5: The World Conquerors, Jews, Christians, Romans and Buddhists (First to Fourth Century AD )

5: The World Conquerors, Jews, Christians, Romans and Buddhists (First to Fourth Century AD )

The Roman town, Pompeii contained many of the reflections of Hellenistic art. The art form which remained more or less unchanged while the Romans ruled the world and founded their own empire on the ruins of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.

Fig 0.6 The Colosseum in Rome, built about AD 80

Most of the artists were Greek who worked in Rome and most of the Romans collectors bought works of the great Greeks masters or copies of those works. When Rome became the mistress of the world the making and seeing of art did change to some extent. The artists were given the tasks with methods of adaptation to tasks on their own. Civil engineering was probably Roman’s most outstanding achievement at that time, everyone knows about their aqueducts their public baths, and roads. Even the ruins of the building of the Roman Amphitheatre still look extremely impressive. When we walk between their enormous pillars, it feels like an ant between them.

One of the most famous buildings in Rome is perhaps, the huge arena known as the Colosseum (Fig 0.6), it is a characteristic Roman Building which excited much admiration in later days. On the whole, it is a utilitarian structure, with three stories of arches, one above the other, to support the seats of the vast amphitheater inside. But in front of these arches, the Roman architect has put a kind of screen of Greek forms. Indeed, he has applied all three styles of building used for Greek temples.

The ground floor is a variation on the Doric style even the metopes and triglyphs are preserved, the second storey has Ionic and the third and fourth Corinthian half-columns. This combination of Roman structure with Greek forms had a great influence on the later architects. We can also found these examples in our towns.

None of their architectural creations made a more lasting impression than the triumphal arches the Romans set up all over in Italy, France (Fig 0.9), Asia and North Africa. Greek architecture was having properties of identical units and the same is even true of the Colosseum: but the triumphal arches use the orders to frame and accent the large central gateway and to flank it by narrower openings. It was an arrangement that could be used for architectural compositions much as a Chord is used in the music.

The most important feature of Roman architecture is the use of  Arches. This invention had played little or no role in Greek buildings though it may have been known to Greek Architects. To construct an arch out of separate wedge-formed stones is quite a difficult feat of engineering. Once this technique is mastered the constructor can use it for increasingly bold designs. He can span the pillars of a bridge or of an aqueduct, or he can even make use of this device for constructing a vaulted roof.


Romans became experts in the art of vaulting by various technical devices. Temple of all Gods is or the Pantheon is the great proof of that. The only temple with classical antiquity which always remained the place of worship. It was converted into a church in the early Christian era and was therefore never allowed to fall into ruin. Its interior Fig (0.8) is a huge round hall with a vaulted roof and circular opening at the top through which one sees the open sky. There is no other window but the whole room receives ample and even light from harmony. There is no feeling of heaviness. The enormous dome seems to hover freely over you like a second dome of heaven.

Fig (0.8) Interior of Pantheon in Rome, Built about AD 130AD

It was typical of the Roman to take from Greek architecture whatever they liked and to apply it on their own needs. They did the same in all the fields. One of their principal needs was for good lifelike portraits. Such portraits had played part in the early religion of the Romans. It had been customary to carry wax images of ancestors in funeral processions.

Fig (0.9) The Triumphal Arch of Tiberius (reigned AD 14-37). Orange Southern France

There is little doubt that this usage has been connected with the belief that the likeness preserves the soul, which we know from ancient Egypt. Later when Rome became an empire, the bust of the emperor was still looked upon with religious awe. We know that every Toman had to burn incense in front of this bust in token of his loyalty and devotion, and we know that the persecution of Christians began because of the refusal to comply with this demand. The strange thing is that despite this solemn significance of portraits, the Romans allowed their artists to make them more lifelike and complimentary than anything the Greeks had attempted. Perhaps they sometimes used death masks and thus acquired their astounding knowledge of the structure and features of the human head.

Fig 1 Portrait of a man, From a mummy, found at Hawara (Egypt), Painted About AD 150.

At any rate, we know Pompey, Augustus, Nero or Titus almost as if we have seen their faces in the newsreel. There is no flattery in bust of Vespasian Fig (1.1) nothing mark him out as a god. He might be any wealthy man, a banker of the owner of the shipping line. But there is nothing pretty in these Roman portraits. Somehow artists succeeded in being lifelike without being trivial.

