Imitation versus Emulation: The Emergence and Significance of Greek Art in Rome

By: Rebecca Kanaskie ’21, an English major.

The following work was created for ANT/ENV 107: Introduction to Environmental Archaeology.

Brief description: “This essay is an attempt to explain and highlight the emergence of Greek art in Roman society as a result of diffusion and emulation rather than appropriation. It draws on specific examples from Roman society, such as seals and statues, as well as more modern-day examples, such as Roy Lichtenstein and the 60s Pop-Art Movement, in order to gain an understanding of the past human experience through archaeological and historical remains.”


The line between appropriating and appreciating a culture is very fine, particularly when the culture in question is thousands of years old. Many of the guidelines we use in today’s society to distinguish between the two terms were not even ideas discussed by ancient cultures, so it can be very difficult to try and hold those cultures to certain standards. For example, Roman replication of Greek art could be seen as appropriation in today’s world, but, in the eyes of the Romans, there was no such thing as “copying.” The idea simply did not exist in the society in which they lived. This gives us some insight into the reasons behind the borrowings and replications that were so frequent in Roman art. Because the Romans borrowed and adapted pieces from so many different cultures and time periods, the resulting art cannot be described as anything besides totally and completely Roman (Wyler 2006: 213). Perhaps then, it is not the original image that holds the significance, but rather the fact that a replication can and does occur in society that proves just how important the work of art is. Therefore, I propose that instead of calling Roman recreations “copies” or “appropriations,” they would be better described as a product of diffusion, also known as “the spread of cultural elements from one area or group of people to others by contact” (Merriam-Webster). Furthermore, the reproduction of Greek art in Roman society is a positive archaeological finding because it shows how one culture can appreciate and emulate another while providing key clues as to how the movement of people and ideas became integral to the art world today. Therefore, the diffusion and integration of art and ideas from Greece into Roman society is not a negative result, but a helpful tool in discovering how cultures have spread throughout history. 

Graeco-Roman Seal Stones

In Marc Léger’s essay “Art and Art History After Globalisation” (2012: 516), he explores how the current global media climate transforms the conversation from a broad overview of the art world into one that focuses on the “self-imagining” and self-interpretation. In other words, as a people, we are often more apt to interpret a piece of art solely in relation to our own lives and experiences and disregard how its meaning could differ to other cultures or peoples. Because of this thought process, it is more important than ever to truly know the history behind art movements in order to understand the meaning of the art itself. Verity Platt, a professor of the Classics at Cornell University, introduces the function and significance of the Graeco-Roman seal stone in relation to its use in society in her essay “Making An Impression: Replication And The Ontology Of The Graeco-Roman Seal Stone.” For example, in Roman society, if the impression of a flying heron is used as a seal (Figure 1), the owner might be trying to imply his amount of wealth and level of status through it, whereas with the Seal of Mikê(Figure 2), which depicts a servant girl holding up a mirror for a woman, it is used to suggest an analogy between the user of the seal and the woman portrayed in the image (240). Platt argues that a seal in general “stands for” its owner and that the person who uses the seal does so in a conscious fashion as to create an analogy between themselves and the figure in the seal—though it is more of an aspirational model than a “portrait.” Thus, the seal itself communicates the wealth and education of its owner and imposes authority upon the wearer, as shown during a time when the legal and personal use of seals became more prevalent in Roman society. 

Intrinsic to Platt’s argument, however, is the idea that replication is positive and even necessary to the progression of art. Each time a seal is stamped, the imprint is a direct reproduction of the original image, and thus the seal would not have the importance that it does without this replication. In the art world, the replications of the original work of art may actually be more important than the original work itself. These replications, which we have a greater chance of coming in contact with during our lives, play a greater part in the preservation of art as a genre and serve more of a purpose in legal, political, and personal exchanges than the original work of art. When replications occur, they do not lose the meaning of the original artwork, they merely add meaning to it.  Perhaps then, it is not the original image that carries the weight, but the fact that a replication can and does occur in society that holds the key to how important the image is. 

