture as art historians proclaimed a century ago. She was probably carved between 150 and 125 B.C.E.

High Hellenistic “Baroque”

About 240 B.C.E. sculptors began to portray figures in motion as statues radiated exuberant energy. Men portrayed in violent actions have muscles that ripple and swell. The new style was particularly conducive to the victory monuments that were erected to commemorate some military triumph. The famous Winged Victory of Samothrace, now in the Louvre in Paris, depicts the goddess Victory at the very moment when she alights on the bow of a ship. She was found in 1863 in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on Samothrace in the northern Aegean Sea, and she was dedicated probably between 180 and 160 B.C.E. to commemorate a naval victory. The artist sculpted the Victory in the pure white marble from the quarries on the island of Paros, but for the prow of the ship he chose grey marble from Rhodes. The wind swirls round her as she alights, filling her wings like great sails, and blowing back her cloak so that it ripples around her body in great folds. Another military victory was celebrated with the Victory Monument of Attalus of Pergamum. In the first half of the third century B.C.E., Greece was menaced by Gallic invaders, who moved into Asia Minor where they pillaged and marauded, threatening the newly founded principality of Pergamum (modern Bergama in Turkey). Pergamum at first tried to buy them off, but reversed this policy in 241 B.C.E. when Attalus I became ruler of Pergamum. He refused any more payments to the Gauls and when they attacked, defeated them soundly. After the victory he took the title of king and set up a monument to commemorate his triumph. Although the original is long gone, there are some Roman copies. One shows a Gallic warrior in the act of killing himself after his defeat. With his right arm he thrusts his sword into the base of his throat, while with his left he holds the limp body of his wife whom he has already slain. Another shows a Gaul in the throes of death. He has sunk to the ground, but still props himself up with one arm. These tall, hard-muscled Gallic warriors would not be mistaken for Greeks. The sculptors have captured a difference between their nude male bodies and typical Greek physiques. Another monument that Attalus set up to advertise his triumph showed the same taste for the exotic. It showed battles against Gauls, Giants, Amazons, and Persians. Copies of the figures show what they looked like: a Persian lies dead, a Gaul is dying, a wounded Amazon slips from her horse. Attalus had the monument placed on the Athenian Acropolis, for though Athens no longer was a great power, it was still recognized as the cultural heartland of the Greek world.

The Great Altar of Pergamum

The superlative masterpiece of the baroque style is the frieze on the podium of the Great Altar built at Pergamum, erected about 165 B.C.E., and now partially reconstructed in the Berlin Museum. The frieze portrays the Battle of the Gods and Giants from Greek mythology which told how the supremacy of the Olympian gods was challenged by a race of vast creatures like Tityus whose immense mass covered nine acres when he lay stretched out on the plain, and Enceladus whom all of Mt. Etna was needed to hold down. About one hundred over-life size figures carved in high relief are shown in violent struggle. Muscles strain and bulge, cloaks swirl, faces portray anguish. A dog bites a giant as he sinks to the ground, reminding the viewer of one of the greatest horrors of war, that the dead on the battlefield might be left unburied for dogs to devour. The central part of the west side, which the visitor would see first upon approaching the monument, shows Zeus and Athena in the thick of the fight. Zeus’ cloak has slipped from his shoulder, revealing a heavily muscled torso, and on his left, Athena hurls a giant to the ground, his eyes turned heavenwards in mute appeal. The relief gives the general impression of a new, vigorous approach to sculpture, but a closer look reveals reminiscences of the classical past. The mute appeal on the face of the dying giant whom Athena kills is borrowed from Scopas. The relief on the central west side of Zeus and Athena reverses the composition used on the west pediment of the Parthenon, but the derivation is clear. The “Baroque” artists, like the other sculptors of the Hellenistic period, build upon the techniques and traditions of the classical past.

The Laocoon Group

The last king of Pergamum, Attalus III, willed his kingdom to Rome when he died in 133 B.C.E., and Pergamum became the Roman province of Asia, which was a notable example of Roman misrule in the following century. However, the High Hellenistic “Baroque” had another center of excellence: the island of Rhodes, where the style of the Great Altar frieze at Pergamum continued to flourish. The Laocoon Group, now in the Vatican Museum, dates from the early first centuryC.E. and is a good example of late Rhodian work. It is narrative art, and the story that it relates comes from Vergil’s poem, the Aeneid, the national epic of the Roman Empire which described how the city of Troy supposedly fell to the Greeks. In the story, the siege of Troy by the Greeks had lasted ten long years, and, unable to penetrate the city walls, the Greeks devised a scheme to trick the Trojans into letting them into the city. They constructed a large wooden horse and hid a group of Greek warriors in its belly. They then left it at the city gates, supposedly as an offering to the gods, and pretended to depart, as if they had given up the siege. The Trojans, thinking that the siege was over at last, decided to bring the horse within the city walls as part of a celebration. The Trojan priest Laocoon was the lone voice of warning against bringing the horse into the city, rightly fearing that it was a trap set by the Greeks to gain access to Troy. As Laocoon made his case to his fellow Trojans, however, two great serpents emerged from the sea and wound their coils around him and his two sons. The Trojans took Laocoon’s horrible death as a token of divine anger, and decided to bring the horse into their city, thus sealing their doom. The statue group shows Laocoon and his sons struggling in vain against the serpents, one of which sinks its fangs into Laocoon’s thigh. Laocoon’s face expresses anguish and despair. He is losing the struggle and he knows it. One of his sons is already dead; the other is still fighting to disentangle himself. The coils of the serpents bind the three figures together into an artistic whole. The statue group was found above the ruins of the Golden House of Nero in 1506, and among the spectators who witnessed the excavation was the great Michelangelo. Unfortunately we cannot be certain that this statue group is an original rather than a copy. According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder who described this statue, the original was made by three Rhodian sculptors—Hagesandrus, Polydorus, and Athanadorus—from a single block of marble whereas the existing Laocoon is made of seven or eight pieces fitted together. That would seem to indicate that the “Laocoon Group” in the Vatican Museum is a copy, but Pliny is not infallible, and whether it is a copy or not, it is a masterpiece of the baroque style.

The Sculptures from Sperlonga

In 1957, at Sperlonga on the west coast of Italy some sixty miles south of Rome, a cave was found that once belonged to a villa of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 C.E.). What was remarkable about the cave were the statues found there. An inscription was found that gives the names of the sculptors: Hagesandrus, Polydorus, and Athanadorus—the Rhodian sculptors who carved the Laocoon group. The find dates these sculptors firmly in the early first century C.E.; they had previously been dated at least a century earlier. The sculptures show incidents from Homer’s Odyssey; one group shows the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus, another shows the monster Scylla attacking Odysseus’ ship. This is theatrical sculpture in the best traditions of High Hellenistic Baroque. The face of Odysseus bears an expression of apprehension mixed with resolve; as a portrayal of feeling it is comparable to Laocoon’s face and is utterly different from the calm, unemotional expressions found in the classical sculpture of the fifth century B.C.E. The creative fire of the Hellenistic artistic tradition may have been burning low by the first century C.E., but the finds at Sperlonga show that it could still produce a masterpiece.

The Late Hellenistic Period: A Return to Attic Style

By the second half of the second century B.C.E., it was clear that there was no hope for Greek independence. In 146 B.C.E., Greece became the Roman province of Achaea. In 133 B.C.E., Pergamum fell under Roman rule. Huge numbers of Greek works of art were taken as spoils of war to Rome, and along with Greece’s subjection to Roman rule there seems to be a decline in artistic creativity. Rome provided a market for copies of Greek masterpieces that adorned the houses and country villas of the wealthy classes, and sculptors honed their skills by making replicas. Many Greek sculptors went to Rome to find work, making it increasingly hard to disentangle Greek from Roman sculpture. The lack of development is not due altogether to a failure of inspiration, but rather to the fact that Greek artists, who now saw their world subject to a foreign empire, salved their pride by looking backwards to the heyday of Greece. The same feeling can also be detected in the Greek literature of the period. It is these classicizing Greek masters of the Late Hellenistic period who provide the artistic vocabulary for the Rome of the emperor Augustus.

The “Neo-Attic” Idiom

The hallmark of this Late Hellenistic style known as “Neo-Attic” is its recycling of the idioms of the classical period—the century when Athens dominated the artistic world of Greece. It was the poses, the modeling, and the features of Attic (that is, Athenian, for Attica was the territory of Athens) sculpture that made up these idioms. The Venus di Milo is a successful example of Neo-Attic style. No single part of her is original, but the sculptor Alexandros combined his various borrowings into a harmonious whole. Much less successful is a statue group of Orestes and Electra that apparently once adorned the Roman meat market in Pozzuoli, ancient Puteoli on the western outskirts of Naples. Orestes is a standard male nude of the fourth century B.C.E., and his sister Electra, standing beside him with an arm over his shoulder, is a standard clothed female figure with transparent drapery of the last quarter of the fifth century B.C.E. It is an uninspired work, which shows how perfunctory “Neo-Attic” style could become when art was treated as mere decoration.

