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Roman Antiquities

Reprinted by permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations"  by Alex G. Malloy, updated by Joseph Sermarini

Say the name Rome and you invoke many responses, for Rome has been and is many things to many people in the course of its long history. It is Rome, the Eternal City and Rome, the Great Empire. It is the Rome of Myth and the Rome of History. It is Rome, the Fallen City lying in dust and ruins, and Rome the mighty served by its invincible legions. It is the Rome of Brutus, who, in the words of Marc Antony as presented by Shakespeare, was an "Honorable" man. It is the Rome of Law, the Roman civil law, which reached its peak under the emperors. It was a law which, as many legal authorities have pointed out, excelled in precision of formulation and logic of thought, but it was a law inequality and social prejudice, a law whose major purpose was to preserve the power of the Roman state. It was a Rome which created great works of public art and whose common artisans created objects of daily use prized by collectors today. To understand this art we must first understand something from Roman history and culture. Rome, pronounced Roma in Latin, was once the seat of a vast empire stretching from the British Isles in the west to Parthia in the east. It is now the capital of Italy and the seat of the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church (at Vatican City, a sovereign state within Rome.) The city is also the capital Italy's Rome province and Sea, the city was originally situated here because it is the first easy crossing of the Tiber upstream from the sea. Although the earliest remains found in Rome date to the Bronze Age, about 1500 B.C., continuous settlements probably began about 1000 B.C. on Rome's future site around the fording point of the Tiber and in surrounding hills. These early settlers probably lived in small clan type encampments and practiced a modified hunter-gatherer culture with some agriculture typical of the European Bronze Age.

According to one legend, Rome was founded by Aeneas, a Trojan who fled to Italy after the fall of Troy. The most popular of the legends of the founding of Rome involves two individuals who may have been descendents of Aeneas, Romulus, and Remus, twin brothers who were abandoned at birth and suckled by a female wolf. The brothers being suckled by the wolf is a popular theme in Roman art often found on the coins of the Republic and the later Empire. The brothers founded a town on the Palatine, one of the seven hills of Rome, and ruled it jointly for a while. They eventually quarreled, and Romulus killed his brother, becoming the sole ruler. According to tradition, Rome was founded on April 27, 753 B.C the ancient Romans celebrated the anniversary of that day, and it is still a national holiday in Italy.

Recent archaeological excavations on the Palatine hill have revealed remains of village cultures from the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. That evidence indicates the coexistence of groups of Latins and Sabines, two different but closely related peoples. Although the Sabines spoke Oscan, Latin appears to have been the language of Rome from its earliest beginnings.

These remains included post holes for huts and clay funerary vessels in the shape of these huts. In the 7th century the Latin and Sabine villages coalesced to form a unified city on the eastern, or left, bank of the Tiber. It was protected by strongholds on its hills, and was in a strategic position because it controlled the Tiber ford and the trade route to the central uplands. For this and other reasons it is not surprising to learn that Rome soon outstripped other towns in Latium in wealth and power. This period is known to history as the reign of the Latin Kings.

By the late 7th century B.C., the Etruscans, an advanced people from Etruria to the northwest, had extended their rule to Rome. The Etruscans are generally credited with expanding the power and influence of Rome. Under their rule a large part of Latium was brought under Rome, and the Capitoline temple was built among other well-known sites in the city. Etruscan art was characterized by a certain Eastern influence, not surprisingly, as they are supposed to have originally emigrated to Italy from the East. The art of the 7th century B.C., executed in the local Villanovan style or in the Greek Orientalizing style current in the Mediterranean, exhibits contemporary Greek as well as Near Eastern influence. The Etruscans were noted for their skills as buildings. Their roads, bridges, canals, and temples were famous in Roman times but regrettably few have been excavated since they mostly lie under modern cities. Their art is, however known from the funerary remains in their extensive necropolises. Their art is also characterized by painted and sculpted works intend for religious and funerary remains in their extensive necropolises. Their art is also characterized by painted and sculpted works intended for religious and funerary purposes, particularly pottery vases which were often of elaborate form and decoration. They were masters of bronze work and Etruscan bronze objects are among the most highly prized of all Etruscan antiques. Subsequent artistic development in the emerging Roman sphere of influence more or less closely followed the stylistic phases of Greek art, although the genuinely Roman character for this was the period of the Roman Republic. The Republic art is characterized by a realism often lacking in the idealized Greek art of the time.

