Art and Propaganda in Ancient Rome Essay

            The Romans used art as propaganda to help distribute a set of common ideals and behavior to all citizens.  These citizens were often times far from the physical dimensions of Rome, and thus art (or propaganda masking as art) allowed even the most uneducated person to understand the political philosophy.  The artists in Rome copied, but did not succeed in a complete imitation of the Greek art form that had been deposited at their doorsteps as part of the war plunder.

  Greeks used art to materialized myths, nature, and their gods, whereas the “Roman artists often used sculpture as propaganda, a tool to promote oneself, one’s city, or one’s connection to the Imperial family. It was common to use sculpture and relieves to connect oneself to a deity, both to publicize authority and to cement power or prestige. Roman art…focused on the political and practical arenas of everyday life” (“Greco-Roman Influence on Lycian Sculpture”, np).  Art became a necessary, but easy way for the Emperors to circulate and demonstrate loyalty within the native population and an inducement to the newly conquered colonies (McKinney, np).

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            The Romans began their historical republican period in 509 BCE.  Upper-class family elders comprised the senatorial assembly.  This divide in social class let to internal strife and a struggle for equal distribution of power, including involvement in the government and economic development.  These interior issues aside, the Roman’s became a major military contingent and by 270 BCE forcefully controlled the entire Italian peninsula.  The Punic Wars and the successive defeat of Carthage allowed untold access to Asia Minor, Egypt, and Greece.  From this profitable venture, Rome was able to extract the local wealth of these countries and establish territories in East Africa, Gaul, Sicily, and Spain.  Exploration uncovered local artwork and this became Roman property and set forth as a desired luxury.  “Greek art, especially, began to influence the tastes of the Romans because it was brought back in such large quantities.  The Generals brandished their plunder during triumphal processions through the city and senators and wealthy Romans displayed works of art to show their status and to promote themselves” (Smith, np). As a result of the Greek influence, the Romans began to portray their great political or military leaders in a homogeneous fashion.  The singular or individual characteristics were abolished in favor of showing the internal personality or soul of the person being honored

As Rome’s external land properties expanded, so did the issues at home.  The class struggles were exacerbated along with the financial burden of supporting disparate cultures.  This created chaos in the aristocratically governed senate and the more powerful generals took advantage of the civil unrest.  Julius Caesar was the first general to use the political situation to his advantage.  His murder in 44 BCE let to a series of avengers, with Augustus (formerly known as Octavian) take the seat of power in 27 BCE and remained comfortable in that position for the next forty years.  Augustus had an administrative and religious background and with this he “united the Empire through his use of the arts as a form of self-promotion and to promote the themes of his administration, such as peace, allegiance to Rome, and respect for tradition… He made art into the materialization of Roman government which was an idea continued by his descendants…” (Smith, np).  He created a Rome worthy of the accolades of being an empire until his death in 14 CE.  Augustus also realized that to keep his power and his constituents happy, he would have to provide more that economic success, “realizing that the masses of average Romans had to be kept both fed and happy enough to remain peaceful, began the system of patronage we now refer to as “bread and circuses.” He gave the people food — by means of grain distribution and legislation of food prices — and free entertainment such as chariot races, gladiators, and lavish spectacles in amphitheaters and the Circus Maximus” (“Life in Roman Times”, np).

            The emperors following Augustus continued Rome’s expansion into east, while maintaining their territories in the west.  The succession of emperors included:  Nero (54-68 CE), Vespasian (69-79 CE), Titus (79-81 CE), Domitian (81-96 CE), Trajan (98-117 CE) and Hadrian (117-138 CE) (Smith, np).  These emperors used art (sculpture, public buildings, and architectural friezes) as a propagandistic tool.  Often these displays “…downplay[ed] the horrible reality of war and show[ed] peaceful, constructive scenes with the Roman army completely in control” (Smith, np).  As the territories grew, they became large and unmanageable, so temporary seats of governments were established at some of the further areas.  This allowed for divisive thinking to prevail and eventually Constantine the Great (306-337 CE) brought Christianity to Rome and started the process of conversion from polytheism to monotheism.  Large sentinel churches were built near the borders, and Christianity gained power throughout the Roman Empire.  “The Church became the patron of the majority of large-scale commissions and many pagan statues were destroyed or carried off…” and the Roman Empire was finally crushed and ceased its existence by the hands of the Visigoths in 476 CE (Smith, np).

