Pottery passed into sculpture through baked clay- terra-cotta reliefs and statuettes, toys, imitations of fruit, grapes, fish- at last full-sized statues. Glazed terra cotta- majolica- abounded in the ruins of Pompeii. Temple pediments and eaves were adorned with terra-cotta palmettes, acroteria, gargoyles, and reliefs. The Greeks laughed at these ornaments, and under the Empire they went out of fashion; Augustus was no friend of clay.
It was probably through his Attic taste that relief and sculpture attained in Rome an excellence comparable with the best Hellenistic work. For a generation the artists of Rome carved fountains, tombstones, arches, and altars with a refinement of feeling, a precision of execution, a quiet dignity of form, a measure of modeling and perspective, that rank Roman reliefs among the masterpieces of the world’s art. In 13 B.C. the Senate celebrated the return of Augustus from the pacification of Spain and Gaul by decreeing that an Ara Pacis Augustae, or “Altar of the Augustan Peace,” should be erected in the Field of Mars. This is the noblest of all the sculptural remains of Rome. Perhaps the monument owed its form to the altar at Pergamum, and its processional motif to the Parthenon frieze; the altar was raised on a platform in an enclosure whose surrounding walls were partly carved in marble relief; the extant pieces are slabs from these walls. One slab represents Tellus- Mother Earth- with two children in her arms, corn and flowers growing beside her, and animals lying contentedly at her feet. These were the leading ideas of the Augustan reformation: the family restored to parentage, the nation to agriculture, the Empire to peace. The central figure is unsurpassed; indeed, in its union of mature motherhood and womanly beauty, tenderness, and grace, there is a soft perfection unmatched by the stately goddesses of the Parthenon. The frieze of the outer wall had a lower panel of acanthus scrolls, broad-petaled peonies and poppies, and rich clusters of ivy berries; this too is unequaled in its class. Another panel showed two processions moving in opposite directions to meet before the altar of the Goddess of Peace. In these groups are grave and quiet figures, probably of Augustus, Livia, and the imperial family, with nobles, priests, Vestal Virgins, and children. These last are engagingly real in their shy innocence. One is a baby toddling along with no taste for ceremony; another is a boy already proud of his years; another a little girl with a nosegay; another, after some mischief, is being gently admonished by his mother. Henceforth children would play a rising role in Italian art. But never again would Roman sculpture show such mastery of drapery, such natural and effective grouping, such modulations of light and shade. Here, as in Virgil, propaganda had found a perfect medium.
The only Roman rivals of these reliefs are the carvings on the arches raised for the entry of triumphing generals. The finest survivor is the Arch of Titus, begun by Vespasian and completed by Domitian to commemorate the capture of Jerusalem. One relief shows the burning city, its walls in ruins, its people wild with fear, its wealth looted by legionaries; another pictures Titus riding into Rome in his chariot amid soldiers, animals, magistrates, priests, and prisoners, followed by the holy candelabra of the Temple, and varied spoils of war. The artists here experimented bravely: they cut different figures to different levels, and distributed them on diverse planes; they chiseled the background to give an illusion of depth; and they painted the whole to convey additional shades of fullness and distance. The action was shown not in separate episodes but in continuity, as on the friezes of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and later on the columns of Trajan and Aurelius; so the sense of motion and life was better conveyed. The figures were not idealized and softened into a mood of Attic repose as in the Hellenistic Ara Pacis; they were taken from the flesh and the dirt, and carved in the earthy tradition of Italian realism and vitality. The subject was not perfect gods but living men.