Athena “Parthenos” and 60s Pop Art Movement

In her essay “Statue, Cult, and Reproduction,” Milette Gaifman examines replications of Greek monuments of cult and considers the process in which a grand statue is copied and replicated in another culture. Gaifman uses Phidias’s Athena ‘Partenos’ (Figure 3) to show how a replication can carry the same weight as the original piece of art because “without emulation, art would lose its memory or in itself be mostly lost” (2006: 258). Thus, diffusion of art is indeed a good thing, as, in some cases, if the emulations or reproductions of the original art are all that remain, at least that art is still somewhat existent in society today, and the replicated art becomes an invaluable resource when attempting to replicate the lost works from prominent Greek artists. Furthermore, Romans replicated art that they appreciated and saw value in, therefore creating emulations that reflected their own tastes and level of knowledge. Romans quoted, rather than plagiarized, from Greek art in order to elevate and sophisticate the style of Roman art (Varner 2006: 298). Sculptural replications of Greek art do not reveal the simplicity of the Roman aesthetic, but rather the complexity of it. On the opposite end of this spectrum, there is a more modern example involving Roy Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl” (MoMA). His pop art replication titled “Drowning Girl” (Figure 4) of the cover of a DC comic book (Figure 5) was a criticism of the sexist implications in the comic. While the Romans were able to take a pre-existing notion and build upon it in a positive way so that the origin and the new meaning can coexist and be recognized and appreciated by all, Lichtenstein wanted to undermine DC comics and show his disapproval. The purpose the replication serves makes a difference when understanding the intention behind the art movement itself. The Romans wanted to preserve the art of another culture while pop artists in the 60s wanted to criticize the society in which they lived.

Villa Della Farnesina

When it comes to the preservation and appreciation of art in various forms, there is no better example than the Villa Della Farnesina (Figure 6). The villa embodies various styles of Roman art, borrowing from several periods throughout history and combining them in a way that reflects a great expanse of history and geography (Bergmann 1995: 104). The villa offers insight to a world of allusions—almost like that of a storybook—that actively transports its audience to a different time and place. Whether the paintings inside the Villa Della Farnesina are direct quotations of pre-existing Greek works or recreative fictions, the replication as a whole reveals a “remarkable process of appropriation, of assimilation through an always increasing accumulation” (Wyler 2006: 221). The purpose of this recreation is not to imitate in any negative fashion, but to create an exaggerated or amplified view of a foreign culture. This complex connecting of past and present ideas works to reflect the cultural climate in Rome at the time it was built, and therefore provides archaeologists with features that were important to Roman society and gives them clues as to how those features were obtained through the diffusion of peoples and ideas over time.

Eudaimonia and Felicitas/Fortuna

Similar to the villa’s representational paintings is the contrast of the Greek personification of love versus the Roman personification. In the Classical Greek period, Eudaimonia (Figure 7) represented happiness in love and marriage, while Felicitas/Fortuna (Figure 8) in the Roman Imperial period represented the success of the state. Though one would imagine that the representation of love would be fairly similar between these two societies, the social constructions of happiness at the time they were created were different enough to make the representations quite different (Prusac 2011: 75). Though they both symbolize happiness, Felicitas/Fortuna are clearly connected to the state of Rome rather than to domestic home life.In Tonio Hölscher’s eyes, these Roman references to previous Greek works stem from a connection between focus and art style that strives to represent the original character or origin of the work itself. Indeed, Roman sculptures, such as Felicitas/Fortuna and the Athena “Parthenos,” are careful adaptations of well-known Greek works, which signify their importance in both Greek and Roman societies (Varner 2006: 283). The importance of these adaptations, from an architectural standpoint, is that their origins can be traced, therefore adding nuanced meaning to these statues as a whole. No longer seen as just “copies,” archaeologists can study the technique required to make such a replication and therefore have a greater appreciation for Roman art as a whole.

Dutch Emulation of Chinese Porcelain

In Roman society, however, exact replication was not so important. Rather, if the replica was able to embody the original by only using a few key features, it has done its job (Bergmann 1995: 93).This idea of a “novelty” artwork is something that is present elsewhere throughout history. Clare Le Corbeiller (1968)explores the resurgence of Chinese porcelain through Dutch recreation in her essay “China into Delft.” Similar to how the Roman replications were created to satisfy the demands for a specific statue, the Dutch attempted to offer a replacement for the original Chinese porcelain by emulating the style of the original (Le Corbeiller 1968). As Umberto Pappalardo quotes Longinus: “Borrowing is no theft; it is rather like taking an impression from fine characters as one does from moulded figures or other works of art.” The case presented here is one that argues for the preservation and appreciation of art pieces in their own forms. It can be very easy to detach the original connotation of an art piece from its reproduction, and I believe it is necessary to do so in some cases. We must realize that some replications, as in this case with the Dutch emulation of Chinese porcelain, are done out of reverence and not corruption


The mere existence of “copies” of the original work indicates a “high appreciation of a work’s aesthetic value” (Bergmann 1995: 80). The replications were manufactured in order to satisfy the demand for statues such as the “Doryphoros” (Figure 9). While it is very important to strive to discover the true history of an artifact, it should be recognized that the first purpose of the original work is nearly invisible and practically imaginary to us: we do not know exactly what it looked like, where it was constructed and exhibited, or what its true function was. However, through a replica, a second life may be born and thus illuminate the importance of the work as a whole. As previously mentioned, the “Doryphoros” is typically presented as a Roman copy—not a recreation or emulation—of Greek art. Due to the fact that the “Doryphoros” does not survive in any original forms, it can only be known from literary references and Roman replicas or models of the original statue (Bergmann 1995: 79). That being said, the “fame” of the “Doryphoros” is entirely due to the Roman replication and recreation. 