Roman Sculpture

The Etruscan Influence

Roman sculpture has its roots in Etruria, an ancient country north of Rome. According to tradition, the Etruscans were immigrants from Asia Minor who migrated to Italy, perhaps during the general meltdown at the end of the Bronze Age, in the years following 1200 B.C.E. Once they arrived, they established themselves as a ruling class that exploited the resources of one of the richest regions of Italy. Etruria was an important export market for Greek vases, and Greek artisans worked in its cities for Etruscan patrons. One such colony of Greek craftsmen existed in Caere (modern Cerveteri, north of Rome), where there is still a large Etruscan necropolis. The paintings in the Etruscan underground tombs at Tarquinia were probably done by Greek artisans, though the taste is Etruscan. Rome’s last three kings were Etruscan; the last of them, Tarquin the Proud, who was expelled in 510 B.C.E., built a great temple for the triad of gods, Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno on the Capitoline Hill in Etruscan style. As a model for all future Roman temples, it stood on a raised podium and was decorated with painted terracotta moldings. The cult statue of Jupiter was made of terracotta by an Etruscan sculptor from Veii named Vulca. A surviving terracotta statue from the school of Vulca was found in the ruins of Veii and now stands in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome. The so-called Apollo of Veii originally looked down from the ridgepole of an Etruscan temple. It has the “archaic smile” of the Greek kouroi (nude male statues), but it has little of the quiet serenity of archaic Greek sculpture.

Early Sculpture in Rome

Etruscan influence continued in Rome after the Etruscan kings were driven out, and Etruscan sculptors continued to work there. One monument that survived from this early period is a bronze she-wolf of about 500 B.C.E. In the Renaissance period, two infants were added, suckling her teats. The addition clearly identified this wolf with the legendary wolf that suckled Rome’s legendary founders, Romulus and Remus, as infants, but it is not clear whether the original statue should be connected with the legend or not. The Etruscan influence on Rome faded, however, as Rome’s conquests brought Greece into the empire. A turning point came in 211 B.C.E. while Rome was fighting a desperate war with the Carthaginians who were led by a general of genius, Hannibal. That year the city of Syracuse, which had sided with the Carthaginians, fell to Marcellus, the proconsul commanding the Roman army that was operating in Sicily. Syracuse was a great Greek city filled with works of art, and a share of the art travelled back to Rome as spoils of war. They made a strong impression on the Roman elite, who clamored for more Greek art. In the second century B.C.E., when Rome conquered Greece, there was ample opportunity for more looting. In 146 B.C.E. Rome destroyed Corinth, and the commander, Lucius Mummius, sent shiploads of art works to Rome, saying as he did so that if these cargoes were lost at sea, there were more where they came from. Yet the number of masterpieces was limited, and so a flourishing industry arose in Greece of copying sculptures in marble for the Roman market. The skill of the copyists varied, and though the sculptors knew how to make exact replicas, it is clear that they sometimes varied the originals. Yet without these Roman copies modern understanding of Greek sculpture would be greatly diminished.

Augustan Classicism

The emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), the heir of Julius Caesar, made himself master of the Roman world only after a hard-fought civil war. First he had to suppress Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who had mustered armies in the east. He destroyed them in a battle fought in 42 B.C.E. at Philippi in northern Greece. Then he had to suppress a more dangerous rival, Mark Antony, defeating him at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. After finally achieving peace, Augustus was determined to give the empire a capital worthy of its position as mistress of the Mediterranean world. He turned to the art of classical Greece to accomplish this goal. His artists revived the Canon of Polyclitus, a classical treatise on the proper proportions for sculpture, in creating statues of Augustus. Indeed, a comparison between the so-called “Prima Porta” statue of Augustus, found at the villa of his wife Livia a short distance north of Rome, with the Doryphoros (Spearbearer) of Polyclitus reveals some startling similarities. The statues have the same tilt of the head, and the same treatment of the hair. While Augustus has some individual features, such as his high cheekbones and the hint of resolution to his brow, his physique adheres to the proportions which Polyclitus set forth in his Canon. The statue is a copy of an original statue of the emperor conceived about 27 B.C.E., the year that the senate conferred on him the title “Augustus,” meaning “the revered one.” The statue of Caesar Augustus is an idealized version of the man as a celebration of his new title. Augustus harnessed the art of Greece for his political purposes. The aesthetic value of the “Prima Porta” Augustus cannot have greatly interested the sculptor who carved it or Augustus’ wife Livia, who was probably the person that commissioned it, for its rear is only roughly finished. After all, no one could see it, for the statue was intended to stand against a wall.

The Altar of Peace

In 9 B.C.E., the Roman senate dedicated the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) on the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) in Rome to commemorate the safe return of Caesar Augustus from his campaigns in Gaul and Spain. It was a modest monument, reproducing the proportions of the Altar of the Twelve Gods which stood in the marketplace of Athens. It was adorned with reliefs, which are the most important features that survive of Augustan sculpture. Some of the reliefs portray the sacrifice that took place at the ceremony of dedication on 30 January 9 B.C.E. The panels on the north and south of the altar show a procession of the imperial family and court; the portraits are sufficiently realistic that most can be identified. On the east and west sides there are panels representing mythological scenes. One shows Aeneas, whom Augustus claimed as an ancestor, making sacrifice. But the most arresting of all is a panel on the outside of the altar enclosure that shows a goddess holding two infants. Various fruits are on her lap, and a child offers her one in his small hand. At her feet a cow rests, and a sheep grazes. The identity of the goddess is unknown. Some scholars believe her to represent “Peace,” while others claim she is “Mother Earth,” or perhaps Venus, the mother of Aeneas and hence the progenitor of the Julian family. Whatever her identity, she adheres to the artistic traditions of classical Greece. Her stola, the proper dress of a Roman matron, clings to her body, revealing her breasts and even her navel underneath. It reproduces the transparent drapery of Greek sculpture of the 420s B.C.E., such as the Flying Victory of Painonius of Mende, except that in the Ara Pacis relief there is no wind. Yet the message is clear enough. The goddess, whoever she is, is bringing the fruits of peace, and of law and order, to the Roman Empire. This, proclaims the relief, was the achievement of Caesar Augustus.

Historical Reliefs

In one category of relief sculpture, the Romans could claim a degree of originality: the relief that narrated an historical event. The Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum commemorates the suppression of the revolt in Judaea that broke out in 66 C.E. Titus, who took over command of the Roman forces in Judaea from his father Vespasian, captured Jerusalem and then returned to Rome with his spoils to celebrate a Roman Triumph. In the triumphal ceremony, the victorious general paraded his captives and his spoils through the streets of Rome, through the Roman Forum along the “Sacred Way” and up to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill where he laid down his command. Inside the arch there are two great panels which portray the triumph: one shows the exhibition of the spoils, which include the seven-branched candlestick from the Temple in Jerusalem, and the other shows Titus himself in his triumphal chariot. There are two other great monuments in Rome that use continuous narration: the columns of Trajan and of Marcus Aurelius. Trajan, emperor from 98-117 C.E., added Dacia (modern Rumania) to the empire, and his column shows the campaigns that he waged to conquer Dacia. The story unfolds in a spiral scroll that runs from the bottom to the top of the column, where there perched a statue of the emperor himself. The episodes run into each other without obvious breaks. The column of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 C.E.) takes its inspiration from the column of Trajan. The “continuous narrative” frieze spirals up the column, but there is less attention to the factual recording of details. The nature of Marcus Aurelius’ campaigns may account for the difference. Trajan’s military operations resulted in an addition to the empire, whereas Marcus Aurelius was fighting to hold back barbarian attacks across the Roman frontier. The emphasis of his relief sculpture is more on the hardships and cruelty of war.

The Appearance of the Frontal Pose

In the third century C.E., the frontal pose appeared in sculpture as a way of emphasizing the isolation of the emperor. Frontal poses were borrowed from Middle Eastern art; the first examples that we have come from the site of Dura-Europus on the Euphrates River, which was destroyed and abandoned in 257 C.E. Naturalism in sculpture was in full retreat in the third century, and the tendency became more marked in the fourth century. The base of an Egyptian obelisk erected by the emperor Theodosius I (379-395 C.E.) in the Hippodrome at Constantinople is a dramatic illustration of the portrayal of the emperor in the art of late antiquity. Theodosius and the imperial family sit in the imperial loge in the Hippodrome. On either side are senators and court officials. All face the onlooker. Below the imperial loge are various barbarians, recognizable by their dress. They kneel and offer tribute. Even as the empire was growing more ramshackle, the message of Roman sculpture insisted that the emperor was the fount of Roman peace and prosperity.