Fig (1.1) The emperor Vespasian, Over life-size bust, About AD 70 Naples, Museo

Another new task which the Romans set the artists revived a custom which we know from the ancient orient Fig (0.01). They too wanted to proclaim their victories and to tell storeys of their campaigns, Tarjan, for instance, erected a huge column to show a whole picture chronicle of his wars and victories in Dacia (modern Romania). There we see the Roman legionaries embarking, camping and fighting ( Fig 1.2). All the skill and achievements of centuries of Greek art were used in these feats of war reporting. But the importance which Romans attached to an accurate rendering of all details, and to a clear narrative which would impress the feats of the campaign on the stay at homes, rather changed the character of art.

Fig (1.2) Trajan’s Column, Rome Dedicated AD 114

The main aim was no longer that of harmony, beauty or dramatic expression, The Romans were a matter of fact people and cared less fo fancy goods, Yet their pictorial methods of telling the deeds of a hero proved of great value to the religions which came into contact with their far-flung empire.

During the countries after Christ, Hellenistic and Roman Art completely displaced the arts of the oriental kingdom, even in their own former strongholds. Egyptians still buried their dead like mummies, but instead of adding their likeness in the Egyptian style, they had them painted by an artist who knew all the tricks of Greek portraiture Fig (1). The portraits which were certainly made by humble craftsmen at a low price, still astonish us by their vigor and realism, There are few works of ancient art which look so fresh and modern as these.

The Egyptians were not the only ones to adopt the new art methods to their religious needs. Even in the far distance, India, the Roman way of telling a story and glorifying a hero was adopted by artists who set themselves the task of illustrating the story of peaceful conquest, the story of the Buddha.

The art of sculpture had flourished in India long before this Hellenistic influence reached the country, but it was in the frontier region of Gandhara that the figure of Buddha was first shown in the reliefs which became the model for later Buddhist art. Fig (1.3) represents the episodes from the Buddha legend which called The Great Renunciation.

Fig(1.3) Gautama (Buddha) leaving his home. Relief found in Gandhara (northern India) about 2md century AD

The young prince Guantama is leaving the palace of his parents to become a hermit in the wildness. He thus addresses his favorite charger Kanthaka: ‘ My dear Kanthaka, please carry me once more for this one night. When I shall have become Buddha with your help I shall bring Salvation to the world of gods and men. ‘If Kanthaka had only so much as neighed or made a sound with his hoofs the city would have been roused and the prince’s departure discovered. So the gods muffled his voice and placed their hands under his hoofs wherever he stepped.

Greek and Roman art which had taught men to visualize gods and heroes and beautiful forms, also helped the Indians to create an image of their savior. The beautiful head of the Buddha with its expression of deep repose was also made in this frontier region of Gandhara (Fig 1.4)

Fig (1.4) Head of Buddha. Found in Gandhara (northern India) About Third Century AD

Yet another oriental religion that learned to represent its sacred stories for the instruction of believers was that of the Jews. Jewish law actually forbade the making of images for fear of idolatry. Nevertheless, the Jewish colonies in eastern towns took to decorating the walls of their temples with stories of the Old Testament. One of these paintings was discovered in recent times in a small Roman garrison in Mesopotamia called Dura-Europos. It is not the great work of art by any means, but it is an interesting document from the third century AD.


The very fact that the style seems clumsy and that the scene looks rather flat and primitive is not without interest. Fig(1.5). It represents Moses striking water from the rock. But it is not so much an illustration of the biblical account as an explanation, in pictures of its significance to the Jewish people. That may be the reason why Moses is represented as a tall figure standing in front of the Holy Tabernacle in which we can still discern the seven-branched candlestick.

Fig (1.5) Moses striking water from the rock. wall painting from the synagogue in Dura-Europos (Mesopotamia) Painted between AD 245 and 256

In order to signify that each tribe of Israel received its share of the miraculous water, the artists have shown twelve rivulets each flowing to a small figure standing before a tent. The artist was doubtless not very skillful, and that accounts for his simple methods. But perhaps he was not very much concerned with drawing lifelike figures. The more lifelike they were the more they sinned against the commandment forbidding images. His main intention was to remind the beholder of the occasion when God had manifested his power. The humble wall painting from the Jewish synagogue is of interest to us because similar considerations began to influence art when the Christian religion spread from the East and also took art into service.

When Christian artists were first called upon to represent the savior and His apostles it was again the tradition of Greek art that came to their aid. Fig (1.6) shows one of the earliest representation of Christ, from the fourth century AD. Instead of the bearded figure to which we have become accustomed through later illustrations, we see Christ in youthful beauty, enthroned between St Peter and St Paul, who looked like dignified Greek philosophers. There is one detail in particular, which reminds us how closely such a representation is still linked with the methods of pagan Hellenistic art: to indicate that Christ is enthroned above the heavens the sculptor has made his feet rest on the canopy of the firmament, held aloft by the ancient god of the sky.

