Roman sculpture did, however, begin to search for new avenues of artistic expression, moving away from their Etruscan and Greek roots, and, by the mid-1st century CE, Roman artists were seeking to capture and create optical effects of light and shade for greater realism. By later antiquity, there was even a move towards impressionism using tricks of light and abstract forms.
Sculpture also became more monumental with massive, larger-than-life statues of emperors, gods and heroes such as the huge bronze statues of Marcus Aurelius on horseback or the even bigger statue of Constantine I (only the head, hand and some limbs survive), both of which now reside in the Capitoline Museums of Rome. Towards the end of the Empire, sculpture of figures tended to lack proportion, heads especially were enlarged, and figures were most often presented flatter and from the front, displaying the influence of Eastern art.
It is in portraiture that Roman sculpture really comes to the fore.
It is also important to distinguish two quite distinct ‘markets’ for Roman sculpture, the first was the aristocratic ruling class taste for more classical and idealistic sculpture whilst the second, more provincial, ‘middle-class’ market seems to have preferred a more naturalistic and emotional type of sculpture, especially in portraiture and funerary works (although the limitations of artists away from the larger urban centres may also have had something to do with the differences in styles). An interesting comparison of the two approaches may be found in Trajan’s Column in Rome and a trophy at Adamklissi commemorating the same Dacian campaigns.
Statuary & Portrait Sculpture
As with the Greeks, the Romans loved to represent their gods in statues. When Roman emperors began to claim divinity then they too became the subject of often colossal and idealised statues, often with the subject portrayed with an arm raised to the masses and striking a suitably authoritative stance as in the Augustus of the Prima Porta.
Statues could also be used for decorative purposes in the home or garden and they could be miniaturized, especially in precious metals such as silver. One type of such statues which were peculiar to the Romans was the Lares Familiares. These were usually in bronze and represented the spirits which protected the home. They were typically displayed in pairs in a niche within the house and are youthful figures with arms raised and long hair who typically wear a tunic and sandals.
However, it is in the specific area of portraiture that Roman sculpture really comes to the fore and differentiates itself from other artistic traditions. The realism in Roman portrait sculpture may well have developed from the tradition of keeping wax funeral masks of deceased family members in the ancestral home which were worn by mourners at family funerals. These were very often accurate depictions where even the defects and less flattering physical aspects of a particular face were recorded. Transferred to stone, we then have many examples of private portrait busts which move away from the idealised portraits of earlier sculpture and present the subject as old, wrinkled, scarred or flabby; in short, these portraits tell the truth.
Once again, for official portraits of the ruling elite, in contrast to lower class subjects, the subject continued to be idealised, for example, the statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus has the emperor looking much more youthful and fresh-faced than he actually was at the time of sculpting (end of the 1st century BCE). However, by the time of Claudius in the mid 1st century CE, and even more so under Nero and the Flavian emperors, official portraiture on occasion strove for more realism. In the same period female portraits are also notable for their elaborate hairstyles and they no doubt were prime instigators in fashion trends.
Under Hadrian there was a return to idealised images such as in Classical Greek sculpture (e.g. the colossal statue of Antinous, c. 130 CE) but there was an important innovation in terms of a more natural rendering of the eyes in marble works. Previously, pupil and iris had only been painted on to the sculpture but now these also came to be sculpted as had been the case in bronze and terracotta works.
Realism once more returned with the Antonines, and such features as crow’s-feet and flabbiness return. There was also at this time a trend for polishing the skin parts of the marble which then contrasted, in particular, with the hair, which was deeply carved and left unpolished. In addition, in this period it became fashionable to have a complete torso rather than just the shoulders below the head. (See, for example, the bust of Commodus as Hercules, c. 190-2 CE in the Capitoline Museum, Rome). The bust of Caracalla (c. 215 CE) in the same museum is another good example of the abandonment of idealism in elite portraiture for the emperor has a closely cropped beard, determined turn of the head, taught mouth and mean-looking eyes which clearly betray his character.
By the late Empire elite portraiture becomes formulaic and abandons all attempts at realistically capturing the physical attributes of the subject. Representation of emperors such as Diocletian, Galerius and Constantine I (see the colossal bronze head in the Capitoline Museums), for example, have hardly any distinguishable physiognomic features, perhaps in an attempt to assert the emperor’s distance from ordinary mortals and proximity to the divine.