Greek Painting

Wall Painting in the Minoan Period

Greek wall painting has its roots in the prehistoric civilization on the island of Crete during what is known as the Minoan Period. The excavations of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos on Crete at the start of the twentieth century revealed not only a great, sprawling palace, but they also turned up fragments of wall paintings. Reconstructing them was a painstaking process, but the results can be seen in the Heraklion Museum on Crete. The most impressive of the murals that Evans found was one that showed toreadors leaping over the back of a charging bull. Since then, fragments of frescos have been found at other sites on Crete and some of the Cyclades Islands as well. Also in the early 1900s, a house belonging to a Minoan settler was uncovered on the island of Melos, and among the finds was a naturalistic painting of flying fish. In the 1980s, Austrian archaeologists discovered a palatial complex at Tell el-Daba (ancient Avaris in Egypt), which was the capital of the Hyksos who invaded Egypt in the period between the Middle and the New Kingdom and were driven out by the founder of the New Kingdom, the pharaoh Ahmose. In it were fragments of Minoan mural paintings, including one showing bull-leapers against a background that shows a maze. The most startling finds, however, have emerged since 1967 from Akrotiri on the island of Thera, where a Minoan town was buried by the eruption of the Thera volcano that preserved houses to their second and even their third story. The eruption is dated by scientists to 1628 B.C.E., for it must have spewed enough ash and pumice into the atmosphere to block the rays of the sun, producing abnormally low temperatures for a year or two. By examining tree rings for signs of retarded growth and ice cores from Greenland for layers of peak acidity, the date can be pinpointed with a degree of confidence, even though the pottery found at Akrotiri would indicate a date about a generation later. Akrotiri produced the earliest surviving Minoan paintings, as well as those that are best preserved.

Three Classes of Minoan Murals

Minoan wall paintings—known also as frescoes—fall into three major classes, yet due to their often overlapping styles, it is often difficult to establish any direct line of development between the classes. The first class deals with the world of nature. These frescoes show flowers and other plants, animals, birds, and sea creatures. Human figures are usually not present. The second class shows human figures of both men and women, on a large scale. Female figures seem to predominate, and they are dressed in the fashions of the Knossos court, but it is not always clear whether they are priestesses or ordinary women dressed for a festival. The third group is the miniature frescoes that feature small human figures in a landscape or architectural setting. Assigning dates to these frescoes is not easy, and without dates it is hard to trace any development. Obviously the paintings found at Akrotiri must date before the eruption of the volcano that buried the Minoan town, but elsewhere dates are much less approximate. The famous fresco showing a life-size charging bull and toreadors is part of a stucco relief of charging bulls from the north entrance of the palace at Knossos and is assumed to have been created relatively late in the Minoan period. Yet it is a thoroughly Minoan painting belonging to the second class, even if it belongs to the years shortly before the palace was taken over by Greek-speaking invaders from the Greek mainland.

The Paintings from Akrotiri

The finds at Akrotiri have added immensely to modern knowledge of Minoan painting. Not only are the paintings well preserved, but they are securely dated before the eruption of the Thera volcano, during the New Palace period on Crete. There are examples of all three classes of painting. The world of nature is represented by a mural in a house labelled the “House of the Ladies” which shows papyrus plants. Since papyrus does not grow on Thera or Crete, the presence of the plant in Minoan art indicates Egyptian influence. A fresco from a shrine portraying a garden with stylized rocks and naturalistic lilies is another example. The second class is represented by a mural of two boys boxing, and another of a naked fisherman holding his catch of fish in both his hands. The Miniature Style is represented by a remarkable fresco of a ship from the so-called “West House” at Akrotiri. It is a frieze about 43 centimeters (seventeen inches) high running around the top of at least three walls of a room. It shows a flotilla of ships being paddled between two ports. It seems to be an example of narrative art, perhaps of a naval campaign, but it is impossible to know for sure.

Mycenaean Painting

On mainland Greece the Mycenaean civilization, a Greek-speaking peoples, flourished between 1600 and 1200 B.C.E.Mycenaean wall painting is a continuation of Minoan painting, but it is not easy to attach dates to the surviving evidence. Recent excavations at Thebes in central Greece, the city of the legendary King Oedipus, have revealed remains of two successive palaces, and in the earlier of the two, archaeologists found fragments of a fresco showing a procession of women dated to the fourteenth century B.C.E. At Mycenae, houses outside the citadel walls yielded fragments of frescoes that might be dated equally early. But nothing on the mainland is as early as the frescoes found on the island of Thera. Most of what has been found dates to the last century of the Mycenaean civilization.

Favorite Subjects

A procession of women, life-sized and wearing the typical Minoan dress consisting of a tight bodice, bare breasts, and flounced skirt, is one of the most common themes of Mycenaean murals. Each woman bears an offering, and they move from left to right, making their way probably towards a goddess. There are also battle scenes; at Pylos there were enigmatic battle scenes showing duels between Mycenaeans equipped with short swords, daggers, and helmets made from the tusks of boars, and adversaries wearing animal skins knotted over the shoulder. A painted mural at Mycenae showing scenes of battle ran around the four walls of the main room of the Mycenaean palace, the “megaron,” with a hearth in the middle. There were also hunting scenes, including one of a boar hunt from the palace at Tiryns, where the boar is portrayed running in a flying gallop, pursued by hunting dogs that leap on his back. A shield fresco showing figure-eight shields was found at Tiryns, better preserved than the similar figure-eight shield fresco found at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans. On the whole, the subjects of the paintings seem to reflect a more martial society than on Crete; hunt-scenes and battle-scenes were apparently more attractive. Other murals do indicate the presence of varied interests, however. The Throne Room in the palace at Pylos had a mural of a black man playing a lyre. From a house at Mycenae built after 1400 B.C.E. outside the citadel, fresco fragments depict toreadors and bulls. This fresco may have been painted by a Minoan artist who had emigrated from Crete to mainland Greece, and it does not prove that bull-leaping was a sport that was popular in the Mycenaean world, though it does indicate some interest in it. When the Mycenaean palaces fell at the start of the Greek Dark Ages in 1100 B.C.E., the art of fresco painting perished with them.

The Revival of Greek Painting

Painting revived in the early archaic period of Greece, but except for vase painting the evidence is mostly literary. Only one well-preserved example of painting dating earlier than 600 B.C.E. survived: a terracotta plaque from a temple at Thermon in north-west Greece which portrays the hero Perseus fleeing with the head of the Gorgon, Medusa, under his arm. The Etruscan tomb paintings found in Italy seem to have been done by Greeks for Etruscan customers, however; they are therefore the products of Greek journeymen who traveled to Etruria (modern Tuscany north of Rome) to find work as early as the start of the sixth century B.C.E. A painted wooden votive plaque has been discovered in Greece, at Pitsa near Corinth, which dates about 530 B.C.E. It shows a family making sacrifice. A man is apparently pouring wine on the altar, and a boy wearing a garland has brought up a sheep to be sacrificed, while two flautists and a lyre-player supply music and two women look on, holding laurel branches in their hands. It is a colorful composition, rather like the polychrome vases which Corinthian potters were producing at the time. The next evidence dates to about 470 B.C.E.: a painted tomb from Poseidonia, a Greek colony in Italy south of Naples, now known as Paestum. It is a small tomb with paintings of banqueters reclining on couches along the sides of the interior, and on the ceiling a picture of a youth diving from a high scaffolding. The painting was not meant for public viewing and it is impossible to interpret its message. In the history of the visual arts, it is important because Greek painting on media other than pottery is exceedingly rare.

