Greek vs. Roman Art: Breaking Down Key Similarities and Differences

Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman Art

Many scholars believe that Classical art — art created, cultivated, or inspired by ancient societies — ranks among the most important cornerstones of Western civilization. Ancient Greek and Roman artwork are often the most remembered styles from this formative period in art history. 

Spanning the 8th century BC through 400 AD, the Classical period reflects key differences between the cultures and artistry of ancient Greeks and Romans. Perhaps even more strikingly, this period of artistic development reveals the ways in which Greek and Roman societies were similar. We’ve prepared a guide to the similarities and differences between Greek vs. Roman art and architecture styles — and what they reveal about these ancient cultures.

Useful Terminology

First, let us begin with a brief dive into the different periods relevant when we discuss Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman Art:

The Hellenic Period: Refers specifically to the period of ancient Greek history and culture that preceded the Classical Period. This period is typically dated from the rise of the Greek city-states in the 8th century BCE to the beginning of the Persian Wars in 490 BCE. 

The Greek Classical Period: In Greek history, the Classical Period refers to a period of history and art that lasted from approximately 480 BCE to 323 BCE. 

The Roman Classical Period: In terms of Roman history, the Classical Period corresponds to the period known as the Roman Republic, which lasted from 509 BCE to 27 BCE. 

The Hellenistic Period: Refers to the period of ancient Greek history and culture that followed the Classical Period, from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the conquest of Greece by the Roman Empire in 146 BCE. 

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What are Greek art’s defining qualities? Useful Terminology

From the beginning of the Classical period (5th century BCE to the 4th century BCE), also known as the Hellenic period, the idealized human form was one of the primary influences in Greek art. Artists such as the renowned Greek sculptor and architect Phidias began using the golden ratio as a standard for the face and body proportions of his sculptures. The Classical period also gave way to more realistic depictions of the human form than in centuries prior.

Greek architecture also experienced a notable evolution across the Hellenic period. At the beginning of the period, Greek temples featured simple, practical structures. For example, the  Doric columns, which are large and lack decoration, support the iconic Parthenon temple. Often, these massive temples reflected the orderly — and extravagant — leadership structure of the Greek empire.

Throughout the Hellenic period, sculpture was a prominent art form, though Greek artists also created notable painted pottery pieces, such as red figure vases. These vases often featured dynamic, clay-colored scenes of gods, goddesses, and nobles against a black background. While marble was the most popular medium, other commonly used media included bronze, limestone, iron, wood, and glass.

What are Roman art’s defining qualities?

Roman artists consistently borrowed from Greek art during the Classical period, especially after 146 BC, when the Roman Empire conquered Greece. Much Roman architecture and art also contains Greek, Etruscan, Italic, and Egyptian influences.

Despite its connections to other ancient cultures, Roman art also contained many original elements and ideals. While the Greek Parthenon temple featured simple Doric columns, the Roman Pantheon temple’s columns were ornate and Corinthian. Unlike Doric columns, Corinthian columns are intricately detailed, with capitals (i.e the top part of a column) that include acanthus leaf carvings.

One of the chief purposes of Roman art was to appease, celebrate, and venerate Roman emperors. In Roman sculpture, artists did not always aim for realism — instead, they often tried to emphasize the strength and power of their rulers. 

White marble and bronze sculptures were abundant during the Roman Empire, as were paintings. Roman artists used natural elements to create pigments, such as heated white lead, yellow ochre, and red cinnabar. From murals and portraits of prominent rulers to ornate and expansive floor mosaics, Roman art ventured into a new territory of style, color, and medium.

Greek vs. Roman Art: More in Common… 

The following are some key similarities between Greek and Roman art.

Focus on Beauty

While their subjects might have differed, both Greek and Roman art and architecture initially centered on beauty ideals. Greek and Roman artists alike valued symmetrical proportions and features that worked together harmoniously to create a similar idealized version of the human form.

While Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle originally championed the golden ratio, both Greeks and Romans used it to construct theoretically “perfect” artistic proportions. Eventually, the golden ratio became a mathematical equation through the work of, among others, Greek mathematicians Pythagoras and Euclid. The Greek Parthenon was long believed to be constructed based on this ratio, and Roman architect Vitruvius may also have adhered to it in his work.

Sources of Inspiration

Despite the Roman artists’ deviation from Greek sculpture, many of their original muses were the same. Both Greek and Roman artists frequently sculpted, painted, and otherwise honored Greek gods and goddesses in their art. Artwork relating to Apollo and Venus, in particular, were common fixtures in both ancient Greek and Roman societies.

Because of the similarly-structured religious and mythical beliefs of Greek and Roman civilizations, Greek and Roman artists often honored the same theological figures. Key among these were Zeus/ Jupiter, Athena/Minerva, Apollo, Aphrodite/Venus, Hermes/ Mercury. Even when Catholicism began to emerge in Rome during the first century AD, ancient Greek and Roman artists were still united by their commitment to religion.


Much of Roman art and architecture closely emulates the designs and structures found in Greek buildings and sculptures. Greek and Roman architects alike utilized the “post and lintel” structure, where posts (columns) — whether simple or extravagant (Doric or Corinthian) — would support a lintel (a horizontal beam) and entablature (a complex horizontal structure that consists of three elements: architrave, frieze, and cornice). This architectural design laid the groundwork for centuries of both ancient Greek and Roman buildings.

Greek and Roman architects used the same three-column designs invented by the Greeks to support their buildings. The Doric is the first of these “orders” (an “order” is a system that was developed in ancient Greece to provide rules to standardize architecture.) The next order, known as the Ionic, features ornaments on its capitals that resemble scrolls. Ionic columns also boast fluted shafts and egg-and-dart designs between the scroll-like ornaments. The final order, Corinthian, is the most ornate of the three.