The Roman Republic, founded, according to tradition, in the 6th century B.C., was at its heart in aristocratic form of government rather than a republic as we know it today. It was headed by the Senate and by magistrates, later called Consuls usually two in number who were elected annually by the Senate.

The Senate was deviled by class and the lower class of citizens \were effectively frozen out of government. Even when the lower classes obtained a modicum of power the real power remained in the hands of a small noble class.

Despite internal conflict between the various classes in society and external threat from the Gauls and the Carthaginians, among others, the Republican period was one of growing expansion of the emerging Roman political entity. Rome's numerous foreign was brought great new wealth and this wealth is reflected in the art.

One of the great Roman contributions to art in general is portrait sculpture. Its roots lie both in the Roman custom of keeping ancestor masks in the home and in the practice of erecting honorary statues in public places. Although the extensive Etruscan and Greek Hellenistic portrait art contemporary with the Republican period also contributed substantially to the development of Roman portrait sculpture, few cultures to this day have rivaled the realism and expression found in Republican portrait sculpture. Surviving examples are mainly marble copies, especially busts, a typically Roman, abbreviated portrait form the flourished from the late Republic onward. Other materials such as bronze so realistic they seem almost ready to arise from their long sleep. This tradition persisted into the Imperial Age but with diminished strength.

The history, sociology, politics, art and archaeology of the civil war period, the Triumvirate, and certainly the succeeding Empire is extremely complex and the following should be considered only the briefest of introductions. Suffice it to say that it is replete with events and personalities whose influence resound into the modern era. Obviously an intense study of this complex subject should be a priority for any collector of Roman art.

The economic changes of the Republican period also brought forth genuine reformers. The best known were the Gracchi but the deaths of the Gracchi in the 2nd century B.C. opened a century of anarchy and civil wars. In 91 B.C., Rome's allies in Italy rose in a great revolt called the Social War. Under this pressure the Romans granted the franchise to all Italians and mercilessly crushed those who did not submit. Civil war followed (88-82 B.C.). Sulla became dictator but his rule was short-lived. The resulting political instability led to the rise of Julius Caesar. With Caesar we begin the period of the 12 Caesars. He set about reforming the laws and reorganizing the administration of the colonies. Under Caesar, Rome controlled all of Italy, Gaul, Spain, Numidia, Macedonia, Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and virtually all of the Mediterranean islands. Greek art and philosophy had permeated Roman culture, and Rome perceived itself as the civilizer of the barbarians. Caesar, however, was moving toward a monarchial form of government and in an effort to stop him and restore the Republic, Brutus and the other conspirators stabbed him in the senate on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

Caesar's opponents had underestimated the allegiance of Caesar's partisans. However, they were now galvanized into action by Mark Antony. Antony, Octavian, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus formed a triumvirate sometimes called the Second Triumvirate and forced the Senate to accept their rule. They instituted a reign of terror, and at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. they defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius, both of whom committed suicide. By 31 B.C. the new imperial government was established, ending the Republic, although sympathy for it continued for many generations to come.

Octavian, who assumed the title and name Imperator Caesar Augustus, established a system of government called the principate the endured for two centuries. The principate was a monarchy disguised as a republic. The princeps (the emperor) ostensibly ruled by commission from the Senate and the people. There was no automatic system of succession. Normally an emperor succeeded to the throne by virtue of connection with a predecessor by blood, adoption, or affinity or one could seize power by force and inaugurate a new dynasty. During Augustus' reign, the Roman Empire was at its height, and it had no rivals. Thus began the 200 years of peace known as the Pax Roma. Augustus died in A.D. 14 and was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius. Thus the Julio-Claudian dynasty was established, which ruled during the 1st century A.D., the height of the Roman Imperial Period. Tiberius, the son of the second wife of Augustus, Lucilla, continued the policies of Augustus. The later years of his reign, however, were marked by court intrigue, mostly concerning the succession.

