Greek and Roman Art Research Paper

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Concepts of strength and dignity—and of ideal human beauty—inspired the sculptors who shaped early Greek monumental architecture and sculpture from marble. Romans, heavily influenced by the Etruscans (who themselves had borrowed from the Greeks), evoked traditional characteristics of the republic—economical, practical, structural—using concrete. Thus the art of both cultures embodies their age-old values.

The earliest monumental creations of classical Greece are the eighth-century BCE grave markers found in the Dipylon cemetery on the outskirts of ancient Athens. Their forms were familiar to everyone and had been for centuries as ordinary household pots used for storing food or mixing and decanting wine and water. Yet in their new context and in the hand of a truly inspired designer the experience created by them was of the very highest drama: these are not normal kitchen pots. They stand as tall as a man and as broad as a temple column. The drama of these monuments is generated by an unbelievable transformation in scale and is delivered to the viewer by a shocking disconnection between the expected and the experienced. The great Dipylon pots are uniquely valuable for understanding the most basic principles of Greek monumentality, because they represent first attempts. First attempts are significant because they represent conscious choices, not simply the repetition of tradition. And wherever conscious choice can be isolated there is the opportunity of uncovering meaning, for the question can be profitably asked, “Why did they solve the problem in this particular manner?

The master of the first giant Dipylon pot might have asked himself the question, “How can I best design a monument that is suitable for marking and acknowledging the most profound of human transitions and transformations, from life to death, from flesh and blood to spiritual, from ephemeral to everlasting?” His answer was to create a monument that embodied a similarly incomprehensible transformation, both physical and functional, whose drama disorients the viewer, takes the viewer out of any normal, everyday frame of reference—transforms the viewer, and speaks through unambiguous metaphor of the passage from one state of being to the next. The transformation in scale and function of these great Dipylon pots lifts them out of the realm of everyday utility and into a higher, more symbolic, more universal realm. Their common reference to Homeric heroes in their painted decoration further monumentalizes these pots, further elevates them beyond the everyday.

Transformative Power: The Greek Temple

A similar conception of monumentality is expressed in Greek temple architecture, through the monumental transformation of the temple in the early seventh century BCE from a thatched and mud hut to a solid stone and terracotta colossus. This transformation first takes place in Corinth, which develops a distinctive style of pre-Doric monumental architecture that gradually evolves into the first full-fledged representative of the Doric order, the Temple of Artemis at Corfu (c. 580 BCE), a colony and dependency of Corinth. The transformative nature of Greek monumental architecture is enhanced by the innovation of the sculpted pediment, an invention attributed to the Corinthians by the poet Pindar (522–443 BCE) and seemingly confirmed by its earliest appearance on Corfu, a Corinthian colony and dependency. More than any other feature the early sculpted pediments with their great frontal monsters condition the spirit of approach to the temple: if the approach to the temple was intended to reflect the approach to divinity, the purpose of the monsters was to transform any pilgrims who dared approach, to transport them beyond the protective boundaries of everyday life and into the contemplation of the terrifying nature of divinity and their relationship to it. The purpose of the great emblematic sculptural groups in the pediments was—like religious ritual—the spiritual transformation of the worshipper. Over the course of the sixth century BCE the pedimental instruments of engagement and confrontation become diluted, metamorphose from monsters to more familiar, less intimidating, human-shaped figures, indicating a change in the conception of temple divinity, from abstract, nonanthropomorphic, and chthonic (relating to the underworld) to anthropomorphic Olympian sky gods. This gradual humanization of divinity and consequent divinization of humanity is a theme that unites much of Greek art.

Egyptian Influences

The nature of monumental Greek art and architecture was profoundly affected by the opening of the trading colony Naukratis in Egypt in the later seventh century BCE. From this new and intense contact with Egypt came the inspiration for the peristyle (the continuous colonnade) in Greek temple architecture. The peristyle gave architectural expression to one of the most basic rituals of Ionian cult activity, religious procession: like pedimental sculpture, religious procession serves as a transforming ritual that prepares the worshipper for the approach to divinity. Emulating the processional function of Egyptian colonnades, the colossal peristyles of Ionia led through their formal arrangement to the front of the temple, then to the axis, then to the interior. Peristyles were also adopted on the Doric mainland, but in that context their nature was not processional. Instead, a sense of hieratic direction and procession was lent to early Doric architecture by its pedimental sculpture, which followed and further established the early Greek hierarchy of narrative and emblem in religious art: storytelling is associated with a secondary position, the more human realm, at the back of the temple, while the more abstract convention, the emblem, is appropriate for the suggestion of divinity at the front of the temple.

