Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Art of the Roman Provinces, 1–500 a.d.

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At its greatest extent, the empire ruled by Rome reached around the Mediterranean Sea and stretched from northern England to Nubia, from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. Roman rule united this vast and varied territory, and Roman administration integrated it economically and socially. A traveler making a tour of the several provinces around 212 A.D. (when citizenship was extended to all free-born males) would have found many similarities among the places that he or she visited: Roman coins circulated everywhere, and in every province there were cities adorned with statues of the emperor and buildings such as baths, basilicas, and amphitheaters that embodied Roman cultural and architectural norms. Each region nevertheless had its own history, its own local culture, and its own relationship with Rome. Art demonstrates both the scope and the limits of Roman influence, for the circulation of materials, methods, objects, and art forms created a certain cultural unity, and yet in each place, the persistence of local customs ensured the survival of cultural diversity.


Art demonstrates both the scope and the limits of Roman influence, for the circulation of materials, methods, objects, and art forms created a certain cultural unity, and yet in each place, the persistence of local customs ensured the survival of cultural diversity.


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Gaul, a large region that roughly corresponds to modern France, provides a representative picture of the interaction between Roman and non-Roman traditions in the visual arts. Before the arrival of the Romans, metalwork was a highly developed craft among the Celts, whose artisans excelled in enriching metal objects with brightly colored abstract ornament (48.154.5; 1988.79); they seldom represented the human form, but when they did, they produced highly stylized figures quite alien to classical ideals (1999.94a–d). After the Romans arrived, Gallic craftsmen continued to work metal in sophisticated ways, but their output changed to serve the needs of society as it adopted Roman manners. Workshops in Gaul turned to produce vessels and tableware suited to a Romanized style of dining (47.100.29; 47.100.30); they also applied techniques that the Romans admired, such as champlevé enamel, to ornaments designed for Roman buyers (47.100.6). Some objects made in Gaul were meant for local use, like statuettes of native divinities with distinctly un-Roman traits; other types of work were widely exported, such as six-sided boxes decorated with millefiore enamel (47.100.7) and fine relief pottery known as terra sigillata. In addition to producing works of art, the people of Gaul also imported objects, expertise, and stylistic preferences from the capital: the cities of the province were thus outfitted with monumental statuary and buildings of Roman types, and the environs of these cities were served by roads and aqueducts.


The provinces of northern Africa also saw urban development in the Roman mold. The city of Timgad (modern-day Algeria), established by Trajan in 100 A.D., made use of a rigidly ordered grid plan, common to colonial settlements all over the empire, and some of the best preserved examples of Roman public buildings, including a theater, ampitheater, temple, and marketplace, are still to be found in Leptis Magna (in modern-day Libya), the birthplace of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211). Romanization went hand in hand with economic prosperity, as the city of Rome looked to North Africa to supply its wheat, oil, and wine, and agricultural productivity no doubt contributed to the distribution around the Mediterranean of distinctive red slip pottery vessels (74.51.383) produced in Tunisian workshops. In many respects, the North African provinces became as Roman as any on the Italian peninsula, spawning intellectual figures steeped in Roman learning, such as the novelist Apuleius of Madaurus (ca. 125–ca. 180 A.D.) and the Christian writers Tertullian (ca. 160–ca. 220 A.D.) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 A.D.). Their public and private spaces were adorned with the markers of Roman prosperity: courtyards and gardens, conspicious displays of freestanding sculpture, and, most especially, elegant and original mosaics (26.68), an art form for which North African artists showed particular talent.


The artistic output of each of the Roman provinces represents a mix of local and imperial traditions. Subject people continued to use their native languages, although official business was conducted in Latin or Greek; indigenous religions persisted, although sacrifices were everywhere offered for the emperor and the gods of the Roman pantheon. Visual culture too reflected the hybrid character of provincial civilization. Images of Roman style and message circulated widely, and yet craftsmen and consumers in the provinces maintained their own traditions, adopting Roman techniques and tastes as it suited them.


