Arch of Constantine the Great – an ancient example of artistic recycling

Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great seen from the Colosseum

Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great seen from the Colosseum

Constantine the Great, who was busy with strengthening his newly acquired power seldom showed up in Rome, which was unfavorably disposed towards him. When in July 315, he visited the city for the second time, there were reasons to be pleased. The Roman Senate greeted him with a structure reserved for great leaders – a three-span triumphant arch finished with a bronze quadriga. It was located near the Colosseum, at via Triumphalis, in the past leading great victors from the Circus Maximus through Palatine Hill to via Sacra and further on to the Temple of Jupiter at the foot of Forum Romanum. When Constantine stood in front of the arch established for him, he had to be slightly surprised.

Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great seen from the Colosseum
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great seen from the Colosseum
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great seen from the Palatine Hill
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, inscription commemorating the emperor
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, medallions depicting Emperor Hadrian and frieze with a victorious Constantine in Rome
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, one of the medallions depicting Emperor Hadrian hunting
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, one of the medallions depicting Emperor Hadrian hunting accompanied by Antinous
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, one of the medallions depicting Emperor Hadrian among members of the court
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, medallions depicting Emperor Hadrian and frieze with a siege of Verona by Constantine
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, medallion depicting Emperor Hadrian and frieze with the victorious battle of Constantine on Milvian Bridge
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, frieze with the enthroned Constantine giving gold to inhabitants of Rome
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, figures of the Dacians and a scene depicting Emperor Marcus Antonius among soldiers
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, scene depicting Emperor Marcus Antonius during his Danube campaign
Triumphant Arch of Emperor Constantine the Great, medallion showing the God Sol Invictus, at the bottom frieze with Constantine entering Rome

Constantine the Great, who was busy with strengthening his newly acquired power seldom showed up in Rome, which was unfavorably disposed towards him. When in July 315, he visited the city for the second time, there were reasons to be pleased. The Roman Senate greeted him with a structure reserved for great leaders – a three-span triumphant arch finished with a bronze quadriga. It was located near the Colosseum, at via Triumphalis, in the past leading great victors from the Circus Maximus through Palatine Hill to via Sacra and further on to the Temple of Jupiter at the foot of Forum Romanum. When Constantine stood in front of the arch established for him, he had to be slightly surprised.

 

And the wealth of decorations cannot be overlooked. On the plinth of the columns there are reliefs depicting soldiers, defeated barbarians and Roman gods, at the corners of the main arch winged Victories, further on Allegories of the seasons of the year and then once again deities favoring the Romans as well as numerous figural scenes. However, if we take a closer look at them, it will take some doing to notice a series of events thematically connected with Constantine himself. His deeds were shown on a frieze (above the smaller arcades), surrounding the arch like a ribbon. It tells the story of how the emperor came to power, which is begun with his loyal armies marching out of Milan (from the western side), then we have the siege of Verona, the famous battle on the Milvian Bridge, while it all ends with entry into Rome and the imperial speech on Forum Romanum along with giving gold to the Roman populace. It must be admitted that, it is not too much. Reliefs placed on the interior of the main arch inform us of glorious wars and conquests, as well as the figures of   Dacians place in its attica – a people conquered by Emperor Trajan. Double medallions, located above the side arches, decorating both of its faces, which also catch the eye, are works from the times of Trajan’s successor – Emperor Hadrian. They commemorate him during hunts and making sacrifices to the gods. However, that is not all: if we lift our eyes even higher, at the edges of the attica (on both sides of the inscription) we will notice a scene of which the hero is another great Roman emperor – Marcus Aurelius. They show him while accepting the homage of barbarian tribes, during the so-called Danube Wars, while rewarding Roman soldiers, and making sacrifices to the gods. How then should we understand this statue of honor, devoted to Constantine and why were slabs and statues added from other – previously created structures – which commemorated other emperors who are part of the history of the empire due to their military victories, art patronage, godliness, and consolidation of territorial conquests? Was the reason simply lack of time and the proper craftsmen, as is sometimes suggested, or should we look for the reason in the difficulty which the Senate faced, searching for the appropriate, worthy of commemoration deeds of Constantine. In Roman tradition triumphant arches were built for leaders who experienced glory on the field of battle, providing the state with new territorial gains, riches and slaves. In case of Constantine none of these conditions were fulfilled – if that was not enough, the emperor came to power as a result of a civil war, which in itself was greatly problematic. Constantine’s piousness also left a lot to be desired, if we take into account the fact that still today we do not have precise information, whether after, he entered Rome, holding the exposed head of Maxentius for all to see, he made an offering to Jupiter or not. Senators most likely had a tough nut to crack, looking for answers, as to what status should be granted to his deeds. He was deemed as the liberator of the city (liberator urbis) from the hands of a tyrant (although until that time Maxentius was not thought of as one), but that is all. Was recalling the greatest emperors in history done with the aim to bring Constantine down a peg, or was it just the opposite – it was a way to include him among them? Was showing the most important Roman leaders, a way for the Senate of saying that Constantine is the heir apparent of their pious and glorious reigns? Or perhaps, as others suggest, the reason was financial problems, which ultimately forced the Senate to go for this type of eclecticism bordering on recycling. However, the grandeur of this undertaking seems to point against that opinion. Building the Arch of Constantine both in from and in decoration, was a  reference to the three-span Arch of Septimius Severus. Therefore, they had to be aware of the huge amount of work and enormous costs – since the arch is 21 meters high and 25.7 meters wide, as well as 7.4 meters deep. What then, was the real reason for selecting such a creation?

