Dacian Prisoners, Arch of Constantine

Dacian Prisoners, Arch of Constantine

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The Arch of Constantine: sculptural artistry

The Arch of Constantine is an architectural exaltation of the glory of ancient Rome, built in 315 from monuments recycled from earlier centuries, most notably from the Forum of Trajan . It is the last of the existing triumphal arches in Rome and it underwent significant conservation work in order to return it to its former glory.

The Arch of Constantine was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine I ’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (Link: Ponte Milvio ) in 312. The arch spans the Via Triumphalis , the way taken by emperors and their armies, where large, cheering crowds gathered to welcome the victorious Roman troops. The arch is located near the Colosseum and is a must-see landmark and prime photo op for tourists.

Curatorial Essay

The topic of my project is arches. I chose this topic because it fascinated me how there is so much history and background behind these old structures. You will be fascinated as well as you learn about four different arches in Europe named after four different emperors of the great Roman and Byzantine Empires. Even though my arches are closely related, they very much so have distinctive things that make them different. First, we will dive into the triumphal arch of Constantine.

Some basic information about this structure is that it was constructed in 312-315 C.E. and was built in Rome. The triumphal arch is approximately 20 meters high, 25 meters wide, and 7 meters deep. Its located along the Via Triumphalis but between the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum) and the Temple of Venus and Roma. The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch made in the honor of Constantine, emperor of Constantinople also commemorating past great emperors like Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian, and Trajan. Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian, and Trajan were three of the five “good” emperors along with Nerva and Antonius Pius. The large sculptures on the top of the arch are at least ten feet tall and are Dacian prisoners from when Trajan conquered Dacia. In between these sculptures in the panels Marcus Aurelius is receiving barbarian prisoners, presenting a foreign king to the people of Rome, giving an address to the soldiers, and making a sacrifice before battle. On the opposite side there are panels with Marcus Aurelius entering and leaving Rome. To the right of the previous panels, Marcus Aurelius is distributing largess and barbarians are submitting to the emperor. These reliefs are in a classical style of ancient Greek and Roman tradition. They show a lot of naturalism within each relief that is observable. Notice the soldiers within the relief panel stand contrapposto which means they stand with weight shifted. The roundels are from the era of Hadrian. Within these south roundels it includes the departure for the hunt and the sacrifice to the god Silvanus. On the other roundels you see a bear hunt and sacrifice to the goddess Diana. On the north side you have a boar hunt, sacrifice to the god Apollo, the aftermath of a lion hunt, and sacrifice to demigod Hercules. There are panels below the roundels that are for Constantine. It shows his army marching to Verona on the west side. The next panel shows the siege of Verona where you see both troops of Constantine and Maxentius battling. On the other side you see the battle at the Milvian bridge when Constantine takes control of the whole Western part of the empire. It is so much that is within this one arch, like its 3-barrel-vaulted entryway, with the middle vault being the largest, you can walk through. The relief sculptures that are all over the arch and even in the vaults with an inscription in the attic of the arch. There are other relief that show Constantine entering Rome and the imperial address at the forum. You can tell the sculptures apart being that they were made in different eras and are stylized differently. Marcus Aurelius’ sculptures seems more brought to life like they can jump from the arch while Constantine’s sculptures look more rushed, not natural at all, and more circular. There is an inscription on the vault that says “bringer of peace” while the relief is of Constantine being crowned by Nike goddess of victory. On the opposite side of that panel is Trajan on horseback trampling a barbarian with an inscription that says, “liberator of the city”. Fun fact: Constantine had the heads of the previous emperors carved to resemble him (Smarthistory).

The arch of Titus would be next up. This arch was erected in 121 B.C. and was built in Rome and located in Summa Sacra Via, the highest point of the Sacra Via, Rome’s “Sacred Way” that served as its main street. This triumphal arch is 7’10”. The arch has only one barrel-vaulted entryway that you can walk through this entryway was used on days when there was a parade called the Roman Triumph. The inscription in the attic of the triumphal arch is to commemorate emperor Titus by the roman senate. The relief panels in this arch shows general Titus at the time, bringing back spoils from Jerusalem. This was a great time in Rome especially for the Flavian dynasty.

The third object is the arch of Trajan. This triumphal arch was made in 114-118 C.E., dedicated to emperor Trajan of Rome. It was built at the point where the road entered Benevento. As far as size goes it stands at 15.6m in height and 8.6m in width. This arch has one single barrel-vaulted entryway which is 15.60 m high and 8.60 m wide and has reliefs sculptures in it as well. The relief sculptures some moments in Trajan’s life from homage to divinities of the province's countryside and founding of provincial colonies to Trajan’s march of victory over Dacia.

The triumphal arch of Augustus in Rimini, Italy is the last object. This triumphal arch was built in 27 B.C.E. This is the oldest standing arch in Rome. This is a triumphal arch built in honor of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, by the Roman Senate. The arch itself stands at 17.75m x 5.25m. The arch itself stands at 17.75m x 5.25m. The triumphal arch marks the entrance to Rimini, linking Rome and Rimini. The triumphal arch once stood as one of many defensive walls, so stone was added to the arch making it bigger against enemies of Rome. The triumphal arch has one inscription in the attic of the sculpture that is dedicated to Caesar Augustus.

The arch of Augustus and Titus were the only two that were truly roman being that they date back to 27 B.C.E. and 121 B.C. The other two arches, arch of Constantine and arch of Trajan were Byzantine being that they were constructed in 114-118 C.E. and 312-315 C.E. These arches on Rome function as a collection of objects because they are all arches of Roman emperors. These emperors were great emperors to Rome being that they were all commemorated by triumphal arches. Triumphal arches were usually erected by victory or something of that status. In Constantine’s arch he is seen gaining power over the Western Roman empire by defeating Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. Titus’ arch displays, on the inner relief sculpture, the entryway reliefs are more triumphal telling stories of Titus’ victory in Jerusalem where romans carried treasures like the show bread table for the bread of the face of god, the menorah which is the lampstand, and prisoners back to Rome after the Jewish War. At the time of the end of the war Titus was only a general, not yet emperor. The victory over Judaea was so great that they issued a special coin to celebrate. At the arch the general of the losing army would be ceremonially murdered and the general of the losing army was Simon who was the son of Giora. In these reliefs on the arch of Titus, they are more naturalistic. On Trajan’s arch, on the frieze, the relief displays Trajan’s march of victory over Dacia. The arch of Augustus was the only arch that didn’t get constructed because of a victory but only to symbolize the power and greatness of Augustus. The triumphal arches all have inscriptions on them dedicated to each emperor that the arch is for. The triumphal arch of Constantine has an inscription to him, and so does the arches before it. Specifically, the triumphal arch of Titus in the attic of the arch states that the senate and the roman people dedicate this monument to Titus, son of Vespasian Augustus. The inscription on Trajan’s triumphal arch attic presents Trajan as “all things to all people”. The arch of Augustus also has an inscription to him. Each triumphal arch has either one or three barrel-vaulted entryways. The arch of Constantine has three barrel-vaulted entryways that you can walk through with reliefs in them. The arch of Titus has only one barrel-vaulted entryway and so does the triumphal arches of Trajan and Augustus.

The arch of Constantine stands as the largest arch out of the four arches presented here standing at a whopping 20 meters high, 25 meters wide, and 7 meters deep. That leaves the arch of Augustus in second place, size wise. The triumphal arch of Trajan being third and the arch of Titus being fourth. All the triumphal arches are within Rome except for the arch of Augustus which links Rimini and Rome. Th arch of Augustus was also the only arch that was used as a part of defense against enemies. The arch was one of many walls of defense and when it was initially built it stood between two towers which are now barely visible. Each triumphal arch mentions a divinity as well. The triumphal arch of Constantine is special. I say this because it is the only arch that has sculpting styles from different eras within Rome. It is also the only triumphal arch to reference other past great emperors such as Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian, and Trajan. You most notice the relief in the roundels belonging to Hadrian, the frieze, plinths, and spandrels belonging to Constantine. Some of the sculptures in the arch are from spolia from past monuments. All the triumphal arches are made of marble, but some arches had more materials than others. The arch of Constantine was made of spolia, marble and porphyry while the other arches were made of just marble. These monuments are of Roman imperial art as well.

The eras of roman art didn’t change much of the art that was produced during these times. The art was mainly stylized the same with some being a little more advanced than others. The arches had very naturalistic reliefs on them showing the skills of the romans working on these monuments. Notice how you never see who built the monuments but it says from the roman senate to the emperor. These arches are such a beauty to look at, you can get lost in the art work of each arch and each panel, roundel, and frieze. These arches will forever remain upkept and in good condition forever dedicated to the emperors of the great Roman and Byzantine empire.

A Striking Monument

The arch was dedicated on 25th July 315 CE on the 10th anniversary of Constantine’s reign (Decennalia) and stood on Rome’s triumphal route. The monument is an imposing 21 metre high and 25.6 m wide rectangular block of grey and white Proconnesian marble consisting of three separate arches: one larger central arch with a shorter and narrower arch (fornix) on either side. All three arches express the same ratio of height and width. Dividing the arches are four detached Corinthian columns in Numidian yellow marble, each stood on a pedestal and topped with an entablature. Above the entablature, and as it were extending the columns, stand four pedestals, each carrying a statue representing a Dacian prisoner. Even more colour was provided through the use of purple-red porphry as a background for the sculpted Hadrianic Roundels, four on each façade, green porphry for the main entablature frieze, Carystian green for the statue pedestals and Phrygian purple for the statues themselves.

Questions about the 8 Dacian statues from Constantine's Arch in Rome

Last week I got to go to Rome for the first time and got to see all the places I've read about.

One thing I read on most of the sites that talk about Constantine's Arch is that the 8 Dacian statues represent prisoners. Well, having seen the Arch "live" this seems to me like total crap. None of the statues have their hands tied in any way, they are huge and also they dont have the facial expression of captives. They look freaking imposing! Also, they are not under, but rather right next to the inscription that praises Constantine.

Now, I also spent a lot of time studying Trajan's column, and there I could clearly see the Dacian prisoners (they all had their hands tied behind their backs, were kneeling, a bit smaller than the Romans, and looked defeated).

So my question is: do we know why the statues are really there?

We should also always be careful not to assume what we expect from a depiction is what the Romans would. The size, for example, is perfectly ordinary in the context of monumental art (the Gauls in the Pergamon Altar, for example, are larger than life size). That being said, there are a few important items of note. Most importantly, these images were not originally carved for Constantine's Arch, but rather for a temple dedicated by Trajan. Most of the images on Constantine's Arch, in fact, are taken from earlier monuments, which is often seen as a way of appropriating the image of past images to depict himself as the restorer of the glory of Rome. Trajan is generally well known for depicting him enemies with an element of nobility and spirit, as you may have noticed on his column. So the Dacians may have simply been decorative elements and also served as a reminder of the fierceness of the enemies Trajan defeated.


Draco (Latin) and Drakon (Greek) mean "serpent", "dragon". The root of these words means "to watch" or "to guard with a sharp eye". [6] It is a derivative of Greek drakōn "gazing" . [7]

The origin of the standard is unknown and still a matter of dispute among scholars. A specific and certain origin is still difficult to be determined. Dacian, Thracian, Scythian, Sarmatian [8] [9] [10] or Parthian origins have been proposed in dedicated historiography. [11] According to Lucreţiu Mihăilescu-Bîrliba by the 2nd century AD, i.e. after the conclusion of the Dacian Wars, the draco symbol was assimilated in the Greco-Roman world with the Dacian ethnos. [12] According to Jon N. C. Coulston the Romans associated this standard with 1st and 2nd century Danubian barbarians. [13] The Roman historian Arrian wrote that the Romans took the draco from the Scythians, most probably a term for the contemporary Sarmatians. [8] It is possible that the serpent or dragon theme was the result of early cartography of the Carpathian mountain range, which resembles a dragon or serpent, facing the west with its tail the black sea.

It should be noted, however, that the symbol adopted by the Roman Empire as Draco is not that of the Dacians with the head of a wolf, but that of the Sarmatians with the head of a crested dragon, as we can see in the discovery of the Roman cavalry Draco in Niederbieber (D). In fact, the Dacian Draco and the Sarmatian Draco are different: the Dacian one shows a wolf with open jaws with straight ears, while that of the Sarmatians is a Dragon with sharp teeth, without ears, scaled, with an open mouth and a crest on the head.

The original purpose was probably to provide wind direction for archery. [14]

Among the Dacians, the draco was undoubtedly seen by the army as a special protective symbol, while it also played an important role in the religious life of the people. [3]

The draco shows a religious syncretism between the wolf and the dragon as well as the serpent. It was supposed to encourage the Getae and to scare their enemies. [15]

  • A wolf was depicted at the standard's head, symbolic animal of the Carpathian people since the phase B of Hallstatt Period (10th–8th century BC). The animal is shown in an aggressive posture similar to that of certain Hittite monsters. [16] The religious association of the dragon with the wolf or the lion is first found around the year 1120 BC, on a stela of Nebuchadnezzar I, where an exact representation of the symbol of the Dacian dragon is found in the fourth quarter. [16] This indicates that the Dacian draco stems from the art of Asia Minor where the religious-military symbology of dragon extended both eastward to the Indo-Iranians and westward to the Thraco-Cimmeriano-Getians/Dacians. [17][16]

By the time of the phase D of Hallstatt Period (8th–6th century BC), the decorative pattern of a dragon head or a serpent had become quite common in Dacia. In the La Tène Period (3thBC–1st century AD), it served as a standard for the Dacians. [18] The image of the draco appears on a 4th-century BC ceramic piece discovered at Budureasca commune, Prahova county, Romania. [19] [20]

  • The body of the standard, depicting a dragon-like balaur or a large snake, was seen by the Dacians as a manifestation of the sky demon or "heavenly dragon". [21][22] This relates to their supreme god Zalmoxis who was a sky god (cf. also Tomaschek[23] ). [24] In the Hallstatt Period "proper", the decorative pattern of a dragon head or a serpent became quite common in Dacia. The dragon symbol is also represented on the silver Dacian bracelets of the Classical period. [25] The snake-shaped bracelets and other similar ornaments show not only the spread of the snake as a decorative motif but also its significance in Dacian material civilization. [26][27]

Dacian Draco in warfare Edit

Dacians marched into the battle accompanied by the howl of wolf-headed trumpets and following their sinister multicolored dragon-head standard. As intended, they made a terrifying audiovisual spectacle. [28] [29]

The draco first appears on Trajan's Column in Rome, a monument that depicts the Dacian wars of 101–102 AD and 105–106 AD. German historian Conrad Cichorius notes that, even though Dacians carry the draco, it was called the Scythian draco in Arrian's Tactica written around 136 AD. [30] According to Ellis Minns, the dragon standards of the Arrian were those of the Dacians. [31]

Trajan's Column in Rome Edit

On Trajan's Column (113 AD), Dacian soldiers are represented carrying a draco in 20 scenes. One depicts the draco borne by Dacian cavalry crossing the Danube by swimming with their horses. [3] In another, the draco is planted in the center of a Dacian citadel and surrounded by the skulls of several Roman prisoners. [3] On Trajan's Column the draco is the symbolic image of victory although it is absent from pictures on the column that illustrate Trajan's second war against the Dacians, when the Romans conquered about 18 ℅ of Dacia territories in quest for gold to pay their legions . [3]

Roman coins of Dacia Edit

The draco appears on coins of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (r.138–161 AD), indicating that it was still the characteristic emblem in the 2nd century. [32] [33] In AD 250 on a coin of Decius the Roman province of Dacia holds a wolf- or hound-dragon standard. [34] The same type also occurs on antoniniani coins of Claudius Gothicus (r.268–270) and Aurelian (r.270–275). [35]

Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki Edit

The characteristic Dacian dragon emblem is carried by a group of Dacian horsemen depicted on the Arch of Galerius and Rotunda in Thessaloniki, Greece. [36]

Funerary sculptured monument of Chester Edit

A draco (considered in 1955 by R. P. Wright of Dacian or Sarmatian type) is depicted on a large stone found at Deva Victrix (Chester, UK) in the North Wall (West) in 1890. [12] The dragon flag is represented horizontally, as held by the cavalryman but its head is not visible, because the stone is rather deteriorated. Most scholars consider the horseman is a Sarmatian, wearing a Sarmatian helmet and carrying a Sarmatian standard. [9] According to Mihăilescu-Bîrliba (2009) the depiction of the Dacian standard is certain and similar representations can be observed on the most important monuments of the Roman triumph over Dacians. [37] A military diploma (dated to 146 AD) found at Chester mentions among the units of the released soldiers the name of cohors I Aelia Dacorum. [38] Therefore, the horseman depicted on the tombstone at Chester could be a Dacian cavalryman, belonging to a vexillatio of cohors I Aelia Dacorum. [39] P. A. Holder suggest that the cohort was created in 102 or a little earlier, with Dacians settled in the Empire, and it received the name of Aelia later. [38]

However, some authors question the attribution of the stele to a Dacian warrior. The Draco was not the exclusive symbol of the Dacians, but of the Sarmatians too. The Dacians usually wore a soft Phrygian cap, but in the stele, the cavalryman wears a tall and conical Spangenhelm-type helmet of Sarmatian origin. Some metal helmets of Dacian origin have been found, and they are considerably different from the one represented on the stele. The Dacians presumably wore long loose hair and thick beards, but the Chester cavalryman appears beardless and with short hair. The Dacians were characterized by the curved sickle sword as a peculiar element of the armament, but the cavalryman of Chester carries a straight sword. Furthermore, the Cohors I Aelia Dacorum reported as evidence for the presence of the Dacians in Britain was an infantry unit, and the Dacians had no tradition as a cavalry one. There also were no Dacian units in service at the Castrum of Deva Victrix (Chester, England), where the stele was found. [40]

The first sculptural representation of a draco borne by a Roman soldier dates from the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r.161 to 180 AD). [42]

Scholars believe that the draco was adopted by the Roman army following their conquest of the Dacians. [5] [43] [44] Some scholars such as Osborne (1985) and Ashmore (1961) consider that the draco was adopted by the Romans from the Dacians. [45] [46] It became the standard of the cohort in the same way that the aquila or Imperial eagle was the standard of the Roman legion. [43] The adopted standard in the Roman cavalry was borne by a draconarius. Later, the draco became an imperial ensign. [45]

The draco was specific not only to Roman occupied Dacia but also to the Sarmatian and Parthian regions. As a result, some alternative origins for the Roman army's draco have been proposed. [42] According to Franz Altheim, [47] the appearance of such ensigns in the Roman army coincided with the recruitment of nomad troops from Central and Southern Asia, and it was from this region that the image passed into Iran and subsequently to Europe. Thus, based on Altheim's theory, the Dacians and Germans would then have inherited it from the Sarmatian people. [42]

Compared to those of the Dacians and Romans, the Sarmatian Draco was more Oriental in appearance with prominent ears, dog-like teeth and even fins. [48] It did not usually have scales or the distinctive crest of the dragon-like gilded head of a late Roman standard found at Niederbieber, Germany. [48] Its head may have been represented by the legendary Iranian simurgh — half-wolf, half-bird. [48] Based on the clan's totem, could have been a fish head as well. On the Trajan's Column, Sarmatian Roxalani horsemen, don't carry a Draco at all.

The heads of the Dacian draco-standards represented on Trajan's column are also canine. But, they are of an entirely different type, having short, round-nosed muzzles, protruding eyes, upright ears, gaping, circular jaws and no-gill fins. [49]

Mihăilescu-Bîrliba (2009) suggests that at the end of the 1st century A. D., the Romans associated the draco with Dacians. [50] Draco was an icon symbolizing the Dacians (as was the Dacian falx). [51]

A draco banner is carried by one of the Danubian Riders, native Dacian deities, on a Danubian plaque ascribed to the first two decades of the 4th century. [52] Because of the great importance of this symbol in the religious and military life of the Dacians, some writers believe that the draco must have been directly adopted and reproduced on the so-called Danubian plaques dating to the 3rd–4th centuries. [3] According to some researchers such as Dumitru Tudor, the presence of this military ensign on the Danubian plaques is explained simply as due to chance — the result of a fortuitous combination of horseman and sky-god themes through the imagination of native sculptors. [22]

The only copy left is a dragon-like gilded head of the late Roman standard found at the Niederbieber, Germany. [48]

The draco was generally introduced in the 4th century as a Roman standard. [53] When Constantine placed the Christian symbol on military ensigns instead of the dragon, the name outlived the change, and the standard-bearer remained the draconarius. Sometimes the ancient symbol is found joined to the new, the dragon being placed beneath the cross. [54] The cavalrymen of the Carolingian dynasty continued raising the draco previously adopted by the Roman Empire over their forces in the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries. [55]

Draco probably continued in use in Sub-Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain the Bayeux tapestry has Harold's standard bearer holding one. [56] The legendary King Arthur and his knights may have their origins in the Saramatian heavy cavalryman stationed in Britain, the surname "Pendragon" borne by Arthur and his father Uther may refer to draco standard. [57] It is also possible that the story of a fight between a Red and a White Dragon related in the Historia Brittonum refers to two Draco standards carried by rival sub-Romano British factions. [ citation needed ]

The Red Dragon on the modern Welsh national flag may derive from the draco carried by Roman, and presumably Romano British cavalry units stationed in Britain, i.e. the Sarmatians stationed in Ribchester.

Art and literature Edit

Michel-François Dandré-Bardon included the Dacian Draco in his Costume des anciens peuples, à l'usage des artistes [58] The Romanian artist Adam Nicolae created the sculpture Steagul Dacic 'The Dacian Flag' that can be seen in Orăștie, Romania. [59]

According to Saxon ethnographer Teutsch, Transylvanian Romanians may have inherited something of the "snake-cult" of the ancient Dacians, who are known to have had a dragon (or snake) as a "victory banner". He mentions that some doorknockers are shaped like snake heads (protective ones in this case). Furthermore, in Romanian villages in the Brașov's region surveyed by Teutsch, the vaults of certain gates bear snakes carved in the shape of garlands with their ends representing the "sun-wheel". [60]

Mythology Edit

According to historian Vasile Pârvan, the Dacian war flag, representing a wolf with a serpent's body, depicted the balaur. The balaur is not identical to the other creature of Romanian myth., [61] the zmeu. The biggest difference is that the zmeu, even if it has some lizard features, nevertheless is a human-like figure, while the balaur is the true form of the dragon. Usually, in all Romanian myths, legends and fairy tales, the balaur always has three, five, seven, nine or twelve heads. The balaur sometimes is a malefic figure, but most of the times is a neutral figure, guarding various places, objects or knowledge. Also, in various myths and lore, there will be a series of dragons that have to be defeated in order to obtain the precious objects or entrance to the guarded places, usually three dragons, with scales of iron, silver and respectively gold, or silver, gold and respectively diamond, each stronger than the previous one, the number of their heads increasing with the difficulty. Some motifs developed in the folk tradition that defines the snake as protective of the household correspond, to some extent, to the interpretation of a protective Dacian "Dragon" symbol. [62]

At first glance, the Arch of Constantine appears fairly straightforward: dedicated by the Senate in 315 A.D. to commemorate both the tenth anniversary of Constantine&rsquos reign&mdashhis decinnalia &mdashand his victory over the emperor Maxentius in 312 in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, it was the city&rsquos largest&mdashand last--triumphal arch and today is a priceless remnant from a time when Rome was still an empire and its ruler wielded absolute power. But as we shall see, there is much more to this pile of marble than listed in the stock descriptions of most guidebooks, and as with so many things in the Eternal City, this immense monument is an ancient Roman sphinx that embodies mysteries, contradictions, and controversies which have baffled generations of archeologists and art historians up to the present day.

First is the fact that it is still standing at all. The arch really isn&rsquot a remnant or even a ruin, since, despite knocks, cracks, and chips, it appears largely the way it did at its dedication 1700 years ago. True, in the 12th century it was briefly incorporated into a fortification for one of the Medieval families in Rome, but they didn&rsquot damage it as happened with other ancient structures that were turned into towers and defensive enclosures. That it hasn&rsquot been stripped bare and torn apart for use in Medieval churches, palaces, and hovels&mdashthe fate of the nearby Temple of Venus and Rome and the Colosseum, now shades of their former magnificence&mdashthat it has stood intact as the rest of Rome sank and crumbled into dust speaks to the deeper and more profound meaning of this monument, which in stone and marble attests to a seismic change in the course of history which has made western civilization what it is today. Indeed, in the 15th century, one of the popes even repaired it&mdashthe only other ancient structures the popes spent precious resources on fixing were the aqueducts, bridges, and the few temples such as the Pantheon which had been converted to churches. Of course, the reason it has survived the vicissitudes of the centuries and hasn&rsquot been reduced to rubble is that it honors the emperor who, after decades of violent persecution by previous emperors, openly favored Christianity and its adherents, a shift in imperial policy which changed everything, setting western civilization on a road that affects us even today. In the very early Dark Ages, perhaps the 8th or 9th century, the pope carted up and shipped to the Lateran Basilica, his official residence and church, ancient fragments of Roman power, which included statues of Constantine, to add luster to his claim of being heir to the Roman Empire. If he could have done it, the pope probably would have also moved the arch to adorn his palace.

Of course, there is irony in how the arch celebrates a brutal military victory hailed by the Church as ushering in the new age of the Prince of Peace. In and of itself, Constantine&rsquos struggle against Maxentius was nothing new&mdashever since &ldquothe crisis of the third century,&rdquo a procession of generals fought one another for the imperial purple, their legions visiting havoc and incalculable suffering on the populace. In the late 200s, the emperor Diocletian, a hard-nosed military type, restored a semblance of order by setting up an elaborate process by which four mini-emperors called Caesars and Augusti would peacefully ascend to the throne, but as soon as Diocletian retired, this system quickly collapsed. Early on in his career, Constantine was just another ruthless general who believed he should be emperor, never mind his relatively humble origins and not being in the line of succession set up by Diocletian. But the difference in 312 was that Constantine attributed his victory over Maxentius to a vision he had before battle in which a cross emblazoned in the sky was accompanied by the words &ldquo In Hoc Signo Vinces &rdquo--&ldquoIn This Sign You Will Conquer&rdquo--prompting him to order his soldiers to put on their shields the Greek letters &ldquoChi-Rho,&rdquo the symbol for Christ&rsquos name. As with most stories from long ago, there are different versions which the emperor related to Church leaders over the decades, and it&rsquos possible he made it up after his victory&mdashwe now know that human memory is pliable and unreliable. However, ever since then the initials "IHS"-- In Hoc Signo [Vinces] " have been plastered over altars, communion vessels, banners, and almost everything else in churches of all denominations over the past 2000 years. Indeed, Constantine&rsquos army was half the size of the emperor&rsquos, but Maxentius made strategic miscalculations which resulted in his army, as well as himself, drowning in the Tiber at the Milvian Bridge just outside of Rome. As emperors go, Maxentius was probably not a bad one&mdashunlike his predecessors, whose courts were in cities like Milan or Nicomedia (in Asia Minor), he actually resided in Rome and was intent on returning it to its prior preeminence in the empire. He restored many of its monuments&mdashthe nearby Temple of Venus and Rome was one of his restorations&mdashand he adopted the title &ldquopreserver of his city.&rdquo Later in his reign he instituted unpopular policies and taxes, and if history is to be believed&mdashMary Beard has noted in her books on ancient Rome that it is the victors who write, and rewrite history&mdashConstantine&rsquos adventus into Rome the day after Maxentius drowned was wildly acclaimed by the Senate and People of Rome. Then again, his army was camped outside Rome. In response to this outpouring of public adulation, the Senate pledged to build an arch to Constantine&rsquos glory, bestowing grandiloquent titles upon their new ruler. Always having to be on the move to quell barbarian incursions throughout the empire, as well as to quash any potential usurpers, Constantine stayed in Rome for only two months and couldn&rsquot attend his arch&rsquos dedication three years later.

Although away from Rome for fourteen years after his defeat of Maxentius, Constantine nonetheless made good on what he regarded was a debt to God, and he inaugurated an unprecedented program of church building in Rome, all of it away from the central part of the city and on imperial property located on the outskirts. Although up to one-third of Rome was probably Christian&mdashin the eastern provinces the percentage was higher&mdashthe local ruling elite, fabulously wealthy senatorial families with vast landholdings throughout the empire, was firmly pagan and took a jaundiced view of the religion embraced by their emperor. Since he could do as he wished with imperial property, Constantine built large basilicas&mdashSt. John Lateran and St. Peter&rsquos were his most impressive churches&mdashand lavishly decorated them, often with gold and silver he ordered the city&rsquos pagan temples to turn over. Out of sight of the Senate and pagan devotees&mdashConstantine probably saw no mileage in rubbing their noses in it--these churches were plain and non-descript on the exterior and sumptuous on the inside. Perhaps the only instance of flaunting his new faith within the pagan precincts of Rome was his colossal statue in the gargantuan Basilica Nova in the Forum: he was holding the labarum, a quasi-military standard bearing the &ldquoChi-Ro&rdquo symbol for Christ. Fragments of this statue are in the entrance courtyard of the Capitoline Museums&mdashhis massive head conveys an other-worldly hauteur, a sense of absolute certainty about his august status in the cosmos. Constantine&rsquos church building was especially remarkable in the Holy Land, where basilicas were built over important Christian sites, including what was regarded as Jesus&rsquos tomb. He was helped in this regard by his mother Helena, now with the title of Dowager Empress, who toured the east with a vast retinue of servants, soldiers, and clerics in her search for sacred relics such as the True Cross, which she brought back to Rome&mdashone can imagine how bishops of the cities she was about to visit cast about for plausible souvenirs to impress their august guest. So while architects and workmen were beavering away on his arch in Rome, the emperor, in addition to the multiple demands of ruling an empire and always watching his back, was undoubtedly being regularly briefed on the plans and progress of the many churches he was erecting throughout the empire. Constantine certainly had his representatives in Rome, who might have reviewed the plans for the arch, but it is unclear to what extent he was involved in approving its sculptural organization&mdashgetting dispatches to and from Rome would have taken many months. Some art historians argue that the emperor was actively involved in the layout of his arch, that he intended it to set forth his ideological and religious agenda and to place himself among the great emperors of the past, but no one knows&mdashindeed, no ancient records have been found that even mention the existence of the arch. When he returned to Rome in 326, it is possible he might have just given it a quick glance, since he was also involved in the construction of St. Peter&rsquos at the time, a major endeavor involving huge earthworks in leveling off Vatican Hill and filling in the necropolis that had grown up over the centuries around the saint&rsquos modest tomb. Indeed, there is no record of any triumphal procession through the arch. If Constantine did stop to take in this tribute to his victory in 312&mdashthe imperial palace was only a stone-throw&rsquos away&mdashit is interesting to muse on his reaction to it, and to marvel at a megalomaniacal mind which naturally felt entitled to have such a monument dedicated to him. Then again, many of the church clerics regularly invited to dine and converse with the emperor about theological matters hailed him as The Thirteenth Apostle.

The above uncertainties and mysteries about Constantine&rsquos role in the construction of his arch extend to the actual stone and marble of the structure, which speak to his possible agenda and the state of artistic aesthetics in the early 4th century. Rome&rsquos ruins have many stories to tell--some of them actually true!&mdashand a largely intact ruin like the Arch of Constantine has multiple layers of meaning, mystery, and contradiction. But before exploring these intriguing questions, it is necessary to understand the nuts and bolts of its stones and marble.

Standing before the arch, as Constantine might have 1700 years ago&mdashthe original stone pavement is still in place around it--you might feel a bit confused, even overwhelmed, by the apparent hodgepodge of different levels and styles, but considering each of the levels separately can clarify things a bit. The general thematic outline of the arch is the same on both sides of it, and only the details are different. First, on the uppermost level of the arch, in the center, is the dedicatory inscription&mdashit&rsquos the same on both sides, and the lettering was once in gilded bronze&mdashin which, among the usual honorific titles, the Senate describes the emperor as being &ldquoinspired by the divine,&rdquo a seemingly ambiguous reference to a deity or deities, perhaps an ecumenical attempt to satisfy every religious persuasion of the time. On each side of the dedication, again on both sides of the arch, are two statues, approximately ten feet tall, of Dacian prisoners, heads bowed in submission. Most likely, these came from an early 2nd century monument of emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.), perhaps from a long-destroyed arch or his magnificent forum, which celebrated the emperor Trajan&rsquos victories over the Dacians, a barbarian people who lived in the area of present-day Romania. Their hands and feet are mostly restored, but these ancient sentinels are otherwise as they were when they were taken from Trajan&rsquos monument and hoisted to the top of Constantine&rsquos arch. Imagine the pageant of history these captives have gazed down upon over the past 17 centuries: perhaps upon Constantine and his retinue, certainly upon marauding barbarians much like themselves, Medieval papal processions, invading Normans, Spanish and French armies, occupying Nazi troops and American liberators, furtive sexual assignations in nearby shadows (the Colosseum was a hangout for prostitutes for many centuries), legions of tourists, and now you.

In between the Dacians&mdashagain, this layout is the same on both sides of the arch&mdashare pairs of panels of exquisite sculptural reliefs that were taken from a long-lost monument to Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.), the last of the five &ldquogood emperors&rdquo of the 2nd century, when, according to the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon in his magisterial The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, humankind was happy, prosperous, and at peace. A philosopher at heart&mdashhis Meditations are read even today as a source of contemplation and introspection&mdashMarcus spent most of his rule with his legions on the northern frontier of the empire, repelling and subduing one barbarian tribe after another as they tried to cross into Roman territory. Although difficult to discern some of the details from the base of the arch, most of the eight panels commemorate some aspect of his victories over the barbarians, but unlike the violent battle scenes sculpted lower on the arch, the overall sense is one of august, almost god-like majesty and serenity. Even from a distance, it is easy to see the impeccable refinement and elegance of these reliefs: the flowing robes, the attention to details and proper proportion, the realism of the people in them&mdashindeed, these panels, including similar ones in the Capitoline Museums, are the closest thing to a photograph from the 2nd century, recording important moments and acts of great men from a great time in Rome&rsquos history, frozen in time and miraculously preserved for us many seventeen centuries later.

Directly beneath the Dacians and in perfect alignment with them, as if they are supporting the barbarians, are eight free-standing fluted columns of Numidian yellow marble&mdasheven now it is possible to appreciate the faded yellow hue in some of them&mdashtopped by ornate Corinthian capitals, all obviously from another monument erected centuries earlier. The ornate entablature supported by the columns, beneath the pedestals on which the Dacians stand, almost certainly also dates from several centuries earlier. In 1597, the pope helped himself to one of the original columns for the Lateran Basilica, but&mdashyet another indication that the Church had no intention of letting this tribute to its benefactor fall into disrepair&mdashhe replaced it with a white marble one. Between each pair of columns, above the two smaller arches, are a pair of rondels&mdashround reliefs&mdashdepicting the emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.), another &ldquogood emperor,&rdquo either hunting (a past-time reserved only for the elite) or offering sacrifices to various gods. Hadrian&rsquos head had been refashioned to a likeness of Constantine. Although smaller, more compact, and less impressive than the top panels from the time of Marcus Aurelius, the classical harmony and faithfulness to detail in the tributes to Hadrian are likewise evident. These rondels originally had a background of porphyry marble, the purple stone reserved for imperial use&mdashon the side of the arch facing the Colosseum, the right two rondels preserve this purple framework, which although tattered, hints at how beautiful it was back in the fourth century. The arch was further imbued with color by green marble sheathing the Dacian&rsquos pedestals and green porphyry framing the Constantinian frieze in the middle of the arch (see below).

The part of the arch below the rondels largely dates from the time of Constantine, and it is interesting to compare the styles and aesthetics of his time with that of the 2nd century reliefs of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. The fluted columns of yellow marble stand on tall bases which have reliefs of the goddess Victoria carrying symbols of triumph, barbarian prisoners (some seated at Victoria&rsquos feet), and Roman soldiers many of the details of these reliefs are weather worn, so it&rsquos difficult to comment on their quality. Over the main central arch are two winged victories facing each other, each carrying a standard on which are hung trophies of defeated barbarians. The victories are presenting their booty of barbarian arms and armor to some unknown figure at the keystone at the top of the arch, which is now worn away&mdashperhaps it was the emperor himself or a personification of Rome. In the Forum, the Arch of Septimius Severus, which was built a century before Constantine&rsquos, has the same winged victories over the central arch, and although the victories on both arches are roughly similar, the ones on Constantine&rsquos seem more bland and generic, with a little less detail and elegance, their robes slightly less flowing and spontaneous. These winged victories were probably standard stock for ancient triumphal arches, and soon after Christianity became firmly entrenched in the empire, similar pairs of winged figures&mdashtransformed into heavenly angels&mdashdecorated church mosaics and numerous sarcophagi of the faithful instead of presenting barbarian booty, the two angels usually held up a disc containing the cross, or a lamb, or another symbol for Christ. And as with Severus&rsquos monument, Constantine&rsquos has over the side arches personifications of river gods, again more stocky than those a century earlier. Also of Constantinian construction are rondels with reliefs on the sides of the arch, personifications of the sun and moon&mdashthe sun (on the end facing the Colosseum) is riding a quadriga (a four-horse chariot), and the moon has a two-horse chariot.

But in addition to the 2nd century panels and rondels and the largely generic reliefs from the time of Constantine, the arch is decorated with an important frieze that specifically commemorates the emperor and his victories. Running beneath the Hadrianic rondels, directly above the two smaller arches on both sides of the arch, this narrow band of sculptural reliefs recounts his battles against Maxentius (on the side not facing the Colosseum) and his addressing the Roman people in the Forum and giving them gifts (on the side facing the Colosseum). The battle scenes show columns of legionnaires laying siege to Verona on the left side not facing the Colosseum and the battle of the Milvian Bridge on the right. On the side facing the Colosseum, the address in the Forum is on the left and the giving of largess is on the right. The frieze continues on the sides of the arch, beneath the rondels of the sun and moon, and feature military themes&mdashon the side facing the Colosseum the emperor is depicted in a quadriga entering Rome in triumph, with prisoners and soldiers in front of him. The aim of this frieze is to memorialize the emperor&rsquos struggle to defeat the evil Maxentius. Plus, the frieze highlights Constantine&rsquos official role as emperor, addressing the people and distributing largess to them. The one imperial role not recorded on the arch, however, was that of Pontifex Maximus, the Chief Priest of Rome&rsquos temples to the gods who, according to tradition, had protected Rome through the preceding 1000 years of its existence. Unlike Hadrian in the rondels above, Constantine is not shown making sacrifices to the gods. Indeed, later in his reign, Constantine would hand over his title of Pontifex Maximus to the Bishop of Rome, who even today includes the initials &ldquoP.M.&rdquo after his official titles.

Finally&mdashit&rsquos a bit difficult--try to look at the two sculptural reliefs on both sides of the interior of the main triumphal arch. These massive panels date from the reign of Trajan, two hundred years earlier, and were probably removed from the famous relief that once was in the Forum of Trajan, which celebrated imperial victories over barbarian tribes. Of course, the heads of the original emperors were replaced with that of Constantine. One panel shows the emperor being crowned by Victory, with two females at his side, probably personifications of Honor and Virtue. The other depicts the emperor on horseback&mdashoriginally either Domitian (81-96 A.D.) or Trajan&mdashcharging and trampling barbarians. As opposed to the stately panels of Marcus Aurelius on the uppermost part of the arch, which show the emperor serenely receiving surrender of conquered tribes, the battle scene on the inner side of the main arch is terrifying in its depiction of the chaos and violence of hand-to-hand fighting in close quarters&mdashperhaps the closest reenactment of such horrific battles is in the opening scenes of the 2000 Russell Crowe movie Gladiator. Also from the great Trajanic frieze are two similar panels at the very top of ends of the arch, above the Constantinian rondels of the sun and moon although difficult to make out from the ground, these friezes also depict similarly ferocious battle scenes&mdashmore poor barbarians are being beaten down and trampled. The foundation, the bedrock of the Roman state from its inception was the army, without which the empire&rsquos glittering metropolises, classical culture and aesthetics, interconnected roads and trade, and the rule of law would have been impossible. The army was a behemoth that both protected Roman civilization and, in its final centuries when imperial succession was settled on the battlefield, hastened its decline and fall. On his deathbed, the ruthless emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 A.D.) reportedly admonished his two sons, &ldquoEnrich the soldiers and despise all others.&rdquo

Another Ancient Roman Mystery

But a better understanding of the historical and artistic details of the arch raises many questions that are not easy to answer&mdashit&rsquos one thing to know the origin and content of a sculptural relief, and quite another to fathom why it is on the arch in the first place. Such musing and reflection seek to understand the minds and hearts of the people who made the arch.

It doesn&rsquot take a degree in art history to see that the reliefs on the frieze dating from the time of Constantine are not of the same quality of those from the age of Hadrian, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius two hundred years earlier. Whereas the reliefs from the 2nd century are refined and elegant, with classical proportions and attention to details, the ones from the early 4th century seem stocky, out of proportion, and generic. In the frieze encircling the arch, the figures seem compressed and crowded, with heads disproportionately large and extremities short and frozen in place, without the slightest hint of mobility or fluidity. The depiction of Constantine in a quadriga entering Rome in triumph (the part of the frieze on the end of the arch facing the Colosseum) epitomizes this apparent degeneration of style: the emperor, his robe perfunctorily carved with a few thick folds, sits rigidly, even awkwardly, in an unadorned cart drawn by a stiffly posed horses that have none of the muscular dynamics and grace in motion displayed by the horses in the Hadrianic rondels. In the Capitoline Museums is a massive sculptural relief of the triumph of Marcus Aurelius in which the emperor, arrayed in richly detailed robes, rides in a finely decorated chariot drawn by majestic steeds worthy of his august status. The contrast could not be starker.

Art historians have argued for generations about why the quality of the reliefs from the age of Constantine are so apparently inferior to that of the earlier reliefs on the arch. Some have contended that by the early 4th century the chaos and violence of the preceding century hollowed out the number of skilled artisans in Rome, especially since the city, while still nominally the capital of the empire, had largely been without an emperor in long-term residence for several generations. An extension of this argument is that the paucity of skilled artisans in the city necessitated the cannibalization of reliefs on arches and monuments from centuries earlier. Other scholars contend that the flat and generic features of Constantine&rsquos reliefs are intended to convey the emperor&rsquos agenda and magnificence in a clear, concise, and symbolic manner that was understandable to &ldquothe man in the street,&rdquo without highfalutin references to gods, myths of the past, and an idealized conception of the Roman state. Gritty and down-to-earth, without classical embellishment, the Constantinian frieze was appealing to the common people of Rome. According to this viewpoint, the use of reliefs from the 2nd century Rome&rsquos golden age was an attempt to associate Constantine with these great emperors of the past and to lend credibility to his claim to the throne, since he really had no legal right to the imperial purple and attained it by the sword and not by the rules established 15 years earlier by Diocletian. Perhaps a simpler reason for using sculptures from earlier monuments was that the arch had to be completed within the very short time span of three years&mdashthe Senate promised it to the emperor in 312 in time to celebrate his decinnalia in 315. Three years was a very short time to make such an immense arch de novo, so the architects cut corners by plundering monuments from two hundred years earlier. Indeed, it is fair to say that except for the few historians and intellectuals still in Rome, most people there had no clue about the 2nd century emperors adorning Constantine&rsquos arch&mdashimages of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were probably viewed as god-like aliens from another distant time. As for the emperor himself, he probably knew the history of 2nd century Rome and its &ldquogood emperors:&rdquo as a young man, he was educated in the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia (in Asia Minor), where he studied Latin, Greek, and philosophy, all in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a major city in the east. Of course, a combination of the above explanations is also possible.

Washington Square Arch

The Washington Square Arch is situated in Washington Square Park in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, New York City. This incredible structure, which was erected in 1892, is in some ways similar and different to the Arch of Constantine in Rome. They both exhibit alike traits in the structures on various sections of the respective arches, while displaying significantly different characteristics in others.

The Arch of Constantine and the Washington Square Arch are similar in multiple ways. Firstly, they both were erected to commemorate prominent figures and aspects of time in history. The Arch of Constantine honors the great Roman Emperor, Constantine, and his victory in battle over Roman tyrant, Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, whereas the Washington Square Arch celebrates the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration, the first president of the United States, and the vital role that he played in obtaining independence for the nation. Both structures represent positives times in specific eras belonging to their respective countries. Additionally, the Arch of Constantine and Washington Square Arch possess the ability to be viewed from either side, as both welcome the interests of the mind not only through the arch because it is a two-way structure, but on the designs around the faces around the arch. Furthermore, both arches have symbols of dominance in war and civic relations. The Washington Square Arch possesses two neatly-carved sculptures of George Washington, as Commander-in-Chief and as the President, with each of these statues accompanied by two aspects of the general depictions the Commander-in-Chief George Washington backs Fame and Valor, while the President backs Justice and Wisdom. In comparison, the Arch of Constantine exhibits spoils of war, with sculptures representing his victory over Maxentius which are original, and other winged victories, and Constantine himself being crowned by victory. Moreover, in the triangular spaces connecting the arches to the upper structure, called spandrels, can be seen angels, which can represent the forms’ association to Christianity. Finally, they both are made of marble.

Although the arches have a great amount in common, they each also have unique qualities. Firstly, the Arch of Constantine is much more detailed in its honor of Constantine. Structures commemorating him through war, with spoils, and victory are on almost all the surfaces of the arch, allowing onlookers to examine not just either sides of the arch, but the sides of the entire structure itself, creating a more welcoming atmosphere than the Washington Square Arch, which lacks design on its sides. Additionally, the Arch of Constantine has a main, large arch in the center, with two flanking arches, each separated by Corinthian columns with Corinthian capitals. The Washington Square Arch does not have any columns. The three arches on the Roman structure exhibit the same ratio of height and width, and are perfectly symmetrical. The sides flanking the Washington Square Arch have minimum space, and only are filled with sculptures of George Washington on one side of the building, while the flanking arches each have medallions remembering different victories above them. Apart from this, the portion between the highest point of the arch and the attic of the arch are different: the Arch of Constantine lacks design in this area, while the Washington Square Arch is elegantly decorated with a sequence of large and small stars barred from each other with W’s, creating a system like a frieze on an entablature with the stars being the metopes and the W’s being the triglyphs. In the center can be seen an eagle, which most likely represents George Washington, with strength, courage and wisdom. Moreover, the attics both hold different designs, with the Arch of Constantine being more ornamental, again. It has Dacian prisoners extending the columns, forming endings to different sections of the attic, with the inscriptions taking up the most space. The Washington Square Arch lacked design greatly, as its main focus was to direct the attention to the inscription. Finally, although both structures were made from marble, the Arch of Constantine is comprised of structures found all over Rome, which helps to reemphasize the dominance of Emperor Constantine.

The Washington Square Arch has multiple similarities and differences with the Roman Arch of Constantine. The Arch of Constantine may possess many similar traits to that of the Washington Square Arch, but also has more developed constructions, thus being given a more stylistic look. Although there were many differences, one can conclude that the Washington Square Arch was built based on the basic designs of the Arch of Constantine.

A sculpture of a Dacian prisoner, snatched up from Trajan’s Forum and stuck on the Arch of Constantine, 315 CE [OC] [3122x2082]

This is a sculpture located near the top of the Arch of Constantine, which sits right outside of the Colosseum.

Dedicated about nine years before Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, the entire arch is kind of a mishmash of artistic styles, due in large part to it being assembled using pieces of older monuments of Rome.

The reasoning behind this continues to be debated, and it could be due to the construction taking place over a relatively short period of time — or it could be because the empire was in decline. Some have suggested that the skill necessary to create works of art like this had started to be lost. Other more contemporary carvings on the arch use a far simpler and less proportionate style.

Again, whether or not this had to do with a “loss” of artistic skill is hotly debated.

This particular part of the arch features a Dacian prisoner, likely taken from the nearby Trajan’s Forum. The Dacians were a people located in what’s now Eastern Europe — they were defeated by Trajan and their territory was annexed into the empire.

Here’s my obligatory Instagram link, if you’d like to see some pictures of Pyramids and tombs with excessively long captions.

Episode 21: The Arch of Constantine and Reunification of the Roman Empire

Constantine is the central figure in the transformation of the entire Roman Empire from pagan to Christian in the fourth century, but why he initiated this dramatic change is still disputed both by historians and in the art that remembers him. Today we examine the Arch of Constantine to see what it might be able to tell us about the mystery man it honors.

Arch of Constantine as seen from the Colosseum (Blake Photo)

In this episode we visit the Arch of Constantine, which is one of three remaining triumphal arches in or near the Roman Forum. It was built in the name of the Senate and People of Rome to honor Constantine’s victory over the then-ruling Emperor, a certain Maxentius, whom Constantine defeated at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge just a little north of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, on October 28, 312. It is unusual in that it honors an emperor not for conquering a foreign people but for conquering Rome itself.

Crossing the Tiber, the Milvian Bridge is just north of Piazza del Popolo

Two weeks ago, in Episode 19, we noted that Bernini also honored Constantine by placing a dramatic equestrian statue of him in the Portico of St. Peter’s Basilica, but if Bernini and the ancient Romans are similar in honoring Constantine, we will see today that they do so in very different ways and for very different reasons. But before exploring these differences, we must get to know the man a little better. This will also help us later, when we visit the Room of Constantine in the Vatican Museums, designed mostly by Raphael and painted in fresco by his students.

Bernini’s Statue of Constantine in the Portico of St. Peter’s (Vatican Photo)

Constantine’s political and military career began around the beginning of the fourth century. The Roman Empire was at this time a house sharply divided, and Constantine’s main military achievement was to put it together again, by force, for he fought his way from Britain to the Black Sea, defeated everyone who stood in his way, and made himself the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire, which stretched from Wales to Egypt, and from North Africa to what is Bulgaria today. So Constantine’s first claim to fame is that he was a great conqueror.

The circumstances of Constantine’s rise were not promising. The Roman Empire had suffered greatly through much of the third century, especially through a series of coups in which men murdered their way to supreme authority and then were murdered in turn to remove them from it. In a period of sixty years, there had been thirty-three emperors, thirty of whom were assassinated. In light of this grave problem, after securing his own position, the Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire first into half, east and west, and then he divided each half. Under this “Tetrarchy,” which simply means “the rule of four,” the two most important parts were to be ruled by Emperors called Augusti, and the other two by Emperors called Caesars. When one of the Augusti died, he was supposed to be replaced by a Caesar, and the Caesars were to be chosen on the basis of merit, not birth. This nice and neat system would end the use of armies to seize the Imperial Purple, or so it was hoped.

The Roman Empire neatly divided into four, the Tetrarchy

The two men who would do battle in 312 at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, Constantine and Maxentius, both had fathers who had been Augusti in Diocletian’s system: Maxentius’s father retired from power, and Constantine’s father died in 306. Neither son was automatically entitled to fill in for his father, but Constantine’s army in Britain helped him to become Caesar, and then Maxentius was likewise vaulted to political power by an army in Rome. The Caesar who was supposed to have been promoted to Augustus was still hanging around, but he was too weak to rule. Diocletian’s hopes for his tetrarchy and an orderly succession of power had broken down, and the question of the rightful ruler would be settled by military force, as was confirmed by the two decades of civil wars that followed the death of Constantine’s father. Constantine was the last man standing, and he stood at the head of a large army and empire, far and away the most powerful man in the world.

Constantine’s first wars were to secure his power in Gaul and the other western parts of the Roman Empire. Then he marched on Rome and defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. Having thus secured the West, he made peace with the East, which was then ruled by Licinius, an Augustus. To seal the deal, Licinius married Constantine’s sister, and the two Augusti issued the so-called Edict of Milan, which called for religious toleration, Christianity included. This was 313.

Constantine’s Battles from West to East (306-324)

Civil war soon erupted between the two Augusti and brothers-in-law, and it continued for a decade, with Constantine winning a series of battles that allowed his share of the empire continued to expand to the East. Tension and truces marked the periods between the battles.

The end came in 324, when Constantine won two land battles, and his son Crispus added a naval battle, with each battle occurring further to the east. The coup de grâce came on September 18 at the Battle of Chrysopolis, just east of Byzantium, today’s Istanbul. The consequence was that Constantine now at the head of the entire Empire, and he then ruled it for another thirteen years, which gave him time to make some dramatic changes.

A summary indication of the violence of it all is that Constantine’s route to power required him to defeat and kill three different emperors, of whom one was his father-in-law and two were brothers-in-law. He was also was responsible for the murder of his first wife, Fausta, and his first born son, Crispus, though his reasons are not known.

Let us now return to the Roman Arch that honors Constantine near the Forum and the Colosseum. It is one of the iconic sites of Rome, and its size, rich sculpture, and monumental symmetry have inspired imitation around the globe, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the entrance to Union Station in Washington, DC. Botticelli and Perugino both painted it prominently in their beautiful frescos on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel. Its importance is further magnified by being one of only three triumphal arches that survive near the Roman Forum, an area that used to have more than thirty. But what is most intriguing about this arch is the question of its meaning.

South facade of the Arch of Constantine (Charlie’s photo)

The arch was dedicated three years after Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and its purpose was to honor him both for his victory and for the tenth anniversary of his rule. Twelve hundred years later, Raphael’s “Room of Constantine” in the Vatican would present this battle as part of a religious war, with his troops fighting under the sign of the cross against the pagans of Maxentius. The arch, by contrast, makes no reference to Christianity. It has no cross in the sky—no cross at all—and it even shows the emperor sacrificing to pagan deities and

accompanied by the goddess Victory. Whereas Raphael will show Constantine on his knees before Pope Sylvester, the arch includes pagan priests but no popes, and Constantine kneels to no one.

Constantine’s Vision of the Cross in the Vatican Museums by the School of Raphael (Vatican Museums Photo)

The arch has three bays or passageways and is the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch, being about 25 meters wide and almost as tall, and its general design is comparable to the Arch of Septimus Severus, which had been built a little more than a century earlier and still stands in the Forum. The arch serves as a platform for over twenty-five sculptures and carved reliefs, most of which represent scenes with multiple figures. These are divisible into two main groups. One includes the reliefs carved specifically for this arch around 315, three years after Constantine took Rome. The other group is made up of reliefs lifted from preexisting monuments. Such reused art is called “spolia” or “spoils.” The spolia are mostly taken from monuments dedicated to either Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, or Trajan and are thus roughly a century and a half older than the reliefs from Constantine’s day. Eight circular reliefs (called tondi or rondels) at the middle level of the façades were carved during the reign of Hadrian eight top or “attic” panels on the two main façades were taken from a monument erected in the time of Marcus Aurelius and reliefs from the time of Trajan are on the short ends of the arch at the attic level, with two more such panels lower down on the inside of the central passageway. Other spolia include the statues of Dacian prisoners and the four large columns in front of each of the two main façades.

Arch of Septimus Severus in the Roman Forum about a century before Constantine (student photo)

The spolia steal the show, both in size and quality. The eight tondi are over six feet high the attic and Traianic panels are about nine feet high and the eight columns surmounted by the Dacian prisoners are the first feature we notice after the general shape of the arch. By contrast, the reliefs devoted to Constantine’s victories and civic actions are less than four feet high and cover a small fraction of the arch’s total surface area. Rather than being the focal point of the arch, they seem to have been allotted only such space as was left after the spolia were put into position. And most critics, though of course not all, are impressed by the superior quality of the older carvings those from Constantine’s day seem cramped and lacking in all proportion.

Chart showing the location of the spolia on the Arch of Constantine

The main subjects of all the sculptures on the arch show a marked contrast with the theme stressed by Bernini’s equestrian statue and in Raphael’s “Room of Constantine” in the Vatican. Instead of witnessing a cross in the sky before the great victory celebrated by the arch, the emperor sacrifices in four of the tondi to the pagan gods Sylvanus, Diana, Apollo, and Hercules in the other four he departs for a hunt and successfully kills a bear, a boar, and a lion. In the attic reliefs, he carries out military and civic duties, such as addressing his troops before battle, offering the sacrifice of a pig, sheep, and bull, and receiving the submission of the defeated. The reliefs from the time of Trajan show scenes pertinent to Trajan’s defeat of the Dacians, which thus are reminiscent of the Column of Trajan on the other side of the Forum.