The funerary arts of the provinces demonstrate the variety and freedom of artistic expression in the several regions of the Roman empire. Since portraits and grave goods figure in many of the customs used to commemorate the dead, they also reflect the different styles of dress and approaches to representation preferred in various places. In Noricum and Pannonia in the Danubian basin, for instance, it was common to mark burials with busts of the deceased carved in relief, often in a naturalistic style like that used in Roman portraits and sometimes framed with moldings of classical design. The men depicted usually wear the toga, the proud costume of the Roman citizen, but the women sport instead a distinctive native fashion, with collars of heavy jewelry, prominent brooches at the shoulders (1998.76), and cylindrical hats adorned with veils. The funerary portraiture of the Fayum oasis in Egypt displays a different mix of cultural preferences. The people here perpetuated the ancient custom of mummification, replacing the sculpted mask of earlier practice with a painted portrait placed over the corpse's face. The context of these pictures is decidedly Egyptian, but the style of representation reflects the Greek tradition: the most refined examples demonstrate a remarkable degree of naturalism, and the costumes and hairstyles worn by both men and women adhere closely to Roman imperial fashions (18.9.2). The people of Palmyra in present-day Syria buried their dead in compartments cut into the walls of extensive cemetery complexes and closed each tomb with a limestone relief bearing a likeness of the dead. Some of the figures represented assume Roman garb and manners (02.29.1), but many more appear in oriental dress, with jewelry of local design; nearly all depict their subjects frontally, with disproportionately large eyes and boldly schematized features that display an approach to portraiture quite independent of Roman tendencies.


The diversity of customs followed in the disparate regions naturally resulted in artistic variety, but practices imposed by the Romans and observed throughout the empire also produced a lively range of responses. For example, the organization of urban society in the provinces granted high position to local elites, and members of this class often furnished their cities with buildings, monuments, and entertainments intended to display adherence to Roman ideals as well as the donor's largesse. For example, a local landholder who had been high priest in the cult of the Roman emperor erected an arch of recognizably Roman design at Saintes in southern France in 19 A.D., and in Barcelona in the early second century A.D., a father and son who both had attained senatorial rank and held consular office constructed a public bath on their own land. Sometimes the population of a whole town obtained imperial permission to set up a statue of the emperor or to build a temple in his honor. For the most part, such monuments took conventional forms: the emperor's portrait usually conformed to an official type probably devised in Rome itself. Some honorific images, however, reflected local traditions as well as or instead of the Roman standard. In the Greek-speaking lands of the eastern Mediterranean, for instance, the emperor's likeness was often mounted on an ideal nude body, as was common in the Hellenistic royal statues familiar there (05.30), and along the Nile, at Dendur, local people built a small temple on Egyptian architectural principles and decorated it with reliefs depicting the emperor Augustus in the guise of a pharaoh bringing offerings to Egyptian deities (68.154).


Finally, Roman rule facilitated trade among disparate regions, and this had a profound impact on art in the provinces. The circulation of marble and minerals suited to making pigments bound disparate regions to the capital and made possible the many-colored richness of much Roman architecture; the different types of stone used in the Pantheon, for instance, include yellow marble (giallo antico) from Tunisia, dramatically veined marble (pavonazzetto) from Asia Minor, green marbles from parts of Greece, flecked granites and deep red porpyhry from Egypt. The Romans also recognized and encouraged local industries in ways that ensured a wide range to some provincial products; iron works in Gaul and the Danubian basin, for example, operated as imperial manufactories producing weapons for Roman soldiers, and the Roman taste for glass ensured support first for the flourishing glassworks of Palestine and then for the proliferation of glass vessels and glass-making techniques throughout the empire (81.10.245; 17.194.155). The army brought many Roman customs and products to distant locales, for recruits were often steeped in Roman culture even if they hailed from the provinces (17.192.143–146); excavations of military installations throughout the provinces have yielded glassware and small-scale statuary of standard Roman style. Philostratus, a Greek writer living in Rome in the third century A.D., marveled at the accomplished champlevé enamel of "barbarian" artists living in Gaul and Britain. Colorful enamel objects, from brooches (1980.450) to vessels (47.100.5) to horse trappings (2000.505a–o), survive from sites throughout the empire and attest to the widespread appreciation for the distinctive achievements of artists working in its outer territories.

Jean Sorabella
Independent Scholar


Area inhabited by Celtic-speaking peoples in Roman times (dashed line indicates the approximate northern boundary of the Roman empire and dependent territories in 1 A.D.).