Ancient Rome’s White Marble Buildings, Which Were Anything But White!

For centuries, visitors to Rome have seen the remains of white marble buildings from the days of Ancient Rome–and they’ve always assumed that if the marble is naturally white in color, that means the ancient streets of Rome must have been lined with brilliant white temples, government buildings, and private homes. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Emperor Augustus Forum

The fact is, when ancient Romans constructed a building using white marble, as a general rule they then painted it! And unlike us modern folks, who would choose a single color for our homes, they tended to paint one building in practically all the colors of the rainbow. The columns might be painted with green vertical stripes; their capitals could perhaps be blue and black; and the pediment might be trimmed with red. By modern standards, it was probably headache-inducing. By ancient Roman standards, however, it appears to have been the norm.

It “appears” to have been normal, because nowadays, computer technology has given archaeologists and other scholars the ability to examine a piece of ancient white marble, and determine that once upon a time it was painted in a particular color. The weather, of Emperor Augustus paintedcourse, ordinarily has worn all the paint away, so far as the human eye is concerned; but microscopes, infrared lights, and other wonderful modern inventions can “see” infinitesimal traces of paint that still remain.

This was true of white marble statues as well. The Vatican Museums have installed a helpful educational example of this, using a plaster cast of the famous “Porta Pia” statue of Emperor Augustus. To the naked eye, the statue today is a pleasing neutral stone color … but originally, it looked something like this. Yes, really.

Modern technology has given us a whole new view of how ancient Rome must have really looked–and if you’re quite at home with the bright white and other neutral shades of marble that we all see today, it’s a bit of a shock! Many tourists stare in amazement, and then hesitantly opine that they prefer the plain old white version, that centuries of weather have left to us today. It’s all a matter of taste–and the taste of the ancient Romans was definitely different from ours.