In the Roman world great attention was given to the decoration of public places. The streets and squares were crowded with statues erected to honour outstanding individuals in the community and important historical figures and emperors, often depicted in divine robes. There were different modes of depiction, depending on the aspect that one wanted to highlight. Equestrian statues were used to emphasize military prowess, toga-wearing statues to emphasize the political or religious role. As regards female figures, it was preferred to highlight their role within the family or in the sacred sphere.
Guide to the museum rooms
The Forum, public buildings and the spaces of the gods
The Forum was the pre-eminent place where Roman citizens gathered and met every day.
Roman temples generally had a rectangular layout and featured columns that usually rested on bases and were topped by capitals. The shape of these elements depended on the type of architectural order used. The main façade always featured a colonnade which might run on three sides or entirely surround the building. The architrave rested on the capitals, and the gabled roof structure was set onto the lintel and might feature different decorative elements. The pediment sculptures filled the triangular spaces on the façades, acroteria decorated the apex of the pediments, while antefixae were used to close the terminal roof tiles.
Each shrine was provided with a set of furnishings which were functional to the performance of religious practices. The most important of these was the simulacrum of the deity inside the cella of the temple, which therefore symbolised the abode of the god. Altars, on the other hand, were placed in open areas, and were used for the performance of ceremonies, during which libations and animal sacrifices were offered. As is the case today in many places of worship, several rooms had the purpose of housing the countless gifts that the faithful consecrated to the deity of the temple as ex-votos, for a request or prayer to be granted.
Architectural elements were widely used in Roman public buildings not just to fulfil a merely structural function, but also for the purpose of embellishing both the exterior and the interior of the buildings. In addition to columns and capitals, a great variety and combinations of bases, entablatures, cornices and cladding were used, often made in precious marble and richly decorated. Thus they constituted an essential feature of the decoration of buildings and contributed to achieving stunning visual effects.
Everywhere along the streets of Roman cities one could see wordings, either painted on the walls or carved in stone. On large monuments erected by order of the Senate, as well as on more modest ones due to private initiative, inscriptions disclosed the name of the recipient of the dedication and perpetuated the memory of those who had promoted their construction or restoration. When the recipients of such a privilege were emperors, brave generals or outstanding politicians, the mention of the personage and his ancestors was followed by a long list of titles, offices and honours achieved.
Normally occupied by a rectangle-shaped plaza surrounded by porticoes, as well as being the principal place of trade, the Forum provided the setting for all the most important public activities, and therefore contained the structures where they were carried out. Because of its centrality, it was also the place that lent itself more than any other to the display of state power (first Republican and later Imperial) and the glorification of the great patrician families, who competed for the privilege of being hallowed in the Forum with the dedication of commemorative monuments.
In ancient Rome, the connection between politics and religion was unavoidable, to the point that the Senate meetings had always to be held within a consecrated space. A sanctuary might therefore fulfil not only strictly religious functions, as we intend them today, but also be used for other purposes that needed special divine protection.