Drawing from the examples of the “Doryphoros” and Dutch impressions of Chinese porcelain, there is the potential for over-saturation of modern images to “cheapen” the art form as a whole. Essentially, mass recreations that create a generalized feel of the original statue may take away from the intricacy of the original statue. American Pop Art in the 1960s intentionally reproduced and borrowed preexisting art works in order to create a new interpretation of popular culture (MoMA). There is no doubt that certain reproductions do fall into the category of a copy rather than emulation—such as fashion companies using Native American patterns and clothing without permission or attribution—however, is there not value in being able to easily recognize a popular piece of art? Art education, even at its most basic level is still education, and still aims to make us aware that there are different forms of culture in the world. At any rate, is it not imperative that the masses have the ability to view these works—even as reproductions—rather than never know they exist? As Kevin Tavin and Jerome Hausman (2004: 48) propose in an article on art education, perhaps we should look at this art as a consequence of globalization in that we need to understand its origins in order to appreciate its meaning. Instead of insisting that one culture is copying another culture, we should focus more on how their society was trying to express their original ideas in a way that does not affect the integrity of the original design, and still reflect their appreciation for it. As historians, we are able to see how the societal implications affected how the art is portrayed in a certain time period. 


The emergence of Greek art in Roman society redefined how the movement of ideas and peoples could be seen as a negative development. Though many perceive Roman art as mere copies of Greek art, it is actually their reverence of Greek culture that inspired the Romans to try and emulate their art styles and figures. In this way, cultural diffusion today can be seen in a positive light because it allows us to appreciate different cultures and express that appreciation through emulation. Furthermore, as Christopher Smith (2016: 227) expresses, archaeological findings of reproductions can help us trace the movement of people, art, and ideas throughout history, which give us insight as to the origins of cultural diffusion instead of just regarding the information as stagnant data. Without this evidence, there would be no history and thus no archaeological practices in the first place. This fictitious representation of other foreign works was a way to recall the villa’s Greek origins while connecting them with current themes, thus transcending the past and paving a way for future interpretations. Though that means that the wall painting in the villa does not represent anything “true” or “real,” what it does represent is the true meaning of Romanization. As Erasmus said: “Imitation aims at similarity; emulation at victory” (quoted in English in Pigman 24).


Figure 1: Flying heron, signed by Dexamenos, fifth century BCE. Plaster impression of scaraboid, blue chalcedony, 2.2 1.7 cm. Oxford: Beazley Archive (original in St Petersburg: Hermitage Museum). Photo: Beazley Archive, University of Oxford, Claudia Wagner.

Figure 2: Seal of Mikê, mid-fifth century BCE. Scaraboid, sapphirine chalcedony, 2.2 1.7 0.8 cm. Cambridge: Fitzwilliam Museum. Photo: Beazley Archive, University of Oxford, Claudia Wagner.

Figure 3: Head of the Athena Parthenos, signed by Aspasios, mid-first century CE. Plaster impression of red jasper, 3.9 3.4 cm. London: Victoria and Albert Museum (original in Rome: Museo Nazionale). Photo: Beazley Archive, University of Oxford, Robert Wilkins. 

Figure 4: Roy Lichtenstein. Drowning Girl. 1963. MoMA Archives.

Figure 5: DC Comics. Cover illustration for the comic story “Run for Love!”, from Secret Love #83, 1962. MoMA Archives.

Figure 6: Cryptoportico A, northeastern wall, watercolour of G. Massuero. Rome: Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, inv. 1780. From Maria Rita Sanzi di Mino, ed., La villa della Farnesina.

Figure 7: Pyxis with Eudaimonia and Himeros. From Eretria, ca. 400 BC. London, British Museum, inv. E 775. © Trustees of the British Museum. 

Figure 8: Portrait statue of Julia, daughter of Emperor Titus, posing in the guise of Fortuna, ca. AD 80. Rome, Musei Vaticani. Photo by Marina Prusac.

Figure 9: “Doryphoros”, marble, from the Samnite palaestra, Pompeii, Naples, Archaeological Museum 6011. 


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Rebecca Kanaskie ‘21 is a sophomore English major and JEP minor from Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. She is a Peer Consultant in the Washington College Writing Center and a photographer for The Elm–when she isn’t busy reading, writing, or recommending music to friends, that is. Rebecca hopes to become a professor or photojournalist to combine her love for the arts and literature in striking and electrifying ways. She hopes you enjoy this piece and consider its implications on our ever-changing environment. 

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