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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews, Historiography, and Handbooks
  • Primary Sources and Commentaries
  • Funerary Sculpture
  • Gender, Sexuality, and the “Other”
  • Idealplastik, Copies, Adaptations
  • Workshops, Materials, Polychromy, Recarving, and Restoration
  • Roman Sculpture in the Provinces
  • Collections and Sculptural Displays
  • Museum Catalogues and Exhibitions

Classics Roman Sculpture
Diane Atnally Conlin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0242


Sculpture in the Roman world constitutes a broad category of diverse objects: from miniature votive statuettes deposited at rural sanctuaries to colossal portrait statues erected in apsidal niches of grand urban basilicas, from decorative plaques suspended between columns in Roman peristyle gardens to large-scale reliefs attached to conspicuous triumphal monuments. Perhaps more so than any other category of Roman material culture, sculpture has been extensively categorized and analyzed by generations of scholars. In contrast to the progressive development of styles identified (and often questioned) for Greek sculpture, Roman sculpture traditionally is divided along the same political subperiods as those used for Roman history (Republican, Augustan, Tetrarchic, etc.). Within these historical categories, two types of sculpture have been afforded primacy with respect to originality and aesthetic influence: portraiture and “historical” reliefs. More recently, scholarship has shifted away from the single-monument, typological-, or historical-based analysis to explore questions of display, patronage, production, distribution, regional divergences, gender and sexuality, reception, and socioreligious significance. Unless otherwise noted, general textbooks on Roman art are not part of this article.

General Overviews, Historiography, and Handbooks

The earliest studies of Roman sculpture focused on identifying the unique (or “Roman”) qualities of carved imagery, often with an emphasis on historical reliefs. More recent works continue to review the corpus of Roman sculpture based on long-standing categorization principles but also offer new perspectives on understanding the significances of sculpture (iconography, styles, techniques) within varied social, geographical, and historical contexts. The standard textbook on Roman sculpture remains Kleiner 1992. Outstanding examples of new approaches to a broad range of sculptures include Hölscher 2004 (semantics of styles) and Stewart 2008 (social contexts). For a concise overview of the scholarship on Roman art with an emphasis on sculpture, Brendel 1979 remains the seminal introduction to historiography. Kampen 2003 provides a useful overview of trends and lacunae in current art historical scholarship. Borg 2015 and Friedland, et al. 2015 are two examples of the 21st-century trend toward concise, summary essays by specialists collected as companions or handbooks.

  • Borg, B. 2015. A companion to Roman art: Blackwell companions to the Ancient world. Chichester, UK: John Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118886205

    Collection of scholarly essays on Roman art with particular emphasis on sculpture. Includes papers on methods, development, production, genres, contexts (private display, funerary, provinces), themes, and modern reception.

  • Brendel, O. 1979. Prolegomena to the study of Roman art. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Influential review of the early historiography of Roman art with a concise discussion of the “pluralistic theories” as applied to Roman sculptural styles. Also includes a discussion of Roman wall painting.

  • Friedland, E., M. Sobocinski, and E. Gazda. 2015. The Oxford handbook of Roman sculpture. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199921829.001.0001

    Collection of scholarly essays arranged thematically. Coverage is necessarily broad but includes useful detailed bibliographies. Sections on collecting, conservation and display, production and distribution, styles and genres, spatial and social contexts, regions and provinces, and viewing and reception.

  • Hölscher, T. 2004. The languages of images in Roman art. Translated by A. Snodgrass and A. Künyl-Snodgrass. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A groundbreaking stylistic study of Roman art with emphasis on Roman sculpture. Interprets images as a semantic system (pictorial language) laden with ideological messages. Explores how different sculptural styles drawn from earlier Greek art were employed for various subjects and themes to relay messages to a multicultural population. English translation of the 1987 German original.

  • Kampen, N. B. 2003. On writing histories of Roman art. Art Bulletin 85.2: 371–386.

    DOI: 10.2307/3177349

    Assessment of research trends in Roman art history with particular emphasis on Roman sculpture.

  • Kleiner, D. E. E. 1992. Roman sculpture. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Standard text for advanced university courses on Roman sculpture. Covers the major monuments of all traditional historical periods up to and including the age of Constantine. Most chapters are divided into the subcategories of portraiture, relief sculpture, and funerary art.

  • Stewart, P. 2008. The social history of Roman art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Concise examination of the manufacturing and functions of Roman art with emphasis on Roman sculpture. Also examines the identities of artists, the significance of Roman portraits, and the use of distinct styles of images on public monuments, including those produced in Late Antiquity.

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