CHAPTER XVI, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


THE Romans were not of themselves an artistic people. Before Augustus they were warriors, after him they were rulers; they counted the establishment of order and security through government a greater good and nobler task than the creation or enjoyment of beauty. They paid great sums for the works of dead masters, but looked down upon living artists as menials. “While we adore images,” said the kindly Seneca, “we despise those who fashion them.” Only law and politics, and, of manual arts, only agriculture (by proxy), seemed honorable ways of life. Barring the architects, most artists in Rome were Greek slaves or freedmen or hirelings; nearly all worked with their hands and were classed as artisans; Latin authors seldom thought of recording their lives or their names. Hence Roman art is almost wholly anonymous; no vivid personalities humanize its history as Myron, Pheidias, Praxiteles, and Protogenes light up the aesthetic story of Greece. Here the historian is constrained to speak of things, not men, to catalogue coins, vases, statues, reliefs, pictures, and buildings in the desperate hope that their accumulation may laboriously convey the crowded majesty of Rome. The products of art appeal to the soul through eye or ear or hand rather than through the intellect; their beauty fades when it is diluted into ideas and words. The universe of thought is only one of many worlds; each sense has its own; each art has therefore its characteristic medium, which cannot be translated into speech. Even an artist writes about art in vain.

A special misfortune clouds Roman art: we come to it from Greek art, which seems at first its model and master. As the art of India disturbs us by strange shapes, so that of Rome chills us by the monotonous repetition of familiar forms. We have seen long since these Doric, Ionic, Corinthian columns and capitals, these smooth idealized reliefs, these busts of poets, rulers, and gods; even the astonishing frescoes of Pompeii, we are told, were copies of Greek originals; only the “Composite” order is indigenously Roman, and it offends our notions of classic unity, simplicity, and restraint. Certainly the art of the Augustan Age in Rome was overwhelmingly Greek. Through Sicily and Greek Italy, through Campania and Etruria, finally through Greece, Alexandria, and the Hellenic East, the aesthetic forms, methods, and ideals of Hellas passed into Roman art. When Rome became mistress of the Mediterranean, Greek artists poured into the new center of wealth and patronage and made countless copies of Greek masterpieces for Roman temples, palaces, and squares. Every conqueror brought home examples, every magnate scoured the cities for the surviving treasures, of Greek workmanship. Gradually Italy became a museum of bought or stolen paintings and statuary that set the tone of Roman art for a century. Artistically Rome was swallowed up in the Hellenistic world. All this is half the truth. In one aspect, as we shall see, the history of Roman art is a conflict between the architrave and the arch; in another it is the struggle of native Italian realism to recover from the invasion of the peninsula by a Greek art that had pictured gods rather than men, the type or Platonic idea rather than the earthly individual, and had sought a noble perfection of form rather than truth of perception and utterance. That virile indigenous art which had helped to carve the figures on Etruscan tombs hibernated between the Greek conquest and Nero’s philhellenic ecstasy; but at last it broke the Hellenistic mold, and revolutionized classic art with realistic sculpture, impressionistic painting, and an architecture of arch and vault. Through these, as well as by her borrowed beauty, Rome became for eighteen centuries the art capital of the Western world.