Roman Statues and Busts

The Romans were masters of sculpture. As well as reliefs (carved pictures on one face of a piece of stone) they made thousands of statues (carved all the way round) and busts (just the head and shoulders, as in the picture to the right).

Borrowing from Greece


When the Romans conquered Greece in 146BC, they were amazed by the quality of scuplture they found there, and took many of the statues and reliefs back to Rome. Sculptors were inspired by the Greek style, which was much more realistic and lively than anything they had ever seen. The Greeks often used marble, a stone of very fine quality which allows for great detail in the carving. Bronze was also excellent for statues, but few bronze statues survive from ancient times because it either rusted or was melted down to be used by someone else. The best work was from about 300 years before the conquest, in the time of great sculptors like Pheidias and Praxiteles. Many of the best Roman statues are copies of these earlier Greek originals, which were sadly lost.

Who do the statues show?


Roman statues and busts usually show a person, either real - such as an emperor or noble man or woman - or divine - i.e. a god. Many other subjects were carved too - animals, everyday objects like vases, and scenes from Roman (i.e. Greek) mythology. The bronze statue below is very famous - it shows the wolf which according to legend suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. In fact the babies were much later in the middle ages.





Nero (ruled AD 54-68) - one of the bad emperors

The Roman Style

The Romans were the first to carve statues or busts of real people which actually looked like them - which showed them in all their often quite ugly detail. The Egyptians had tried this with some of their pharaohs, and the Greeks had gone further, but with Roman statues there is often no mistaking who the person is meant to be. There are hundreds of statues or busts of particular emperors, which are instantly recognisable. This is nice because it means we know exactly what famous Romans like Augustus or Nero looked like, as well as their hairstyles, clothing or armour. 

Like the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Romans usually painted their statues - perhaps just the hair, lips and eyes, and some details of the clothes, or sometimes the whole statue. Most ancient statues have lost this paint because of rain or being buried in wet ground, so nowadays we tend to think of them as just bare stone. This is not how the ancient people saw sculpture. Paint was a final touch to bring the statue alive, and perhaps to help the spirit of the god or emperor to enter the statue. The bust at the top of this page still has some red ochre paint on the hair.

On this page you can see lots of examples of amazing Roman sculpture, from museums around the world. The first few are real people such as emperors, then there are characters from mythology (gods, a centaur etc.). The quality of sculpture found in Britain is not so good, as it was far from the centre of the empire. However, in October 2013 a beautiful eagle was found in London, probably from the tomb of a rich Roman's tomb (see below). It has a snake in its mouth, which stands for the forces of evil or the enemies of Rome. The eagle stands for Rome itself.

Emperor Trajan (ruled AD 98-117) - one of the good ones


Marcus Aurelius (ruled AD 161-180) - another of the good emperors. This is an amazing bronze statue which was gilded (covered in a thin layer of gold).


A bronze statue known as the Hellenistic Prince,

although he may be an athlete, given all those muscles.


The famous 'Dying Gaul', sitting on his shield after a fatal battle wound.

Close up of the Dying Gaul.
You can see the torc around his neck, and his hair spiked up with lime.

  Mythological Statues

Diana, goddess of hunting
(borrowed from the Greek goddess Artemis)

The famous Apollo Belvedere
Apollo was the twin brother of Artemis and god of light,
the sun, music, poetry, medicine, and prophecy.

The god Mercury - messenger of the gods
Mercury had wings on his feet to let him fly.
To the Greeks he was known as Hermes.

Hercules - the strongest man who ever lived.
He is shown with his club and lion skin.
The Greeks called him Heracles.

A centaur - half man half horse, from Greek mythology.
This and the Laocoon statue to the right show the intense emotion the Romans could put into their carving.


The Laocoon statue
This is a scene from the myth of the Trojan war. The Greeks have left the wooden horse on the beach with soldiers hidden inside. Laocoon, a priest, tries to warn the Trojans - beware Greeks bearing gifts, he says. The goddess Athena helps the Greeks by sending snakes to kill Laocoon and his sons.
This really is a spectacular work of art - the suffering is very clear in the expression and twisted bodies of the poor victims.