Timeline of Roman antiquities, 500 B.C. - 609 A.D. click on a thumbnail to view data on that period
30 B.C.-53 A.D.
The Roman Empire (138-360 A.D.)
These were war years; little building took place during this period. One major exception were two temples built in Rome in the early 140s by Emperor Antoninus Pius (emperor from 137-61 A.D.) One temple was to his wife, another to his predecessor Emperor
Hadrian, both were deified after their death.
During the early to mid-Second Century A.D., urban plebians (lower classes) in Rome got free grain, games, shows and generally good treatment. Outside Rome, the plebians lost political power in the legislature.
In the mid-Second Century A.D., laws were imposed to divide the population into "upper" and "lower" classes; class mobility essentially ended. The military became a distinct class within the citizenry and the
Empire's generous veteran benefits were limited to that class. There were still many slaves. Many of the best artists and craftsmen were Greek or Egyptian slaves. By the end of the Second Century A.D., the lower
classes were subject to harsher physical punishment for committing crimes. Governors and magistrates also now had the unfettered authority to have citizens flogged, a punishment previously reserved for slaves.
Emperor Antononinus Pius was succeeded by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161-180 A.D. Marcus Aurelius is best known for his twelve books of Meditations. He had to contend with rebellion
in Britain and near rebellion in the Middle East. A second emperor was raised up by rebellion in Syria, though Marcus Aurelius had him killed almost instantly.
Because of continued revolts in Dacia (Romania) and the German provinces, Marcus Aurelius gave extraordinary powers to his son, the general Commodus in 177 and appointed him successor. Yet despite Marcus Aurelius's
military victories and hold on the empire, he was forced to spend much of the treasury on food subsidies and other "gifts" to citizens. The wars were immensely expensive. Marcus Aurelius was forced to auction
off state property, and yet Rome was still nearly bankrupt. There were fewer Roman silver coins in circulation.
From 161 to 169 A.D., Lucius Verus served as co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius. This was the first time two emperors had ruled Rome together but set an important precedent. Verus died while returning from battles
near the Danube, increasingly becoming important strategically and economically.
At this time, there was trade by land and sea throughout the Empire: from Spain to the western edge of India. The Romans paid for imports with gold or silver coins, which have been found in Indochina, Afghanistan,
and India. Indian spices were familiar to the Romans, as were Indian silk, perfumes, cotton, and metals. During the Late Empire, some Indian silk was literally worth its weight in gold. Through India came Chinese
goods, also imported to Rome, though less frequently. The Romans exported many finished goods such as statues, perfume bottles, jewelry, cups, clothing. Of course, some of these finished goods were made from
raw material originally imported from far off places.
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Roman troops had to spend an increasing amount of time policing the borders. The salary of soldiers continued to be raised. Soldiers were not permitted to marry for the twenty years of their service, but they often
had children with women they met on duty. By the Second Century A.D, the illegitimate children of Roman soldiers could become Roman citizens by joining the army. The Roman frontier now encompassed the entire
Mediterranean, into Britain, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland. Roman amphitheaters, gymnasia, baths, temples were built for the soldiers.
In addition to the military, social change was brought by an epidemic that affected the Empire in the 160s. In some parts of the Empire, epidemic was accompanied by drought and economic decline. Italy was now less
prosperous than the provinces. Africa, the Rhine region (Germany), and Gaul (France) were thriving economically.
Roman tombstone carving depicting a tavern scene, Trier, Germany, ca. 130 A.D., Rheinish State Museum, no dimensions given.
By the Late Empire, the senatorial (highest) class grew most of the grapes used for wine. A growing merchant class took care of turning the grapes into wine, distributing, selling, storing it. There were private
clubs that charged fees for membership and served food as well as wine. Scholars believe they were frequented by non-aristocrats who were nevertheless wealthy. There were many regular taverns like the one above
both in Rome and the provinces. According to written evidence, aristocrats believed that taverns were gathering places for political dissidents. Laws were passed to make the taverns less popular, for instance,
forbidding them to sell meat or mandating that they sell watered-down wine. Yet taverns persisted. In Trier at this time there were close to fifty taverns. A hundred years after this tombstone carving above
was made, the political situation in the Rhineland, Gaul, Britain, and Spain was so explosive that trade between these provinces dwindled. We can see this in evidence such as a decrease in Spanish olive oil
in Trier and other parts of Germany.
Marble unidentified male figure in a toga, ca. 180 AD, the toga mostly over the lower part of his body, 115.3 cm high, private collection, United Kingdom.
