24 The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic

Early on, the Romans showed a talent for borrowing and improving upon the skills and concepts of other cultures. The Kingdom of Rome grew rapidly from a trading town to a prosperous city between the 8 th and 6 th centuries BCE. When the last of the seven kings of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was deposed in 509 BCE, his rival for power, Lucius Junius Brutus, reformed the system of government and established the Roman Republic. (61)

Organization of the Roman Republic

Initially, after the fall of the monarchy, the Republic fell under the control of the great families – the patricians, coming from the word patres or fathers. Only these great families could hold political or religious offices. The remaining citizens or plebians had no political authority although many of them were as wealthy as the patricians. However, much to the dismay of the patricians, this arrangement could not and would not last.

Tensions between the two classes continued to grow, especially since the poorer residents of the city provided the bulk of the army. They asked themselves why they should fight in a war if all of the profits go to the wealthy. Finally, in 494 BCE the plebians went on strike, gathering outside Rome and refusing to move until they were granted representation; this was the famed Conflict of Orders or the First Succession of the Plebs. The strike worked, and the plebians would be rewarded with an assembly of their own – the Concilium Plebis or Council of the Plebs.

The image is one of Cicero standing before the Roman Senate, denouncing the patrician Catilline for an assassination plot he planned against fellow Senators.
Figure 5-7: Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Macari is licensed under Public Domain

Although the government of Rome could never be considered a true democracy, it did provide many of its citizens (women excluded) with a say in how their city was ruled. Through their rebellion, the plebians had entered into a system where power lay in a number of magistrates (the cursus honorum) and various assemblies. This executive power or imperium resided in two consuls. Elected by the Comitia Centuriata, a consul ruled for only one year, presiding over the Senate, proposing laws, and commanding the armies. Uniquely, each consul could veto the decision of the other. After his term was completed, he could become a pro-consul, governing one of the republic’s many territories, which was an appointment that could make him quite wealthy.

In 450 BCE the Twelve Tables were enacted in order to appease a number of plebian concerns. It became the first recorded Roman law code. The Tables tackled domestic problems with an emphasis on both family life and private property. For instance, plebians were not only prohibited from imprisonment for debt but also granted the right to appeal a magistrate’s decision. Later, plebians were even allowed to marry patricians and become consuls. Over time the rights of the plebians continued to increase. In 287 BCE the Lex Hortensia declared that all laws passed by the Concilium Plebis were binding to both plebians and patricians. (65)

Roman Art During the Republic

Early Roman art was influenced by the art of Greece and that of the neighboring Etruscans, themselves greatly influenced by their Greek trading partners. As the expanding Roman Republic began to conquer Greek territory, its official sculpture became largely an extension of the Hellenistic style, with its departure from the idealized body and flair for the dramatic. This is partly due to the large number of Greek sculptors working within Roman territory.

However, Roman sculpture during the Republic departed from the Greek traditions in several ways:

  • It was the first to feature a new technique called continuous narration.
  • Commoners, including freedmen, could commission public art and use it to cast their professions in a positive light.
  • Portraiture throughout the Republic celebrated old age with its verism.
  • In the closing decades of the Republic, Julius Caesar counteracted traditional propriety by becoming the first living person to place his own portrait on a coin.

In the examples that follow, the patrons use these techniques to promote their status in society. (66)

The Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus

Despite its most common title, the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (late second century BCE) was more likely a base intended to support cult statues in the cella of a Temple of Neptune (Poseidon) located in Rome on the Field of Mars. The frieze is the second oldest Roman bas-relief currently known.

Domitius Ahenobarbus, a naval general, likely commissioned the altar and the temple in gratitude of a naval victory between 129 and 128 BCE. The reliefs combine mythology and contemporary civic life.

This is a photo of a panel from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb. It depicts the census, a uniquely Roman event of contemporary civic life.
Figure 5-8: A panel from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb by an unknown artist, credit Fesch Collection; purchase, 1824, from Wikimedia is licensed under Public Domain

One panel of the altar depicts the census, a uniquely Roman event of contemporary civic life. It is one of the earliest reliefs sculpted in continuous narration, in which the viewer reads from left to right the recording of the census, the purification of the army before the altar of Mars, and the levy of the soldiers.

The other three panels of the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarb which depicts the mythological wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite.
Figure 5-9: “Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus” or “Statue Base of Marcus Antonius” by User:Bibi Saint-Pol is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The other three panels depict the mythological wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite. At the center of his scene, Neptune and Amphitrite are seated in a chariot drawn by two Tritons (messengers of the sea) who dance to music. They are accompanied by a multitude of fantastic creatures, Tritons, and Nereides (sea nymphs) who form a retinue for the wedding couple, which, like the census scene, can be read from left to right.

