Roman History And Roman Art

Some clear conception of the outlines of Roman and therefore of ancient Italian history, is an elementary condition of the study or knowledge of Roman art. But by the word history we must understand here not the list of the Roman kings or the chronicles of Roman wars or battles or the lives of the famous statesmen and emperors, but rather an account of the general conditions of the civilization. To this account the Roman art itself offers the greatest assistance and it is for this reason that we study it ; but there are entire centuries from which monuments are lacking for the Romans themselves, and for which the general conditions of Italian history and civilization must be our guide in resurrecting in imagination that art of the Romans which once summarized and expressed their character.

Broadly speaking, it is not till seven centuries of Roman history have been passed over in imagination that we can mention existing visible remains of its greatness ; and Roman art as we know it is mainly the art of the empire, which belongs to the five centuries between the accession of Augustus (B.C.31) and the chieftainship of Odoacer, the first Germanic ruler of Italy (A.D.476).

It is clear that a history of Roman art is not merely a description of the ruins and relics which have come down to our day. Even for the periods which have been most fortunate in such survivals, the actual remains are a most insignificant and fragmentary portion of those which once existed. They assist us, however, to think of these others as once existing. And so of the periods which have left us practically nothing of the Romans, it also holds that our effort to reconceive them is vastly assisted by what we know of other Italian art, which has been somewhat more fortunate as regards survivals.

But there is still a point to be made in the matter of history as affecting Roman art. The word Roman has most singularly diverse meanings at different times. During the time of the monarchy (750-510 B.C.) it applies at first to a territory about ten miles wide by twenty long. During the later republic and between 275-31 B.C. it includes the whole of Italy. During the time of the empire (B. C. 31-A.D. 476) it includes all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin as well as portions of Britain, Germany, and Hungary. And these changes are not simply changes of area which imply a series of widening conquests of foreign peoples which are ruled from a distance by foreigners to them. The Romans changed in quality, character, and literally in race, as much as the areas of domination changed. The Roman of the fifth century A. D. was any freeman living within the largest boundaries of the state—a Gaul, Briton, Spaniard, North African, Egyptian, Syrian, or Greek—and at this time he was not only Roman in name but also in language (if living in Western Europe), in laws, in rights, and in civilization. The Roman of the times of Marius and Sulla (first century B.C.) was any freeman within the boundaries of Italy—Etruscan, Gaul, or Samnite, as the case might be. The Romans of the time of the early kings did not even include the Latin tribe to which they otherwise belonged and whose language was their own.

It is clear then that the term Roman art is also not a fixed term. It implies also different things at different times. Luckily, however, it assists us to say in every time what the Romans of that time really were.

We must begin then with some general conception of Italy at large in the time when the Roman city was first founded (about 750 B.C.) and also with some conception of the relations of the whole country to the exterior civilization of its time.

In the middle of the eighth century before Christ, ancient Egypt was only two centuries and a quarter distant from final national downfall, with the Persian conquesst, and Assyria had a century less of national existence to run through. The time even of Rome’s foundation was therefore not an early one in ancient history, which dates the Egyptian monarchy to 5000 B. C., and which concedes that the civilization of Chaldea had reached its highest perfection at the time of the great pyramids. For many centuries be-fore Rome’s foundation, Italy had shared with other Mediterranean countries the benefits of Phenician commerce and that is to say that it was very intimately acquainted, at least through trade, with the technical arts and inventions of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. For the Phenicians made their living as merchants and their own civilization was entirely of Egyptian or Assyrian derivation.* Their great colony of Carthage had been founded in North Africa about fifty years before the foundation of Rome, but this was only one of countless settlements which they made along the shores of North and Northwest Africa, of Spain, of Southern France, of Sardinia, and Corsica.

Thus one element of Italian and therefore of Roman art was the Oriental, but this point applies less to style than it does to technical manipulation and the knowledge and uses of materials and tools. In the matter of style we shall observe some Oriental traits in surviving examples of early Italian art, but here rather because of Greek influences, which in early days themselves exhibited an Oriental character. This leads us to consider the influence of the Greeks in Italy as contrasted with that of the Phenicians.

The Greek colonies of Italy were especially numerous around its southern shores, but they reached as high north as Pisa. In Sicily they were especially important. Many of them were flourishing civic states as early as the eighth and seventh centuries B. C., and the Greeks had become very active rivals of Phenician commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean as early as the eighth century.

Italian art, when we first know it, is thus composed of two factors—the Oriental (through Phenician commerce) and the Greek—the Greek having overlaid the Oriental substratum of technical inventions with its own peculiar style, which in its early days had itself an Oriental guise and quality.

The three Italian nations which we know best at the time of Rome’s foundation (aside from the Greek settlers of Italy) are the Samnites, the Etruscans, and the Gauls. They were mainly settled in the order named from south to north. The Gauls were the ruling nation of the Po valley ; the Etruscans were especially strong in modern Tuscany, which is named after them, although they had settlements also in Campania (in the vicinity of Naples).