This is a fine piece executed with assured craftsmanship. The musculature and drapery are realistic, though not magnificent in detail. The frontal presentation is more typical of Roman than Greek poses. It may be
the creation of a Greek artist seeking to satisfy Roman tastes. Unfortunately, it is very weathered. Statues of this quality are often found at international auctions.
Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, became Emperor in 180 and ruled until 192 A.D. He was the sole emperor though he had ruled with his father in the late 170s A.D. Commodus lost his mind. Senators
were killed seemingly for no reason, at random. Commodus proclaimed himself the personification of the god Hercules. His mistress and several of his servants and advisors had an inordinate influence on his decision-making,
according to contemporary sources. On the first day of 193 A.D., Commodus decided to be publically worshipped as Hercules in Rome. A group of senators hired an athlete named Narcissus who strangled the emperor.
In 193 A.D. there were six emperors. There was a continuous state of war in the empire over succession between 193-7 A.D. Battles over who would be the next emperor were fought simultaneously in Upper Germany, Switzerland,
Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt.
Emperor Commodus in the costume and pose of the god Hercules, ca. 193 A.D., Lunese marble, 108.2 cm high, Palazzo dei Conseratori, Rome.
This statue was re-discovered underground in 1874 during construction in Rome. All images of Commodus and anything written by or about him were banned after his assassination. Commodus as Hercules was probably
hidden by its owner. The statue has magnificent detail and is in remarkable condition. The artist has captured Commodus's madness, while maintaining the traditional Greek styles of representing hair, features,
eyes, and skin.
Top portion of a bronze statue of an unidentified ruler, excavated in England, probably made in Gaul (present day France), ca. 130 A.D. Hollow-cast. Entire statue is 57.5 cm high. Private collection, United Kingdom.
There is barely visible diadem (small crown) in the hair of this figure. Once the hand held aloft must have held a sword. The floral decorations on this exquisite piece are in black and silver bronze. The diadem,
hair and face are strongly reminiscent of Alexander the Great. Hollow-casting was a specialty of sculptors in southern Gaul, who were often trained by Greek artists. It was excavated in 1795 in England. Because
of its excellent condition, it is thought to have been deliberately buried for hiding.
Venus, bronze, ca. 150 A.D., holding a lock of her hair, the weight of her body on her right side. 23.2 cm. Private Collection, United Kingdom.
This is a very good quality piece. However, bronzes like this often come up at better international auctions, perhaps twice a year.
In early Rome, Venus was a separate goddess identified with plants and fertility. Through time, she gained the attributes of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, a goddess closely identified with sexual and romantic love.
During the late Greek and early Roman period, Aphrodite became the goddess of perfect beauty. Early Greek statues of Aphrodite represented her nude or in Asian garments. According to Pliny (23-79 A.D.), "The
finest statue not only of Praxiteles but in the whole world is the Aphrodite, for the sight of which many have sailed to Cnidos." The statue to which Pliny refers was carved in the Fourth Century B.C. and is
only known to moderns through Roman copies.
There were several festivals of Venus each year: Venus as the Universal Mother on September 26;Venus the Changer of Hearts on April 1; Venus the Victorious on both August 2 and 9.
The Romans often gave a patina to bronzes after they were finished. The patina would have been a coat of oil perhaps with pigment or resin added. A bit of that patina can be seen in the piece above. The Greeks and
Egyptians preferred a black patina, but the Romans tended to use more golden or slightly greenish pigments in their patinas. By the Seventeenth Century A.D., protective tinted wax was used for patina in place
Encaustic portrait from mummy case of a Greco-Roman Egyptian, ca. 150 A.D.; 17 x 9 inches; Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
This mummy case is made of lime wood. The encaustic technique involved the use of hot wax as a medium for paint. The background for these portraits is usually an off-white. The hair and toga of the young man seem
to be Greek or a Roman imitation of Greek. Despite the Hellenization and Romanization of Egypt, the ancient funerary practice of mummification continued in Egypt. But portraits such as the one above did not
gain popularity until about 50 A.D. The Egyptians continued painting such encaustic portraits on wooden mummy cases until about 300 A.D., when the Roman Empire was disintegrating and Christianity began to prevail
Often less intact mummy cases are available on the international marketplace; rarely are they in such excellent condition.
During Septimius Severus's time in power (193-211 A.D.) the Parthians, who once controlled Mesopotamia, Iran and parts of Egypt, were fought in a series of wars. Septimius's son Caracalla, who succeeded Septimius,
had continuing problems holding on the Middle Eastern portion of the Empire. Caracalla took an extremely brutal approach that sealed his unpopularity. For instance, in 216 A.D., he had all the young men of Alexandria,
Egypt killed with no explanation.
