Propaganda in Roman Art

Alana Yee
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2013]
The Arch of Constantine

​Art in Rome is both captivating and timeless. What is even more striking is the story behind it all. The way they lived, the people who were in charge, and the aspects of society that were most important all influenced why art was created. Propaganda in Roman art is very prominent with political, military, and religious themes. Many of the relics, frescoes, mosaics, and monuments were more than appealing images; they told a story and were meant to influence public opinion. Art was made with the public in mind.
Visual art played an important role for those in power and for military campaigns. Since Rome was constantly at war with other powers or defending their territory, Emperors, consuls, and generals had monuments constructed to glorify themselves and their accomplishments. Columns told a story, monuments depicted soldiers winning in battle, and friezes showed the Romans as the focal point and as the dominant power. Art was more than just an appealing picture on the wall. It was like a billboard, used for advertisement by portraying the news, but skewing the facts to make it look more dramatic and glorious. Art was used as an effective form of advertisement. For political reasons, emperors made their art depict an 'epic' tale to preserve their self-image. This made the public believe that the Emperor was the most victorious and could do anything. Many columns, like the Column of Trajan, had a continuous story made in the style of a picture book, with dramatic scenes of battle and triumph. There are no breaks in between, just a constant stream of action, despite campaigns that lasted for years. The public was conditioned to think that every emperor was all-powerful, even if they were old and weak. They were shown as doing what is best for Rome and its people for the preservation of their own image, even if it was what led to defeat in the end. Art at this time portrayed the emperor in a better light and as a more valorous man than he really was.

Artefacts in the Museo della Civiltà Romana

Most art included carvings and sculptures made of stone so it would last for centuries to come. The pictures and scenes illustrated are often inaccurate, it was not about reenacting the truth, but reenacting what the commissioner wanted to be remembered by. Long after emperors and rulers have passed, at least the piece of art keeps their image alive.
The statue of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio depicts an emperor who looks calm and confident. He is not holding any weapons and his hand is raised, implying both leadership and confidence. Although there was harmony with the senate at the time, things were not peaceful in the Empire, especially along the northern borders where there was constant pressure from invaders. Also, the foot of his horse is raised, possibly implying the emperor in action. In fact, there used to be a statue of a defeated barbarian below its leg. Art made the public believe that their Empire was invincible. On the Arch of Constantine there is no question as to who was the authority. Constantine was in the center, was the focal point of the piece, and all other objects were smaller in size and facing that figure of power.

The Basilica of San Paolo

In many churches in Rome, Christ is depicted as royalty. There is a blurred line between the depiction of the power of the Emperor and the power of Christ. In the central apse of the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Christ is seated on a throne. The throne implies that Jesus was a member of royalty. Another, less noticeable representation of imperial intertwined with religious ideas is a painting of a man seated on a throne with a halo around his head from the Museo della Civiltà Romana. Everyone else in the scene is smaller and facing toward the center where the man is seated. He is holding a spear, referring to his military status. He is draped in a toga, showing that the man is Roman, but the halo around his head represents his holy importance. The ideas of the political authority of the time were often intertwined with religious powers. When Christians were persecuted and Christianity was not openly accepted, art depicting their religious figures was small and simple. They were more interested in the idea and the message over the form and aesthetics of the art. Many symbols were used to communicate with each other, almost like a code language for Christians through art. As Christianity gained power and Constantine freed the Christians in 313 A.D., pictures of Jesus, God, and scenes of Biblical tales were created on a grander scale. The main figures of Christianity are shown as the higher powers, similar to the Emperors and rulers of Rome. Jesus and the Emperors of Rome are very different figures of authority, but were glorified by their followers in similar ways.

Decorations from the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

St. Peter’s Square is the center of the Catholic world as well as a beautiful place to visit. The piazza, consisting of the basilica as the main focus, colonnades topped with statues, and an obelisk in the middle have many symbolical purposes. The basilica is the most significant building of the area. It is richly decorated and everything it encompasses has a reason. The basilica is built on top of the place where St. Peter’s tomb is located. St. Peter is an important figure of the Catholic religion because he is traditionally thought of as the first Pope, who was given his authority by Jesus. The piazza is designed like arms embracing the area in front of the basilica. This can be symbolic of the church inviting everyone to find salvation and feel safe and protected through belief in the religion. Anyone standing in the piazza is surrounded by the colonnades, which are lined with statues of saints. They are at the top of the colonnades looking down on the people in the piazza. This could be a symbol of protection, with these figures and pillars creating a barrier from outside influences. The piazza has two fountains, one on each side of the central obelisk. These two fountains represent the sun and the moon, implying that the Catholic Church is the center of the universe. It suggests a very narrow-minded idea that the world revolves around and relies on this one religion. However, because of the historical significance of the area, it seems true while standing within the piazza. The Egyptian obelisk in the center used to be in the center of the Circus of Caligula, the place where St. Peter was crucified during the Christian persecutions. Although the obelisk has Egyptian decorations, with lions holding up the base, it was transformed into a symbol for the religion. The obelisk is the connection and direction to the heavens, pointing up to the sky with the cross at the top. Also, the base contains inscriptions describing Christ as king, ruler, and forgiver of sins. It portrays Jesus and being the authority of both the religious and political realms, which might be how his followers saw him at the time.


Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Apse mosaic

The obelisk is a prominent monument used for both religious and political propaganda in Rome. Originally from Egypt, obelisks can be used as sundials, like the one in Saint Peter's Square, as well as the direction and connection to God and the Heavens. In Piazza Navona, an obelisk can be found on the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the center of the piazza. The idea behind the fountain is that knowledge, represented by the obelisk and its hieroglyphs, supported by the whole Church (the four figures of the four known continents), leads towards God. This idea creates a misconception that the world is united in its belief in God, and that knowledge centers on Christian faith. Rome is full of art used as propaganda. It can be the focal point of an area, much like the buildings and monuments, or they can be minuscule, such as an inscription on a slab. Regardless, they give us a glimpse into the history of Rome, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world.