The upper right side of the south facade of the Arch, showing (Blake Photo)

To keep Constantine from being completely overshadowed by the art and achievements of his second-century predecessors, the heads of the latter were re-sculpted or replaced so they then represented Constantine and his allies! But no changes were made to introduce crosses or angels into the scenes, and none of the pagan gods or sacrifices were Christianized in any way. The spolia on the monument contain not the slightest hint that Constantine had fought for the Christian God or had won because of His support. To the contrary!

A closer look at the upper left side of the Arch’s south facade (Blake’s Photo)

The narrow band of six rectangular reliefs that were made specifically for this arch are squeezed into spaces just below the tondi and just above the top of the two side passageways through the arch. There are two panels on each of the two main façades, and one on each of two shorter sides. They show several stages of Constantine’s campaign against Maxentius and his entry into Rome. Beginning on the short side facing the Palatine Hill (the west side), we see Constantine’s departure from Milan. Then, on the south side, his siege of the walled city of Verona and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge are represented. His entry into Rome is on the east side, so the Colosseum will be on your right, and finally, when your back it to the Colosseum, you will see his address at the rostra, or speaker’s platform, and his liberal distribution of gifts to the Roman People on the long north side.

Other sculptures from the time of Constantine include

1) images of the goddess Victory and a river god in the spandrels adjoining the central and side arches

2) captives and more Victory goddesses represented on the bases of the eight columns around the arch and

3) tondi of the Sun god and Moon goddess on the short sides of the arch. The importance of the Sun god was underscored since Rome’s tallest statue, originally of Nero but recrafted to represent the Sun, stood visible through the arch looking north. It gave its nickname, the Colossus, to the adjacent Colosseum.

If we come to the arch thinking especially of Constantine’s reputation as the man who, after a divine vision and divinely-supported victory, Christianized the Roman Empire, it is surprising that there is no Christian imagery on the arch, while pagan deities and pagan rites are all over it. But the arch also carries an inscription on identical panels at the top of both of the main façades. Might the inscription cancel the pagan themes on the Arch and declare Constantine’s devotion to the Christian God?

The inscription reads as follows:

To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine, the Greatest, Pius, Felix, Augustus:

inspired by (a) divinity, in the greatness of his mind,

he used his army to save the state by the just force of arms

from a tyrant on the one hand and every kind of factionalism on the other

therefore, the Senate and the People of Rome

have dedicated this exceptional arch to his triumphs.

The inscription is invariably cited in the polemics over the timing, sincerity, and degree of Constantine’s Christian piety, but its contribution to the debate is itself disputed. It calls Constantine “pious,” which might point to his new faith, but the epithet of the pagan Aeneas was “pious,” so there is no reason to infer that “pious” refers to Christian piety in particular, especially since it occurs in a list that includes other traditional titles such as “Caesar,” “the Greatest,” “Felix,” and “Augustus.”

“Inspired by (a) divinity” might refer to a Christian inspiration in some other context, but why would it do so here? The ancient Romans saw the world as inhabited by divinities of every variety. If “divinity” might refer to the God of whom the arch contains no trace, would it not more likely refer to one of the several pagan divinities that do appear on the arch? The Sun god would be a likely candidate.

Or perhaps the word was chosen precisely because of its ambiguity. The language of the famous Edict of Milan, which called for religious toleration, was similarly noncommittal it referred to “whatever divinity whatsoever there is in the seat of heaven” (Lactantius, De Mort. Pers., ch. 48). The inscription declares that Constantine was opposed to QUOTE “every kind of factionalism,” which supports the observation that the arch seems determined not to wade into the troubled waters of religious sectarianism. It is certainly much more ambiguous than the gleaming cross in the sky Eusebius would later say had appeared to Constantine’s entire army in broad daylight on the day before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

One way of explaining the arch’s silence about Christianity while bringing it closer to conformity with the view of the work by Raphael and Bernini is to say that Constantine did not judge the time quite right to announce his new beliefs on public architecture in the center of a pagan city. Similar reasons might explain why the first large churches in Rome were all on the periphery, not near the numerous pagan shrines and temples that populated the Forum. These are reasonable considerations, but Eusebius’s story has Constantine fighting under the sign of a visible cross in the sky and winning victory thanks to the armed angels that accompanied him. Wouldn’t the experience of such a miracle followed by a decisive victory attributable to his open embrace of Christian symbols reassure Constantine that he could and should loudly proclaim this powerful new God? Don’t the calculations of prudence change when we really believe an omnipotent God stands ready to defend us through thick and thin?

Still another way to maintain that Constantine was a devout Christian and beneficiary of a miraculous vision before the battle is to say the Senate designed the arch and chose the values it represents, perhaps to keep Constantine’s new views from gaining traction in the ancient city. It could be so, though it would seem odd for a relatively weak Senate to challenge the decided views of such a powerful conqueror, just as it would be odd for such a man to leave standing a gross misrepresentation of himself. He returned to Rome later, in 326, and he could easily have had the inscription changed without undertaking the hard work of redoing the sculpture.

My own inkling is disappointingly simple. The discordant messages of the arch and the later Christian representations of Constantine are merely more evidence of the metamorphosis of the old pagan world into a new world saturated with Christianity. This metamorphosis had barely begun when the arch was built, while, for example, the Room of Constantine and Bernini’s statue were designed a millennium after it had become complete. Eusebius was a major contributor to this development, but his work came two decades after the arch and looks to me like a way of going back and reinterpreting Constantine’s victories. Only after Constantine had made himself the most powerful man in the world and the new faith was becoming official was it possible to give a Christian account of his victories. As Eusebius put it in his Life of Constantine, written just after Constantine had died, “Thus then the God of all, the Supreme Governor of the whole universe, by his own will appointed Constantine, . . . to be prince and sovereign: so that, while others have been raised to this distinction by the election of their fellow men, he is the only one to whose elevation no mortal may boast of having contributed” (I.24). This new approach to “history,” which did not always scruple to weed out legend, persisted and remained available to the popes of the Renaissance, when they designed the magnificent room that shows Constantine as a beneficiary of a just God and a servant of His Church. But the makers of the arch, which was built immediately after Constantine’s victory, knew nothing of this. Nor, I suspect, did Constantine himself.

But before leaving the arch, we note that it has stimulated engaging debates also over the quality of its sculpture. This question becomes even more important if artistic excellence is considered a part of what makes a culture admirable.

The Siege of Verona as portrayed on the Arch of Constantine in the fourth century

As noted above, the Constantinian carving seems artistically inferior to that of the spolia seized from the earlier monuments of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. The figures are far less lifelike, and the relative scale of subjects is odd or even comic: soldiers with heads as large as their torsos are sometime as tall as the walls of the city they are attacking. Thus the argument has been made, at least as early as Vasari in the Renaissance, that the arch offers an excellent opportunity to see the artistic decline during the two centuries that separate the Constantinian carvings from the spolia that surround them, and the distinguished art historian Bernard Berenson revived this argument in the strongest terms. Perhaps the extensive “borrowing” of earlier sculpture is an admission of decline.

Constantine addresses the Roman People as sculpted on his Arch in the fourth century

Almost needless to say, others have found Berenson too judgmental or, at least, complained that his judgments did not take adequately into consideration that Constantine’s artists had to do their work in a very narrow band, which compelled them to shrink the architecture and expand the people. And perhaps it was not the quality but the purpose of art that changed. If the goal of art was no longer to imitate nature, it could not be blamed for doing so badly, could it? Perhaps art then strove to be symbolic rather than imitative. In this case, the size of figures might indicate their importance, not their natural stature, for example. Shouldn’t a work of art be judged by its purpose, not that of some other age? Perhaps. We return later to this wonderful hornet’s nest of issues. In the meantime, the arch is a clear illustration of carvings of emperors in action from two different periods, and noting their differences—both in meaning and in artistic representation—is indisputably a good way to hone our powers of observation.

The arch does not prove that Constantine would not lead a Christian revolution in the years to come: his long reign was just beginning. But the dramatic events so prominent in Christian treatments of the emperor, both in literature and in art, are not even hinted at on the arch. It is largely traditional, at least in its political and religious content, even if it had to borrow older art to succeed in being so. It thus offers an alternative to the way we will see Constantine represented when, in just a few weeks, we will see him in the room Raphael devoted to him in the Vatican Museums.

Watch the video: Arch of Constantine