ANCIENT Roman art and artefacts are incredibly popular amongst our collectors here at Apollo, and it’s no surprise.
The Romans left us many beautiful and well-preserved artefacts from all of Europe. In this article we’re giving you an introductory Roman Art Collecting Guide to help you on your antiquities journey.
WHAT DO WE CLASS AS 'ROMAN ART'?
Simply put, Roman art is any piece that was produced in the Roman Republic or Empire in a classical ‘Roman’ style. The Roman Empire dated between 27 BC and 476 AD and was born out of the Roman Republic after it had become prey to political infighting and conflict. At its height, under Trajan, the empire reached from Northern Britain in the North West, to Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula in the South East.
Known for its powerful armies and its complex politics, Ancient Rome is simultaneously one of the better known, but often misunderstood periods, of ancient history. The powerful leaders of the Roman Empire collected tax in order to fund not only the military but a large civil service. Their relationships with neighbouring peoples and empires facilitated technological exchange and the empire’s size allowed for lots of innovation. Think the famous Roman Roads!
Roman Iron Spatha Sword with Handle ca. 200 – 400AD
Roman Iron Socketed Spearhead ca. 300 – 500AD
Alongside these technological advances, that you’ll see in Pilum Spear design or Roman Glass, there was a considerable artistic culture. Firstly, art was used to demonstrate political power. For example, many statues were made of the emperors and senators. Additionally, like we do today, Roman people used art to decorate homes. We see examples of this in Herculaneum with mural paintings on domestic walls.
Finally, art represented and celebrated Roman religious belief. Although Rome had no ‘one religion’ nor thought of religion in the same way we do. As the empire expanded, they added more gods to their pantheon, emperors became deified in the imperial cult and later they made the transition to Christianity. Art is a very good medium through which to recognise these shifts. For example, in a cemetery at Bahariya Oasis in the desert southwest of Cairo there was a discovery of many Roman ‘Egyptian’ mummies. The art and design of these sarcophaguses show the intertwining of Egyptian and Roman religion.
Silver Roman Republican Coin Pendant 136BC
Roman Necklace With Carnelian Stone and Glass Beads ca. 100 – 400AD
WHY COLLECT ROMAN ART?
The Romans have had an undeniable effect on much of modern Europe. Their impact can be seen in not only archaeology but also in politics and the Latin language they left behind. They also had a considerable impact on parts of the world they never even reached. Look at the government buildings in Washington DC. They were designed in a Neo-Classical style to evoke the ‘Pax Romana’ and the prosperity and wealth that it embodies.
Therefore, Roman art is nearly always popular. Pieces sell well to both experts and casual buyers, as so many of us know its rich history. In fact, if you’re looking to get into Antiquities collecting, Roman art is perhaps one of the best places to start.
WHAT CAN YOU COLLECT?
With the number of Roman pieces on the market it could be overwhelming to know what to purchase and start a collection of. Here are our suggestions:
As we’ve already mentioned, Rome was known for its military might. Having a collection in Roman Weaponry you get to see this history close up and really appreciate the conquests you read about in books. What also makes this type of collection accessible is that you can range from collecting Roman spear heads, that cost a few hundred pounds, to extremely rare helmets that cost in the tens of thousands. You can adapt it to your interests and your budget.
A favourite amongst all of us here at Apollo, we will always recommend admiring Roman Glass. Rome was one of the first empires to hone glass blowing techniques so they could produce lighter and more delicate pieces. With bright colours and iridescence, they are spectacular pieces. Holding a Roman Glass vessel in your hands immediately connects you to the people in the past as they used them for cosmetics, rituals and cooking.
Roman Glass Flat Flask ca. 100 – 300AD
Roman Glass Cup ca. 100 – 300AD
If you’re fonder of sparkle, or history you can wear, a collection in Roman Jewellery may be for you. Whether you pick exquisite gold items with rare gems or smaller protective amulets, all the pieces have a unique beauty. There’s a certain joy that comes with wearing a pair of Roman earrings when you know a Roman noblewoman wore them thousands of years before you.
Further reading: Wearing The Past – Why Wear Ancient Jewellery?
Roman Sculpture and Ceramics
Sculpture and Busts from the Roman period are perhaps the most recognisable pieces of Roman Art. They are impressive and a brilliant choice if you want your collection to add historical interest to your home or workplace. However, due to their weight and materials, they can be the most expensive. Many will use a Roman sculpture or two to complement their other Roman pieces.
WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK OUT FOR?
A generally good piece of guidance is to pay close attention. You want to make sure an item is in a good state (for example has minimal chips or cracks) and always check for a good provenance. Additionally, consider if the subject matter is rare or well known – for example, does it depict a well-known god or political figure? Finally, always ensure that the piece is being sold by a reputable auction house or gallery just like Apollo.
One problem that many collectors face with Roman art is that in the Grand Tour period, many wealthy Europeans made very convincing copies of Roman artifacts. These get harder to identify as time goes on as they are sometimes 400 years old themselves. Many auction houses will sell these pieces alongside their genuine Roman items. For example, Apollo sells ‘Roman Style’ items which are likely to be from this period. These items have their own history and can be displayed alongside original artefacts. In order to have confidence when you buy Roman pieces, check that items have been vetted by professional consultants and perhaps have laboratory dating tests. Here at Apollo we always provide certificates and the relevant tests and paper work for the most expensive items.
Kevin Greene, ‘Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M. I. Finley Re-Considered’ Economic History Review
Martin Henig, Religion in Roman Britain
F. S. Kleiner, A History of Roman Art
C. Macroni (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Art and Architecture
All of the ancient artefacts included in this article have been offered for auction by Apollo. Many are sold but please get in touch is you’re interested in purchasing similar pieces from us by emailing [email protected].