Masterpieces of Ancient Roman Art after 100 C.E.

A tour to see the remarkable art and architecture of the ancient Roman empire

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture.

 Forum and Markets of Trajan, 112 C.E.

Trajan was an enormously popular emperor (Romans called Trajan “the best first citizen”). In the heart of Rome he built a huge market and forum (a civic space) and this is what remains today.

Imagine away the modern streets and picture a vast space surrounded by columns and in the center an equestrian sculpture of the emperor (on a horse). Imagine the space decorated with sculptures, and with floors made of colored marbles brought from various parts of the empire.

The Markets of Trajan

Here are the Markets of Trajan—a multi level commercial space for shops and offices. Architecture on this scale would have been impossible without the use of concrete, which the Romans perfected (here we see concrete faced with bricks).

The Column of Trajan, 113 C.E.

A tall marble column sits in Trajan’s forum. From here it’s hard to tell it’s covered in relief sculpture that was once brightly painted. The sculpture illustrates Trajan’s military campaigns—and we see frequent scenes of combat, but also Roman soldiers building and fortifying camps.

 Interior, Markets of Trajan

We’ve stepped inside the light-filled main hall of the Markets of Trajan, which is today a beautiful museum.

It’s thanks to the Roman’s use of concrete that the space can be so high and wide (no columns are needed to support the ceiling). The Markets of Trajan has space for 150 shops, and despite the fact that its built into the side of a cliff, light fills the space.

Vaulting, Markets of Trajan

Look up to see a kind of vaulting (ceiling) the Romans used—the groin vault, and inside the shops to the right or left, you see barrel vaults. These are formed of concrete set into a wooden framework and allowed to harden.

Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy

We’re standing in one of the most beautiful places within the Villa built by the Emperor Hadrian (a villa is a country house built for the wealthy).

This is no ordinary villa however—it encompasses many buildings, gardens and water features and was made from the most luxurious materials that could be found in the Roman Empire. Many of the buildings were designed by Hadrian himself who ruled from 117 until his death in 138 C.E.

Looking to the north end of the Canopus

We’re standing beside a man-made lake that was once surrounded by graceful columns carrying lintels (horizontals) or arches. The Canopus also featured a terraced garden, and on platforms at either end stood sculptures. It must have been astoundingly beautiful and impressive in the 2nd century C.E.  

The south end of the Canopus

The half-domed structure is the Serapaeum, a banqueting area behind which was a fountain. Now imagine this covered in different colored marble. What an experience it must have been to dine with the Emperor in this luxurious space.

Equestrian Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius

We’re standing in a room in the Capitoline Museums built to house the bronze Equestrian sculpture of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. “Equestrian” refers to a figure on a horse—a type of sculpture that the Romans favored.

This is the only equestrian sculpture of its size that survives from antiquity. In the middle ages, this figure was believed to be Constantine, the Roman Emperor who made it legal to practice Christianity—and so the bronze was not melted down and reused.

Looking closer: Equestrian Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius

This sculpture, covered in a layer of gold, must have been quite a sight almost 2000 years ago. The emperor extends his arm as if addressing his troops. Look at the horse’s muscles and the way it turns its head and opens its mouth.

Looking closer, part 2

Since we have more than 100 surviving portraits of Marcus Aurelius, art historians have divided them into four “types.” Recent interpretations assert that this is a variant of the Type III portrait, which emerged during the early years of the emperor’s reign.

Fragments from a sculpture of Constantine

Constantine ruled the Roman Empire more than one hundred years after Marcus Aurelius, and you can see a distinct difference in style. Constantine’s face is simplified to convey the idea of an all-powerful ruler. In comparison, Marcus Aurelius looks more human and approachable.

Courtyard, Capitoline Museums, Rome

We’re standing in the courtyard of one of two buildings that make up the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Since the end of the 15th century, these buildings have housed an amazing collection of ancient sculpture.

When you visit the museum, likely the first space you will enter is this courtyard, where the fragments of another colossal sculpture of the emperor Constantine are kept. To give you a sense of scale, the head here is more than 8 feet high.

Colossus of Constantine, c. 312-15, Capitoline Museums, Rome

We see a fragment of an arm (bent at the elbow), the head, a knee, and the right hand. Constantine’s face is simplified and he seems above the world of ordinary human beings and to have divine authority.

The Arch of Constantine, 315 C.E.

We’re standing in front of the Arch of Constantine. Behind it you can see the Colosseum. There were once many arches in Rome like this one. They were usually dedicated to victorious generals or emperors to celebrate a military victory—so they are also called triumphal arches.

After a victory, the most important generals would parade along the streets of Rome with the prisoners and riches that they had captured, and the arch functioned as a lasting reminder of that celebration.

Looking closely at the Arch of Constantine

Most of the sculpture on the Arch was taken from older monuments associated with the golden age of Rome because Constantine wanted to associate himself with that period in history (much the way a politician today might associate himself with great leaders of the past).

Prisoners, Arch of Constantine

The figures we see standing in front of the top story of the arch are sculptures of prisoners likely taken from a monument built by the emperor Trajan. Like so much Roman art, the Arch of Constantine was a form of political propaganda.

Market Gate of Miletus, (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)

We’re looking at Roman architecture from the eastern part of the empire (present day Turkey)— the amazing Market Gate of Miletus. It was brought to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in the early 20th century (a German archaeologist worked on the site).

It was reconstructed from many fragments. What we see today is only about 60% original stonework (and 40% modern materials), and today 3D modeling technology is being used to more accurately restore the structure. 

Looking closer: the Market Gate of Miletus

The Gate was clearly meant to impress visitors to the market. It was built during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. The three arches at the bottom level allowed visitors to enter the market.

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