It was also through Naukratis that the Egyptian conception and technique of monumental freestanding sculpture was introduced to Greece. Beginning in the late seventh century, kouroi (male) and korai (female) appear as votives and grave markers and, perhaps, as cult images. There is probably a causal relationship between the appearance of this sculpture and the coincidental relegation of pottery to an almost exclusively non-monumental realm. The physical nature of kouroi and korai makes them particularly appropriate as indicators and inspirers of spiritual transition. Like the religious sculpture of Egypt, they are represented as highly formalized compositions, more religious emblem or hieroglyph than naturalistic representation of humans. Their tight symmetry and stylization intentionally and effectively separates them from the strictly human realm, removes them from the everyday, and places them in a mediating position between human and divine. On the other hand, as in vase painting and pedimental sculpture, an increasing interest in the examination of things human is witnessed in sixth-century freestanding sculpture in the increasingly naturalistic modeling of the body. This parallels the change to the more human conception of temple divinity as represented in pedimental sculpture, and reflects the increasingly central role humans play in the Greek conception of the cosmos.

The Classical Period

The increasingly detailed examination in art of the human condition, physical and emotional, continued unbroken into the classical period (beginning in 480 BCE with the Persian sack of the Athenian Acropolis). This movement toward naturalism, however, was potentially inimical to the goals of monumentality, as the goals of monumental art and architecture had always been to lift viewers out of the ordinary, beyond the everyday, and into the contemplation of forces greater than themselves: how could increasingly human representations lift humans beyond their own environment, inspire in them the contemplation and understanding of something superhuman, of the divine realm? This seems to have been recognized by the mid-fifth-century sculptor Polykleitos, who reintroduced the formal symmetry of kouroi to his compositions, though along diagonal axes rather than in the strictly vertical and horizontal framework of sixth-century sculpture. The decision of Phidias, the sculptor of the Parthenon, to ignore the developing techniques of representing individual characteristics of age, emotion, and character in favor of uniformly abstracted, ageless, “idealized” figures similarly indicates an analytical appreciation of the traditional character and techniques of monumental Greek art.

The Periclean building program on the Athenian Acropolis, undertaken in the aftermath of the Persian destruction of Athens, is perhaps the most elaborate expression of monumental art and architecture ever created in Greece. Its religious roots and purpose are evident in the detailed expression of religious procession through the organization of building types, the organization of their pedimental sculpture, and the incorporation of the processional language of Ionic temple architecture into the Doric tradition of the Acropolis. Its political and historical context and tradition are expressed through the many references to the Persian War, both metaphorical and literal, through the cults of legendary heroes, and through the use of the Ionic order as a reflection of Athens’s ancient genetic and linguistic connections with Ionia and of its present position at the head of an Ionian alliance against the Persians. The explicit celebration of the accomplishments and traditions of the Athenians in the religious monuments of their central sanctuary is a remarkable deviation from canon and represents an extreme evolution of the humanization of divinity and divinization of humanity in Greek art and architecture.

After the hiatus of Phidian sculpture, the examination of the human condition in ever-increasing detail recommenced with renewed energy in the fourth century BCE and soon resulted in the monumental representation of generalized but, nevertheless, individual human beings. In the Hellenistic Age (the period beginning with the death of Alexander III of Macedon [Alexander the Great] in 323 BCE and ending with the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE) the gradual humanization of divinity in Greek art culminated in the worship and monumental representation of Hellenistic rulers as gods. Similarly, while mythical or divine representation or reference served as an elevating agent of monumentality in earlier Greek art, reference to, or even quotation of, the buildings and sculpture of the Periclean Acropolis became a common agent of monumentality in the official art and architecture of the Hellenistic kingdoms of Greece, particularly of Pergamon.

