Roman Sculpture

Examples of Roman sculpture are abundantly preserved, in total contrast to Roman Frescoes, which were widely produced but have almost all been lost. Latin and some Greek authors, particularly Pliny the Elder in Book 34 of his Natural History, describe statues, and a few of these descriptions match extant works. While a great deal of Roman sculpture, especially in stone, survives more or less intact, it is often damaged or fragmentary; life-size bronze statues are much more rare as most have been recycled for their metal.

The Portonaccio sarcophagus. Dating to 190-200 AD, it was used for the burial of a Roman general involved in the campaigns of Marcus Aurelius and shows influences similar to those of the Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Roman Portraiture will be dealt with in a separate section.

As the expanding Roman Republic began to conquer Greek territory, at first in Southern Italy and then the entire Hellenistic world, sculpture became largely an extension of the Hellenistic style, from which specifically Roman elements are hard to disentangle, especially as so much Greek sculpture survives only in copies of the Roman period.

Laocoon and His Sons.jpg
The Laocoon Group. Copy of Hellenistic original, c. 200 BC. Vatican Museum.


The Romans did not generally attempt to compete with free-standing Greek works of heroic exploits from history or mythology, but from early on produced historical works in relief.

Allegorical scene from the Ara Pacis Augustae. (c) Chris Nas

Triumphal Columns

Roman reliefs were taken to a new level in the 2nd c. AD, when the emperors Trajan and Marcus Aurelius commissioned their famous columns to commemorate their military campaigns, which consisted of continuous narrative reliefs winding around them.


Marble and limestone sarcophagi elaborately carved in relief were characteristic of elite Roman inhumation burials from the 2nd-4th c. AD.

 Selene approaching Endymion, c.. 200–220 AD. Metropolitan Museum of Arts. (c) Typhon2222

At least 10,000 Roman sarcophagi have survived, with fragments possibly representing as many as 20,000. Although mythological scenes are frequent, sarcophagi reliefs also depict the deceased’s occupation, military scenes and other subject matter.

Ludovisi sarcophagus, c. 250-60 AD. Battlescene of Roman and Goths during the Third Century Crisis. Palazzo Altemps, Rome.

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