During the Victorian era painting pictures of Rome became very popular among a number of artists. Rome offered a metaphorical landscape in which the artist could explore Britain without setting the picture within Britain itself. The symbolic connection between the two was strong in the minds of the upper classes, who drew upon similarities between the two empires as well as the linguistic and literary tradition inherited from the Romans.

However, while the English were well aware of their historical connection to the Roman Empire, very few painting or other artistic works depicted classical Romans on the isle of Britain. One of the few prominent examples of such a work is by William Bell Scott, who painted The Romans Cause a Wall to be Built in 1857, which depicts a centurion dominating the center of an image, surrounded on one side by idle peasants, a wall going up across the English countryside behind him. The Latin inscription at the top of the work reads, "Hadrian constructs a wall which will separate Romans and barbarians."

The interesting problem, however, is that the setting means the "barbarians" as well as the idle peasants in the foreground are all English, casting a pejorative light on Scott's own countrymen. This leads to interesting questions of message and symbolism.


1. What is Scott saying about the English in the poem? Do the Romans represent the English, even though they are clearly distinct from "actual" Britons in the picture?

2. Is this a classist painting? Compare this picture's laborers to Hogarth's idle apprentice

3. Many paintings of Romans made in the Victorian era were made to comment on themes of empire, and empire certainly seems like a theme in this picture. What is Scott saying about empire? Is the wall being built a good thing?

4. How do other painters in the Pre-Raphaelite vein approach this subject different. Compare this work to Millais' "The Romans Leaving Britain."

5. Why were paintings of Rome or Romans not as common among painters in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or their associates? Were they staying away from such themes for a reason?

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Last modified 9 April 2008