In the second of six episodes, presenter Alastair Sooke works his way through the Roman emperors and their cruel or perverse excesses as displayed in the art of the time, starting with Emperor Tiberius and his many peccadilloes.
Of course Ancient Rome was not ancient at the time, it only became ancient later – and contemporary Rome, as it was at the time, frequently revealed its excesses in sculpture.
One of the most beautiful murals of the time from Livia’s house bucks the trend, with a pastoral idyll of a mural painted for a windowless dining room. You can learn how such frescoes were created before moving on quickly to one of the most depraved emperors of all time, Caligula – whose name actually means “little sandals”. Caligula broke all boundaries when it came to pleasure, it seems – but his cruelty did not prevent him from portraying himself as a god in statuary, albeit a god wearing little sandals.
The question of how pleasure from witnessing pain could please the Romans is hard to get modern heads around – but it seems the Romans embraced graphic scenes of sex between all genders and ages as easily as they did graphic scenes of disembowelment as a centrepiece for the dinner table. The Romans, it seems, were the originators of the sex pot at the dinner table.
Take a dive with Sooke down to Emperor Claudius’ Sunken Nymphaeum at Baia – before resurfacing and heading for the villa of Nero’s wife Poppea, where Nero strutted his stuff on stage amid fabulous wall paintings that were also theatrical backdrops; before relaxing in gardens bordered with painted gardens in a sort of pastoral mind game.
Meanwhile, back at the Forum, art as propaganda in the form of Titus’ Arch reveals how the might of Rome was proclaimed, with military successes and campaigns literally carved into history, as in Trajan’s column rising majestically above the marketplace.
Empire is brought together under the art of Hadrian – time to take a trip round the architectural miracle of the Pantheon. The Pantheon is usually stuffed with tourists, so take the opportunity to see it very nearly empty, peering up into the oculus from where light floods the space.
We also learn how Hadrian’s lover became a gay icon for generations of men, who became friends of Antinous.
Episode 2 of Treasures of Ancient Rome: Pomp and Perversion is available to view on BBC iPlayer.
Main image: Antinous