Romans also emulated Greek sculptural designs during the Classical period. When creating stone and metal sculptures of gods and rulers alike, both Greek and Roman artists created free-standing figures that often stood upright. Historians believe that, for both ancient Greek and Roman artists, this stance conveyed the power of their subjects.

Greek vs. Roman art: What Divides Them?

Although Greek and Roman art share some traits, there are many ways in which they differ from one another. Some of the most significant differences are listed below.

Choices of Subject

While Greek and Roman artists produced many religious pieces during the Classical period, their subject matter often differed considerably. Greek sculptures often featured gods and goddesses in their most idealized forms, while Roman sculptures eventually expanded past the realm of theological and mythical figures.

One of the most famous emblems of Greek sculpture is Phidias’s statue of Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans), the god of the sky, at Olympia. Although this sculpture did not survive the passage of time, we understand from descriptions at the time that Zeus was adorned with a golden crown and robe. In each hand, a scepter and a statue of Nike, the goddess of victory. This statue, just as with many other ancient Greek sculptures, features an almost-nude Greek god: glorious, larger than life, and embodying the ideal human form. 

Roman sculptors deviated from sculpting statues featuring only mythical or godly subjects. Their sculptures often featured rulers, who, unlike in Greece’s “heroic nudes,” tended to be clothed. In Rome’s famous Arch of Constantine, which features a sculpture of Constantine the Great celebrating a battle victory, Constantine’s soldiers wear full suits of armor. 

The Arch of Constantine in Northern Rome.

The Arch of Constantine in Northern Rome. Image courtesy of Carole Raddato via Flickr.

Sculptures featuring Roman emperors, just like those featuring Greek gods, illustrated the glory and beauty of these important figures. However, Roman sculptures also featured naturalistic renditions of Roman elites.

Materials and Media

Both Greek and Roman sculptures feature copious amounts of white marble. Greek artists were more likely to paint this marble as the Classical period progressed, whereas Roman artists would leave the material as it was. Greek artists often mixed in additional materials such as bronze, limestone, and iron, whereas Roman sculptures were more often pure marble.

When it came to painting, Greek and Roman artists took two different approaches. Greek artists did very little painting, aside from on vases or over marble sculptures. They primarily used black and red paint on vases and featured abstract geometric patterns and simple scenes of humans and wildlife. Conversely, Roman murals, mosaics, and portraits abounded during the Classical period. Roman artists utilized a rich color palette to construct images of important figures and events during the Roman Empire.

Themes and Purpose

For Greek artists, sculptures and statues were primarily modes for visualizing — and idealizing — their gods. They recreated these figures as young, athletic, and even mathematically perfect individuals. Many historians believe that Greek art evokes hetero and homoerotic undertones as well.

While Roman artists also intended to create glorious renditions of their subjects, their diversion from religious imagery reveals a different purpose. Many Roman artists sought to honor the wealthy, elite, and powerful while depicting them as strong rulers and protectors of their civilizations. Roman artists created more realistic renditions of their subjects than Greek sculptures (albeit often with exaggerated features), perhaps in order that their audiences could accurately visualize Roman elites in power. Some art historians believe these sculptures were tools of political propaganda during the Roman Empire. The intimidating nature of these figures, often captured upright or in movement, may have been a tactic by artists to elicit fear from viewers. On the other hand, while audiences might have felt overwhelmed by the size and beauty of Ancient Greek sculptures, they were less likely to feel fear.

The Influence of Greek and Roman Art

Ancient Greek and Roman artwork has been extremely influential in the way that art has been created, appreciated, and studied over the centuries, as well as in the development of modern Western society. In the centuries and millennia after the Classical period, the influence of Greek and Roman art and architecture reached far and wide.

During the Renaissance, a cultural rebirth spanning the 14th through 17th centuries, Greek and Roman art became a source of inspiration for many artists. In this period, the Belvedere Court in the Roman Vatican Palace — one of the world’s first art museums — began housing Greek and Roman artwork. These pieces inspired artists and attendees alike and incited new waves of thinking about arts and culture during the Renaissance.

In the Neoclassical period, which spanned the 18th and 19th centuries, ancient Greek and Roman motifs began to resurface once more. During this time, painters slowly returned to the ideals of symmetry, harmony, proportion, and simplicity. Greek and Roman artists championed these exact principles, and, as such, Neoclassical artists began looking to them for inspiration.

Greek and Roman artwork has, to this day, changed the landscape of aesthetics in Western culture. The golden ratio is still observable in artists’ portrayals of their subjects, as well as in modern, Westernized beauty standards. These ancient standards have also created a framework for how today’s critics view and evaluate art — a framework that may well endure throughout the centuries.

The Legacy of Greek and Roman Art Endures to this Day

While they have notable differences, Greek and Roman art and architecture are meaningfully linked. Greek and Roman art share overlapping motifs, as they inspired one another and directly built off of each other’s images and principles. Further, the Greek influence on Roman architecture has ignited a contentious debate about the originality of Roman artwork. Few can deny that these two ancient societies were synergistic. Together, Greek and Roman artists defined what it meant — and in large part what it still means — to produce a work of art. 

The role of both Greek and Roman artwork in the development of Western arts and culture simply cannot be overstated. These works shed light on the ambitions and priorities of ancient artists, politicians, and religious leaders in ways that still feel relevant today. From sculptures of Greek gods to portraits of Roman emperors, Greek and Roman art shines a light on human civilization — both then and now.

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