Among these nations we owe most to the Etruscans for our general knowledge of ancient Italy, in which they were certainly the most highly civilized and powerful native nation. A side from a few walls, tunneled aqueducts, and arches, we know them best from the objects found in their tombs.

Like other ancient nations the Etruscans believed in a life after death, and like other ancient nations, they actually believed that the utensils, ornaments, and surroundings of this life were available for the use of the deceased in the spirit world.* Hence the practice of burying in the tombs so many various objects of daily life, which, as excavated in the last two centuries, now enable us to reconstruct a picture of ancient civilization.

The museums which are especially rich in the objects from Etruscan tombs are those of the Vatican at Rome and of Florence, while many others are in the Louvre at Paris and in the British Museum. These objects are by no means exclusively of Etruscan art and manufacture. Many of them are importations of commerce derived from the Greeks and from the Phenicians, which are significant of the general influences and conditions under which the Italian art developed, as already mentioned. Bronze, silver, and gold vessels, occasionally vases, more frequently saucer-shaped pateras, are embossed and engraved in an Egyptian style and with Egyptian subjects, and were made and sold by the Phenicians. Similar ones found in Cyprus can be seen in the New York Museum and are illustrated in Cesnola’s “Cyprus.” Articles of jewelry of Egypto-Phenician make and style are especially well represented in the Campana Collection of the Louvre and in the Vatican. The Etruscans were themselves great workers in metal, at first under Oriental tutelage, and consequently using Oriental patterns in the pieces of earlier date. Large bronze shields and vessels of their make can be seen in the British Museum. Much more numerous in the modern finds are vessels of black pottery (“Bucchero ware”) with raised patterns imitating the embossed designs of metal. Diminutive vases of opaque polychromatic glass which were used for unguents or perfumes of the toilet were among the objects of Egyptian importation.

Various miscellaneous objects of the above-mentioned classes can be dated to the seventh century B.C. It is not likely that many of those known are older than the eighth. Among the most famous excavated early Etruscan tombs are the ” Regulini-Galassi” tomb at Cervetri and the “Polledrara” tomb at Vulci.

As early at least as the sixth century B. C. Greek influences are very distinct in Etruscan art and were in fact dominant from that time. They are not, however, obvious to an eye accustomed to the perfected Greek style and to a person unaware how thoroughly Oriental in appearance the early Greek art really was. The Cypriote Greek statuettes and figurines of the New York Museum will offer, however, many analogies to the figures shown here in the text. The rude appearance of would only allow us to say that,although in fact Etruscan, it might have been made by any Mediterranean people, imitating Oriental art in a had way ; for if the figure had been Egyptian it might have been equally stiff in posture but it would be far more refined and finished in details. But with Figs. 3 and 4 we have unmistakable Greek traits, although the figures themselves are Etruscan. There is no reason for dating any of these figures earlier than the sixth century B. C., although they represent a style which had existed in Italy for some considerable time before that date. This style continued with some slight improvement in the early fifth century B.C..

We have here a very good illustration, not only of the early Etruscan art, but also of the Greek art of the same time, on which it now became dependent. This statuette is a typical one for Greek and Etruscan style down to the very threshold of the Phidian period. The pose shows Egyptian influences and places the left leg in adance, which is always found in Egyptian statues which place the legs in action. The drapery and gestures of the arms are distinctly early Greek. The bulging eyes would not be found, however, in a Greek piece which had reached the technical perfection of the execution here; and this execution, it should be observed, is by no means rude. The zigzag drapery lines are originally imitations in Greek art from wooden figurines used in shrines, which were dressed in actual stuffs plaited to the figure in a manner thus copied.

On the whole it should be said that very erroneous conclusions as to the general condition of a civilization might be drawn from the odd appearance of such figures. Something is to be attributed to the conservative influence of religious tradition, but it should be remembered that the world did not yet know that perfection of Greek art which has since become commonplace. The Oriental art which had so far ruled the civilized world, and whose influences are still apparent in these illustrations, had reached a high perfection of formal and technical execution, but sculpture as practiced by the Egyptians had not for many centuries deviated from a fixed and motionless conception of the sitting and standing figure and the very perfection of Egyptian civilization co contributed to restrain and formalize at the outset the art of nations which were learning from it.

The early Etruscan surface design (paintings as known from tomb frescoes, and reliefs) exhibits some traits foreign to Greek style and also a general dependence on it. In the relief from Chiusi the exaggeration and contortion of the attitudes are distinctively Etruscan, although the general conception of the art shows certain straining and violence in the attitudes of reliefs is very common in Etruscan art and is well illustrated here. The date is not far from 500 B.C.

