During the Roman Republic, members of all social classes used a variety of sculptural techniques to promote their distinguished social statuses.


By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key works from the Roman Republic
  • Define critical terms related to art of the Republic
  • Describe the defining characteristics of sculpture during the Roman Republic
  • Explain the importance of both concrete and the arch in Roman architecture

Roman Art in the Republic

Early Roman art was influenced by the art of Greece and that of the neighbouring Etruscans, themselves greatly influenced by their Greek trading partners. As the expanding Roman Republic began to conquer Greek territory, its official sculpture became largely an extension of the Hellenistic style, with its departure from the idealized body and flair for the dramatic. This is partly due to the large number of Greek sculptors working within Roman territory.

However, Roman sculpture during the Republic departed from the Greek traditions in several ways:

  • It was the first to feature a new technique called continuous narration.
  • Commoners, including freedmen, could commission public art and use it to cast their professions in a positive light.
  • Portraiture throughout the Republic celebrated old age with its verism.
  • In the closing decades of the Republic, Julius Caesar counteracted traditional propriety by becoming the first living person to place his own portrait on a coin.

In the examples that follow, the patrons use these techniques to promote their status in society.

The Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus

Despite its most common title, the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (late second century BCE) was more likely a base intended to support cult statues in the cella of a Temple of Neptune (Poseidon) located in Rome on the Field of Mars. The frieze is the second oldest Roman bas-relief currently known.

Domitius Ahenobarbus, a naval general, likely commissioned the altar and the temple in gratitude for a naval victory between 129 and 128 BCE. The reliefs combine mythology and contemporary civic life.

One panel of the altar depicts the census, a uniquely Roman event of contemporary civic life. It is one of the earliest reliefs sculpted in a continuous narration, in which the viewer reads from left to right the recording of the census, the purification of the army before the altar of Mars, and the levy of the soldiers.



This is a photo of a panel from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb, a marble bas-relief that depicts the different stages in a census of the Roman citizen body. In the first scene, the oath-taker sits holding a tablet to record the name and property of a line of men before him. The second scene shows the religious ceremony that legitimized the census. A censor presides, placing his hand on a statue of Mars, depicted in full armor. A bull, a ram, and a pig are led to the censor for sacrifice. The final scene depicts two soldiers with shields and a horse.
Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb: This panel of the altar depicts the census, a uniquely Roman event of contemporary civic life.

The other three panels depict the mythological wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite. At the center of his scene, Neptune and Amphitrite are seated in a chariot drawn by two Tritons (messengers of the sea) who dance to music. They are accompanied by a multitude of fantastic creatures, Tritons, and Nereides (sea nymphs) who form a retinue for the wedding couple, which, like the census scene, can be read from left to right.

On the left, a Nereid riding on a sea-bull carries a present. Next, Amphitrite’s mother Doris advances towards the couple, mounted on a hippocampus (literally, a sea horse) and holding wedding torches in each hand to light the procession’s way. Eros hovers behind her. Behind the wedding couple, a Nereid riding a hippocampus carries another present.



This photo shows another panel from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb. It is one of the other three panels of the altar and depicts the mythological wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite. At the center of the scene, Neptune and Amphitrite are seated in a chariot drawn by two Tritons who dance to music. They are accompanied by a multitude of fantastic creatures, Tritons and Nereides who form a retinue for the wedding couple. At the left, a Nereid riding on a sea-bull carries a present. To her right, the mother of Amphitrite, Doris, advances towards the couple, mounted on a sea-horse and holding wedding torches in each hand to light the procession's way. To her right is an Eros, a creature associated with Venus. Behind the wedding couple, a Nereid, accompanied by two more Erotes and riding a hippocamp, carries another present.
Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb: The other three panels of the altar depict the mythological wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite.

Tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, the Baker

The patronage of public sculpture was not limited to the ruling classes during the Republic. The tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the Baker (c. 50–20 BCE) is one of the largest and best-preserved freedman funerary monuments in Rome. Its sculpted frieze is a classic example of the plebeian style in Roman sculpture.

The deceased built the tomb for himself and perhaps his wife Atistia in the final decades of the Republic. While the tomb’s inscription lacks an L to denote the status of a freedman, the tripartite name of the deceased follows the pattern of names given to and adopted by former slaves.

The tomb, approximately 33 feet tall, commemorates the deceased and his profession. Its three main components are a frieze at the top and the cylindrical niches (probably symbolic of a kneading machine or grain measuring vessels) below it.

