There is a widely-held opinion among many art historians that Roman culture is primarily based on Hellenistic principles, therefore, it should be discussed only within the context of ancient Greece and its art. Certainly, Romans adopted certain concepts of Greek culture, yet it is impermissible for us to say that these two epochs are analogous to each other, because there are certain distinctive features. Partly, they were motivated by the socio-economic development of these drastically different societies. Another aspect, which cannot be disregarded, is the aesthetic and moral doctrines that existed in Greece and Rome.
Roman and Greek art: the similarities and differences
In order to substantiate this statement, we can compare and contrast such famous works as Laocoön Group, (this sculpture is also known as Laocoön and His Sons) and Marcus Agrippa with Imperial Family. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these sculptures have always been regarded as one of the most prominent masterpieces of Greek and Roman art. It is necessary to analyze these works in terms of their symbolism, style, and composition. In addition to that, we should not forget about the historical or probably mythical background of the sculptures, because both of them rely on some real or fictional events.
As regards the Greek sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, we should first point out that its authorship has yet to be identified. Traditionally, it is ascribed to Alexander, Polydorous and Athenodorous (Lessing, 1993, p 44). However, even now historians cannot say it with certainty. This work takes its origins in the myth of Laocoon, or probably it stems from Homers famous poem Iliad. The sculpture depicts the famous Trojan priests and their offspring being strangled by seeing snakes, which have been sent by Olympic gods. Perhaps, it is necessary to go back to the history of the Trojan War and especially its outcome. The thing is that Laocoon rejected the famous gift of the Greeks; consequently, he was punished by the gods, who patronized the Greeks. Nonetheless, this is just the surface, because this work not only narrates the myth in visual form, it also represents the key tenets of Hellenistic art, like for instance, anthropocentrism or the belief that a human being is a perfect creature.
It should be taken into consideration that the central figure of the composition represents Greek ideals of the human body. His athletic constitution can be viewed as the standard of physical appearance (See Picture 1). In this respect, we need to say that the cult of the human body has always been one of the most peculiar features of Hellenistic art.
As regards the form of this work and its structure, we should first speak about the fluidity of lines, every figure; seem to merge into one another. Moreover, every detail is meticulously depicted. The central figure is Laocoön, whereas his sons just supplement him. Yet, it has to be admitted, that they are an inseparable part of the sculpture because the authors contrast them and his father, his struggle, and their obedience to the will of gods.
It is of the crucial importance for us to discuss the symbolism of this composition, because, this aspect is probably the main reason why Laocoön Group attracts so much attention. The sculpture symbolizes the rebelliousness of human nature, its struggle against overwhelming forces. Although the Trojan priest perishes in the sea, his death becomes an embodiment of human insuperability. One may also note that ancient Greeks had a very peculiar attitude to death, itself. They tried to give it certain artistic elements. Eleni Vassilika defines it as the “beauty of death” (Vassilika, 1998, p 35).
Marcus Agrippa with Imperial Family
If we try to compare and contrast Laocoon with the roman graving Marcus Agrippa with Imperial Family, we should first pay attention to the manner in which the characters are portrayed. One can no longer observe the so-called cult of the human body or anthropocentrism because at a certain Romans departed from this famous Greek tradition. Such indispensable attribute of sculptures as an athletic constitution of figures is no longer present. However, we must acknowledge that some features of Greek-style, are quite palpable, particularly, the subtlety of details: every article of clothing, every part of the body is carefully depicted. Furthermore, we need to mention the fluidity of lines (See picture 2). The composition of the graving also differs from the Greek sculpture because there seems to be no central figure, which would stand out among other people, as it is with Laocoon.
Besides, one should bear it in mind that Marcus Agrippa was a famous Roman general, a warrior, who was always faithful to the imperial family and especially Augustus. The main message, which this engraving conveys, is that every man, even such a strong person as Agrippa must be obedient to the imperial power. The rebelliousness of human nature is altogether rejected.
Thus, we can conclude that Roman and Greek art have certain similar and distinctive features. First, both styles share common subtlety of details and smoothness of lines. As far as the differences are concerned, we need to mention the anthropocentrism and the cult of the human body are no longer present in Roman engraving. Additionally, we should speak about the symbolism of the two works: Laocoon symbolizes the rebelliousness of human nature and its struggle against the higher force, whereas Marcus Agrippa resents the obedience of warrior to the imperial power.
Eleni Vassilika (1998). Greek and Roman art. Cambridge University Press.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Ellen Frothingham (1993). Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.