We come then finally, as regards the art of design, to that which shows dependence on the perfected style of the Greeks. would be an illustration of this class and, judging from the face, is of a relatively early date—late fifth, or early fourth century B. C. From this time on, Etruscan art is Greek in matter as well as manner, and with such slight deviations from the original that a practiced eye is required to note them. Quite numerous in the museums of Europe are the ladies’ bronze mirrors which are decorated on the back with subjects of Greek myth, and the circular bronze cists which held objects for the toilet are deco-rated in the same fashion.

The most palpable indication of the Greek influences in Etruscan, and there-fore in Italian, art is the very large number of imported Greek painted pottery vases found in the tombs. So numerous are they long prevailed that they were native Etruscan works, and the title of “Etruscan vases” still clings in popular use to them, although not one in a thousand was actually Etruscan work.

The Etruscans were especially famous for their skill in working terra cotta (baked clay) of which many examples survive. In gem cutting they even excelled the Greeks, as far as actual skill in execution is concerned. Their bronze utensils were in request at Athens for artistic workmanship in the best days of Athenian art.

The two most noted existing works of Etruscan art are the life-size bronze wolf of the Capitol Museum in Rome and the large bronze Chimaera in Florence. Their sculptured stone sarcophagi and stone cists (for the ashes of cremated bodies) are quite numerous in several museums, but the decorative reliefs and surmounting reclining figures of these works are generally of rather inferior art and execution.

Finally, we have to mention the Etruscans as engineers and architects. It is here that they must have been most helpful to the Romans. No ruins of Etruscan temples have survived. They are known to have resembled the Greek temples in form and are presumed to have been rather inferior to them in the beauty of detail and of proportions. The Etruscans are credited with devising the cold and formal style of Doric capital which was generally used by the Romans in the time of the empire (when they employed the Doric) and which has been known as the “Tuscan” Order. It has been shown, however, by an American archaeologist, that the so-called Tuscan Doric capital is probably the survival of a very simple and undeveloped Doric form, rather than the late corruption and debasement of a better one. The capital in question, as illustrated here from a modern drawing, lacks the fine curve and bold projection of the Parthenon Doric and is also distinguished from the Greek Doric by a projecting fillet at the top of the column. It is probable that the so-called Composite Order of the Romans originated with the Etruscans. A very interesting and beautiful variant of the Ionic capital in the British Museum shows an anticipation of this form in the row of acanthus leaves around the neck.

The most famous contribution of the Etruscans to Roman art is the use of the arch. That they were the first to use it in Italy is clear and it is also clear that they used it largely, though even the ruins of their work in this line are scanty. The early use of the arch in Oriental countries is now generally conceded and it is undoubtedly one of the arts which the Etruscans borrowed from the East. The keystone arch was discovered in Egypt in 1891, in a tomb at Maydoom, belonging to the Third Dynasty (over 4000 B.C.). It has long been known in brick arches at Thebes, which are dated to the Eighteenth Dynasty (1600 B.C.). Its use in ancient Assyria is demonstrated in doorways, gateways, and drains, and is almost. certainly demonstrated for the vaulting (roofing) of Assyrian palaces. The general repugnance of Greek builders to the arch is notorious and its later widespread use throughout the modern world is certainly due to the Etruscans, as the Romans learned its use from them. Their capacity as engineers is attested by various drainage constructions, of which the most famous is the Cloaca Maxima, or great sewer, at Rome, dating from the sixth century B.C..

The Etruscan political system was one of independent cities banded together for foreign emergencies and ruled by oligarchy. This alliance of civic states was ultimately conquered by Rome during the Samnite wars (in which the Etruscans were no less engaged than the Samnites) between 350 and 290 B.C. They were then gradually absorbed into the Roman political system. The Etruscans were all Roman citizens before the first century of the Christian era. Their language was displaced by the Latin, and in this the conquest of the Roman was most apparent, for there is no conquest of force which can equal that involved in the disappearance of a language. No literature of the Etruscans has survived. Their language as found in inscriptions is undeciphered and appears to be foreign in derivation to other speeches of Europe. Their alphabet was borrowed from the Greeks and their deities appear to have been roughly analogous to theirs. Their religion, as would appear from tomb paintings, was more fantastic and more gloomy than the Greek. Considering the great excellence of their art and their obvious importance as a nation, almost nothing is known of this people. They are still awaiting their historian. This is partly owing to our ignorance of their language, and their lack of a surviving literature ; but it is a grand point to understand that although they disappear from history in name with the third century B.C.—they did not disappear in fact. They were not exterminated or decimated as a race. They had been the foremost native people of Italy in its early civilization, and as Roman subjects and Roman citizens they continued to play their partless conspicuously, but not less serviceably. Maecenas, the great patron of letters and friend of Augustus, was an Etruscan—so were the Emperors Vespasian and Titus. Their artistic talents and technical knowledge certainly did their full share of service to the Roman imperial period which concealed under its name and shadow so many nations and so many national talents. In the Middle Ages and in the Italian Renaissance the Tuscan artists were the foremost of Italy.