The surviving text of the inscription translates as “This is the monument of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, baker, contractor, public servant.” The frieze represents various stages in the baking of bread in continuous narration.

Although time-worn, the naturalistic depiction of human and animal bodies in a variety of poses is still evident. This record of each stage in a mundane process demonstrates the sense of pride the deceased must have had in his profession. Because the wearing of togas was not conducive to manual labour, the simple clothing on the figures marks them as plebeians or commoners.



This photo shows the Tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the Baker. It is decorated with a relief that depicts, on the south side, the delivery and grinding of grain and sifting of flour; on the north, the mixing and kneading of dough, forming of round loaves, and baking in a domed "pizza-type" oven; and, on the west, the stacking of loaves in baskets and their being taken for weighing.
The Tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the Baker: The frieze represents various stages in the baking of bread in continuous narration.


Roman portraiture during the Republic is identified by its considerable realism, known as veristic portraiture. Verism refers to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the subject’s facial characteristics. The style originated from Hellenistic Greece; however, its use in the Roman Republic is due to Roman values, customs, and political life.

As with other forms of Roman art, portraiture borrowed certain details from Greek art but adapted these to their own needs. Veristic images often show their male subjects with receding hairlines, deep wrinkles, and even warts. While the faces of the portraits often display incredible detail and likeness, the subjects’ bodies are idealized and do not correspond to the age shown in the face.



This photo shows the statue, Portrait of a Roman General. He wears a toga that shows his bare chest and idealized abdominal muscles. He stands with one leg bent and hidden under the toga.
Portrait of a Roman General: When created as full-length sculptures, the veristic portrait busts appear to have been paired with idealized (mass-produced?) bodies that create a sense of disunity.
This photo shows the Bust of an Old Man. His face is realistic and life like with deep wrinkles in his forehead, crow's feet wrinkles around his eyes, and deep lines around his mouth.
Bust of an old man: Verism refers to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the subject’s facial characteristics, such as the wrinkles on this man’s face.

The popularity and usefulness of verism appears to derive from the need to have a recognizable image. Veristic portrait busts provided a means of reminding people of distinguished ancestors or of displaying one’s power, wisdom, experience, and authority. Statues were often erected of generals and elected officials in public forums—and a veristic image ensured that a passerby would recognize the person when they actually saw them.

The Late Republic

The use of veristic portraiture began to diminish in the first century BCE. During this time, civil wars threatened the empire, and individual men began to gain more power. The portraits of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, two political rivals who were also the most powerful generals in the Republic, began to change the style of the portraits and their use.

The portraits of Pompey are not fully idealized, nor were they created in the same veristic style of Republican senators. Pompey borrowed a specific parting and curl of his hair from Alexander the Great. This similarity served to link Pompey visually with the likeness of Alexander and to remind people that he possessed similar characteristics and qualities.



This photo shows a marble bust of Pompey the Great in a museum with other busts in the background. The bust depicts a round face and small lidded eyes. His hair is brushed back high from the forehead.
Marble bust of Pompey the Great: Portraits of Pompey combine a degree of verism with an idealized hairstyle reminiscent of Alexander the Great. 

The portraits of Julius Caesar are more veristic than those of Pompey. Despite staying closer to the stylistic convention, Caesar was the first man to mint coins with his own likeness printed on them. In the decades prior to this, it had become increasingly common to place an illustrious ancestor on a coin, but putting a living person—especially oneself—on a coin departed from Roman propriety. By circulating coins issued with his image, Caesar directly showed the people that they were indebted to him for their own prosperity and therefore should support his political pursuits.




These photos show both sides a denarius, a round silver coin used for Roman currency. One side shows a portrait of Julius Caesar in profile wearing a laurel crown. The other side shows love and fertility goddess Venus. She wears a toga that exposes part of her chest and hold a winged victory—a female figure depicting a classical goddess.
Julius Caesar portrait: A portrait of Julius Caesar on a denarius. On the reverse side stands Venus Victix holding a winged Victory.

Death Masks

The creation and use of death masks demonstrate Romans’ veneration of their ancestors. These masks were created from molds taken of a person at the time of his or her death. Made of wax, bronze, marble, and terra cotta, death masks were kept by families and displayed in the atrium of their homes.

Visitors and clients who entered the home would have been reminded of the family’s ancestry and the honourable qualities of their ancestors. Such displays served to bolster the reputation and credibility of the family.

Death masks were also worn and paraded through the streets during funeral processions. Again, this served not only as a memorial for the dead but also to link the living members of a family to their illustrious ancestors in the eyes of the spectator.

