ROMAN ARCHITECTURE AND MOSAICS
Through architecture and mosaics, it is clear that Roman imperial art is a Mediterranean art where elements and ideas from Rome and her provinces meet.
Africa (Leptis Magna)
Because this town was his birthplace, Septimius Severus lavished a great deal of money on a building program in Leptis Magna. Among the emperor’s contributions to the city were a huge new forum, a basilica, and a long colonnaded street.
The Severan Forum was enclosed by high walls within which ran a portico. Its arcades were decorated in the spandrels with large female heads, alternating between sea nymphs and Medusa. At one end of the forum was a large temple raised on a podium in the traditional manner, and at the other end was the huge apse-ended basilica. Its rich decoration includes deeply carved acanthus leaves which curl around in a rinceau of vines, while human and animal figures in high relief fill the spaces between the curves of the stems and leaves. The carving techniques on these reliefs take advantage of deep drilling to make dark shadows in the intense North African light. Acanthus leaves have also appeared on other Roman buildings, such as on the exterior wall of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome. The acanthus leaves on the Ara Pacis, however, are flatter and the small animals which are interspersed among the foliage are not as noticeable. The use of pilasters and columns with ionic and corinthian capitals are also typical elements of Roman architecture.
Another set of buildings at Leptis, this time from the late second century AD, is the Hunting Baths. Well preserved because they were buried under the sand, they are an excellent example of the extensive use of concrete to make a multiple series of vaulted spaces for the different baths within the complex. There seems to have been no attempt to ornament the exterior with columns or other classical decoration, but the interior had wall paintings. Hunting scenes were wide spread throughout the empire. By comparing the painting of the man killing a leopard, Rapidus, at Leptis Magna with a painting from Mérida, Spain, showing another hunter killing a lion, one gets to see how standardized such scenes were.
Another provincial town, this one at the eastern extremities of the empire, was Palmyra, located at the edge of the Syrian desert. It flourished under the emperor Septimius Severus. The fact that the emperor’s wife was a Syrian may explain his interest in the area; but, in addition, he had practical concerns of a strategic and economic nature regarding Palmyra itself. What had previously been a largely mudbrick town was now given many new public buildings in marble. Long colonnaded streets and a huge triumphal arch still stand as testimony to the building program.
The art of Palmyra reflects a mixture of Roman and Parthian styles. An example of this can be seen at the Sanctuary and Temple of Bel, where typical Roman elements, such as aedicule with full, broken, and arched pediments, are combined with foreign Parthian elements.
At another site in Roman Syria, Baalbek, the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus also reflect a mixture of Roman and Parthian styles. This is seen through the use of the engaged columns, the triple set of steps, and the high podiums.
Palmyra and Baalbek are only two of the many cities at the fringes of the Roman empire that dominate the surrounding landscape. Another example, in what is now Tunisia, is El Djem. The amphitheater there rises dramatically out of the flat landscape, reminding us of the way in which Roman towns made their mark all around the Mediterranean shores. The ornate style of decoration that was characteristic of Septimius Severus’ triumphal arch at Leptis Magna is found there too.
Citizens in Roman towns of the empire would typically dedicate public buildings to the imperial family and would indicate it by inscriptions and statues.
Polychrome mosaic floors were popular in North Africa. Although it differed from the less detailed, black and white Roman mosaics, it was obviously inspired by Roman art. The most common themes for these mosaics were the Seasons, the Provinces, the Muses, and scenes involving Greek gods. The mosaics that really make it clear that “Roman imperial art is a Mediterranean art where elements and ideas from Rome and her provinces meet” are the ones depicting the Provinces. In a particular mosaic of the Provinces, Egypt is illustrated as a woman holding a sistrum, a symbol associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis; Africa is illustrated as a woman with an elephant’s trunk and tusks on her head, because the elephant is often associated with Africa; and, of course, Rome is illustrated with the image of the goddess Roma holding the world in her hands, implying that Rome rules the world.