The Great Painters: Polygnotus and Micon

For the works of the great Greek painters, modern scholarship must rely on descriptions from ancient authors. The painter who introduced portrayals of persons in three-quarters view was Cimon from Cleonae, which is between Corinth and Argos in Greece. Polygnotus of Thasos, who was brought to Athens by the Athenian general and statesman Cimon who dominated Athenian political life in the late 470s and 460s B.C.E., introduced more innovations. He was the first to paint faces with the mouth open, showing the teeth, and the first to paint women with transparent drapery. He lived in the period when painters were discovering the laws of perspective. The tradition is that painted scenery for productions in the theater was invented by the tragic poet Sophocles, but his older rival Aeschylus was the first to have scenery that had perspective, developed by the painter Agatharchus. Other painters of the period were Micon, who collaborated with Polygnotus, and Panainos, the brother of the great sculptor Phidias. There was one monument where all three of them collaborated: the Stoa Poikile (The Painted Colonnade) on the south side of the Athenian marketplace, where the philosopher Zeno, founder of the Stoic School of philosophy, would give his lectures years later. There were four painted panels in the stoa affixed to the back wall. One depicted the Battle of Oenoë between the Athenians and the Spartans that was evidently an important battle although historians are uncertain what it was or why it took place. Another was a painting from mythology showing a battle between the Athenians and the Amazons, warrior women who attacked Athens and were defeated by King Theseus. A third showed a scene from the legendary Trojan War in which the Greek leaders are meeting to decide how to punish Ajax the Less for his rape of the priestess Cassandra. Finally a fourth painting evidently shows a sequence of actions related to the Battle of Marathon where the Athenians defeated the Persians: first the struggle itself, then the flight of the Persians, and finally the Persians trying to embark on their ships to leave. Panainos painted the Battle of Marathon with Micon’s collaboration; Micon painted the battle of the Athenians and the Amazons; and Polygnotus’ contribution was the painting of the Judgement of Ajax. The greatest masterpiece of Polygnotus, however, was found at Delphi in theLesche or club house of the Cnidians. One part of it depicted the sack of Troy, and another part the descent of the hero Odysseus into the Underworld. We have a detailed description of it by Pausanias, the Greek traveler of the second century C.E. who toured Greece and wrote a guidebook describing what he saw.

The Successors of Polygnotus

The balancing of light and shade—what modern artists call chiaroscuro—was pioneered by a little-known artist Apollodorus of Athens in the late fourth century B.C.E., but the artist who exploited it was Zeuxis in the early third century B.C.E., who was famous for his illusionist effects. One of his paintings was The Centaur Family which shows a female centaur stretched out on the grass, suckling her two infant centaurs, while the male centaur, who is portrayed as a shaggy beast, leans over them laughing. Zeuxis’ contemporary, Parrhasius of Ephesus, took a different approach. He was a careful draftsman, the acknowledged master of contour line. He is best known for his picture of Theseus that adorned the Capitol in Rome years after his death. His other works, besides the obscene subjects with which he supposedly amused himself in his leisure time, are chiefly mythological groups. A picture of the Demos, the personified People of Athens, is among his most famous of these works. In the fourth century B.C.E. Pausias of Sicyon, who was known for the garlands of flowers that he introduced into his murals, also became famous as a master of paintings in the encaustic technique, mixing his pigments in hot wax and applying the wax with a small spatula. He learned the technique from Pamphilus of Sicyon, who was also the teacher of the great Apelles, the favorite painter of Alexander the Great. With Apelles, Greek painting evidently reached its height in the late fourth century B.C.E. One painting of his was particularly famous: it showed the birth of the goddess Aphrodite, rising from the foam of the sea. A similar painting discovered on the wall of a house in Pompeii may have been an attempt to copy Apelles’ masterpiece, or at the very least had its inspiration in Apelles’ work. Unfortunately, the journeyman wall painter who made the mural did not do a good job.

Macedonian Tombs

The masterpieces of Greek painting are lost, though sometimes archaeologists uncover bits of evidence that intrigue the imagination. Macedon, an ancient country in northern Greece, has yielded a number of underground tombs from the fourth and third centuries B.C.E. at various sites, the most famous of which are the royal tombs at Vergina, the ancient capital of Macedon. There a tomb has been identified, rightly or wrongly, as the burial place of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. In one, dating probably to the third century B.C.E. garlands and floral designs are reminiscent of the work of Pausias. Pausias’ own works are lost but his influence may be reflected in these tombs.

Roman Painting

The Destruction of Pompeii

On 24 August 79 C.E., the volcano of Mt. Vesuvius, which was thought to be extinct, reawakened and blew up, spewing a mushroom-shaped cloud into the air to the amazement and terror of the onlookers. The eruption would claim the life of Pliny the Elder who is one of the major sources for information about Greek and Roman art. When the eruption was over, the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis had been sealed in ash and lava. Pompeii and Stabiae were covered in easily removable ash and pumice, but Herculaneum, directly beneath the volcano, was covered with mud and lava that hardened as it cooled, making it impossible to remove without pick-axes and pneumatic drills. While the eruption was a terrible tragedy in the ancient world, it was a boon for modern art historians, for the lava preserved the wall decorations of the houses and the mosaics on their floors for modern excavators to discover. While wall-paintings from other sites are only isolated finds, the art from Pompeii and Herculaneum show the changes in Roman taste over three centuries. Even though Pompeii, a town of some twenty thousand inhabitants, was already past the peak of its prosperity when it was buried under the ash from Mt. Vesuvius, and so did not attract the Roman Empire’s best painters, its houses present a vivid record of changing fashions. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the German scholar August Mau divided the wall paintings of Pompeii into four styles: first, second, third, and fourth, in chronological order. Fourth style was in vogue when the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius abruptly ended the life of the little city.

First Style

First Style tried to produce in painted stucco the appearance of a wall covered with panels of marble or with blocks of masonry, for which reason it is also sometimes called “Masonry Style.” The largest house in Pompeii, the House of the Dancing Faun, which was built in the second century B.C.E., had first-style wall decoration: plaster that faked marble panels, all painted a bright red. Herculaneum has a well-preserved example of this style in a house built in the late second century B.C.E.: the so-called “Samnite House.” The plaster is shaped into panels which were painted using the al fresco technique in which the pigment is applied to the plaster while it is still damp. The inspiration for the style is the marble-paneled walls in the Hellenistic palaces and public buildings in royal capitals such as Alexandria and Antioch. First Style counterfeits the marble panels in plaster, and since the painter had more colors at his command than did the marble-cutter, the effect of First Style could be more garish than the real thing, an example of which can still be seen in the Pantheon in Rome where the marble panels on the wall are still in place.

Second Style

Second Style came into fashion after 80 B.C.E. though it never pushed First Style completely aside. Second-style painting was illusionist, meaning it tried to create the illusion that the spectator was looking beyond the confines of the wall to a world outside it of gardens and fantastic architecture. One splendid example was found in the villa of Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus, at Prima Porta just north of Rome. There a vaulted, partly underground room was painted on all sides with a panorama of a garden, complete with trees bearing fruit and birds. With this illusion the walls of the room no longer confine the space. The artist suggests depth to his painting by a kind of atmospheric perspective: the trees and plants in the foreground are painted precisely but as objects recede into the distance, they become increasingly blurred. If the artist working in Second Style wanted to open up the wall and show landscapes beyond it receding into the distance, he had to use perspective to give depth to his painting. Greek scenery designers for the theater had been the first to use perspective in the first half of the fifth century B.C.E., and its general rules were well known. A fine example of Second Style was found in the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, otherwise unknown, at Boscoreale near Pompeii which dates to the middle of the first century B.C.E. The frescoes were removed from the walls and taken to the Metropolitan Museum in New York shortly after the villa was discovered, and they are part of a reconstructed cubiculum, or Roman bedroom, there. The wall paintings create the illusion that the onlooker can walk through the bedroom walls into a cityscape with porticoes, arches, and temples; one view shows a charming tempietto, a small, round shrine which seems to be set in a courtyard surrounded by porticos. Roman taste changed a few years after the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, as evidenced by the construction of another villa belonging to Agrippa Postumus which was decorated in Third Style about 10 B.C.E.

The Elegant Third Style

As the landscapes of Second Style went out of fashion, they were replaced by mural designs that emphasized the wall instead of dissolving it into a vista beyond. The artist painted his wall in a solid, dark color such as black, and instead of the architectural elements of Second Style, he framed his space with thin, spidery columns holding up insubstantial canopies—architectural forms that never existed in real life. In the middle of his space he composed a picture enclosed within a frame, like a painting hanging on a wall. Or he sometimes substituted a motif borrowed from Egyptian art. Third Style was elegant and exquisite, but it was also oppressive.

