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Greek and Roman Casts

04 November 2023

The ancient Greeks and Romans used casting for architectural decorations, utensils, tableware and other objects, as well as for statuary.

The Roman author Pliny the Elder (c. 23 – 79 AD) informed his readers that the process of plaster casting was already a common practice for the Greeks. He noted, for example, that the artist Lysistratos of Sikyon created masks for the theatre by making a wax mold from the face of a living person and then casting it in plaster.

Bronze statuary, in which the Greeks excelled, was created by the plaster casting technique before the fourth century BC. The intermediary plaster by-product was kept as a model for further practice and copying. This created a faster process for the artist when creating multiple copies, as the first step in reproduction was already complete. Plaster casts were also retained as separate art objects when they were no longer needed in the copying process.

An example of a cast oil lamp, made from a mould in Cyprus between the first and second centuries BC. JLMC 193.04James Logie Memorial Collection

In the 1950s an excavation of Roman bath ruins at Baiae (modern Baia) recovered more than 400 plaster casts in a cellar storage room. The large number of casts found in one small space suggests that the space was used as a workshop by a copyist. The casts included replicas of Greek bronze statuary, indicating that plaster casts were used in Italy to create copies of Greek works. Small pieces were discovered, suggesting that some of the statues were composed of many small plaster parts held together with iron and lead rods. The discovery also highlights that the process of ancient casting was a laborious task, as many pieces had to be cast, meticulously assembled, and allowed to set.

Juvenal, the Roman writer and poet, commented rather cynically on the use of plaster casts for decorative purposes.

They’re ignorant, though their houses you’ll find filled with plaster busts of Chrysippus; for the most perfect is he who’s bought the most lifelike Aristotle, or Pittacus, and ordered an antique Cleanthes to watch over his bookcase. Put no trust in appearances. (Juvenal, Satires, 2.1-35, from A.S. Kline, 2011,

Juvenal’s passage allows us to understand that plaster casts were used for artistic purposes as well as being easy to purchase and replicate. In cases like Juvenal has described, casts could be bought to reflect positively upon the status of the owner. Literary evidence such as this shows that contrasting views on casts were topical to the ancient Romans.

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