Although the Roman Empire began somewhere around 500 B.C.E. and was one of the greatest civilisations ever known, it owes an artistic and cultural debt to the Greeks. For a number of years, art historians considered Roman art to be an inferior copy of Greek art. Indeed, much of Roman art finds its foundations in Greek art. However, scholars have begun to take a second look at the art of ancient Rome and have realised that the Roman contribution to art history has been overlooked.
Greek art had a great deal of influence on Roman artists and culture. Roman art that was influenced by Greek art is called Greco-Roman art. During this period, it was fashionable in Roman society to own or have good replicas of Greek art, according to Lois Fichner-Rathus, author of "Understanding Art." Even with Greek influences, however, Roman art reached a realism that was never seen before in Greek art.
Roman pottery also diverged from the influences of the Greeks. Whereas the Greeks painted their pottery---first with geometric shapes and later with the human form---the Romans did not. According to "History for Kids," Roman pottery was only one colour and featured moulded clay decorations instead of painted ones. Although Roman pottery was initially made where it would ultimately be used, by the time that Caesar Augustus came into power, big pottery factories existed in Italy. The people who bought the pottery did not necessarily live in the region in which the pottery was produced.
Like the Greeks, the Romans made human sculptures. Unlike the Greeks, however, who expressed their human ideal in their sculptures, Roman sculptures expressed an element of realism that had never been seen. This was due in large part to the Roman practice of making death masks, according to Fichner-Rathus. Whereas Greek busts portrayed a face without blemish, Roman sculptures showed their human imperfections.
The Romans were great painters, as can be seen in the excavations of Roman households. These wall paintings show great sophistication in technique. Art historians look closely at Roman paintings to gain some understanding of Greek paintings, because although it is known that the Greeks painted, none of their work survives. Some of the best-known examples of Roman paintings may be seen in the ruins of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, which were both destroyed upon the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
The Romans were master builders, as shown by much of the surviving architecture from the Roman Empire. While the Greek architecture appeared "sculpture-like," the Romans created works of architecture on a grand scale that were also supremely useful. Roman citizens not only enjoyed modern buildings, they had the advantage of running water delivered to their home via structures like the Roman aqueduct.