Fourth Style

Illusionism returned with the Fourth Style, which became popular in Pompeii about 62 C.E., when Pompeii was shaken by an earthquake and houses needing their damaged wall paintings restored no doubt opted for the latest style. The emperor Nero, who was building his Domus Aurea (Golden House) in the heart of Rome following the devastation of a great fire that broke out in the summer of 64 C.E., used Fourth Style to decorate the rooms of his extravagant new villa. Walls were painted a creamy white with landscapes appearing as framed pictures in the center of a large subdivision of the white wall. There are also architectural vistas, but they are dream cityscapes: columned facades, sometimes fragments of buildings, none of them belonging to the world of reality. The painters of these architectural follies may have been influenced by the painted scenery that they saw in contemporary theater. Some of the framed paintings show scenes from mythology: one, from Pompeii, now in the Naples Museum, shows Aeneas, wounded in one leg, being tended by Iapyx, master of the healing art, while Venus appears in the background, bringing with her a medicinal herb. The scene comes from the final book of Vergil’s epic, the Aeneid, and it is evidence that the Romans had illustrated books containing such pictures. The codex, or bound book, would not appear until the second century C.E., but the picture of the wounded Aeneas from Pompeii is the sort of illustration that might have been found on a parchment scroll containing the last book of the Aeneid.

The Aftermath

Campania, the region of Italy around Naples which includes the cities destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, has no examples of wall paintings after 79 C.E. The murals after that date which have survived come from Rome or the imperial provinces, and they show less taste for fantastic ornamentation and an increase in simpler, more realistic designs, done on white, red, or yellow backgrounds. In the Roman province of Britain, a town house of the second century C.E. found at Verulamium (modern St. Albans) yields evidence of a mural with painted panels with two candelabra on a red background, and in the center, a blue dove on a perch. On the ceiling, there were ears of wheat painted in a lattice-work design on a purple background. The third century C.E. had a penchant for scenes on a large scale, most of them illustrations of ancient myths. The third century was a period when the Roman Empire seemed on the verge of disintegration, and yet it was also a time when there were new departures in artistic taste. In the eastern provinces, the retreat from naturalism that we find in medieval art, where two-dimensional figures stare directly at the viewer, was already underway.

Dura-Europos: A Pompeii of the Third Century C.E.

In 256 C.E., a Roman garrison town on the Euphrates River in modern Iraq, called Europos by the Greeks and Dura by the Romans, fell to the Persians. The eastern frontier of the Roman Empire had become a dangerous place, for the Persians under a new dynasty, the Sassanids, had overthrown Rome’s old foe, the Parthian Empire, in 224 C.E. They were more aggressive than the Parthians had ever been for they dreamed of restoring the Old Persian Empire that Alexander the Great had overthrown. Dura-Europos was discovered during World War I, and in 1931 excavations got underway under the auspices of Yale University. The wall paintings that were found made art historians rethink their notions about the retreat from naturalism in the late Roman Empire that had hitherto been associated with the rise of Christianity. There was a Jewish synagogue with scenes from the Old Testament, dating to about 200 C.E. These came as a surprise, for Judaism took the Second Commandment banning “graven images” very seriously, as did early Christianity, but by the start of the third century C.E., the veto for both religions had broken down. There was a Christian “house church,” built about 240 C.E., for before Christianity became a legal religion, Christian congregations met in ordinary houses which were adapted for worship; we know that there were at least forty such “house churches” in Rome by 258 C.E. At one end of the baptistery room in the Dura “house church,” set in a vaulted niche, there was a font shaped like a sarcophagus, and on the back wall of the niche was a painting showing Christ as the Good Shepherd, carrying a sheep on his shoulders, and beside him, Adam and Eve. This was clearly an example of wall painting as a mode of instruction: Adam and Eve represented the old Adam who sinned, and Christ, the new Adam, redeemed the victims of original sin. The synagogue paintings were also art serving to instruct, and since they date before the “house church” was built, the Christians probably borrowed the idea of using art for religious education from the Jews. One synagogue painting shows the prophet Samuel anointing David as the future king of Israel while his six older brothers look on. Samuel towers over David and his brothers who are all the same height, though David’s status is marked by the purple toga that he wears like a Roman emperor. The figures face the onlooker, fixing him with an intense gaze, and they seem to float in air. This frontality and weightlessness is even more pronounced in the sacrificial scenes that were painted and carved in the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods in Dura. By contrast, the art in the Christian baptistery has not quite abandoned the classical tradition. The “Christ the Good Shepherd” figure recalls a classical type; among the archaic sculpture found on the Athenian Acropolis there is an example, the dedication of Rhonbos showing a man carrying a lamb on his shoulders. The Dura finds make it clear that the features associated with early medieval art—two-dimensional, weightless figures in frontal poses—developed independently of Christianity, and that their inspiration came from the Middle East.

Early Christian Art

Apart from the “house church” at Dura-Europos, examples of early Christian art come from the catacombs: underground cemeteries hewn from the rock-like tunnels for mines. The cata-combs were not solely Christian—the Jewish catacombs in Rome antedate the Christian ones—nor are they only in Rome: there are also catacombs in Naples, Syracuse in Sicily, and Alexandria. Christians, like Jews, did not cremate their dead, which was the prevailing custom in the pagan world until the later second century C.E., and the catacombs provided burial places that a Christian of modest means could afford. Most of the catacomb burials are later than 313 C.E. when Christianity was made legal by the so-called “Edict of Milan,” and so the old romantic notion of persecuted Christian believers gathering secretly for worship in the catacombs must be abandoned. The dead were placed in niches (loculi) stacked one above the other like shelves lining the underground galleries, and in various places small rooms (cubicula) cut out of the rock served as funerary chapels. The paintings in the loculi and particularly in the cubicula are our earliest examples of Christian art. The style is similar to contemporary pagan art, though there is a charming naivete about the pictures. They are narrative art but they have an educational purpose: they give instruction in the Christian faith. Christ is usually shown either as a teacher or as the Good Shepherd, caring for his flock of sheep. In the early drawings he is depicted as a young man and beardless; he might pass for a young pagan god. The figure of Christ as a mature man with a full beard developed only later in Constantinople in the fifth century, and perhaps it reflects the impression made by Phidias’ great gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia when it was taken to Constantinople after the temple was closed by imperial decree in 391. The catacomb paintings were executed by journeymen painters who worked quickly in poor light, surrounded by decaying corpses, and they are not great art. They borrow heavily from the classical tradition. Yet their general aim was instruction in Christian piety, and though occasionally figures from classical mythology appear if they can be linked in some way with Christian teaching, the subjects are usually stories that convey a message from the Old and New Testaments.


Idealism and Realism

In modern society, photographic equipment makes it easy to capture images of one’s self and one’s family in portraits, and the ease with which such pictures can be created tends to devalue their significance. The absence of such technology in the Greek and Roman world, however, made the creation of portraits a very important and significant act that was generally done for a motive beyond the capturing of an image. In the sixth century B.C.E., victorious athletes in Greece were commemorated with portrait statues which presented an idealized picture of vigorous youth, though there was a degree of realism as well. Idealism was the hallmark of Greek portraiture because the motive of the portrait artist was not to portray an exact likeness—warts and all—but rather an impression of a real individual as an exemplar of vigor, intellectual power, or heroic virtue or the like. This motivation did not quite hold true for the Romans, however, as portraiture had a practical purpose. A Roman kept imagines—images usually of wax—in the atrium or living room of his house as the visible record of his ancestors and of his own social status. They were exact likenesses, and they set the standard for Roman portraiture. Early Roman portraiture can be realistic to the point of homeliness. However, once Rome was ruled by emperors, from the time of Augustus (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.) onwards, imperial portraiture was used to convey a message of power. Yet the Roman portrait, whether of an emperor or an ordinary citizen, always portrayed an individual with a distinctive appearance, and this taste for realism survived even into the early Byzantine period.

Portraiture in Classical Greece

A bust of the Athenian statesman Pericles, the architect of the Athenian Empire, has survived in a Roman copy. The original was a bronze statue by the sculptor Cresilas, erected in Athens after Pericles’ death in 429 B.C.E. The date is important, for there was a prejudice against portraits of living men. The great Phidias who made the gold-and-ivory statue of Athena Parthenos for the Parthenon, smuggled a likeness of Pericles into his design for the shield of Athena and was apparently driven into exile for it. While the original is lost, the marble bust is a good copy and shows an idealized Pericles. Any blemishes he may have had were removed and the helmet he always wore hid his peaked skull. The helmet also marked him as a general, for during his years of power he was elected year after year to the influential Board of Ten Generals. Without the helmet, this portrait of Pericles would pass for the image of a god. Portraits in fifth-century Greece were intended to flatter, although this was not the case in the following century. No original portrait from the fourth century B.C.E. survived, but to judge from Roman copies representing Plato, it seems that the aim of the sculptor was to portray him not so much as an individual as a typical philosopher. Pliny the Elder reported that the Sicyonian school of sculpture experimented with realism and that Lysistratus, the brother of the famous Lysippus of Sicyon, made a likeness from an actual face. Lysistratus was probably the first artist to ask his subject to sit for his portrait so he could sculpt what he saw, whether it was flattering or not. Pliny’s evidence has been disbelieved by some art historians, but there is evidence of a greater taste for individualism in portrait sculpture in the Hellenistic world, though it is far from the uncompromising realism found in Egypt and later in Rome.

Portraiture in the Hellenistic World

In the Hellenistic world after Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C.E., there were two rival traditions in portraiture. One carried on the classical tradition. Like Cresilas’s portrait of Pericles, it sought to idealize. Alexander the Great’s portraits are a case in point. Alexander had his favorite artists: Lysippus for sculpture, Apelles for painting, and the gem cutter Pyrgoteles for his seal engravings. It is likely that the many sculptures depicting Alexander take their inspiration from portraits that he himself approved. They show Alexander with his head bent slightly to the left, directing his gaze above the spectator as if he were looking into the distance, or perhaps a distant future, and they emphasize Alexander’s physical beauty and youth. The portrait is of an individual, but in 324 B.C.E. Alexander demanded that the city-states recognize him officially as a god, and his portraits have a god-like quality about them. About 280 B.C.E. a statue in Athens by the sculptor Polyeuctus of the orator Demosthenes made no effort to idealize Demosthenes, and art historians have pointed to it as a landmark in the development of realistic portraiture. This assertion must be tempered, however, with the reality that the statue was made some forty years after Demosthenes’ death by an artist who probably never saw Demosthenes in his lifetime. Even so, he showed Demosthenes as he should have looked, not as he did. The statue of Demosthenes has the body of an old man, slightly stooped, and he clasps his hands nervously in front of him; his face is lined and his expression is sober, almost melancholy, as if he was apprehensive of the future, reflecting, perhaps, Athens’ approaching defeat by Macedon.

Portraits of the Imagination

While it cannot be determined how true to life the portrait of Demosthenes is, it is reasonably certain that portraits were produced in this period which were not true to life at all; they portray real individuals, but they are purely imaginary. This is a period in the history of portrait art when sculptors produced “portraits” of authors who were long-since dead, which could be set up in libraries. Homer’s portrait is a case in point. No one knew what Homer actually looked like, but the portrait sculptor started with some preconceived notions: Homer was a dignified old man of genius, and he was blind. The finished portrait fits the conception. Yet what was remarkable about it is its individualism. This portrait was not simply the portrayal of a poet-type; it depicts an individual, and copies of it are immediately recognizable. Homer’s hairline is receding and he wears a fillet or head-band which partly disguises it. The lines on his forehead suggest great intellectual power. He wears a full beard, denoting maturity, and his eyes are arresting under his beetling brows. This portrait was an imaginative creation, but it was one that the Greeks could accept as a representation of what Homer actually looked like.

Roman Portraiture

Romans kept imagines (portraits) of their distinguished ancestors in the main rooms of their houses. They were usually made of wax from death-masks of the departed ancestor, and when a Roman died, these imagines were carried in the funeral procession so that a Roman was buried in the presence of his ancestors. His genealogy was put on public display, and the longer it was, the better it was for his social and political standing. If any such imagines existed in the houses buried by the ash and lava from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. they were unfortunately melted by the heat. A fourth-style wall painting from a Pompeian house has yielded a wedding portrait, however. It shows a man and a woman, the man holding a scroll and the woman a stylus and a writing tablet known as a pugillaris, two small thin wooden boards hinged at one side so that they could be folded over and their inner surfaces covered with a layer of wax on which a message could be written. The scroll, stylus, and pugillaris are all stage setting: they are intended to portray the man and wife as an educated couple who read books and wrote letters. The faces of the man and woman are photographic likenesses, done with such startling realism that we could recognize them if we met them on the street. The man transfixes us with his gaze; the woman gazes off to one side with a look of infinite sadness. There must have been many portraits like this in the Roman Empire. From the second and first centuries B.C.E. a number of Roman portraits depict their subjects with uncompromising realism. The wrinkles and other blemishes that come with advancing age are clearly marks of honor. This attitude towards portrait art owes little to Greece. Rather it draws its inspiration from the imagines of the ancestors, which Romans kept in their houses. This realistic tradition continued into the first century C.E. and, in fact, never died. Yet by the mid-first century C.E., the completely uncompromising realism of the earlier age was no longer in fashion. Many Romans no longer displayed masks of their ancestors in the atriums. The historian Pliny the Elder makes a grumpy complaint in his Natural History about the new custom of decorating rooms with pictures of athletes from the gymnasium or the arena rather than family portraits. An imposing array of family portraits went along with lengthy genealogies, and the demographic changes in the Roman Empire from the first century C.E. onwards resulted in persons with very short genealogies rising to power and wealth. The portrait artist could pick and choose from the styles of the past, and eclecticism was the vogue.

The Imperial Portraits of Augustus

The emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), who restored peace to Italy after a half-century of civil war and political turmoil, was very conscious of the fact that his reign was a new beginning for the Roman Empire. His portraits reflected this new era by seeking inspiration in classical Greece, the age before the Hellenistic monarchies, when the city-states (Sparta excepted) were little republics. He adapted the art of classical Greece to Roman uses. One famous statue of Augustus that was found at the villa of his wife Livia at Prima Porta just north of Rome shows him in full armor, with one arm raised in the gesture of an army commander addressing his troops. The body beneath the armor conforms to the Canon of Polyclitus which outlined proportions for sculpture in the classical period. Augustus, who in real life did not have an impressive physique, had his statue conform to the proportions of Polyclitus’ Diadoumenos, a muscular youth adjusting his headband. The face of the Prima Porta statue is easily recognized because it has the high cheekbones and hairstyle of Augustus. Augustus was shown in two other ways as well. He was portrayed as a priest, wearing a toga with a cowl, for Roman priests covered their heads when they sacrificed to the gods. He was also shown as a youth: a young man who was leading in a new age. Augustus’ portraits never aged, nor did those of his wife, Livia, though her hairstyles changed with the fashion. Like the famous portrait of Pericles by Cresilas, the portraits of Augustus showed him as no ordinary man.

Changing Fashions

Portrait styles changed in 69 C.E. with the ascension of Vespasian as the new emperor. He had none of the aristocratic background of the previous dynasty, the Julio-Claudian family that became extinct with the suicide of the emperor Nero in 68 C.E., and though he was sensitive about the peasant origins of his family, known as the Flavians, he was wise enough to know that he should make a clean break with the Julio-Claudians. His portraits therefore returned to the realist tradition of Roman republican portraiture. They show him with receding hairline and the leathery skin of an old soldier who knows what life in the military camps is like. His portraits were numerous; this was a great age of portraiture when people of all ages, not just old men, had portrait sculptures made. One marble bust of a woman of the Flavian period, which is now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, should be noted as an example of Flavian style, even if it is not an imperial portrait. The face and the long neck are modelled softly, and the sculptor managed to portray the texture of the skin by the polish of the marble. The woman’s coiffure is a mass of tight curls piled up above her forehead. The sculptor used a drill rather than a chisel to sculpt the curls, a trend that became more common as sculptors used the drill more and more, particularly for hair and beards. The surprising element of this particular bust is that the coiffure is, in fact, a wig. It can be lifted off the bust and replaced by another. In an age when hairstyles changed, this was an efficient way of keeping the bust up to date.

Imperial Portraiture in Troubled Times

With the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 C.E.) the long period of peace that the empire had enjoyed came abruptly to an end. There were grim times ahead, and imperial portraiture conveyed a new message of suffering and sadness. A relief sculpture of Marcus Aurelius that once adorned a lost imperial arch shows him bearded after the style of the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 C.E.) who had worn a beard to hide scars on his face. Marcus’ face is that of a care-worn man. His eyes are incised rather than merely painted, creating a melancholy effect that no doubt was a window to his soul. The sense of sadness is even greater in the portrait of a short-lived emperor, Decius (r. 249-251 C.E.), in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. He is balding and what is left of his hair is clipped short. The sculptor made no effort to flatter. His gaze is fixed upwards, as if he hoped for help from above. If so, the help failed to arrive, for Decius died in a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Goths. After 268 C.E., when the empire began to revive under a succession of emperors from Illyria (modern Croatia and Serbia), first Claudius Gothicus (r. 268-270 C.E.) and then Aurelian (r. 270-275 C.E.), the emperors are shown as men of action with several days’ growth of beard. Realism increased to the point of brutalism. The emperors are shown as tough and effective rather than handsome.