Corinth and the Etruscans: Greek Influence on Rome

The connections between Greece and Rome are almost as old as the cultures themselves, and the Romans themselves traced the origins of monumental temple architecture in Rome back to mid-seventh-century Corinth. Around the time that the Corinthians were designing and building the first truly monumental temple in Greece, the old ruling oligarchy was overthrown and expelled from Corinth. When one of the deposed oligarchs, Damaratus, fled by ship from Corinth he carried with him a host of artisans, including terracotta workers, craftsmen we now know were most responsible for the monumental character of that temple—through their invention of the tiled roof. Damaratus sailed with them to the west coast of Italy and settled in the Etruscan town of Tarquinia, where Damaratus’s artisans introduced the Etruscans— who became the greatest terracotta sculptors of the Mediterranean—to the art of molding terracotta. So, in addition to developing the first tradition of monumental architecture in Greece, Corinth was also a crucial source for the origins of monumental sculpture and architecture in Etruria. Damaratus then extended Corinth’s artistic and cultural influence to Rome itself through his half-Etruscan son Lucumo, who later took the name Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and became the first Etruscan king of Rome. On the heights of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the central peak and religious center of Etruscan and Latin Rome, Tarquinius initiated the construction of the first monumental temple in Rome, dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, the same three divinities that in their Greek guise of Zeus, Hera, and Athena dominated the central height and religious center of Corinth. This cult of the Capitoline Triad became the central cult of the Roman republic and empire, and the triple-chambered plan of their temple, completed after the Etruscans were expelled from Rome at the end of the sixth century BCE, formed the template for all subsequent Capitolia.

From the Etruscans the Romans inherited the tradition of monumental wood and terracotta temple architecture. They were also deeply influenced by Etruscan sculpture, painting, and religious and political institutions. The tradition of Roman portraiture, a paradigmatic manifestation of an innate Roman fascination with the literal details of history, finds its roots in Etruscan funerary sculpture that goes back to the seventh century BCE. As much as any other art form, the super-realistic, warts-and-all portraiture of republican Rome (509–27 BCE) embodies the traditional Roman dedication to history, family, and age-old values. And as much as any other art form, the conception and appearance of Roman republican portraiture stands in opposition to the traditional Greek conception of monumental art. Through generalization and stylization monumental Greek art was intended to lift the viewer out of the everyday and into the consideration of superhuman forms and forces; Roman republican portraiture encouraged the contemplation of the thoughts and actions of specific, individual human beings through the reproduction of their most individualized, idiosyncratic physical attributes. A similar dichotomy is expressed in the contrast between the native tradition of Roman historical relief sculpture, which depicts the literal details of actual historical events, and the more generalized, emblematic references to history made in the monuments of the Greeks.

An Evolving Balance

The most profound wave of Greek influence on the Romans came with the Roman sack of Corinth in 146 BCE. The city was stripped of its sculpture and painting and almost any movable object of value, and it was all shipped to Rome, where it kindled a mighty taste for things Greek and antique and injected a permanent and powerful strain of Hellenism into the art and architecture of Rome. From the second century BCE Roman art and architecture can be read as a constant and intentional shifting—depending upon the specific purpose of the monument—of the balance of native Italic elements and those adopted from classical Greece. The Romans continue to build their temples according to their own traditional Tuscan plan (adopted from the Etruscans), but they consistently monumentalize those temples by veneering them with the materials and decorative orders of the Greeks.

A century later the emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BCE–14 CE) claimed to have found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Augustus’s statue at Prima Porta illustrates well the early integration of Hellenic and Italic forms and spirit in the service of the official message of the state. It combines a recognizable portrait head of Augustus with the body of the famous Doryphoros, the “Spearbearer” of the fifth-century BCE Greek sculptor Polykleitos. The Doryphoros is presented in the armor of a Roman general, the commander in chief, and wears a cuirass that carries the representation in relief of a historical event, a military accomplishment significant to the official image of Augustus. A recognizable, individual human being and a specific historical event are magnified, elevated to the realm of the superhuman through their association with fifth-century Greece, with Periclean Athens and its own remarkable cultural and military accomplishments, the apex, in the Roman mind, of human achievement. The same mixture and purpose is found in Augustus’s Altar of Peace (the Ara pacis), which presents a historical procession of individually recognizable Romans in the guise of the religious procession depicted on the Ionic frieze of the fifth-century Parthenon in Athens.