Roman Architecture under the Republic

Roman architecture began as an imitation of Classical Greek architecture but eventually evolved into a new style. Unfortunately, almost no early Republican buildings remain intact. The earliest substantial remains date to approximately 100 BCE.

Roman architecture relies heavily on the use of concrete and the arch to create unique interior spaces and architectural forms. Innovations such as improvements to the round arch and barrel vault, as well as the inventions of concrete and the true hemispherical dome, allowed Roman architecture to become more versatile than its Greek predecessors. While the Romans were reluctant to abandon classical motifs, they modified their temple designs by abandoning pedimental sculptures, altering the traditional Greek peripteral colonnades, and opting for central exterior stairways.

Likewise, although Roman architects did not abandon traditional column orders, they did modify them with the Tuscan, Roman Ionic, and Composite orders. This diagram shows the Greek orders on the left and their Roman modifications on the right.



This is an illustration of Greek and Roman column orders. From top to bottom in the picture they are: Doric: Stout with smooth, round capitals (i.e., the space between the column and structure). Tuscan: Simplest column with no fluting. Ionic: Thinnest, smallest column with volutes (spiral scrolls). Roman Ionic: Thin, small column with a larger more elaborate volutes. Corinthian: slender fluted columns and elaborate capitals decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls. Composite: Combines the volutes of the Ionic order and the elaborate capitals of the Corinthian order.
Greek and Roman column orders: From top to bottom: Doric and Tuscan, Ionic and Roman Ionic (scrolls on all four corners), Corinthian and Composite.

Roman Temples

Most Roman temples derived from Etruscan prototypes. Like Etruscan temples, Roman temples are frontal with stairs that lead up to a podium, and a deep portico filled with columns. They are also usually rectilinear, and the interiors consist of at least one cella that contained a cult statue.

If multiple gods were worshiped in one temple, each god would have its own cella and cult image. For example, Capitolia—the temples dedicated to the Capitoline Triad—would always be built with three cellae, one for each god of the triad: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.



This photo shows the Temple of Portunus. It is a rectangular building raised on a high podium reached by a flight of steps. It has a portico of four Ionic columns across and two columns deep.
The Temple of Portunus: A typical Roman Republican temple. Rome, c. 75 BCE.

Roman temples were typically made of brick and concrete and then faced in either marble or stucco. Engaged columns (columns that protrude from walls like reliefs) adorn the exteriors of the temples. This creates an effect of columns completely surrounding a cella, an effect known as psuedoperipteral. The altar, used for sacrifices and offerings, always stood outside in front of the temple.

While most Roman temples followed this typical plan, some were dramatically different. At times, the Romans erected round temples that imitated the Greek tholos. Examples can be found in the Temple of Hercules Victor (late second century BCE), in the Forum Boarium in Rome. The temple consists of a circular cella within a concentric ring of 20 Corinthian columns. Like its Etruscan predecessors, the temple rests on a tufa foundation. Its original roof and architrave are now lost.



This photo shows the ruins of the Temple of Hercules Victor. It consists of a circular cella within a concentric ring of twenty Corinthian columns.
Temple of Hercules Victor: A Roman modification of a Greek tholos. Rome, from the late second century BCE.


The Romans perfected the recipe for concrete during the third century BCE by mixing together water, lime, and pozzolana, volcanic ash mined from the countryside surrounding Mt. Vesuvius. Concrete became the primary building material for the Romans, and it is largely the reason that they were such successful builders.

Most Roman buildings were built with concrete and brick that was then covered in façade of stucco, expensive stone, or marble. Concrete was a cheaper and lighter material than most other stones used for construction. This helped the Romans build structures that were taller, more complicated, and quicker to build than any previous ones.



This photo shows a wall of a tomb on the Via Appia, Rome.
Wall of a tomb on the Via Appia, Rome: The ruins show the internal core of the building, made in Roman concrete.

Once dried, concrete was also extremely strong, yet flexible enough to remain standing during moderate seismic activity. The Romans were even able to use concrete underwater, allowing them to build harbours and breakers for their ports. The ruins of a tomb on the Via Appia (the most famous thoroughfare through ancient Rome) expose the stones and aggregate that the Romans used to mix concrete.

Arches, Vaults, and Domes

The Romans effectively combined concrete and the structural shape of the arch. These two elements became the foundations for most Roman structures. Arches can bear immense weight, as they are designed to redistribute weight from the top, to its sides, and down into the ground. While the Romans did not invent the arch, they were the first culture to manipulate it and rely on its shape.