The Loss of Individuality

A great political change occurred at the end of the third century C.E. In 284 C.E. a soldier from Illyria named Diocles was elected emperor by the Roman army. He immediately changed his name to Diocletian and chose a colleague, a fellow soldier named Maximian, to share the imperial office. A few years later, he chose two more junior colleagues, naming them “Caesars.” So the empire was ruled by a committee of emperors, two bearing the title “Augustus” with one of them, Diocletian, senior to the other, and two with the title of “Caesar.” This tetrarchy (the rule of four men) lasted until 305 C.E., when Diocletian retired and persuaded his colleague, Maximian, to retire as well. At San Marco Cathedral in Venice there is a remarkable group portrait of the tetrarchs that captures the spirit of the new age. It is made of porphyry, a hard reddish granite from Egypt which, because of its dark crimson color, was considered particularly fitting for representing emperors. The tetrarchs are each shown embracing another with one arm; with the other arm each grasps his sword. They have larger, cubical heads on squat, shapeless bodies. This sculpture group represents the tetrarchy as an office rather than a group of individuals. The sculptural form is less important than the message it conveys. The same spirit, too, informs a colossal portrait of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, who united the Roman Empire under his rule in 323 C.E. and founded a new capital, Constantinople, the next year. The portrait, which is in Rome in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, is over two and a half meters (8.2 feet) tall, and it is what remains of a seated statue, over nine meters (30 feet) in height, that has a core of brick, a wooden torso covered with bronze, and head and limbs of marble. The face is a mask. Enormous eyes are set into the broad planes of the face. The eyes stare beyond the onlooker as if their gaze is fixed on Heaven where resides the ultimate authority. This is an image of power and Christian faith, and the message that it conveys almost overwhelms the human individualism of the portrait.

Painted Portraits

Few of the imperial portraits survived to modern times, except for marble sculptures. While portraits were also painted on wood in hot, colored wax, only one such rendering exists today: a portrait of the family of the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 C.E.). These wooden portraits were sent to the far corners of the empire and set up in public places when a new emperor ascended the throne. The best examples of portraits come from Roman Egypt. They are mummy portraits painted on wooden panels and placed over the face of the corpse that is then wrapped in long bands of white linen. The portrait painters used the encaustic technique, mixing their pigments with hot wax and then applying them to the smooth surface of the wooden panel. The dry climate of Egypt has preserved the wood and the colors have not faded. The faces show the man or woman in the prime of life. They were probably painted some years before the time of death. There are no side-views or three-quarters views; the pose is always frontal, and the eyes transfix the viewer with a sober, almost melancholy gaze, conveying a sense of spirituality. Their eyes are windows to their souls. Hundreds of these portraits have been found in the Fayum province of Egypt west of the Nile River, and they date mostly from the second and third centuries C.E. They show how portrait painting developed in the Roman Empire in the years following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. It is interesting to compare them with imperial portraits of the same period. The medium is different and these portraits from the Fayum portray ordinary people, not emperors. Yet one can detect a similarity in spirit. Both suggest that the everyday life with its troubles and turmoil is not all there is to life.

Forerunners of the Art of Illumination

The troubled third century produced another type of portrait: miniatures on glass set against a gold-leaf background. One exquisite example has survived which bears the signature of the artist: Boumeris. He is otherwise unknown. His portrait group shows a mother and two children, a girl and a boy, painted on a glass roundel (a round object) four inches (10.16 centimeters) in diameter. The portrait, dating to about 230 C.E., shows the mother and her children full-face and unsmiling. Another example, which is unsigned, shows a man painted in a roundel 2.7 inches (6.86 centimeters) in diameter. This is exquisite work, and only the well-to-do could afford portraits such as this one. They are, however, forerunners of the art of illuminating texts and paintings printed on vellum which is one of the glories of art in the Middle Ages.



The beginnings of Greek mosaic art occurred before the middle of the fourth century B.C.E., and all the early examples are pebble mosaics, in which pebbles of different colors are laid in mortar. In Olynthus, a Greek city on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, there are some fine pebble mosaics in the dining rooms of private houses which were built in the last quarter of the fifth century B.C.E., though the mosaics may not have been laid at the time of construction. However, in 348 B.C.E., King Philip II of Macedon destroyed Olynthus, so the mosaics cannot be dated later than that. They show scenes taken from mythology; one scene shows Dionysus, the god of wine, riding a chariot pulled by leopards and surrounded by a following of maenads and satyrs. The pebbles used are white and black. White figures are shown against a black background, and art historians have pointed out the similarity to red-figure vase painting in which the figures are red against a black background. From these beginnings, the technique developed rapidly.

The Pella Mosaics

Pella, the capital of Macedon which was rebuilt on a grand scale by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip, has yielded mosaics that mark the high development of pebble mosaic. In addition to black-and-white patterns, there are now mosaics using colored pebbles, though the range of colors is still limited. The basic pattern of white figures against a dark background remains unchanged, but details are modeled using small pebbles that are packed tightly together, while fine strips of terracotta and lead mark the contour lines with the figures, and there is skillful use of colored pebbles. One mosaic from Pella shows a lion hunt with white pebbles for the body of the lion, grey and pale blue to set off muscles and shadows, brown and yellow for the hair, and strips of lead or terracotta to mark the contour lines. Another mosaic from Pella shows two young hunters, both wearing the cloak known as the chlamys but otherwise naked, hunting a stag. The mosaic craftsman used different shades of pebbles for the bodies of the two hunters, and for their hair he used yellow pebbles. The tongue of the stag is shown in red. The craftsman’s skill is extraordinary.

Tessellated Mosaics

The art of the mosaic did not come into its own until mosaicists began to use bits of marble and stone cut, more or less, into cubes and fitted closely together in a bed of mortar. These small pieces of marble or colored stone were calledtesseras, and the mosaics made from them were called opus tessallatum. Tesseras had a range of colors which pebbles lacked, and if they were cut into tiny pieces and set together closely enough, the mosaic could give the impression of a painting. This new technique sometimes went by the Latin name of opus vermiculatum, and probably began in Alexandria, the capital of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, but it was embraced enthusiastically by the kingdom of Pergamum. It was the fashion to use opus vermiculatum to make what were called emblemata (singular: emblema)—panels imitating paintings—which the mosaicist could make in his workshop and then insert into the floor of a room, in its center, and surround it with coarser mosaic work. Mosaic artists were not so much creative artists, however, as they were humble craftsmen who executed designs given to them, and ancient literature mentions the name of only one of them: Sosus, who worked at Pergamum. He was known for a famous mosaic that was often imitated. It portrayed a floor with the appearance of being littered with the leavings of a banquet that the banqueters have thrown on it. The central panel, or emblema, shows doves sitting on a bowl, drinking from it and preening themselves. The motif was often repeated, with modifications. There are examples of the motif from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and there is a particularly fine example from the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli outside Rome, which is so well done with tiny tesseras that art historians have wondered if it could be Sosus’ original. Though ancient literature mentions only one great mosaic artist, some of the mosaics themselves bear signatures. Someone called Gnosis, for instance, signed the pebble mosaic of the stag hunt from Pella. The mosaic craftsmen were proud of their art.

Mosaics for the Middle Classes

By the second century B.C.E., mosaic floors were no longer the preserve of princes. They were the decorative flooring of middle-class homes. Evidence for their ubiquity comes from the houses found on the island of Delos in the southern Aegean Sea. For a period between 166 and 69 B.C.E., there was an economic boom on Delos, for Rome had made her a free port, and she rapidly developed as a trading center, particularly for the slave trade. The private houses found there belonged to traders and merchants who settled there during the boom. Mosaics are to be found in every room of these houses, not just in the dining room. This was the sort of mosaic art which the Romans encountered when they came to Greece. In fact, among the merchants living on Delos were a group from Italy, and some of the houses there with elegant mosaics may have belonged to them. When archaeologists excavated Pompeii and Herculaneum, cities buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., it is not surprising that they found a rich collection of mosaics.

