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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ancient Roman Spaces that Served as Museums


Between the 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE, ancient Roman spaces, both public and private, served as museums that met religious, political, and social needs. Museums in the sense that they were places that acquired and exhibited art and objects; however, the purposes of these museums were strongly linked to where they were located and that space's uses. In religious contexts such as temples, shrines, and sanctuaries, art served primarily as votive offerings. Public buildings like the Atrium Libertatis displayed collections that commemorated important military victories and furthered political agendas. Other spaces, such as the Templum Pacis, served religious and political purposes simultaneously. Spoils of war dedicated to the god(s) associated with the military victory were exhibited alongside artworks to memorialize the military victor's piousness and achievements. Private collections were shaped by the interests of the collector and became popular due to practices in Pergamon and other Hellenistic courts. Owners of domus- and villa-style homes, like the master of the Villa of Papyri in Herculaneum, collected and displayed art to present themselves as culturally educated, upper-class men. Many of these homes even incorporated architectural, decorative, and literary elements to display their high status and facilitate reflective thinking and philosophical discussions. Since ancient times, museums have served to present a multitude of ideas, invite dialogue, and inspire an interest in culture.

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