Amber perfume bottle, made in Northern Italy, ca. Second Century A.D., 5.2 cm high; British Museum, London.
During the Roman Empire, colors were class signifiers. Blue and red were considered very high class. On walls, black was considered the most expensive, aristocratic color. The elite not only wanted their villas
to look different from lower class dwellings, they wanted them (and their bodies) to smell differently. The highest level of the elite, for instance, built on the Palatine Hill, which was better drained than
the rest of Rome, and above the smells of the city, particularly pungent during the summer. The lower class could not afford regular bathing or perfumes. One way the aristocrats distinguished themselves from
the lower class was by bathing, using perfumes, and not eating garlic. At the end of the Roman Empire, the use of cinnamon and balsam were considered "avant garde" habits that showed affiliation with Persians
and other Asians, rather than macho Roman men.
Amber is a fossil resin. It was found in Sicily during antiquity, but most of the amber carved for luxury items during the Late Empire came from the Baltic region. According to Pliny, who wrote in the First Century
A.D., a good piece of worked amber was worth more than a healthy slave. The Romans traded metal for amber.
The piece above was carved in Aquileia, in Northern Italy. The workshops of Aquileia made pieces that have been found throughout the Roman Empire, in particular in the Rhineland. The vessel above was carved from
a single piece of amber.
This magnificent piece depicts Dionysius and two cupids picking grapes. A panther tries to take the grapes from them. This piece is particularly rare because the amber trade broke down during the Third Century A.D.
Weathered sarcophagus: Pentelic marble, architectural relief of a family, excavated near Rome, ca. 200 A.D., Art Institute of Chicago.
By the Third Century A.D., burial was common throughout the Roman Empire. This is commonly explained by the increasing prevalence of Christianity and an assortment of "mystery religions" (informal, unrecognized,
foreign cults). These emphasized a more optimistic view of the afterlife than had been popular in more ancient Rome.
A wealthy family probably commissioned the elaborate sarcophagus above. The man depicted in this well-made piece, is wearing his imagines, his official robes. The woman wears the customarily modest matron's
costume. She is not one of the designated mourners-the praeficae-usually depicted bearing musical instruments and in the act of singing or dancing. Most Romans had wooden sarcophagi and wooden grave
markers. In the northern provinces, large mounds were built over graves. In Italy and the Middle East during the Late Roman Empire, there were catacombs with burial chambers cut into the rock.
Fragment of Roman mosaic, with Cupid on a black background surrounded by plants and flowers, bearing a spear. This piece is somewhat rare because the original tesserae are still set in the original bedding. 60.3 x 50.16 cm, private collection, United States.
In the Romans own description of buildings, the diffusion of light, exposure to the sun, and similar issues were foremost, not the architecture or technical achievement. To the Romans, mosaics were not a substitute
for a painting or sculpture; they were meant to lend a sparkling surface to an otherwise flat area.
During this period of the Roman Empire, there was a dramatic increase in international trade and a commensurate increase in the number of pigments available. We see new words in Latin for different colors during
the First Century A.D., ten words for different shades of green, sixteen for reds, and eight for blues.
Rectangular Roman mosaic, from Asia Minor, ca. 300 A.D., decorated with a series of interlocking circles of green, red, blue, yellow. The background is off-white. 217.3 x 133.5 cm; private collection, United Kingdom.
By the late 200s and early 300 A.D., there had been at least two emperors appointed successively each year. Some were soldiers, some were peasants. The army played an increasingly significant role in emperor-making.
The Parthians took over Syria and Asia Minor in 256 and captured the Emperor Valerian. The Romans had to enlist the help of the city of Palmyra, which afterward rebelled against the Romans.
A general named Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus appointed himself emperor of Spain and Gaul in 259. He attempted to conquer Upper and Lower Germany, but was defeated in 268 A.D. His own army killed him when
he hindered the sack of Mainz. Nevertheless, though Postumus weakened the Roman Empire's internal structure, he defeated the German invasion against it.
Roman mosaic panel in hexagonal shape, ca. 300 A.D., featuring geometric and plant designs, colors include red, gray, pink, yellow. 206.6 cm diameter, private collection, United Kingdom.
In the early 200s A.D. African mosaics gain a distinctive look. Archaeologists say that during this period there were only a few mosaic workshops along the North African coast. There was a small, tight knit aristocracy,
which had seen Greek and Egyptian art. They were excellent patrons of mosaics that dramatically portrayed significant aspects of their lives: hunting, banqueting, and games. Mythological scenes were less common.
The late Second and Early Third Century A.D. produced the most valuable and interesting African mosaics.