The Mosaics of Pompeii

The House of the Dancing Faun, so called because of a dancing faun in the middle of its atrium or main room, is the largest house in Pompeii, taking up a whole city block. When it was excavated in 1831, it turned out to be a treasure trove of mosaics. Mosaic subjects include a lion, three doves pulling a necklace from a casket that was an adaptation of Sosus’ famous mosaic, and a cat attacking a hen. On the floor of a room off the atrium is one of the greatest mosaics to survive. It reproduces a painting of the Battle of Issus where Alexander the Great met the king of Persia, Darius III, for the first time and defeated him. The painting that the mosaicist copied must have been famous, and art historians have made various guesses as to what it was and who executed it. A painter named Philoxenus of Eretria is known to have painted a “Battle of Issus,” and so did a female painter, Helena of Egypt. There have been suggestions, too, that the painter was the great Apelles himself. The painting depicts the moment when Darius flees from the battlefield. Alexander charges from the left, thrusting his long lance towards Darius. Darius is masterfully executed; he turns toward Alexander with panic in his face, while his charioteer lashes the horses. In the middle of the picture, the painter has shown a horse from the rear, which a Persian rider is trying to pull out of the way of the deadly Macedonian charge. The original painting was done with the four-color palette favored by fourth-century artists who created their colors by mixing red, yellow, white and black pigments, but the craftsman who made his mosaic did not have that luxury: he had only tiny tesseras of different colors at his disposal and he had to juxtapose them with infinite care to get the right effect. It is estimated that one and a half million tesseras were used to produce this mosaic. It is likely that this mosaic was not actually made in Pompeii, but was shipped from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean in several sections and reassembled in Pompeii. It may have been prefabricated for a Roman customer by a mosaic workshop in the Hellenistic east, but more likely it was a mosaic that had already been laid in the east and was lifted and shipped to Italy in sections where it was reassembled. Probably it came to Italy as plunder from the east. A close examination of the mosaic supports this argument, for it is possible to find mistakes made in reassembling it such as incomplete figures. Mosaics were among the works of art that the Roman armies looted when they operated in Greece in the second and first centuries B.C.E., but not all mosaics from the east came to Italy as spoils of war. Some were made for paying customers in Italy. This was probably true of two mosaics found in Pompeii in the so-called House of Menander, showing scenes from the comedies the playwright Menander. Each is signed by Dioscurides from Samos off the southwest coast of Turkey, and each is set in a marble tray so it could be transported easily.

Mosaics in Roman Italy

The mosaics of Roman Italy from the latter part of the first century to the third favor silhouette designs. There is an example from Pompeii itself, from the “House of the Tragic Poet,” which has a silhouette mosaic in black and white in the vestibule showing a snarling dog straining at his leash, and the words “CAVE CANEM”—”Beware the dog!”. It is, however, in Ostia Antica (“Old Ostia”) that the best black-and-white mosaics are found. Ostia, situated at the mouth of the Tiber River, was an unsatisfactory port, but the emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 C.E.) attempted to improve it and make it possible for grain ships to unload their cargoes there. His harbor works soon silted up, however, and the commercial buildings and baths in Old Ostia were deserted as business moved to a new port built by the emperor Trajan north of the Tiber river mouth. The “Baths of Neptune” in Ostia still have a well-preserved black-and-white mosaic showing Neptune driving his sea-horses across a floor filled with marine creatures. The figures are distributed freely over the floor; the old Hellenistic practice still found at Pompeii of placing a framed picture, or emblema, in the center of the floor had been abandoned. Mosaics of this black-and-white style remained popular in Italy until the third century when color crept back in.

The Roman Provinces

The black silhouette mosaics of the sort found in Ostia were never very popular in the western Roman provinces and they were not at all popular in the Roman East, where the traditions of Hellenistic mosaics were strong. The exception was Greece, which had suffered greatly in the civil wars of the first century B.C.E. The market for mosaics collapsed during this time, and mosaic workshops in Greece went out of business. When the market recovered in the second century C.E., the mosaic artists looked to Italy for their inspiration. Elsewhere, the provinces developed their own traditions. Excavations at Antioch, the capital of Roman Syria (modern Antakya in Turkey), in the 1930s revealed a splendid group of mosaics which were unaffected by styles in Italy. The mosaic artists of Antioch loved color; the black-and-white mosaics of Italy had no appeal. Scenes from mythology were still as popular as they were in the Hellenistic period when they were used as emblemata framed in the center of mosaic floors. The chief difference is that the emblemata became larger, so that they took over much of the floor space, and the framing around them became narrower and less important. Roman Africa also developed its own style. Few mosaics have been found in country villas there, though that may be an accident of archaeology, for not many country villa ruins have been explored in Roman Africa. The town houses, however, have yielded an astonishing array of mosaics. Polychrome mosaics were particularly popular. One favorite pattern was the “floral style,” where vine or ivy tendrils and flowers were arranged in geometric patterns. One fine example from El Djem in Tunisia, belonging to the second half of the third century C.E., shows grapevines growing out of urns in each corner and spreading over the whole floor. In the center there is a small picture framed in a hexagon which shows old Silenus, the perpetually intoxicated follower of the wine god, Dionysus, sprawled on a couch, playing with children. Another popular type of mosaic shows scenes distributed freely over the surface of the floor as they were in the Italian black-and-white mosaics. From the mid-second century C.E. an increasing number of scenes were taken from the amphitheater. Such scenes show wild-beast hunts where gladiators armed with spears faced savage beasts like leopards and bears, or criminals being thrown to them to be torn apart in the Roman arena. The expense of producing these duels between gladiators and wild beasts was heavy, and the mosaics sometimes commemorate the generosity of wealthy citizens who paid the bill out of their own pockets.

The Mosaics from Piazza Armerina

One of the most extensive African-style mosaics was found not in Africa but in central Sicily, at Piazza Armerina. The villa at Piazza Armerina is a vast, sprawling structure which seems to be a great hunting lodge built at the end of the third or the beginning of the fourth century C.E. Some scholars conjecture that it was built for the use of the emperor Maximian, the colleague of Diocletian from 286 to 305 C.E., who retired without enthusiasm when Diocletian did and presumably sought peace and quiet there. The floors are covered with polychrome mosaics in the style of Roman Africa. Experts generally agree that the mosaic craftsmen who made them came from Carthage, on the edge of modern Tunis. Some show the fauna that was fodder for the amphitheaters—including lions, tigers, elephants, and ostriches—being caught and shipped, presumably to Rome, while others depict the amusements in the arenas and the hippodromes. One mosaic shows a chariot race, with the charioteers competing under their colors which indicated their teams: the Reds, Whites, Blues, and Greens. Another mosaic shows scantily-clad girls playing a kind of water polo, for one of the popular spectacles called for the orchestras of theaters to be made water-tight and then filled with water so that girls wearing bikini-type bathing suits could put on a water show.

Wall Mosaics

Sometime about the middle of the first century C.E. Romans began to put mosaics on their walls. The owner of one up-to-date house in Herculaneum, the so-called House of the Neptune and Amphitrite Mosaic, had wall mosaics installed not long before Herculaneum was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. In Pompeii, a house owner used mosaic to decorate a small fountain. Mosaics were particularly suitable for areas that were damp, such as ornamental fountains and public baths, where painted plaster would quickly mildew. Most of the wall mosaics of ancient Rome were destroyed when the buildings they once decorated were ruined, and the best wall mosaics belong to Christian churches. There are splendid examples in Ravenna, the last capital of the Western Roman Empire before the last emperor was dethroned in 476 C.E. The little mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the sister of the incapable emperor Honorius (395-423 C.E.) who provided what imperial rule there was for the Roman Empire in the middle of the fifth century, has its interior walls covered with mosaics. One portrays St. Lawrence approaching the hot griddle where he would suffer martyrdom, his flesh roasted while he was still alive, and another, in the lunette above the entrance, shows a popular Christian design: Christ the Good Shepherd looking after his sheep. Christ sits in a naturalistic landscape that extends to a background beneath a blue sky. The mosaic belongs to the classical artistic tradition, which was still strong at Ravenna when the mausoleum was built about 425 C.E. Yet its days were numbered. As the sixth century began, the Church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was being built in Ravenna, and its mosaics belong to world of Byzantine art. A mosaic of the “Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” shows Christ wearing imperial robes, facing the onlooker, dominating the center of the picture while on either side are two disciples. The background is gold, symbolizing the splendor of Heaven. Henceforth gold became the background of choice for mosaics.

The Last of the Ravenna Mosaics

At Ravenna, there are two famous mosaics which mark the transition from the artistic traditions of the classical world to the new world of Byzantine art. In the Church of San Vitale, which was dedicated in 547 C.E., there are mosaics on the walls on either side of the chancel, one of which shows the great emperor Justinian and his entourage about to enter the church for the dedication ceremony; on the other wall is the empress Theodora, the ex-actress whom Justinian married, standing in the courtyard of the Church of San Vitale, surrounded by her attendants. The mosaic dates to 547 or shortly before, and was probably made in Constantinople; the next year, in 548 C.E., Theodora died of cancer. The figures are in procession, filing into the church, and they are not shown in profile; instead they face the viewer and gaze at him. Theodora’s eyes are particularly arresting. Yet the figures are still to some degree three-dimensional and the portraits of the emperor and empress show them as real individuals. The classical tradition in art is fading but its influence is not yet dead.