It was in the second century B. C. that growing wealth at Rome, vast territorial power, and the influence of the Greek Macedonian and Greek Asiatic states brought about the first decided break with the old conservative traditions and with the old Roman indifference to art for its own sake. After the destruction of Corinth by the Roman general Mummius (146 B.C.) enormous numbers of Greek statues were carried off to Rome. A certain number of the famous statues of the modern Italian museums doubtless found their way to Italy at this time. Greek philosophy and Greek literature were cultivated with more and more attention. It was above all the general luxury, refinement, and ease of living in the Alexandrine states which made headway at Rome and which involved that interest in art which is often professed by the man of wealth as a matter of display and ostentation, or at least of necessary fashion. The Greek art of the mother country was at this time itself in a condition of relative decadence, not of productivity or technical capacity, but of simplicity of taste and grandeur of style. In sculpture the taste of the Roman therefore affected the realistic tendencies and minute technical perfection of the Medici Venus and of the Dying Gaul, of the Laocoon group, the Belvedere Torso, and similar works. In the statues of Greek subjects which began to be made more and more in Italy two tendencies were therefore apparent, either that minute and sometimes over-anxious attention to minor details, which is natural to the taste of the amateur and the dilettante, or else a multiplication of copies of some given type in the rapid and mechanical execution of the artisan or stone cutter. It must be remembered that most of the statues from which we derive our knowledge of Greek art were such copies made during the Roman imperial period or in the time of the late republic. At all events the multiplication of the Greek mythological subjects in sculpture through all the western territories of the empire was one result of its existence.
In spite of the qualifications which a conscientious critic must make as to the productions of Roman-Greek art in face of the Parthenon marbles and similar works, an amazing degree of real beauty and of pure artistic taste continued to assert itself in these later days. This is especially apparent in the collections of the Naples Museum, which coming so largely from two excavated towns of the first century A.D. (Herculaneum and Pompeii), are a fair test of the taste of Southern Italy at this time. Both of these places, it must however be remembered, had been Greek colonies originally.
It must be said in general that the Roman imperial art was most successful in the purest sense when it was least pretentious and least ostentatious. The small bronze statuettes of Pompeii and Herculaneum are examples of this point.
In decorative art, whether of utensils and furniture, or the sculptured carving of public buildings, or the painted frescoes of ordinary domestic houses, the highest perfection of taste was displayed. The painted frescoes of the Pompeiian houses in the Naples Museum are an inexhaustible mine of vigorous design and beautiful conception, but always of a playful and sportive rather than of a serious taste.
A characteristic and native expression was found in the Roman portrait sculpture. The art of portraiture was not affected by the Greeks, whose sculpture was originally devoted to religious purposes, and rarely abandoned its traditions on this point, but the practical, businesslike and common sense nature of the Roman found its own peculiar expression in portrait sculpture, and achieved its best original work in this department.
It is especially, however, in architecture that the independent greatness of the Roman was apparent. In this practical and necessary art he has left astounding evidences of his boldness, firmness, and grandeur of character, and also of his attention to the material comfort and healthful lives of large masses of city population.