An arch is a pure compression form. It can span a large area by resolving forces into compressive stresses (pushing downward) that, in turn, eliminate tensile stresses (pushing outward). As the forces in the arch are carried to the ground, the arch will push outward at the base (called thrust). As the height of the arch decreases, the outward thrust increases. In order to maintain arch action and prevent the arch from collapsing, the thrust needs to be restrained, either with internal ties or external bracing, such as abutments (labelled 8 on the diagram below).



This diagram illustrates the structural support of an arch and barrel vault.
Schematic illustration of an arch: This diagram illustrates the structural support of an arch extended into a barrel vault. The dotted line extending downward from the keystone (1) shows the strength of the arch directing compressive stresses (represented by the downward-pointing arrows outside the arch) safely to the ground. Meanwhile, tensile stress (represented by the horizontal and diagonal-facing arrows) is contained by the surrounding wall.

The arch is a shape that can be manipulated into a variety of forms that create unique architectural spaces. Multiple arches can be used together to create a vault. The simplest type is known as a barrel vault.

Barrel vaults consist of a line of arches in a row that create the shape of a tunnel. When two barrel vaults intersect at right angles, they create a groin vault. These are easily identified by the x-shape they create in the ceiling of the vault. Furthermore, because of the direction, the thrust is concentrated along this x-shape, so only the corners of a groin vault need to be grounded. This allows an architect or engineer to manipulate the space below the groin vault in a variety of ways.

Arches and vaults can be stacked and intersected with each other in a multitude of ways. One of the most important forms that they can create is the dome. This is essentially an arch that is rotated around a single point to create a large hemispherical vault. The largest dome constructed during the Republic was on the Temple of Echo at Baiae, named for its remarkable acoustic properties.



This photo shows the interior of the dome of the Temple of Echo at Baiae.
Temple of Echo at Baiae: The dome on Temple of Echo at Baiae creates the building’s remarkable acoustic properties.

Arches and concrete are found in many iconic Roman structures. The Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (c. 120 BCE) at Palestrina, Italy is a massive temple structure built into the hillside in a series of terraces, exedras, and porticoes. Concrete was used as the primary building material and barrel vaults provide structural support, both as a terracing method for the hill and in creating interesting architectural spaces for the sanctuary.



This is a photo of a scale model of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia. It shows the spectacular series of terraces, exedras and porticos on four levels down the hillside, linked by monumental stairs and ramps.
Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (scale model): Concrete was used as the primary building material and barrel vaults provide structural support, both as a terracing method for the hill and in creating interesting architectural spaces for the sanctuary.

Roman aqueducts are another iconic use of the arch. The arches that make up an aqueduct provided support without requiring the amount of building material necessary for arches supported by solid walls. The Aqua Marcia (144–140 BCE) was the longest of the eleven aqueducts that served the city of Rome during the Republic. It supplied water to the Viminal Hill in the north of Rome, and from there to the Caelian, Aventine, Palatine, and Capitoline Hills. Where the Aqua Marcia had contact with water, it was coated with a waterproof mortar.



This photo shows some arches of the Aqua Marcia, the bridge of a Roman aqueduct.
Aqua Marcia: These are some ruins from the aqueduct near Tivoli, Italy, c. 144–140 BCE.


  • Continuous narration arose during the Republic as a means of telling a story from beginning to end in a visual form. Art patrons used it on public monuments to celebrate their status in society.
  • Veristic portraiture depicts the subject in hyper-realism, wrinkles and individual facial characteristics are carefully formed in these images.
  • Portraits of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar set precedents for future imperial portraiture by quoting iconographic characteristics and introducing a likeness of the living imperator on coins.
  • Death masks provided a means for a family to remember their ancestors as well as to remind others of the illustriousness of their ancestry.
  • Roman architecture began as an imitation of the Classical Greek style but eventually grew into its own style with technological advances and modifications on traditional Greek elements.
  • Roman temple design is based on a mixed-use of Etruscan and Greek models. They are typically strictly frontal, on a high podium with a flight of stairs, and have a deep, colonnaded portico in front of the cella.
  • Concrete was an essential building material in Roman architecture. It is lightweight, strong, and durable and can even be used underwater.
  • Most Roman buildings were constructed with concrete and brick and then faced in stucco, an expensive stone, or marble.
  • The arch is a highly significant architectural shape in Roman architecture, often employed to allow for wider openings in structures. Arches can be used together to create vaults (barrel and groin) and domes, as well as to create unique interior spaces.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/the-republic/ License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike