Greek and Etruscan antecedents need to be taken into account if we are to understand the symbolism of Roman art. In contrast with Greek tradition, Etrusco—Italic art began to pay attention to gestures of worship, the relationship between members of a group, the isolation of certain figures and the convergence of attitude and eye. The art of Republican Rome responded to the need to use symbolism in the service of the increasingly vast and universal State. The coinage was used as a means of propaganda, while statues tended to define honorific types by depleting individuals dressed in togas, wearing breast- plates, in the guise of hero or mounted on horseback. This latter formula presented a man as superior to his fellows, the heroic bringer of peace. The prince, commonly depicted holding the general’s baton an his right hind as a symbol of his rule, might also be represented making a formal speech (adlocutio) or showing mercy to kneeling barbarians. Roman art tended to set apart the emperor and his entourage and define personalities in terms of hierarchy. Imperial propaganda was used to establish the personal superiority of the prince: on some coins, the prostrate figure of Roma restituta was shown being raised up by the emperor, or the Senate was depicted crowning him in a ceremony known as Senatus pietati Augusti. Under the Flavians, the event legitimizing the new dynasty was the victory over the Jews, celebrated in the dextrarum iunctio (joining of right hands). In Domitian’s victory commemorations, the emperor is shown at a distance from his entourage, dominating a symbolic or allegorical figure representing the defeated enemy. In the time of Trajan, promsnenee was given to the emperor’s
participation in public affairs and military campaigns, and greater efforts were made to involve the spectator. During the second century, the attitude of the sovereign begins to prefigure the absolutist stance of the later Empire. The emperor stretches forth his right hand in a god—like gesture of justice and greeting. The victorious return and triumph are the standard ways of representing a victory. The authority of the commander is expressed in hunting and battle scenes. The idea of majesty is conveyed in free-standing sculpture by images of the monarch seated on a throne and in relief sculpture by a central position. His entourage on either side turns towards him. In the final centuries, the emperor on his throne is presented in a hieratic, frontal pose.
Among the Romans, sculpture also played a vital role in expressing religious attitudes and beliefs. Roman religion was characterized by its syncretism, tending to bring gods and beliefs of various origins into a unified form of worship. At the same time, popular rites in the agrarian tradition were kept separate from official ceremonies. Originally, the Romans had seen the whole world as sacred, and all intellectual activities were inspired by religion. Mixing native traditions with borrowings from neighbouring peoples, they began to deify natural forces and the elements, as apprehended in the world around them and in family life. Some of these forces (numina) became gods in their own right, for instance Saturn, Janus, Jupiter, Mars, Neptune and Vulcan. Private and public pietas was expressed in regular acts of worship, festivals and rites. The gods were grouped together, sometimes into threes, like the “triad” of Etruscan origin that originally presided over the Capitoline. Later arrivals were the gods of Magna Graecia and Sicily, bringing with them Greek myths and beliefs, and certain forms of oriental worship. This open, friendly reception of gods of foreign origin, controlled by the priests, was one of the features of Roman religion. Augustus played a decisive role in making religion an integral part of Roman life. Though excluded from politics, the common people nevertheless participated in a religion with definite political overtones. Subsequently, religious feeling waned, and divine images subsisted mainly in a temple environment, though still with the support of the civic authorities.
Sacrificing to the gods was an essential aspect of Roman religious life, both public and private, and scenes of this kind are among the oldest and most lasting in Roman art. A relief on an altar at Civita Castellana, dating from the first century BC, is the first representation of a Roman officer, or more generally a historical figure, performing a sacrifice. This was a subject that became very popular in the Severan period.
Mythology was the source of many of the images of Roman art. Of prime importance were the Greek myths, suitably adapted and amended. The characters most frequently depicted in sculpture, taken in alphabetical order, were: Achilles, Actaeon, Adonis, Ajax, Apollo, Ariadne, Artemis, Athena, Attis, Bellerophon, Endymion, Europa, Ganymede, the Gigantomachy, Helen, Herakles, Hippolytus, Hylas, Icarus, Iphigenria, Jason, Leda, Medea, Menelaus, Narcissus, Oedipus, Orpheus, Paris, Perseus, Persephone, Phaethon, Telephus, Tereus, Theseus and Ulysses. Hcsakles (Hercules) was the most popular, followed by Achilles, Ganymede, Leda, Iphigeneia, Apollo, Medea, Orpheus and Perseus. Most of the reliefs on which they feature come from funerary monuments, which explains why myths associated with allegories of death are those most frequently represented. The immense popularity of Hercules, victor over evil and death, derives from the fact that he was regarded as the saviour par excellence.
In the provinces, imperial, religious and mythological iconography assumed various forms, depending on underlying pre—Roman traditions. In Gaul, for instance, cross— legged figures, horses, “severed” heads of the kind found at Entremont and two—headed figures are all pre— Conquest. During the Roman period, alongside such great monuments as the Mausoleum of the Julii and the triumphal arches of Glanum, Orange and Carpentras, there were numerous reliefs, altars, stelae and statues which freely expressed a Gaulish mythology combining native traditions and the newly-adopted gods of the Graeco—Roman pantheon. Here, pride of place went to Mercury, the god of commerce, technology and the arts. The intensity of his cult is even recorded in the sixth book of Caesar’s Dc Belle Gallico. Also of importance were Minerva, the sky—god Taranis—Jupiter, Teutates—Mars, Apollo the healer, the antler-bearing Cernunnos, the horse-goddess Epona, Sucellus with his -mallet and large numbers of matrons or mother-goddesses. Gaulish sculptures of these deities are usually easy to identify by their characteristic style.
It is of course impossible to list all the subjects of Roman reliefs: the many depictions of Dionysiac revels, hunting and battle scenes, the motifs on sarcophagi, to which we shall return later; mythological subjects, the worship of Mithras and other oriental deities, the Egyptian cult of Isis, and friezes of religious ceremonies; animals such as the griffon, images of poets and philosophers such as Plautus, Terence or Aristotle, maritime subjects associated with Neptune, or illustrations of public entertainments. In the last category are many detailed representations of chariot races (such as the base of the obelisk in Constantinople). Depictions of the circus show the carceres (paddock), the metae (finishing posts) and the obelisk erected on the spina (low wall running down the middle), statues of the gods set up on columns, the dolphins and eggs for counting the laps and, of course, the progress of the race itself The quadrigae of the four factions are generally depicted in full flight, and the winning chariot, as in the ancient funerary relief in the Lateran, is
driven by a young charioteer. A sparsor can be seen sprinkling sand or water an front of the horses. A funerary relief of this kind suggests that the tomb was intended for a dominus factionis, the head of one of the racing stables. Circus scenes were extremely popular. The Romans were passionate about chariot racing and rivalry between the four factions was the subject of great popular enthusiasm. The symbolism of seasons and colours is an important aspect of such scenes, while the victory of a charioteer depicted on a tomb represents man’s victory over death. Chariot races were also one of the most popular subjects for Roman interior decoration in Late Antiquity, as witnessed by the mosaics of the rural villa at Piazza Armerina or the well-to-do town houses of Barcelona or Lyons.