His great-nephew Caligula followed him. The latter's reign became a virtual synonym for cruelty and debauchery. Almost certainly insane during much of his reign, he was assassinated in A.D. 41 by a cabal of the Praetorian guard, an elite body of the emperor's personal bodyguards that constituted an increasingly powerful institution. The officers of the guard named Caligula's uncle, Claudius I, as emperor. Claudius was generally an efficient administrator. He wrote a famous history of his family which was adapted into a famous television miniseries in recent years often shown on public television("I Claudius"). Claudius passed over his own son, Britannicus (41-55 A.D.), for the succession in favor of his wife Agrippina's son, Nero. Agrippina probably poisoned Claudius once she was assured that Nero would succeed him.

Nero, the last emperor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, assumed the throne in 54. He governed well in his early years. Gradually, however, Nero's reign deteriorated into a reign of terror similar to Caligula's. He poisoned Britannicus and his mother and legend says that he kicked pregnant wife, Poppaea, to death. Nero was accused of burning Rome in 64 A.D. He in turn blamed a new sect, the Christians, for the fire and began the first Roman persecution of them; Saint Peter and Saint Paul were among its victims. Nero committed suicide in 68 A.D. when he saw that a revolution against him was succeeding. He was followed by Galba and, in 69 A.D. (the year of the four emperors), by Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.

Vespasian(69-79 A.D.), founder of the Flavian dynasty, declared emperor by his soldiers in the East, brought order and efficiency to the administration of Rome's affairs. He built the Colosseum and other important public works. Although he was popular among Romans he was much hated in other parts of the empire, particularly in Judea where the First Jewish Revolt succeeded in ousting Roman rule for a brief period. He was succeeded by two sons, Titus (79-81 A.S.), and Domitian (81-96 A.D.).

The Flavians were followed in the 2nd century A.D. by the Antonines, the next six emperors. They ruled for nearly a century, and the period is sometimes called the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. The first Antonine, Nerva (96-98 A.D.), brutally put down the Second Jewish Revolt in Jerusalem under Bar Kochba (A.D. 132-35), and instituted the period of the Hadrianic persecutions. Antoninus Pius had a long and prosperous reign (138-161 A.D.), and was succeeded by joint emperors, the philosopher Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Marcus Aurelius, although a philosopher and historian, brutally persecuted the Christians. The reign of his son, Commodus, is generally regarded as the beginning of Rome's long decline.

In the 3rd century the Roman world plunged into a prolonged crisis. Sharp divisions between the notables in the cities and the poor peasants created tensions. The wars and increased taxation destroyed the prosperity of the empire. To meet rising military costs and to pay the bureaucracy, the emperors debased the coinage, and the resulting inflation contributed to the decline. The defense of the empire on the Rhine and Danube collapsed under the attack of various Germanic and other tribes, and the eastern provinces were invaded by the Persians. In the fifty years from 235 to 284 A.D. more than two dozen emperors ruled, all but one of whom suffered a violent death. Out of the turmoil of the 3rd century a new totalitarian Rome emerged. The emperor, Diocletian (284-305 A.D.), adopted the title dominus (master) and transformed the principate into the dominate and citizens into subjects. He adopted an elaborate court ceremonial with many oriental elements. The requisitions and forced labor to which the emperors of the 3rd century had resorted in order to save the state were transformed into a lasting system. The average citizen lost many of the rights he has heretofore enjoyed.

Constantine I (306-337 A.D.), is sometimes regarded as the second founder of the empire. He successfully fought off his numerous opponents and, once firmly in power, reorganized the entire system of local government. Most importantly, he converted the entire empire to Christianity. He even moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he had rebuilt and renamed Constantinople. Constantine's reforms were not enough however, to halt the slide of the Western Empire into ruin and final conquest. The Eastern Empire, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire, survived its demise and lasted for almost another millennium, but that is another story.