Mosaics became less colorful, designs more formulaic, poses look leaden, during the late 200s and early 300s A.D. Their subject matter shifts to pagan religion. By the mid-Fourth Century A.D., North African mosaics
were preoccupied with Christian themes. The Vandal (a German tribe that had its home in southern Scandinavia) invasions during the Third and Fourth Centuries A.D. eviscerated the traditional North African aristocracy,
the best patrons for the highest-quality mosaics made in North Africa.
Scene from a Comedy, ca. 190 A.D.; in situ at Hadrumetum (Sousse), Tunisia at the excavated remains of a Roman residence. One third of a portion, total dimensions: 115 x 82 cm.
Sometimes the Romans would put a colorful scene in the midst of black and white tesserae (small stones used in mosaics), as they did in the "Scene from a Comedy," above. This is the central figure, the
master in the comedy, who is about to beat a slave but is held back by a messenger.
Small portions of mosaics like this are often available at auction or in galleries. Often the quality is equal to the piece above, but it is impossible to see more than a tiny part of the story being told by the
This is the right side portion of the mosaic Scene from a Comedy. It depicts the messenger who restrains the master from hitting the slave, cowering on the right. He wears the red mask of the messenger in Roman theatre.
Grain was the chief source of wealth for North Africa. Grain production was massively increased by Roman irrigation methods. Africa also exported wood, marble, fabric dyes. Wild animals were brought from Africa
for circuses throughout the Roman Empire. Carthage in North Africa was the largest city in the Empire after Rome. The epidemics of the 160s were less serious in North Africa and the economic crisis of the 170s
and later did not harm North Africa as much as other parts of the Empire. Most of the arable land in North Africa was owned by a handful of families. Late in the Empire, Christianity spread in North Africa more
rapidly than in any of the other Western provinces. In the Fourth Century A.D., Christianity became a divisive factor in North African politics, particularly as the central government in Rome disintegrated.
Fragment of limestone statue of a standing eagle from Roman archaeological site at Petra, Jordan, ca. 150 A.D. Private collection, Amman, Jordan.
This is similar to Northern Europe limestone, and is excellent for fine engraving such as in the piece above. In Europe, such limestone was later used for some of the great Gothic cathedrals in Germany, France,
the Netherlands. In Aramaic, the native language of Petra's environs, the city was called Seleh, meaning "the Rock."
This is an excellent quality piece with exquisite detail and craftsmanship. Fragments like this are often on sale, but are costly.
Petra is surrounded by mountains, the city has Roman baths, amphitheaters, temples, gymnasium. Petra is best known, however, for the tombs and temples cut into the mountainsides. It was the capital of the Nabateans
until 105 A.D. when the Romans disbanded the city as a governmental headquarters.
Dionysian Procession in a Landscape, a portion from the doorway to a triclinium (banquet hall). Third Century A.D., 257 x 155 cm, marble, Thysdrus (El Djem), Tunisia.
Dionysius (or Bacchus) was a favorite subject of mosaics throughout the Roman Empire. His cult was widespread; he was one of the Olympians. The others were Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Venus, Apollo, Diana, Ceres, Mercury,
Neptune, Minerva and Vulcan. Foreign gods were often equated with Roman gods, and each culture had its own deity of drink. Bacchic sanctuaries, not really full-scale temples, were built all over the Roman Empire.
This mosaic portion is in excellent condition, its colors clear and bright. The grapes on the Bacchante's headband are beautifully rendered. This is a first-rate piece.
Family of Emperor Septimius Severus, ca. 200 A.D., with his sons Caracalla and Geta and his wife Julia Donna. Geta's image has been scratched out. Tempera on wood, 30.5 cm diameter. Staaliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany.
This is the only surviving painted portrait of a Roman emperor that we have. Painted portraits of rulers, governors, and other officials are particularly valuable.
The piece was excavated in Egypt. Septimius Severus was born in Lepcis Magna, in modern day Libya. He was brought to power in a military coup and his rule was based on the support of the army. This was a period
of serious imperial expansion. All in the image above are shown wearing their best outfits, Julia Donna with important-looking jewelry. Septimius Severus wanted his sons Geta and Caracalla to rule jointly, as
can be seen in the relative equality of the sons. Geta was ten and Caracalla twelve at the time of this portrait. Scholars think the portrait was commissioned by a wealthy Egyptian to present to the Emperor
when he visited Egypt in 199-200 A.D. In 212 A.D., Caracalla arranged the assassination of his brother and his brother's followers, who probably numbered in the thousands.
Cage cup, design in opaque sanded glass, 16.5 cm, British Museum, London. Depicts the legend of Lycurgus, who according to a legend in Homer, attacked Dionysius and drove him to the sea.
