The Triumphant Arch of Emperor Titus – a commemoration of triumph and defeat engraved in stone

Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus seen from the level of the present-day Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, Forum Romanum

Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus seen from the level of the present-day Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, Forum Romanum

This structure found at Forum Romanum is the oldest of the three preserved triumphant arches in Rome. In times of antiquity it was located at the highest point of the forum, on a road leading to the Colosseum. It does not amaze with decorations. Its, invisible at first glance reliefs, on the interior of the arch, tell a  story of one of the proudest, yet most barbaric acts of ancient Romans.

Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus seen from the level of the present-day Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, Forum Romanum
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum, inscription commemorating Titus and his father Emperor Vespasian
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum, scene depicting the looting of the Temple of Jerusalem
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum, scene depicting the entry of Titus into Rome
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum, fragment
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum
Triumphant arch of Emperor Titus, Forum Romanum

This structure found at Forum Romanum is the oldest of the three preserved triumphant arches in Rome. In times of antiquity it was located at the highest point of the forum, on a road leading to the Colosseum. It does not amaze with decorations. Its, invisible at first glance reliefs, on the interior of the arch, tell a  story of one of the proudest, yet most barbaric acts of ancient Romans.

 

The tradition of triumphant parades and erecting arches for this occasion goes back all the way to the times of the Republic and in truth comes from the Etruscans when a victorious leader was glorified with a celebratory procession. It began on the Field of Mars, where the hero of the triumph, passed through an arch built in his honor. He walked towards Forum Romanum in the company of Senators, officials as well as soldiers carrying war loot and leading slaves. Animals were also part of the procession in order to be sacrificed to the gods in the most important temple of the city, that devoted to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, as proof of gratitude. This tradition acquired a slightly different dimension during the times of the Empire, when the triumphant procession was solely for the emperor. Such a march was demonstrated to Romans by Emperor Titus in the year 71, although the arch itself, commemorating this event was not erected until much later (in 81 A.D.), after the death of the emperor during the reign of his brother, Emperor Domitian.

Titus made himself famous in the history of the Roman Empire by putting down an uprising of the Jews in Judea in 70 A.D., conquering and completely destroying Jerusalem, and exiling its inhabitants. These were brought to Rome as slaves, while Romans joyously took to the streets, to greet their heroic leader and admire the throngs of slaves and goods brought from the conquest. This scene can be witnessed on the reliefs adorning the arch – one of them depicts soldiers bent over under the weight of the treasures stolen from the Jerusalem temple (prior to its destruction), including ritual trumpets, seven-arm menorah and a ritual table. With pride, these were carried as gifts to the nearby Temple of Peace, which for centuries served Romans as a sort of state treasury. There they stayed for centuries, until the great robbery, which was carried out by armies of Vandals in 455 A.D. And so, one act of barbarism was supplemented by another. However, although vandalism, which got its name from among others this act, is unanimously condemned, barbaric acts are not usually associated with Romans; just the opposite – their territorial expansion is glorified as proof of strength and entrepreneurship, not giving too much thought to the fate of the conquered nations. The arch was of course a message and a warning to all those who would dare to raise up arms against the Romans. If they were to do this, they would be robbed, killed, enslaved, while their traditions would be destroyed. This was shown in an excellent way in its simplicity by the Roman poet Virgil, who wrote:

 

Roman, remember by your strength to rule

Earth's people—for your arts are to be these:

To pacify, to impose the rule of law,

To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.

On the other side of the arch we will see the enterance of the triumphant Titus. The emperor driving a quadriga is accompanied by Roman gods: the goddess of victory Victoria, the armored Virtus, symbolizing bravery in battle, as well as Honos – the personification of civic virtues, but also honor.

The inscription found on the eastern side informs, that the arch was erected by the Senate and the people of Rome to the deified Titus, the son of Vespasian, who was also included among the deities – the protoplast of the Flavian dynasty.


SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMANUS DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F(ILIO) VESPASIANO AUGUSTO


According to the description of the Roman historian and philosopher Cassiodorus in the times of antiquity the arch was adorned (at the base) by an enormous in size statue of Emperor Titus, driving an elephant chariot.

 

For the Jews living in Rome, for centuries this was a monument of humiliation and defeat. This was the case all the way to the Middle Ages, when the arch, along with other structures at Forum Romanum, was used as an element of the fortress of the Frangipani family. Walled, it served as an entry gate until the XVI century when it became a part of nonexistent today monastery buildings at the Church of Santa Maria Nuova. It was not until the XIX century when its old appearance was restored by supplementing and reconstructing some parts. The arch served as a model for one of the most known triumphant arches found in the world – the one found in Paris which commemorates the conquest and victories of another leader – Napoleon Bonaparte.

However, this is not the end of the story of this monument of both triumph and defeat: during World War II, British soldiers of Jewish descent intended to blow it up while taking over Rome. In the end, this did not occur – barbarism, this time in a cultural sense did not take place.