In general, we should note that unlike Egyptian art, which showed a distinct chronological development, Roman art progressed along no single, easily traceable course of development. A number of disparate artistic currents and traditions coexisted and influenced on another, not infrequently within the same genre, as in the portraiture, noted above. Spurts of great inventiveness vied with the generally retrospective trend toward following Greek prototypes. In addition to the major arts represented by painting, architecture, and sculpture, many minor arts and crafts flourished throughout the Empire. Small gems were engraved with scenes ranging from the sublime to the simple, and elegant pottery vessels were manufactured for domestic and public use. Pottery was also in wide use for utilitarian and votive objects such as lamps and statuary. Vessels of silver and bronze were cast with or without engraved or relief decoration. The mote common bronze was also used for a wide variety of small objects ranging from simple household fixtures and utensils to fine statuettes. Although glass was in use earlier, after glassblowing was invented in the 1st century B.C. this material also became relatively low in cost. A thriving industry developed in the later empire, and Roman glass is among the most prized of collectibles. Coins, first minted in the 3rd century B.C., were made mainly of gold, silver, bronze and their alloys. The usually showed the portrait of reigning ruler. In addition to the vast amount of art produced in Italy itself, the art of Rome's provinces exhibited an almost endless variety, which is one of the reasons that ancient Roman art is so popular among collectors today.

Roman Militaria

Many tools and weapons in iron, bronze and even precious metals are found in Roman period excavations. While scarce and precious items such as helmets and full breast plates are beyond the scope of this work, many more mundane items such as arrowheads, spearheads, agriculture and domestic tools of various kinds, personal implements such as tweezers, forks spoons, knives, cosmetic applicators and the like, and even medical implements, to name only a few, are fairly readily available to the collector. Nice arrowheads and tools are readily available to the collector for under $100 from most dealers.


Pottery is perhaps the most readily available of all Roman antiquities to the modern collector. Roman pottery ranges from the simple to the elaborate. Often it is mold decorated with interesting designs and relief for example, the Samian luxuryware or etched with various patterns such as those found on the North African redware. Some Roman pottery, particularly in peripheral parts of the empire such as Egypt, is painted. Types of pottery include domestic vessels of various wares, oil lamps often with relief decoration, some ritual vessels, architecture elements such as tiles, and various types of pottery used in funerary rituals, such as cineary urns. Many fine examples of the various types of Roman pottery can be purchased by the astute collector for modest sums.


Terracotta is a type of hard-baked clay, produced by means of a single firing. Usually rendered brownish red in color after firing terracotta may be glazed (covered with a layer of molten glass) but is most often left in its natural state, sometimes called "buff" pottery. It was used extensively in the Roman Empire, particularly for the production of sculptures of various sizes. The term terracotta has often come to be loosely applied to any sculpture in pottery, whatever type of clay was actually used. Pottery sculpture on a monumental scale and, even more importantly for the average collector, on a small scale statuettes, effigy vessels, figurines, and the like was an important part of Roman daily life. Pottery sculpture representing deities, animals, objects, people, and even toys is found in large quantities throughout the Empire. Because of this, such sculpture is relatively cheap on the antiquities market. A somewhat worn head from a statuette, for example, might be purchased for as little as $10, while a superb example might go for several hundred.

Metal Objects

Much Roman metalwork has survived from antiquity. Ranging from simple cooking pots to elaborate oil lamps cast in the lost wax process, these objects can often be of great artistic merit. Mirrors, for example, often had elaborately sculpted decoration. Perhaps the most popular of all Roman metalwork among modern collectors are the numerous bronze sculptures which frequently appear on the market. These sculptures were often for religious use representing the various deities of the Greco-Roman pantheon, such as Aphrodite, Zeus, Apollo, Mercury, etc. Many sculptures were made for political use and/or public display portraits of the reigning emperor, funerary busts and the like but small sculptures of animals and people often used to decorate other metal objects such as handles are also quite common. While a full-sized bust of one of the twelve Caesars might fetch tens of thousands of dollars in a major auction of antiquities, a handle finial with a man's bust can be had for under $100 from many dealers.