The cage cup above is the same as the one in the image before it. It is dichronic, meaning it changes color depending on the light that shines through it.
The craftsmanship of this cup is superb. It is in remarkable, nearly pristine condition, possibly kept in a vault for safekeeping. For glasses of this quality there was a glass blower (vitrearius) and a
glass cutter (diatetarius). The changing colors are the result of silver and gold in the glass. The larger figures on the surface; Lycurgus (King of Thrace) and Bacchus (god of wine) are hollowed out
on the inside. The gilt bronze pedestal and rim were attached in the nineteenth century. Such cups were luxury items in the Roman Empire. It was once owned by Lord Rothschild. Today they are uncommon at auction,
but occasionally come up mostly in the sales of significant estates, often in New York or London.
Fragment of a fresco, ca. Second Century A.D., Syria, 32 x 39 cm. Excavated in the hallway of a middle-class private residence. Private collection, Israel.
Before making a fresco, the wall must be brushed and washed; then it is covered with rough plaster (arriccio). The Romans allowed walls to "cure" for three years before painting frescoes on them. Paint was first
dissolved in water and painted onto to still wet plaster (intonaco). The paint became a very fine, nearly transparent layer. Because so much water was involved, frescoes were vulnerable to humidity
damage. The Romans tended to put frescoes only in arid climates. Fresco fragments are often found in the international marketplace; this fragment is more complete than many and is still lovely.
The colors in the fresco fragment above are faded but still appealing after nearly two thousand years: crimson, a butterscotch yellow, and black. This one has floral and geometric designs, a plum, or similar fruit,
seems to hang from festoons. The holes at the top, according to the archaeologists, were used to hang this fresco from the stucco wall beneath it. Fresco fragments like these were more commonly in the international
art marketplace before the 1970s. The fragment above, though damaged and imperfect, is still powerful and pleasing.
Gold bracelet, Roman with Greek and Celtic elements, ca. 150 A.D., excavated at Rhayander, Powys, Wales; 18.7 cm wide; private collection, United Kingdom.
In Latin gold was called aurum. The gold in this bracelet was probably mined in southern Gaul. The gold workshops of Wales were well-known throughout the Roman Empire. Other sources of gold in the Roman
Empire were Spain, Bactria, Asia Minor. In the Second Century A.D. the Balkans started to surpass other regions in gold mining. At the end of the Empire, there was a shortage of gold in the Roman Empire.
This piece is flattened in places but in generally excellent condition. The intricate pattern of the gold wire emulates Greek jewelry of the Fourth Century B.C. Gold was much rarer and more valuable in ancient Greece
than in Rome The green enamel reflects Anglo-Saxon jewelry-making methods. Scholars believe that the jeweler was probably trained by a Greek craftsman. It was excavated in 1899 and discovered with a cache of
The dynasty that began with Septimius Severus in 193 ended with P. Licenius Egnatius Gallienus in 268. There were then three emperors in Gaul, beginning with Postumus in 259 and ending with Tetricus in 273. At the
same time, there was an Illyrian line of emperors, with suzerainty over Greece, the Dalmation Coast, Rome. The Illyrian emperors began with Claudius "Gothicus" in 268 and ended with the gifted organizer and
military strategist Diocletion, who died in 305. Diocletian realized that the empire was too big and varied to be ruled from one city. He devised the Tetrarchy (Three Rulers), which lasted until 324 A.D. At
that point Constantine defeated his co-ruler Licinius and became sole emperor. Constantine was successful in securing the Danube. He made Trier (now Germany) his capital for a time. Constantine was not baptized
until he was on his deathbed (337 A.D.), but made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Florite mug, thought to have been made either in Rome or Parthia, 13.5 cm high, British Museum, London, U.K., formerly in the collection of Baron Adolphe Stoclet.
This mug was found during World War I in Turkey. Though the circumstances are ambiguous, it is said that it contained ashes, perhaps of a human. It has a relief of grapes, vines, leaves and the head of Bacchus near
It is made from florite, also called florspar, a very rare mineral, which the ancient Romans claimed, had its origin in Persia. It is also found in Britain, China, Mexico, and Canada but only occasionally in sufficiently
large chunks from which a mug could be carved. Florite has sharp, loose crystals that make carving difficult and potentially dangerous.
It is, of course, the origin of fluoride, which we know today prevents tooth decay. The Romans believed that drinking wine from a florite vessel would prevent disease. According to Pliny the Elder, writing in the
First Century A.D., Emperor Nero paid one million sesterces for a florite cup-at the time the same amount would buy a thousand slaves.