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

  • Introduction
  • Historiography
  • Literary Sources
  • Makers
  • Collecting

Art History Roman Art
Michael Squire, Katharina Lorenz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0073


“Roman art” is an inherently loose term. At its most basic level, the category refers to the visual culture produced in Rome and the territories of the Roman Empire: chronologically speaking, this means materials from between around the mid-1st millennium BCE and the mid-1st millennium CE (from the founding of the Roman Republic to the fall of the Western Roman Empire: see Periodization and Chronology); from a geographical perspective, Roman art encompasses materials from the British isles and Scandinavia in the west and north, to Armenia and Egypt in the east and south (see Regional Variations). If Roman art therefore refers to objects hugely disparate across time and space, it also includes a host of medial forms—from buildings and architectural monuments, through sculpture, painting, and mosaics, to goods in both luxury metal and humble terracotta (see Media). How, then, to define the Romanness of Roman art? This question has a long and contentious history, bound up with parallel scholarship on “Greek art” (see Historiography, as well as the Oxford Bibliographies in Art History article on Greek Art and Architecture). Two issues are important to emphasize from the outset. First, it is impossible to draw any straightforward distinction between “Roman” and “Greek” works. Second, the sheer geographical diversity of Roman art makes it inherently eclectic and pluralistic. These two observations reflect a radical rethinking about the subject in recent years. Traditionally, Roman visual culture was seen as the poor relation to its ancient Greek counterpart (see Historiography; Media: Sculpture: “Idealplastik). Since the 1980s, by contrast, work on Roman art has looked markedly different. Motivated in part by postmodern interests (particularly the issue of “originals” and “copies”), and partly by postcolonial ideas about “provincial” art, scholars are today looking at Roman art through a much more sophisticated theoretical lens.

In structuring this article, we have tried to select the most useful resources from a range of interpretative approaches. Although the field can at times seem fragmented and fractionized, students and scholars must depend on a variety of materials—both classificatory typologies and more comparative interpretive and theoretical analyses; by the same token, they will need to consult not only museum catalogues, but also more archaeologically oriented surveys of context and provenance. Despite its focus (wherever possible) on English materials, our survey emphasizes the international nature of available resources: advanced undergraduate and graduate students simply cannot get by without consulting materials in (above all) German, French, and Italian, as well as in English. Two other factors merit mentioning here: first, we have paid particular attention to materials with good-quality photographs and images (flagging the issue in our commentaries); second, we have tended to reference (wherever possible) the most recent interventions within the field, with a particular emphasis on book-length monographs and influential articles.

General Resources

Students of Roman art will want to be familiar with a number of different general resources. By way of introduction, this section brings together some of the most influential Textbooks (with particular emphasis on undergraduate teaching resources), while also listing some important general Reference Works (which will be more important to graduate students and scholars alike). Many of the Anthologies and Edited Volumes listed in this section are targeted at a combined undergraduate and more specialist readership. To this end, we have also selectively surveyed some of the most important Journals (in fact, a very small fraction of those available), as well as some important Online Object Databases.

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