 

 

Another mystery connected with the arch still stimulates the imagination of supporters and opponents of a theory, that Constantine was honored as a Christian ruler. A testimony to that was supposed to be an inscription, worded as follows:

 

Imp(eratori) Caes(ari) Fl(avio) Constantino Maximo P(io) F(elici) Augusto s(enatus) p(opulus)q(ue) R(omanus) quod instinctu divinitatis mentis magnitudine cum exercitu suo tam de tyranno quam de omni eius factione uno tempore iustis rem publicam ultus est armis arcum triumphis insignem dicavit

To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs

 

  (translated by Peter Aicher)

 

The inscription informs us, that Constantine thanks to divine inspiration along with his army, freed the city from Maxentius deemed as usurper and tyrant. For generations of Christians this was an official confirmation of the legend describing the miraculous victory at Milvian Bridge, thanks to the intercession of Christ and acceptance by Constantine of the new faith, as well as the honor which the emperor bestowed upon Christianity. Let us recall the legend, which says that in a dream, immediately prior to the battle with Maxentius, Constantine was to see the cross and hear a voice: “Through this sign, you shall conquer”. At this very moment he ordered the shields of his army to be marked with the monogram of Christ, which ultimately was to bring victory. However, none of the bas-reliefs document this fact, none of them refer to Christian symbolism, while the only one which may suggest divine inspiration, is the one depicting the god Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), whom – as we know – the emperor worshipped earlier. The newest research suggests an even more careful hypothesis – Constantine was to call on some unidentified deity, who was a combination of various “powers”, natural and cosmic, which twenty years later, by the Christian advisors of the emperor were unequivocally defined as the intercession of Christ. Therefore, as we can see, questions whether Constantine was, at the moment of entering Rome, a declared Christian or not, will most likely be a subject of heated discussion of many generations of historians to come.

 

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning the outstanding quadriga which was at the top of the arch. It did not last long. A century later, probably during the sack of the city by the forces of Alaric (410) or perhaps the following invader – Genseric (455), it fell victim to the armies of one of them, just as a number of valuable structures made of bronze, silver and gold. Rome – a proud and unconquerable city – fell to barbarians, gradually losing its significance. The beginning of its marginalization was started by none other than Constantine himself. This heir of the victorious Trajan, thrifty Hadrian and wise Marcus Aurelius, occupied himself with building a new Rome, far away on the Bosporus, which he would call in his honor Constantinople.