            The construction of the publicly accessible structures often resulted from the commemoration of a specific event or person, or to acquire government favor by becoming a patron of the arts.  They displayed a celebration or re-enactment of the event in an easily identifiable visual format.  These buildings were used as mnemonic devices to help the populace remember the celebrated event or person.  Examples of self-serving architecture include:  the Amphitheater at Pompeii, the Roman Temples (Vestal Virgins and Ara Pacis), the Column of Trajan and Forum, and the Arch of Constantine.

            The Amphitheater at Pompeii was built under political sponsorship and was the first of its kind, “It was built so that the people of Pompeii could pride themselves on being among the first to have such a magnificent structure.  It was also dedicated to the colonists and the inscriptions on it emphasize what a blessing the founding of the colony was for the city” (Smith, np).  Pompeii was colonized by the Romans after its invasion during 89 BCE and the Amphitheater was built under art (or political?) patronage.

            The Roman Temples were constructed during different time periods of the Roman Empire.  The Temple of the Vestal Virgins, in the Roman Forum, was constructed during 550 BCE, and celebrated cult of femininity, “Young women from the most highly ranked families were selected as priestesses of the cult. Their service was regarded as a privilege… [and] Indicative of the higher status women generally enjoyed in the Roman world” (Rowan, np).  Ara Pacis was dedicated to Augustus in 9 BC and commemorated his integrity, and the “foundation of the Pax Romana and his [Augustus’] intention to insure peace and stability throughout the empire by handing his authority down through his own family (Rowan, np).  The marble relief shows political dignitaries, religious figures, and families all designated to be members of Augustus’ family.  This is a direct example of agitprop.

            The Column of Trajan and Forum involves three monuments that form a mausoleum.

Historically, these force the community to see the immortality of the inhabitants, by “… [creating] a  space in which the emperor was actively commemorated and immortalized after his death and that during his life acted as a form of propaganda to further his military campaigns” (Smith, np).  This structure is a good example of “bread and circuses” philosophy, since the focus was purposefully shifted away from the poor economic situation and the military aspect was highlighted, This was an important idea that Trajan needed to convey because the Empire had fallen on financial difficulties and Trajan sought to remedy the problem through the acquisition of more land, while many people thought war would only further drain their resources.  Trajan erected the forum in order to show that all the plunder he had gained from his military campaigns was sufficient to create a new urban center for the people and to illustrate Rome’s superiority

(Smith, np).

            The Arch of Constantine was erected by the Roman Senate as a military honor for the triumph at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  It served as an example to remember the past (the acknowledgement of the previous rulers) and honor the present (Constantine’s speech to the population).

A substantial portion of the decoration on the Arch of Constantine was taken from other earlier monuments in an attempt to liken Constantine to his great predecessors, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.  In the detail shown above the freize-like panel dates from Constantine’s reign and depicts him giving his first speech to the people after triumphing over Maxentius.  He visually places himself within the lineage of great emperors through the figures of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius that flank his figure in the relief (Smith, np).

Propaganda, presented as art, flourished throughout all of the Roman Empire.  The continual exposure of these art forms helped to educate, entertain, mollify, and pacify, the citizens of the Empire.  Art also presented traditional family and religious values and showcased the rulers as be strong, moral, and worthy of support.  The legacy left behind is a window into the political, social, community values of the Roman Empire.

Works Cited

“Greco-Roman Influence on Lycian Sculpture.”  27 Nov 2005.  < http://www.colleges.org/~ turkey/projects/branyonwright/amy_index.html>. “Life in Roman Times.”  The Roman Empire the First Century.  2005. 27 Nov 2005.  http://           www.pbs.org/empires/romans/life/life3.html>. McKinney, Gwen M.  Propaganda.  20 Sep 04.  27 Nov 2005.  <http://www.students.sbc. edu/mckinney03/gmm/index.htm>.

Rowan, Chris.  Classical World Civilizations.  Purdue University.  27 Nov 2005. < http://web. ics.purdue.edu/%7Erauhn/roman_temples.htm#virgins>. Smith, Elsbet.  Art and Propaganda Ancient Rome.  8 Feb 2005. 27 Nov. 05.  <http://www. students.sbc.edu/smith04/ancientrome.html>.

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