In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Originals and Roman Copies

  • Introduction
  • Greek and Latin Literary Sources
  • The Origins of Copying in the Greek Period
  • Painting and Mosaics
  • Production, Trade, and Collection
  • Greek Originals in Roman Contexts
  • Ancient Forgeries

Classics Greek Originals and Roman Copies
Anna Anguissola
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0213


The label “Roman copy after a Greek original” can be found in museums throughout the world on most Roman sculptures that portray deities, heroes, or athletes. Its origin goes back to the early 18th century, when learned travelers such as Joseph Addison and Jonathan Richardson Jr. first conjectured that most ancient statues known in their time were Roman copies after lost Greek prototypes. This idea held a central role in Winckelmann’s account of Classical art, destined to have a deep influence on later scholarship. By the mid-19th century, piecing together traces of the lost Greek works of art through their alleged Roman replicas (a method better known under the name of Kopienkritik) had become a compelling task for experts on ancient art. The practice of looking through the works of the Roman period in search of their models betrays a simplistic view of the relationship between Greek and Roman art. During the late 20th century, a parallel evolution of Greek and Roman archaeology led, on the one hand, to deemphasizing the role of copies for the history of Greek art and, on the other, to their rediscovery in the sphere of Roman civilization. Since the 1970s, historians of Roman art have underlined the importance of viewing images created according to Greek styles and iconographies as genuine expressions of Roman culture, interests, and values. The study of the “ideal sculpture” (in German, Idealplastik, i.e., statues that are “Greek” in form and content, although not replicating a specific prototype) has provided new categories to distinguish “real copies” from “creative imitations,” which also rely on prior tradition but have a very different indebtedness to their antecedents. Today, one of the first notions that a student of archaeology learns is that quotations of Greek sculptural styles, masters, and masterpieces played a central role within Roman culture and provided the visual translation for a tight semantics of “new Roman” values and qualities. Such issues, however, are far from being so schematic. Displaying the copy or imitation of an ancient masterpiece implied several stages of recollection, each of which could apply to different viewers, providing them with a comparable variety of ideas. Notwithstanding a number of recent publications, workshops, and roundtables on imitation in Roman art, several issues have remained open to debate and new investigation. How did workshop practices, regional traditions, and trade influence the individual features of items belonging to a larger replica series? To what degree were copies valued as works of art in their own right? Are copies a mirror for the dialectics of emulation between contemporary artists and their ancient sources? At the opposite end of this story, how present (both physically and ideologically) were real Greek originals in the towns, gardens, and private dwellings of the Roman world? How did the markets for “antiques,” copies, and “archaizing/classicizing modern creations” coexist?

General Overviews

Several introductions to the issue of copying in the Hellenistic and Roman world exist, both in the form of short articles and encyclopedic entries and as larger monographs. English-speaking readers wishing to gather some preliminary knowledge on the topic will probably be disappointed, as the best compact overviews are either in Italian (Cain 1998, Gasparri 1994) or in German (Geominy 1999, Zanker 1992). Cain 1998 and Gasparri 1994 provide broad views on the topic in its various aspects (although the former pays closer attention to the historical evolution of a “taste for copies” between the Hellenistic and Roman times, while the latter’s interest focuses on the questions of production and trade), whereas Geominy 1999 and Zanker 1992 investigate the Roman rationale behind the choice of certain Greek models. Three excellent collections published in recent years summarize the most up-to-date trends in the field: Gazda 2002, Trimble and Elsner 2006, and Junker and Stähli 2008 (all cited under Collections). This last book includes a thought-provoking introduction on the methods and perspectives of past and current scholarship on copies (Stähli 2008). For full treatments of the theme, from a variety of perspectives, and positive assessments of a wide range of sources (both written and archaeological), readers may rely on Ridgway 1984 and Marvin 2008, both excellent achievements and in many ways complementary in their perspectives on Greek and Roman art. Marvin 2008, in particular, will appeal to any readership, from undergraduates to advanced researchers. However dated as an instrument for research, Bieber 1977 still provides useful insights into the Roman practices and technologies for copying, as well as a precious document of the state of the art in the late 1970s.

  • Bieber, Margarete. 1977. Ancient copies: Contributions to the history of Greek and Roman art. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Although dated, this is a precious resource for understanding how copies were viewed before recent scholarship on Roman visual semantics.

  • Cain, Hans-Ulrich. 1998. Copie dai mirabilia greci. In I greci: Storia cultura arte società. Part 2, Una storia greca. Vol. 3, Trasformazione. Edited by Salvatore Settis, 1221–1244. Turin, Italy: Einaudi.

    In Italian. Very clear, well-argued, and compact essay on Roman copies after Greek originals. Probably the best short introduction to the issue. Discusses the changes that copying underwent through time and the role that Greek masters, masterpieces, and styles had in Roman artistic culture.

  • Gasparri, Carlo. 1994. Copie e copisti. In Enciclopedia dell’arte antica classica e orientale. Suppl. 2, 267–280. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana.

    In Italian. Among the short overviews, this is the best account for the aspects related to production and trade: provenance, sculptors’ workshops, and regional “schools.” Provides (pp. 277–280) an excellent bibliography.

  • Geominy, Wilfred. 1999. Zwischen Kennerschaft und Cliché: Römische Kopien und die Geschichte ihrer Bewertung. In Rezeption und Identität: Die kulturelle Auseinandersetzung Roms mit Griechenland als europäisches Paradigma. Edited by Gregor Vogt-Spira and Bettina Rommel, 38–58. Stuttgart: Steiner.

    In German. Not the easiest of readings, but extremely useful all the same. Concentrates on the dynamics that guided the reception of copies in their Roman context and the role they played in artistic discourse. Makes interesting remarks on production techniques and structural supports.

  • Marvin, Miranda. 2008. The language of the muses: The dialogue between Roman and Greek sculpture. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

    The best guide to copying in the Roman world (and delightful reading). Recommended to both students looking for a clear overview and scholars interested in the intersection between Greek and Roman visual cultures. Confronts all significant issues dealt with by modern scholarship, drawing examples from a wide range of media. Provides a lengthy discussion of the modern reception of copies and repeated images from the Roman world.

  • Ridgway, Brunilde S. 1984. Roman copies of Greek sculpture: The problem of the originals. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    A landmark in the historiography on copies. The first to argue explicitly that the ancients did not copy prototypes exclusively because of their creators, but as a consequence of religious and civic concerns as well. Explains degrees of similarity with the Latin words aemulatio and interpretatio.

  • Stähli, Adrian. 2008. Die Kopie: Überlegungen zu einem methodischen Leitkonzept der Plastikforschung. In Original und Kopie: Formen und Konzepte der Nachahmung in der antiken Kunst: Akten des Kolloquiums in Berlin, 17.–19. Februar 2005. Edited by Klaus Junker and Adrian Stähli, 15–34. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert.

    In German. Dense discussion of meaning and methods for the study of copies in Classical archaeology. Recommended to researchers and advanced students who wish to engage themselves with the history of Greek and Roman sculpture.

  • Zanker, P. 1992. Nachahmen als kulturelles Schicksal. Paper presented at a conference held in Munich on 7 February 1988. In Probleme der Kopie von der Antike bis zum 19. Jahrhundert: Vier Vorträge. Edited by Christian Lenz, 9–24. Munich: Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen.

    In German. Short article that highlights a few key problems linked to the meaning of Roman copies after Greek masterpieces and styles. Argues that the phenomenon of copies was inherent (a “cultural destiny”) in the Roman reception of Greek culture, fully assimilated as a system.

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