The polyphony of Roman art

The art of the Roman Empire, which brought many peoples and cultures into political unity, was an immensely complex and diverse assortment of cultural traditions (1–6). Just as in our globalised world, many styles coexisted – sometimes in lively dialogue with each other, other times in total ignorance of one another.

Greek art, which the Romans had already begun to imitate in a widespread way in the Hellenistic period (3rd–1st centuries BC, 7–9), provided the most important and universal pattern for Roman art. The educated and the rich typically surrounded themselves with Greek art, irrespective of which part of the enormous empire they lived in. It was this need that accounted for the creation of works of art in homage to the masterpieces of Greek sculpture (10–15), while official state art was also mainly characterised by styles and themes which reflected the Greek tradition (17–19). Art, as a form of visual communication, thus became an important unifying factor in the empire.
Rome adopted the art of Hellas and transformed it according to its own canons. This led to the emergence of a unified Graeco-Roman artistic tradition, which became a model for artists in later ages of European history, most notably during the Renaissance (in the 15th–16th centuries) and the Classicism of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Alongside the Hellenizing artistic trends, there existed a number of further styles. Artistic traditions dating back to before the Roman conquest continued to thrive in many places, and are reflected in unique artistic productions characteristic only of a single region (20–24). This resulted in a polyphony that manifested itself in a variety of ways in individual works of art, depending on the function of the objects and the taste of the communities for which it was intended. The polyphony of styles offered a possibility of choice that makes Roman art the first “modern” art in Europe.