In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Archaeology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • Ancient Sources
  • Architecture
  • Ceramics
  • Bioarchaeology
  • Cultural Property and the Antiquities Trade
  • Epigraphy
  • Glass
  • Numismatics
  • Painting and Mosaics
  • Sculpture

Classics Roman Archaeology
Kathryn J. McDonnell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0003


In its broadest sense, Roman archaeology encompasses all forms of study of the material remains of the Roman world, beginning in the 8th century BCE and ending with the fall of the Roman Empire. In practice, research in Roman archaeology is typically divided into specializations by material type, geographic location, or chronological era, and often artificially separated into “art history” and “archaeology,” a division frequently reflected in the literature below. Subfields within Roman archaeology include, for example, architecture, field excavation in Rome, Italy, or any of the provinces, pottery studies, sculpture, painting, and mosaics. The purpose of this entry is to acquaint the reader with major subdisciplines within Roman archaeology. Subdisciplines and sites discussed in separate bibliography entries are noted below.

General Overviews

There are several overviews of Roman archaeology, most of which present an art-historical and chronological approach (Hannestad 1988, Ramage and Ramage 2009), rather than a survey of archaeological sites and excavations. Ramage and Ramage 2009 is primarily intended as an undergraduate textbook and is well illustrated. Henig 1983 includes the “minor arts” (i.e., ceramics, glass, gems, and coins) that are typically omitted from surveys. Roman material culture is not just “monuments and masterpieces,” but also studies of the accoutrements of daily life, from hand tools to aqueducts, as well as theoretical, synthetic, and technical approaches to the evidence. The contributions in Oleson 2008 discuss the technologies, industries, and crafts of the Roman world. A few studies (Beard and Henderson 2001, D’Ambra 1998, Elsner 1998, Stewart 2004) present thematic discussions of Roman visual culture and discuss current issues in scholarship. Woolf 2004 boldly tackles the scope of Roman archaeology, including research agendas, methodology, archaeological theory, and the tension between synthesis and specialization, calling for an integrated approach to theory. Synthetic discussions of archaeological sites and evidence are largely and problematically missing from these general overviews, but can often be found in discussions of individual provinces (see The Provinces).

  • Beard, Mary, and John Henderson. 2001. Classical art: From Greece to Rome. Oxford History of Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An idiosyncratic and intriguing approach to topics such as the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art, the expression of political power through art and architecture, and likeness and replication in Roman portraiture.

  • D’Ambra, Eve. 1998. Roman art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    D’Ambra takes a thematic approach to Roman art in which she considers social status, social identity, functions and meaning, and the relationship between center (Rome) and periphery (the provinces). Also published as Art and Identity in the Roman World (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998).

  • Elsner, Jaś. 1998. Imperial Rome and Christian triumph: The art of the Roman Empire, AD 100–450. Oxford History of Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A synchronic and thematic discussion of Roman art in its cultural and social contexts from 100 CE to 450 CE, connecting Roman visual culture with the literary culture of the Second Sophistic. Broad themes discussed include the relationship of art to political power, provincial to city Roman art, and the role of images in religion.

  • Hannestad, Niels. 1988. Roman art and imperial policy. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus Univ. Press.

    Examines the political uses of Roman art, including coins, medallions, statues, reliefs, cameos, and paintings, from the Republic to Theodosius, and includes imperial commissions in the provinces, such as the cenotaph of Gaius Caesar in Limyra (modern-day Torunlar, Turkey) and the obelisk base of Theodosius in Istanbul, which are often omitted from surveys.

  • Henig, Martin, ed. 1983. A handbook of Roman art: A survey of the visual arts of the Roman world. London: Phaidon.

    A survey arranged by material, including pottery, coins, glass, mosaics, architecture, and sculpture, as well as chapters focused on the periods of early Roman art and late antiquity.

  • Oleson, John Peter, ed. 2008. The Oxford handbook of engineering and technology in the classical world. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In this innovative volume, Oleson has assembled contributions from specialists on topics including mining, quarrying, stoneworking, textile production, ceramic production, glass working, transport, military technologies, time keeping, engineering, and mathematics in the Greek and Roman worlds.

  • Ramage, Andrew, and Nancy H. Ramage. 2009. Roman art. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall.

    Presents a chronological survey of major monuments and artifacts from the Etruscans to Constantine, with photographs, plans, and reconstructions. Aimed at an undergraduate audience.

  • Stewart, Peter. 2004. Roman art. Greece and Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 34. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Stewart’s slim volume offers a broad overview of current debates in Roman art history, focusing on portrait sculpture; public monuments; funerary art and practices; wall paintings and the problematic Four Style system; domestic assemblages of mosaic and sculpture, including Roman “copies” of Greek “originals”; and stylistic change in late Roman art.

  • Woolf, Greg. 2004. The present state and future scope of Roman archaeology: A comment. American Journal of Archaeology 108.3:417–428.

    Discusses developments in the discipline, especially the tendency to specialize by province, artifact, artistic medium, or methodology; and the isolation of Roman archaeology, even the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC), from theoretical approaches in other fields. He calls for synthetic studies and theoretically informed research with both a regional and an empire-wide scope.

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