History p1: What is a Triumphal Arch?

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What is a Triumphal Arch?

A triumphal arch is a monument used to celebrate a military victory. The first arches were simple arches with one passage and sometimes adorned by reliefs and attached columns. The older arches were more elaborate, both in decoration and form.

The Arch of Constantine:

The arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch. It was constructed in 315 CE to commemorate the victory of Constantine I, in the battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius in 312 CE. The arch is located in Italy, Rome, in the valley of the coliseums, between the Palatine Hill and the Coliseum, along the road taken by the triumphal processions.

The Battle of Milvian Bridge:

Was the final battle between Constantine and Maxentius. Constantine and Maxentius both claimed the title of Augustus. Agustus was the legal title to ruler of Rome at the time. The conflict was finally resolved at the battle of Milvian Bridge.

The Milvian Bridge was built by Marcus Aemilius Scaurus in 109 BCE over the Tiber near Rome as a part of the Flaminian Way.
Information on the Arch of Constantine:

The arch of Constantine is a three-way arch that measures 21m in height, 27.7m in width, and 7.4m in depth. The central archway is 11.5m in height, and 6.5m in width, while the lateral archways are 7.4mx3.4m. The lower part, the arches, and supporting piers are built of white marble using the construction technique, Opus Quadratum. The attic is Opus Latericium covered with marble slabs.

The variation in construction techniques suggests different construction times for the two parts of the arch.

The decorative elements on the monument are from different periods and are generally considered to be spoila. The arch has elements from the reigns of Trajin, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and [needless to say] Constantine. Some of the older elements of the Arch have been changed from the older emperors to show the face of Constantine. Much like how the Egyptians using parts from older pyramids to construct the newer ones.

Is the whole arch recycled?

Many archaeologists have argued that almost the whole arch is recycled. In the early 1990s, excavations revealed older foundations beneath the arch of Constantine dating back to the time of Domitian. No written sources mention Domitian erecting an arch in his own honour, however if the remains below Constantine’s arch is from one of these, then this suggests that the arch had been torn down following the damnatio memoriae inflicted on Domitian after his death, or it was dilapidated and abandoned.


There are at least three explanations for the reuse of older monuments.

One possibility is lack of highly skilled artisans. Without the influence of the imperial courts, the artistic workshops had less work, and so less people were needed. Skill would also have declined without work.
The second possibility was the lack of time. Constantine wanted to have the arch finished for his tenth anniversary of his ascent to power. He arrived in Rome in 312 CE, and his anniversary was in 315 (or 316) CE. This left little time for construction.
And the final possibility was that, Constantine may have wanted to be placed in the same categories as Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, who were also, know as the “Good Emperors,” because in their reigns they brought peace, prosperity and safe succession to the empire.

It could also have been a combination any or all of these possibilities.

Trajanic Statues and Reliefs: the oldest decorative parts of the arch of Constantine are from the time of Trajan. The eight statues of pavonazzetto marble depicting Dacain prisoners, placed above the Corinthian columns have, more likely then not, been taken from the Forum of Trajan since similar statues have been found in that area. Also there are large reliefs from the time of Trajan on the upper part of the ends of the arch, and the two relifes on the inner walls of the central archway. All the reliefs measure 3mx20m and seem to all be part of a larger series. Probably part of the frieze of the Basilica Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan.
Hadrianic Roundels: a series of eight roundels are located in pairs above the lateral archways. They have been dated to Hadrian’s reign on stylistic reasons. Also images of Hadrian and Antinous have been identified in them. All the roundels measure 2mx2m.

The scenes on the roundels are all related to hunting or sacrifice. Probably to be interpreted as metaphors for the military and religious roles of the emperor.

Some roundels have been modified to depict the image of Constantine.

The roundels could be from some unknown Hadrianic monument, however, unlike the other reused elements on the arch, they appear to have not been remounted.

Marcus Aurelius: located above each of the lateral archways and on each side of the central inscription are eight panels mounted in pairs. They either from the time of Marcus Aurelius or his son Commodus. The province where the reliefs were originally located is unknown. They likely came from one of two, now lost, triumphal arches erected by Commodus in honor of his deified father Marcus Aurelius. They depict wars against the invading Germanic tribes known as the Marconanni and the Quadi.

The central inscription is repeated on both sides of the attic. Only the holes in which the original bronze letters were mounted remain. But the text is still easily readable.

To the emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine Maximus,

Pius Felix Augustus,
since through divine inspiration and great wisdom
he has delivered the state
from the tyrant and all his factions,
by his army and noble arms,
the Senate and the Roman People,
dedicate this arch decorated with triumphal insignia.

The tyrant that is mentioned is Maxentius, and the battle is the Milvian Bridge. The most debated part of the inscription is the words instinctu divinitatis, “by divine inspiration”. This could be a reference to the famous vision Constantine was said to have had before the battle.


Constantine was the first Christian Emperor. He legalized Christianity and was baptized. To strengthen the church and the state Constantine slowly merged the two over time. The church was made tax exempt, and the Christian cross started to appear on Roman coins. Latter, the church braced the decrepit state, while the powers of the state were used to unify the church. The roman title Pontifex Maximus, also known as chief priest, was applied to the Pope, or Pontiff. While the shrines of the old Roman Gods became more neglected.

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