Collectable stone objects from the Roman world can be divided into two classes, Utilitarian objects and stone vessels such as cosmetic pallets, weights and the like form one class, stone sculpture the other. Sculpture can further be divided into sculpture in the round and bas relief. Sculpture in stone had its beginnings in the Etruso-Italic funerary tradition of tombstones and grave statues. As interest in Greek art increased, marble copies of Greek masterpieces, as well as eclectic works of a purely decorative nature as well as funerary furniture such as tombstones and sarcophagi were also quite common. Portrait sculpture saw perhaps its finest expression in the Roman world. Relief sculpture was also quite important from the Republican period onward, reaching its height in the great historical reliefs of the Imperial period. Many collectors feel that Roman stone objects are beyond their financial reach. This, however, is a mistaken impression. While monumental Roman statue in the finest style can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars, nice stone vessels and interesting fragments of relief, even some poorer quality sculpture in the round, can be had under $300.


Prior to the 1st century B.C. there were only four methods of glass manufacture known in the ancient world: 1) applying molten glass to a pre-formed core, the oldest method and one still in use in the early Roman period, 2) arranging glass of pre-formed glass rods around a pre-formed core; a good example of this technique is the highly desirable mosaic glass of the early Empire, 3) grinding from a block of glass, a technique more akin to stone carving or sculpture than glass making and usually confined to luxury wares in the Roman period, and 4) casting in open or closed molds, a method much used in the Eastern or Sidonian workshops. In the 1st century B.C. a revolution occurred in Roman glassmaking. This was the invention of glass blowing, which formed the basis of the mass production of glass vessels, which distinguished the Roman period from earlier periods. The introduction of blown glass made it a widespread commodity in the Roman Empire and accounts for the large quantity of Roman glass on the antiquities market today. While good examples of rarer types of glass are rather pricey, a nice perfume vessel can still be purchased for under $300.


Lightning in the Roman world was provided by torches, candles, and oil lamps. Although oil lamps were made in metal, glass, and stone, that vast majority were manufactured in pottery. The pottery lamps were usually manufactured in small workshops which specialized in their manufacture or which, while they might also produce other objects, considered the manufacture of lamps to be one of their major lines of endeavor. Although a variety of techniques were in use, most were mold made. So common were these lamps in the Roman period that archaeologists can often date a site by the style of the lamps or lamp fragments found. The lamps are often decorated either in relief or by incising the mold. Sometimes the whole lamp was formed into the effigy of an object or person. Some of the molds and archetypes used in their manufacture also survive. Since lamps were so common and were often provided in large numbers in tombs, they are often found among the less expensive Roman antiquities. Despite this they can be among some of the most interesting due to the creative nature of their decoration. For this reason many collections have been formed exclusively devoted to these lamps.


Ancient Roman jewelry can be of precious metal or base metal. Personal ornament was widespread among both men and women in the Roman period. Much jewelry has survived and pins, rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces in gold, silver and bronze are readily available to the collector. Intaglio and cameo gems carved with scenes ranging from depictions of animals to depictions of the Roman deities, in various stones and glass, were also in wide use and can form an interesting class of objects to collect. One of the most common objects if personal adornment was the fibula, a type of metal safety pin used to fasten clothing. These come in wide variety of shapes, sizes, and decorations and can usually be purchased rather inexpensively today, good specimens often fetching less than $50 in dealers' lists.


Written records in the Roman period were usually in Greek or Latin although other languages and scripts such as Hebrew, Aramaic, hieroglyphic, and demotic were in use in various parts of the Empire. Inscriptions often appear on objects of metal, pottery, and even glass. For example, short inscriptions were often written on pottery shards called ostraca or stamped into clay objects such as lamps and tiles. Coins almost always bore some inscription and much study has gone into its meaning by numismatists. Some of the written records were on wax tablets, few of which have survived. Many public and private inscriptions were carved in stone, much of which has survived. For example, Roman stone funerary monuments are quite common and are almost always inscribed. It would not be hard to form an interesting collection devoted to Roman writing.



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