Romans: Art

Rome's success was built on the organised and practical application of ideas long known to the ancient world, rather than on technological innovation. But the inhabitants of Roman Britain did display creativity in their art.

Mosaic depicting Europa and the Bull
A mosaic at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, depicting Europa and the Bull

ROMAN AND NATIVE TRADITIONS

The most accomplished art of Roman Britain would not have appeared out of place in a Mediterranean city. Indeed, some of it may have been executed by artists from abroad.

As with religion in Roman Britain, however, it's common to find artworks that combine Roman with native or Celtic traditions, sometimes brilliantly. For instance, the head of the god Antenociticus from Benwell Temple on Hadrian’s Wall is a fine sculpture in a classical style; but his strange eyes, neck-torque and strikingly patterned hairstyle are Celtic.

Intaglio jewel of a cockerel being driven by a hare
Originally set into a signet ring, this jasper intaglio (engraved design) was discovered at Aldborough Roman Town, North Yorkshire. It depicts a hare in a chariot, pulled by a cockerel. Intaglios have been found at Roman sites across Britain, depicting people, animals and gods.

PORTRAITS AND SCULPTURE

There are several other Romano-British examples of the realistic portrait sculpture for which Rome was renowned. The two marble portrait busts found at Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent are among the most notable. Much surviving sculpture derives from cult statues of deities, often of great beauty, like the heads of Serapis and Mithras from the Walbrook in London.

The headless oriental goddess Juno Regina at Chesters, on Hadrian’s Wall, with her exquisitely depicted drapery, is either the work of a local sculptor who used an eastern copy-book, or possibly the work of an artist who had travelled from the East.

Relief sculpture on more everyday items such as tombstones, temple reliefs and building inscriptions varied immensely in quality across the province, and is always more commonly found at military sites than at civilian ones.

Carving of a goddess from Corbridge
A stone relief of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), from about the 3rd century. Originally from a temple dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, it was found reused in the floor of the east granary at Corbridge Roman Town, Northumberland.

MOSAICS AND WALL-PAINTINGS

Mosaics, on the other hand, hardly ever appear in military contexts, but are a feature of towns and villas. Polychrome designs are a particularly striking characteristic of 4th-century examples.

Again there is a great range in quality. A good mosaic of the 4th-century ‘Cirencester’ school of craftsmen can be seen in the great Cotswold villa of North Leigh, while Lullingstone offers an arresting mosaic depicting Europa and the Bull.

Such scenes from classical mythology and literature were the staple subjects of mosaics throughout the empire, and reflect the desire of the owner to be recognised as a leisured landed aristocrat with literary interests. Even the northern city of Isurium (Aldborough, North Yorkshire) has fine polychrome mosaics, once depicting the Muses and the story of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Painted wall plaster was a feature of all high-status buildings (in military as well as civil contexts). It tends not to survive, but striking examples have been found at Verulamium (St Albans) and, once again, at Lullingstone. The rare surviving 4th-century Christian scenes found there suggest that a part of the villa became a place of Christian worship.

METALWORK

Many smaller metal objects, such as statuettes and miniature shrines, are of high artistic quality, but it is sets of tableware that offer some of the most spectacular examples of the Roman silversmith’s art. They survive because they were hoarded in times of desperation or emergency towards the end of the Roman period, and never recovered.

Often this tableware incorporates Christian symbolism. Some pieces, however, such as a magnificent silver dish found at Corbridge, near Hadrian’s Wall (the ‘Corbridge Lanx’), feature pagan rather than Christian scenes, showing that classical motifs continued to be valued in the Christian empire.

The weight, discovered at Richborough Roman Fort, Kent, represents the Greek god Silenus, the bald, fat and invariably drunk tutor to Dionysus, Greek god of wine. The Romans were heavily influenced by Greek culture in all its forms.

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