Augustus and his Julio-Claudian successors (reigned 14–68 CE) continued to present themselves in official art and architecture in the guise of fifth-century Greece. Even their portrait heads, while recognizable as individual emperors, were generalized and idealized in the manner of classical Greek art. When, however, their grotesque excesses and abuses of power led to the overthrow of Nero (reigned 54–68 CE) and the ruling dynasty, the first Flavian emperor, Vespasian (reigned 69–79 CE), openly distanced himself from the policies and character of his predecessors by changing the balance in the language of official state art. Instead of representing him as Doryphoros, Vespasian’s official images returned to the style of the old republican portraits—straightforward, literal, unpretentious, uniquely Roman—and proclaimed a return to the traditional values of the republic. In architecture he encouraged the use of concrete, a purely Roman building material and the most important Roman architectural contribution to posterity. The Amphitheatrum Flavium, the Colosseum, was not only the largest and most elaborate concrete structure in Rome, but it also denied the divine pretensions of the Julio-Claudian emperors and their profligate abuse of the Roman treasury for their own individual desires through its function as an entertainment center for the common people and through the site of its construction, on the newly filled-in lake in the center of Nero’s notorious Golden House, or Domus Aurea. This structure was built with state funds in the center of Rome as Nero’s personal pleasure villa; he appropriated over three hundred acres in the center of the city for its construction. Paradoxically, Nero’s architects had also made great use of concrete, but in the private context of Nero’s Golden House, where they experimented with the possibilities of concrete for molding interior space in new and fantastic ways. Their discoveries were profoundly influential in creating a Roman architecture of interiors.

The ways in which concrete and marble are used in Roman architecture can serve as a metaphor for the Roman character. In general, concrete formed the structure of the building, marble its veneer: carefully carved marble revetment could make a concrete building look as elegant as the Parthenon. Like the traditional characteristics of the republic—economical, practical, structural—concrete is purely Roman. Marble, on the other hand, as employed in Roman buildings, is expensive, luxurious, superficial, and foreign. While concrete reflects the native character of the Romans, marble reflects the aspirations of the Romans to the cultural heights of Pericles and fifth-century Athens.

Not until the reign of the emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117 CE) is concrete and its protective brick facing presented in unveneered reality as an appropriate surface for monumental architecture. The great curved facade of the Markets of Trajan reflects the molded nature of concrete, and the unstuccoed, unveneered brick surface reveals the fabric and techniques of its structure and initiates a new aesthetic in Roman architecture. Appropriately, this vast concrete building is dedicated to the practical pursuit of business; immediately next door, the contemporary Forum of Trajan, whose function is the symbolic representation of the aspirations and accomplishments of the Roman state under Trajan, is presented in the full glory of the classical Greek marble architectural orders.

Perhaps the most remarkable integration of traditional Roman and classical Greek architectural forms and symbols is found in the Pantheon of Trajan’s successor Hadrian (reigned 117–138 CE). Here the facade of a Greek temple is wedded to a completely un-Greek and purely Roman structure, a concrete, domed cylinder. In addition, the most elaborate architectural symbol of religious transition ever created in Greece, the Propylaia (the great gateway of the Periclean Acropolis), is directly referenced in the stacked pediments of the facade, which, in turn, are combined with the uniquely Roman symbol of transition, the triumphal arch, to form the most explicitly processional temple entrance ever created in the classical world. The entrance leads into an immense open interior whose dome (representing the vault of the heavens) is the culmination of decades of experimentation and mastery of the techniques and design of concrete architecture. Here, rather than emphasizing the distinct natures of Greek and Roman architecture, the expressive potential of both is consciously synthesized to create a temple uniquely appropriate to the inclusive, international worship of “all gods,” (pan-theon) and consequently to promote Hadrian’s own inclusive, international conception of the Roman Empire.

Succeeding emperors continued to create monumental art and architecture in the tradition of Hadrian and his predecessors, and continued to explore the possibilities of concrete as a monumental architectural medium. Classical Greek and native Italic elements continued to be used to express specific official messages and attitudes, though on the whole that balance shifted toward the Italic over the next two centuries. In sculpture this shift expressed itself in part in the increasing interest in frontal representation and in simple, clearly outlined figures. That, coupled with a new spirituality that increasingly expressed itself in an emphasis on the eyes, gradually led to the more emblematic, iconic relief sculpture and portraits of the late empire. Constantine the Great (Constantine I, reigned 306–337) employed the tools of official art and architecture to great advantage, and as the first of the Roman emperors to convert to Christianity, began to direct those tools toward the glorification and propagation of his new religion.


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