The Arch of Constantine is the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch. Modeled on the nearby Arch of Septimius Severus, the monument is an imposing 21-meter-high, and 25.7 meters-wide rectangular block of grey and white Proconnesian marble, with its three separate arches framed by columns. Located right next to the Colosseum, the monument played an important role in legitimizing the rule of the Emperor Constantine the Great.
The Arch commemorates Constantine’s victory in the civil war, which left him the sole ruler of the Roman empire. But it also acted as proof of the emperor’s legitimacy, and a symbol of the emerging Constantinian ideology – as shown by the careful choice of spolia (reused material) – linking Constantine to the most successful Roman emperors. The combination of pagan elements and details referencing emerging Christianity, make the Arch of Constantine a unique structure; a transition recorded in stone, not only of religion and culture but also of art. Further, the Christian connection preserved the monument for posterity.
Arch of Constantine: The Monument To An Inconvenient Victory
On October 28th, 312 CE, Emperor Maxentius drowned in the Tiber, along with most of his army. His death left the victor – Constantine the Great – in control of the western half of the Roman Empire (after 324, Constantine was the sole ruler of the Empire). A year later the emperor recognized Christianity as religio licita, a permitted religion on the territory of the entire Empire. The reign of Constantine and his dynasty ushered the Empire into a new era, which completely transformed not only the Roman world but the very course of history. The Arch of Constantine is a silent witness of that change. However, the grandiose monument, the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch, is also evidence of an inconvenient, almost shameful victory.
Romans were familiar with triumphal monuments that decorated major and minor cities and even dominated the countryside. At first glance, the Arch of Constantine is just another triumphal monument. But its story is more complicated than it seems. Maxentius was not a barbarian leader, nor was he a Persian king. He was a Roman emperor, and the army that drowned in the Tiber was a Roman army. Thus, the monument that celebrated a Roman victory over fellow Romans could be problematic. It does seem that Constantine and his propaganda machine were aware of such an inconvenience. The surviving inscription on the Arch brands Maxentius a tyrant, while Constantine is proclaimed as a legitimate emperor.
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There were a few more tricks at the emperor’s disposal. The Arch of Constantine was built on the Via Triumphalis, an ancient road by which the Roman emperors would enter the city in triumph. The Arch was built near the road terminus, and its placement next to the now-lost Colossus of Sol, the sun god, further reinforced Constantine’s legitimacy through the association with the deity that represented invincibility, eternity, and dominion over the East. According to our sources, before his death, Constantine was planning his Eastern expedition, which could grant him the much-needed legitimacy and wash away the taint of his “triumph” over his fellow Romans.
The Legitimacy Written In Stone
The monument to Constantine the Great’s “triumph” was dedicated in 315 CE, on the emperor’s decennalia – the tenth anniversary of his reign. The artisans were given limited time to complete the structure, and it is possible that for that reason they had to resort to spoliation (reuse of material), salvaging pieces from existing buildings in the city. According to some scholars, by Constantine’s time, the level of artisanship declined, thus artists remedied the situation by plundering higher quality materials from various earlier-period structures. Indeed, Constantinian elements, most notably the frieze located directly above the portals look cruder than the reused details. Upon closer inspection, however, one can see that the spolia follows a particular theme, adhering to a clearly defined narrative. A narrative of imperial propaganda that justifies Constantine’s inconvenient victory and legitimizes his rule.
The reused elements seem to be selected from the monuments and buildings erected under three second-century emperors. The statues crowning the decorative columns are taken from the Ulpian Basilica, commissioned by Trajan. They depict the captive Dacians and reference Trajan’s military campaign against them. Placed between the statues, large rectangular reliefs depict the Marcomannic Wars of Marcus Aurelius, showing the emperor embarking on the campaign, the war itself, and the return of the triumphant emperor to Rome. The Ulpian Basilica provided the monument with two large frieze panels located on the sides of the central arch. They too, depict military scenes, showing the emperor (Trajan or Domitian) battling barbarians, and, later, crowned by Victory. All depictions of the emperors are altered, with their heads reworked to resemble Constantine.
Set in pairs, on both the northern and southern side of the Arch of Constantine, the large roundels depict hunting and sacrificial scenes and may have been taken from a hunting monument of Hadrian. Once again, Hadrian’s heads were re-carved to resemble Constantine. All the scenes, representing both war and peace, link Constantine the Great to the Roman leaders known also as the “good emperors” in the Roman public memory. Trajan and Marcus Aurelius were known for their military prowess, and their triumphs, while Hadrian was a successful statesman and reformer. The Arch of Constantine sets Constantine as their spiritual heir, who would restore the Roman Empire to its former glory.