At the left, a Nereid riding on a sea-bull carries a present. Next, Amphitrite’s mother Doris advances towards the couple, mounted on a hippocampus (literally, a sea horse) and holding wedding torches in each hand to light the procession’s way. Eros hovers behind her. Behind the wedding couple, a Nereid riding a hippocampus carries another present. (66)


Roman portraiture during the Republic is identified by its considerable realism, known as veristic portraiture. Verism refers to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the subject’s facial characteristics. The style originated from Hellenistic Greece; however, its use in the Roman Republic is due to Roman values, customs, and political life.

As with other forms of Roman art, portraiture borrowed certain details from Greek art but adapted these to their own needs. Veristic images often show their male subjects with receding hairlines, deep winkles, and even with warts. While the faces of the portraits often display incredible detail and likeness, the subjects’ bodies are idealized and do not correspond to the age shown in the face. (66)

The popularity and usefulness of verism appears to derive from the need to have a recognizable image. Veristic portrait busts provided a means of reminding people of distinguished ancestors or of displaying one’s power, wisdom, experience, and authority. Statues were often erected of generals and elected officials in public forums — and a veristic image ensured that a passerby would recognize the person when they actually saw them.

This photo shows the statue, Portrait of a Roman General. When created as full-length sculptures, the life-like faces appear paired with idealized (mass-produced?) bodies that create a sense of disunity.
Figure 5-10: Portrait of a Roman General by Alphanidon is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
This photo shows the Bust of an Old Man. Verism refers to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the subject's facial characteristics, such as the wrinkles on this man's face.
Figure 5-11: Head of old man in a coverlet by shakko is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The use of veristic portraiture began to diminish in the first century BCE. During this time, civil wars threatened the empire, and individual men began to gain more power. The portraits of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, two political rivals who were also the most powerful generals in the Republic, began to change the style of the portraits and their use.

The portraits of Pompey are not fully idealized, nor were they created in the same veristic style of Republican senators. Pompey borrowed a specific parting and curl of his hair from Alexander the Great. This similarity served to link Pompey visually with the likeness of Alexander and to remind people that he possessed similar characteristics and qualities. (66)

This photo shows a marble bust of Pompey the Great. Portraits of Pompey combine a degree of verism with an idealized hairstyle reminiscent of Alexander the Great.
Figure 5-12: A marble bust of Pompey the Great by Gunnar Bach Pedersen is licensed under Public Domain

The portraits of Julius Caesar are more veristic than those of Pompey. Despite staying closer to stylistic convention, Caesar was the first man to mint coins with his own likeness printed on them. In the decades prior to this, it had become increasingly common to place an illustrious ancestor on a coin, but putting a living person—especially oneself—on a coin departed from Roman propriety. By circulating coins issued with his image, Caesar directly showed the people that they were indebted to him for their own prosperity and therefore should support his political pursuits.

A portrait of Julius Caesar on a denarius. On the reverse side stands Venus Victix holding a winged Victory.
Figure 5-13: A portrait of Julius Caesar on a denarius by Classical Numismatic Group is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Roman aqueducts are another iconic use of the arch. The arches that make up an aqueduct provided support without requiring the amount of building material necessary for arches supported by solid walls. The Aqua Marcia (144–140 BCE) was the longest of the eleven aqueducts that served the city of Rome during the Republic. It supplied water to the Viminal Hill in the north of Rome, and from there to the Caelian, Aventine, Palatine, and Capitoline Hills. Where the Aqua Marcia had contact with water, it was coated with a waterproof mortar. (67)

Roman Architecture During the Republic

Roman architecture began as an imitation of Classical Greek architecture but eventually evolved into a new style. Unfortunately, almost no early Republican buildings remain intact. The earliest substantial remains date to approximately 100 BCE.

Innovations such as improvements to the round arch and barrel vault, as well as the inventions of concrete and the true hemispherical dome, allowed Roman architecture to become more versatile than its Greek predecessors. While the Romans were reluctant to abandon classical motifs, they modified their temple designs by abandoning pedimental sculptures, altering the traditional Greek peripteral colonnades, and opting for central exterior stairways.

Likewise, although Roman architects did not abandon traditional column orders, they did modify them with the Tuscan, Roman Ionic, and Composite orders. This diagram shows the Greek orders on the left and their Roman modifications on the right. (67)

From top to bottom: Doric and Tuscan, Ionic and Roman Ionic (scrolls on all four corners), Corinthian and Composite.
Figure 5-14: Classical orders from the Encyclopedie converted to PNG and optimised by w:User:stw is licensed under Public Domain

Roman Temples

This photo shows the Temple of Portunus. With its slanted roof, columns, and platform it is a typical Roman Republican temple in Rome, circa 75 BCE.
Figure 5-15: Temple of Portunus, Piazza Bocca della Veritò, Roma, Italy by sonofgroucho is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Most Roman temples derived from Etruscan prototypes. Like Etruscan temples, Roman temples are frontal with stairs that lead up to a podium, and a deep portico filled with columns. They are also usually rectilinear, and the interiors consist of at least one cella that contained a cult statue.

