In this lesson, you’ll explore the legacy of art and architecture from the powerful Roman Empire, which influences our ideas about style to this day. Afterward, you can test your understanding of the ancient world with a quiz.
The Roman Empire was full of some pretty incredible people who changed the world of art and architecture. The innovative techniques and styles of the Romans set standards for beauty, style, and function that we still respect today.
Legacies of Roman Art
Art was a very important part of Roman lives. They decorated their homes, their businesses, and their temples in paintings and large murals made of tiny pieces of stone called mosaics. The Roman art that had the most long-lasting legacy, however, was sculpture. Roman statues were either carved from marble or cast in bronze. Marble was expensive and required real skill to carve, so it indicated social status. Bronze was even more expensive, so it was even more prestigious.
Roman sculpture was very heavily influenced by ancient Greece and was very realistic, meaning it tried to look as true to life as possible. Most temples and important government buildings were covered in reliefs, panels of marble with the backgrounds carved deeply so that the figures stand out in almost 3-dimensions. A series of these panels together told stories and depicted scenes from Roman history or mythology. Roman-style reliefs were very influential throughout Christian history, and reliefs with scenes from the Bible decorate many of the most important and influential cathedrals in the world.
Romans, like the Greeks, studied ideal ratios of the human body based on the golden ratio, a geometric formula for a ratio of 1:1.618. This ratio became the basis for the ideal standard of beauty, which is still used today. Several forms of Roman sculpture had lasting legacies in art. Christian sculptures throughout European history depicted Biblical scenes and people in Roman styles with realistic figures who were modeled in geometric proportions. Even today in the United States, most of our sculptures of presidents, such as the giant statue of Lincoln in Washington D.C., are based on Roman sculpture.
Also, the Romans often made statues in bronze or marble of important generals or leaders on horseback, called an equestrian statue. Equestrian statues were commissioned by generals, emperors, and dictators throughout history who wanted to compare themselves to the powerful Roman Empire.
Legacies of Roman Architecture
If you think Roman art had a lasting legacy, Roman architecture will blow you away. The Romans were some of the greatest architectural innovators and engineers in history. They developed styles and techniques that changed the world. The basis of this profound impact was the arch. Think about all of the arches we see in our world, from bridges to the golden arches over McDonald’s. Before the Romans, nobody really knew how to use the arch as an architectural feature. They are difficult to construct properly because the arch naturally pushes outwards, so it had to be dug into earth or into a very wide wall for support.
The Romans figured out how to use the arch for more than irrigation ditches and used it to build enormous buildings. When used correctly, arches disperse the weight of the ceiling and allow for wider interior spaces. By building two arches that intersected at a perpendicular angle, the Romans invented something even more useful: the dome. A dome roof covers wide spaces while remaining structurally strong.
With the use of the arch and the dome, the Romans were able to create huge buildings that served as temples, meeting places, markets, or courts of law. For the first time, these buildings had lots of natural lighting with windows and high, domed ceilings, and could even be multiple stories tall. Around the first century AD, the Romans built a huge building called the ‘Pantheon,’ a temple to all of the gods, with a 142-foot tall domed roof. Almost 2,000 years later, this is still the largest pure concrete dome in the entire world.
The Romans used the arch and the dome to make huge structures, like the Colosseum. Several styles of Roman buildings are still used today. For example, the basilica was a long Roman building with an elevated platform at each end for judges or for statues. Today, a basilica is a type of Catholic church that is in the same form, except that the platform on the end holds a priest instead of a judge. The early Christians met in basilicas because they were public spaces, and the style of building stuck with them.
Roman engineers used the arch for other projects, as well. Roman aqueducts, long pipes that brought fresh water into the cities, were supported on rows of arches and columns that stretched for hundreds of miles. Without arches to make the support structure strong, but lightweight, this could not have been achieved.
Besides the arch, Romans invented one more thing that made their hundreds of building projects possible: concrete. Today, we take concrete for granted because we use it everywhere. But why do we use it? It’s relatively light, it’s cheap, and you can pour it into any shape you need. Imagine what this invention would mean to ancient people who only had wood, bricks, or stone as building materials. For example, that huge dome on the Pantheon was made of small concrete squares that were poured individually and then set together. Roman concrete changed what was possible in architecture. Now that’s a long-lasting legacy.
The Roman Empire stretched for over a million square miles and was full of art and buildings on a scale that nobody else had been able to achieve until that point. The art and architectural styles and techniques they developed changed what was possible and set standards of form and function that we still respect today.
Things like bronze equestrian statues and marble sculptures can be found all over the world. Roman reliefs, sculptures carved so that the figures stand out from the background, became highly demanded. With influential contributions, like the arch, the dome, and concrete, it suddenly was possible to make gigantic buildings that still had lots of open interior space.
After the Romans mastered their styles of art and architecture, everybody wanted to copy them. There’s a reason our national capital is full of marble statues, like the Lincoln Memorial, and Roman columns with arches. There’s a reason we use concrete so often as a building material. The Romans showed the world how.
Solid knowledge of this lesson’s information could help you to:
- List some of the Roman art forms and innovations that are still valued today
- Explain the role of the golden ratio, and note the use of marble, mosaics and bronze in Roman art
- Discuss the importance of the arch in Roman architecture
- Recall some of the most important contributions Rome made to architecture