Fig (1.6) Christ with St Peter and St Paul. From the sarcophagus

The origins of Christan art go even farther back than this example, but the earliest monuments never show Christ himself. The jews of Dura has painted scenes from the Old Testament in their synagogues, not so much to adorn it but rather to tell the sacred tale in visible form. The artists who were first called upon to paint images for Christian places of burial- the Roman catacombs-acted very much in the same spirit.

Paintings such as that of the ‘Three Men I the Fiery Furnace’ Fig (1.7), from the third century AD, shows that these artists were familiar with the style of Hellenistic paintings used in Pompeii. They were quite capable of conjuring up the idea of a human figure with few rough strokes of the brush. But we also feel that these effects and tricks did not interest them very much. The picture no longer exists as a beautiful thing in its own right. Its main purpose was to remind the faithful of one of the examples of God’s mercy and power, We read in the Bile (Daniel iii) of three high Jewish officials under king Nebuchadnezzar who refused to fall down and worship on a given signal when a gigantic golden image of the King was set up in the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Like so many Christians of the period when these paintings were made, they had to pay the penalty for their refusal.

Fig(1.8) The three men in the fiery furnace, Wall painting from the Priscilla, Rome

They were thrown into fiery furnace ‘in their coats’ their hosen and their hats’. But, lo, the fire had no power upon their bodies ‘ nor was a hair of their heads singed, neither were their coats changed”. The Lord sent his angel and delivered his servants.’

We need only imagine what the master of the Laocoon would have made of such a subject to realize the different direction art was taking. The painter in the catacombs did not want to represent a dramatic scene for its own sake. To present the consoling and inspiring example of fortitude and salvation it was quite sufficient if the three men in their Persian dress, the flames and the dove- a symbol of divine help- were recognizable. Everything which was not strictly relevant was better left out. One more idea of clarity and simplicity began to outweigh ideals of faithful imitation yet there is something touching in the very effort which the artist made to tell his story as clearly simply as possible.

These three men who are in front, looking at the beholder, their hands raised in prayer, seem to show that mankind had begun to concern itself with other things besides earthly beauty.

It is not only in religious works of the period of the decline and fall of the Roman empire that we can detect something of that shifting of interest. Few artists seemed to care much for what dad been the glory of Greek art, its refinement, and harmony. Sculptors no longer had the patience to work marble with a chisel and to treat with that delicacy and taste which had been the pride of the Greek craftsmen. Like the painter of the catacomb picture, they used more rough and ready methods, such as for instance, a mechanical drill with which to mark the principal features of a face or a body.

It has often been said that ancient art declined in these years and it is certainly true that many secrets of the best period were lost in the general turmoil of wars, revolts and invasions. But we have seen that this loss in skill is not the whole story. The point is that artists at this time seemed no longer satisfied with the mere virtuosity of the Hellenistic period, and tried to achieve new effects. Some of the portraits of this period, the fourth and fifth centuries AD, in particular, shows perhaps more clearly what it was these artists aimed at (Fig 1.9). To a Greek of the time of Praxiteles, these works would have looked crude and barbaric. Indeed, the heads are not beautiful by any common standards.

Fig (1.9) Portrait of an official from Aphrodisias, About AD 400

A Roman used to striking likenesses of portraits such as that of Vespasian, might have dismissed them as of poor workmanship. And yet, to us, these figures seem to have a life of their own, and a very intense expression which is due to the firm marking of the features and the care bestowed on such traits as the part around the eyes and the furrows of the brow. They portray the people who witnessed and finally accepted, the rise of Christianity which meant the end of the ancient world.

Fig (2.0) A painter of ‘ funeral portraits’ in his workshop, sitting by his paintbox and easel. About AD 100

Art History Timeline Chronological order: Find More About 

1: Primitive Art; Ancient America (Paleolithic Age)- Neolithic Art

2: Mesopotamia, Crete and Egypt, History of Art

3: GREECE (Seventh to Fifth century BC) 

4: Greece (Fifth century BC to First Century AD)- History of Art

5: The World Conquerors, Jews, Christians, Romans and Buddhists (First to Fourth Century AD )

6: Rome and Byzantium, Fifth to the Thirteenth century 

7:Eastward, Islam, China, 2nd to 13th Century  

8: Europe, Sixth to Eleventh Century, History of Western Art In Melting Pot