Roman Art Essay


Just as it marks the high point of the geographical extent, prestige, prosperity, and social stability of the Empire, the principate of Trajan marks the supreme moment of integration, order, and unambiguous purpose in Roman Imperial art. In the great monuments of the Trajanic era all the diverse strands in Roman art and architecture that we have traced up to this point were preserved and harmonized.

–          John Boardman

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Marcus Ulpius Traianus was a prominent senator and general, whose principate succeeded that of Nerva during the Ancient Roman period. Although his victories were mainly military considering his military background, he was also known for his extensive public building program, which brought several additions to Roman art and architecture. New purposes of such works also emerged, initiating an observable difference in their qualities.

The title of “principate” was introduced by Octavian Caesar Augustus in an effort to make the impression that the Roman government still ran as a republic. It comes from the Latin word “princeps” meaning first. It gave the implication that, although the principate was the head of the state, he was merely “first among equals”, giving power to its citizens, represented by senators, while masking the forming oligarchy. Augustus’ system was adopted by his succeeding emperors. Later on, Nerva, who faced unpopularity among the military, adopted Trajan as his son as a political move. Thus, when Nerva’s death came, Trajan became the next principate and the first non-Italian emperor of Rome.

Trajan was famous for his military conquests, especially for his success over the kingdom of Dacia. However, much of the treasures accumulated from these triumphs were mostly invested in art and architecture. Much of Rome was redesigned and Trajan left quite a few enduring landmarks, whose remains still exist to bear witness to its former glory.

One example of this was the Ulpian Basilica. It was named after Trajan, whose middle name was Ulpius, and was characterized by five naves separated by four rows of columns and apses at the ends. Such design was the first of its kind during the period and was later to be used by Constantine in building Christian churches. Furthermore, the whole basilica was decorated with war spoils and trophies from the Dacian Wars, under Trajan’s command.

Another landmark was the Trajan’s Forum. According to findings, expensive and imported colored marble material was used to build this in order to underscore his wealth. It also had decorations that depicted Trajan’s victories against Dacia. Outside of The Forum were walkways creating a vast square 660 by 390 feet, with seating spaces on two sides. The main entrance to the forum was marked with an arch upon which a statue of Trajan in a six-horse chariot stood. Around the square were the Trajan Market and Corinthian columns. Not far from these were two identical libraries between which stood another one of the era’s great architectural work: Trajan’s column (Packer, 1998).

The column was 125 in height, and running around it 23 times were narrative panels, 3 feet in width. These panels depicted historical events and contained crowded figures to make the viewer feel an actuality of the depictions. The panels were very much detailed and elaborated, such that the flanking libraries were originally the ways to read them. On top of this was a statue of the Emperor and below, the base served as his burial place.

These examples of elaborate architecture during Trajan’s period marked not just a period of prosperity for Rome, but a certain change in the purpose of art. Roman art works of previous eras were originally plain and the original purpose of such monuments was to support honorific statuary. During Trajan’s era, however, these became more and more elaborate, and deviated from merely honoring figures, to advertising the victories and good deeds of the emperors. Relief panels, for instance, were built that often recounted specific historical events. They too, depicted symbolic scenes where the emperor may be shown to be divine or was being worshiped by conquered people.

Thus the use of art for political purposes came about. The Forum for example, like the Greek agora, became the center of public life and the heart of the Senate. Here, laws were passed, symposiums were held and an area for grand displays was created. Triumphal arches also served as public statements of power.

Furthermore, the rise of these can be seen as efforts of emperors to be commemorated and, in a way, immortalized. The Trajan Column as a burial place is similar to the Mausolea of Ausgustus and Hadrian, and can be seen as a work that maneuvers viewers to a sense of involvement and keeps them interested in the emperor’s deeds (Smith, 2004).

Moreover, the Trajan column may be a symbol of victory, at least to the people. During that period, Rome was experiencing financial difficulties. The solution that Trajan used was to expand his land by conquering other kingdoms like Dacia. The construction of the column may have been an action to defy the people’s thinking that war would further drain their resources. It gave the impression that they were actually gaining much from their movements, to the point that a new urban center was built.

From a certain prospective, the only person who will truly be able to answer the question of why a work was made is the artist himself. Thus, the purpose of Roman art- whether it was religious, political or if it simply for the pursuit of beauty- is not actually assumed. However, during Trajan’s era, enough characterizations of artwork are able to justify its inclination to the purpose of immortalization. And considering how Roman art has been commemorated, preserved and has influenced current architecture, perhaps it has been successful in its purpose.


The non-classical element in Roman art…present in earlier Roman art, even from the time of the Republic…came to the forefront in the later Empire because it was better suited than the classical style to the changed priorities which art was trying to express…While the classical showed forms in natural, even if idealized, terms and was concerned with…building up a harmonious representation in which external details are pleasingly depicted, the non-classical approach tended to concentrate on laying bare the inner significance of the scene. The style which resulted was spare yet powerful in its ability to convey ideas by emphasis on significant details.

–          John Boardman

Rome’s transition from being a republic to an empire brought with it other changes- even in the fields of Art and Architecture. The events that transpired changed the way by which conveyance of messages were prioritized. There was an observable want for self-expression- a switch from using Classical to Neo-classical styles.

A Republic government, for instance, would theoretically emphasize the involvement of the active citizen and make sure that all sectors are represented, as was the purpose of the Senate. This system of checks and balances would prevent the emergence of tyranny. On the other hand, Imperialism is often autocratic. Although it is usually attributed to geographical ownership and power, it can also be applied to the ownership of values and beliefs. In Rome’s case, I think the term Imperialism can be applied both ways.

During the Early Empire, Rome was at its territorial peak. This large extent of control and its long endurance is presumed to be the reason as to why it has strong influence on language, philosophy and other aspects in the present. Imperial administration was divided into the eastern and western halves. Meanwhile, in terms of values and belief, it was during this period that Romans allegedly started losing their traditional values, especially Roman women.

Personally, I see this switch in styles as a psychological response to the lowered opportunities for self-expression brought about by the change in government. As these decrease, people tend to make use of different means that can help in the conveyance of ideas. Again, another purpose for creating art is brought up. And in this light, it is the purpose for self-expression. In such situation, idealized depictions may not be able to catch the attention of an Imperial government- thus, calling for the emergence of a more creative means of expression that will emphasize on significant details in order to straightforwardly present ideas.


1.      Packer, J. (1998). Trajan’s Glorious Forum. Abtsracts Vol. 51 No. 1. Retrieved May 2, 2009 from

2.      Smith, E. (2004). Discussion of Article “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration”by Penelope J.E. Davies. In Art and Propaganda in Ancient Rome. Retrieved May 2, 2009 from