Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
Art History


Art and Art History 274. Visualizing Ancient Rome

The Roman world may seem distant to many of you today. After all, its empire was formed over 2000 years ago, and choosing a career as a gladiator is certainly far from your mind. And yet, if you stop for a moment and examine the buildings you enter, the literature you read, the language you speak, and the art you admire, you will recognize much that the Romans left behind. Their legacy is found in the Wheaton Campus buildings (check out the façade of the library), in the laws that govern our land (“a man should have the right to face his accusers”), in the stadiums that house our favorite sports team (Romans cheered for the Whites, the Greens, the Reds or the Blues) and even in the American obsession for cleanliness (at one point there were nearly 1000 baths in the city of Rome, and the central building of the Baths of Caracalla covered 6 acres, the same size as the U.S. Capitol). After a brief introduction to the art of the Etruscans as a foundation for Roman art and a fascinating culture on its own, this course will examine the historical, political, and social structure of the Roman world in relation to the art of its three main periods: the Republic, the ‘Golden Age’ of the Roman Empire, and the declining years of the Late Empire in the third and fourth centuries A.D.

In this course we will look at the art of the copy and the penchant for collecting by the Roman elite. Studying fakes and forgeries, and questioning the ethics of reconstructing Roman portraits will also be covered. We will examine the sexual mores of the Romans in order to understand their more “risqué” – at least in twentieth-century American terms – subject matter. (What is pornographic to us would not be to them.) Although we will spend much of our time looking at the art of the Emperors and elites, we will also fix our attention, although to a lesser degree, on the art of the “average” Roman. All emperors created art primarily in service of the state, whether they were benevolent men or egomaniacal (one emperor made it a capital offense to look down upon his head from the upper story of a building when he paraded through town – Can you guess why?). We will begin the course by meeting a fictional Roman, Maximum, Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator, and we will end by answering the essential question, “What is Roman about Roman art?”