Constantine the Great: Writing A New History
The statues and reliefs are not the only spolia used in the construction of the Arch of Constantine. It seems that the arch itself is a redesign of the smaller monument built during Hadrian’s reign. The decorative Corinthian columns, dividing the arches, are probably taken from a first-century Flavian building. The Arch, however, does have elements made specifically for the occasion. The frieze scenes located below each pair of roundels depict historical scenes, tied directly to Constantine’s rise to power, and his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian bridge. Those reliefs differ greatly in style when compared to the spoliated elements, featuring squat and blocky figures that are more abstract than naturalistic.
The “lower” quality and simplicity of the Constantinian decorations caused some to consider the fourth century as a period in which the artisanship started its decline, especially when compared with the high quality and elegance of spoliated reliefs, or the famed Dacian Wars narrative of Trajan’s Column. Upon closer observation, however, it becomes apparent that the different style of Constantine’s frieze, featuring repeated figures of unrealistic proportions, their poses, and actions, allows for an easier and more legible view from the ground. Paired with the larger-than-life figures of Constantine the Great, the narrative plays an important role in propagating the official (and celebrated) Constantinian history and ideology. This hierarchical and more abstract style would become a trend in both secular and religious art in the following centuries.
More evidence for a different style being deliberately used for ideological purposes comes from the scenes on the columns’ pedestals. The artisanship here imitates the traditional earlier models rather than the iconography shown on the Constantinian frieze. The pedestal reliefs follow the established Roman iconography of portraying victory as well as prisoners. What is striking, however, is the way that the prisoners are presented. They are depicted as non-Romans, wearing trousers, usually reserved for barbarians. Thus, the depictions on the pedestals suggest to a passerby that Constantine fought foreign enemies rather than fellow Romans. The new Constantinian history tries its best to erase the shame of commemorating the victory in a civil war, portraying instead Constantine the Great as the bringer of peace and stability.
A Herald For The New Era
Lastly, there is a religious dimension to the Arch of Constantine. The large inscription informs the people of Constantine’s victory, and of his support by the Roman Senate, who commissioned the monument. Curiously, besides Constantine’s “great mind,” the inscription also credits a “divine inspiration” for the victory. Some scholars interpret this inscription as a coded reference to Constantine’s growing interest in Christianity. At the time of the monument’s construction, however, Constantine did not yet choose Christianity as the official state religion (the traditional “In hoc signo vinci” is a later invention). Furthermore, the pagan scenes on the monument (most notably on roundels), discredit such a view. Constantine could have had interest in the burgeoning monotheistic religion, but he was baptized only on his deathbed, 22 years after the Arch of Constantine was put in its place.
Constantine’s later conversion does not negate his attraction to the new faith. After all, he declared Christianity one of the official imperial religions and presided over the Council of Nicea in 325. This was not, however, an act of a religious man, but of a ruler who saw the potential in the burgeoning religion, which attracted a large number of imperial subjects. Later, Christianity played an essential role in the legitimization of Constantine’s successors, who would be recognized as god-chosen vicegerents on Earth. Further, Christianity appropriated triumphant iconography from another cult favored by the emperors, Sol Invictus. Thus, the vague mention of a sole divinity credited for the victory, makes the Arch of Constantine a herald of change in the religious sphere. The Arch also became a model for the future triumphal monuments to be built in the new imperial capital, Constantinople.
The Arch Of Constantine’s Afterlife
When it was built, the Arch of Constantine was a thing to behold. The carefully chosen art of the old masters, as well as the new Constantinian elements, were painted in vivid colors, giving the monument an eclectic, visually striking appearance. The structure was clad in white marble, while the decorative columns were carved from yellow Numidian marble. Precious porphyry added an imperial splendor to the monument, serving as a background for the vividly painted Hadrianic roundels. The reliefs were also painted, while the statues were made of Phrygian marble. The impression of splendor culminated in a quadriga led by Constantine, situated on the top of the monument.
The quadriga was the first to go, lost in the fifth century, during the sack of Rome by the Goths, or Vandals. Much of the Arch’s color faded away in the following centuries, but the remaining porphyry still retains its splendor. Due to its Christian connection, the Arch of Constantine avoided the fate of most of Rome’s ancient monuments. After its medieval role as a tower, it went through several restorations from the 15th century onwards. The most important restorative work was carried out in 1832 when the monument was detached from the medieval fortress and thoroughly cleaned, acquiring its present-day look. Finally, the surrounding area was partly leveled during the fascist regime in the 1930s, leaving the Arch of Constantine an important landmark on the Via del Trionfi.
More than two millennia after its construction, the Arch of Constantine continues to celebrate the long-dead emperor, his achievements, and his inconvenient victory, reminding us of the pivotal moment that changed the course of the Roman Empire, and the world.