If multiple gods were worshiped in one temple, each god would have its own cella and cult image. For example, Capitolia — the temples dedicated to the Capitoline Triad — would always be built with three cellae, one for each god of the triad: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

Roman temples were typically made of brick and concrete and then faced in either marble or stucco. Engaged columns (columns that protrude from walls like reliefs) adorn the exteriors of the temples. This creates an effect of columns completely surrounding a cella, an effect known as psuedoperipteral. The altar, used for sacrifices and offerings, always stood outside in front of the temple (67)

While most Roman temples followed this typical plan, some were dramatically different. At times, the Romans erected round temples that imitated the Greek tholos. Examples can be found in the Temple of Hercules Victor (late second century BCE), in the Forum Boarium in Rome. The temple consists a circular cella within a concentric ring of 20 Corinthian columns. Like its Etruscan predecessors, the temple rests on a tufa foundation. Its original roof and architrave are now lost. (67)

This photo shows the ruins of the Temple of Hercules Victor. It is a circular facility with a slanted rounded roof. It is surrounded by columns on a platform.
Figure 5-16: Temple of Hercules Victor by Livioandronico2013 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


The Romans perfected the recipe for concrete during the third century BCE by mixing together water, lime, and pozzolana, volcanic ash mined from the countryside surrounding Mt. Vesuvius. Concrete became the primary building material for the Romans, and it is largely the reason that they were such successful builders.

Most Roman buildings were built with concrete and brick that was then covered in facade of stucco, expensive stone, or marble. Concrete was a cheaper and lighter material than most other stones used for construction. This helped the Romans build structures that were taller, more complicated, and quicker to build than any previous ones.

Once dried, concrete was also extremely strong, yet flexible enough to remain standing during moderate seismic activity. The Romans were even able to use concrete underwater, allowing them build harbors and breakers for their ports. The ruins of a tomb on the Via Appia (the most famous thoroughfare through ancient Rome) expose the stones and aggregate that the Romans used to mix concrete. (67)

This photo shows a wall of a tomb on the Via Appia, Rome. The ruins show the internal core of the building, made in Roman concrete.
Figure 5-17: A wall of a tomb on the Via Appia, Rome by MM assumed is licensed under Public Domain

Arches, Vaults, and Domes

The Romans effectively combined concrete and the structural shape of the arch. These two elements became the foundations for most Roman structures. Arches can bear immense weight, as they are designed to redistribute weight from the top, to its sides, and down into the ground. While the Romans did not invent the arch, they were the first culture to manipulate it and rely on its shape.

An arch is a pure compression form. It can span a large area by resolving forces into compressive stresses (pushing downward) that, in turn, eliminate tensile stresses (pushing outward). As the forces in the arch are carried to the ground, the arch will push outward at the base (called thrust). As the height of the arch decreases, the outward thrust increases. In order to maintain arch action and prevent the arch from collapsing, the thrust needs to be restrained, either with internal ties or external bracing, such as abutments (labeled 8 on the diagram below). (67)

The arch is a shape that can be manipulated into a variety of forms that create unique architectural spaces. Multiple arches can be used together to create a vault. The simplest type is known as a barrel vault.

Barrel vaults consist of a line of arches in a row that create the shape of a tunnel. When two barrel vaults intersect at right angles, they create a groin vault. These are easily identified by the x-shape they create in the ceiling of the vault. Furthermore, because of the direction, the thrust is concentrated along this x-shape, so only the corners of a groin vault need to be grounded. This allows an architect or engineer to manipulate the space below the groin vault in a variety of ways.

This diagram illustrates the structural support of an arch extended into a barrel vault. The dotted line extending downward from the keystone shows the strength of the arch directing compressive stresses (represented by the downward-pointing arrows outside the arch) safely to the ground. Meanwhile, tensile stress (represented by the horizontal and diagonal-facing arrows) is contained by the surrounding wall.
Figure 5-18: Schematic illustration of an arch by MesserWoland is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Arches and vaults can be stacked and intersected with each other in a multitude of ways. One of the most important forms that they can create is the dome. This is essentially an arch that is rotated around a single point to create a large hemispherical vault. The largest dome constructed during the Republic was on the Temple of Echo at Baiae, named for its remarkable acoustic properties. (67)

The Roman Aqueduct

Roman aqueducts are another iconic use of the arch. The arches that make up an aqueduct provided support without requiring the amount of building material necessary for arches supported by solid walls. The Aqua Marcia (144–140 BCE) was the longest of the eleven aqueducts that served the city of Rome during the Republic. It supplied water to the Viminal Hill in the north of Rome, and from there to the Caelian, Aventine, Palatine, and Capitoline Hills. Where the Aqua Marcia had contact with water, it was coated with a waterproof mortar.(67)

Picture of the Aqua Marcia standing in an open field. Only four arches of the concrete aqueduct remain.
Figure 5-19: Aqua Marcia by Lalupa is licensed under Public Domain


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Humanities: Prehistory to the 15th Century Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book