The third century continued the art of painting on Pompeian and Alexandrian lines; its meager remains are Oriental and crude, and almost effaced by time. Sculpture flourished, for many emperors had to be carved; it stiffened into a primitive frontality, but no later age has surpassed this one in portraits of startling veracity. It is a credit to Caracalla, or a testimony to his dullness, that he allowed a sculptor to transmit him to us as the curly-headed scowling brute of the Naples Museum. Two sculptural colossi date from this period: the Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules, both of them exaggerated and unpleasantly tense, but showing undiminished technical mastery. That sculptors could still work in the classic style appears from the chaste reliefs on the sarcophagus of Alexander Severus, and on the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus. But the reliefs on the Arch of Septimius Severus at Rome frankly rejected Attic simplicity and grace for a coarse and picturesque virility that almost foreshadowed the rebarbarization of Italy.
Architecture at Rome now carried to completion the Roman flair for sublimity through size. Septimius raised on the Palatine the last of its imperial palaces, with an eastern wing seven stories high- the “Septizonium.” Julia Domna provided funds for the Atrium Vestae, and the pretty Temple of Vesta that still stands in the Forum. Caracalla built for Isis’ consort Serapis an immense shrine of which some handsome fragments survive. The Baths of Caracalla, finished under Alexander Severus, are among the world’s most impressive ruins. They added nothing to architectural science, following essentially the lines of Trajan’s Baths; but their frowning mass well expressed the murderer of Geta and Papinian. The main block, of brick and concrete, covered 270,000 square feet- more than the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Hall combined. A winding stairway led to the top of the walls; perched there Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound. The interior was garrisoned by a multitude of statues, and upheld by 200 columns of granite, alabaster, and porphyry; the marble floors and walls were inlaid with mosaic scenes; water poured from massive mouths of silver into pools and basins where 1600 persons could bathe at once. Gallienus and Decius raised similar baths; in the latter case the Roman engineers rested a circular dome upon a decagonal edifice, and supported it with buttresses in the angles of the decagon- an expedient with little past and much future. In 295 Maximian began the most enormous of the eleven imperial thermae, and named it with singular modesty the Baths of Diocletian. Here were bathing facilities for 3600 persons at one time, gymnasiums, concert and lecture halls; out of one room, the tepidarium, Michelangelo fashioned Santa Maria degli Angeli- with the exception of St. Peter’s the largest church in Rome. Structures only less monumental rose in the provinces. Diocletian built extensively in Nicomedia, Alexandria, and Antioch; Maximian adorned Milan, Galerius Sirmium, Constantius Treves.
Literature prospered less, for it could seldom tap the wealth that gathered in imperial hands. Libraries grew in number and size; a third-century physician had a collection of 62,000 volumes, and the Bibliotheca Ulpiana was renowned for its historical archives. Diocletian sent scholars to Alexandria to transcribe classical texts there and bring copies to the libraries of Rome. Scholars were plentiful and popular; Philostratus memorialized them well in his Lives of the Sophists. Porphyry continued Plotinus, attacked Christianity, and called the world to vegetarianism. Iamblichus tried to harmonize Platonism and pagan theology, and succeeded sufficiently to inspire the Emperor Julian. Diogenes Laertius put together the lives and opinions of the philosophers in fascinating excerpt and anecdote. Athenaeus of Naucratis, having consumed the libraries of Alexandria, poured his chyme into the Deipnosophists, or “Sophists of the Dinner Table”- a dreary dialogue on foods, sauces, courtesans, philosophers, and words, brightened here and there by some revelation of ancient custom or some reminiscence of great men. Longinus, perhaps of Palmyra, composed a polished essay Peri hypsus, “On the Sublime”; the peculiar pleasure given by literature (runs the argument) is due to the “lifting up” ( ekstasis ) of the reader by the eloquence that comes to a writer from strength of conviction and sincerity of character. Dio Cassius Cocceianus of Bithynian Nicaea, after a life spent in the cursus honorum , began at fifty-five to write his History of Rome (210?); in his seventy-fourth year he completed it, having carried the story down from Romulus to himself. Of its eighty “books” less than half remain, but they fill eight substantial volumes. It is a work of noble scope rather than high quality. It has vivid narratives, revealing speeches, and philosophical asides that are not always platitudinous and conservative. But, like Livy, it is disfigured with “portents”; like Tacitus it is a long brief for the Senatorial opposition; and like all Roman histories it cleaves narrowly to the vicissitudes of politics and war- as if life for a thousand years had been nothing but taxes and death.