Roman Antiquity: Triumphal Arches on the Via Sacra

This project deals with the background, meaning and influence of particular objects situated in the city of Rome, the eternal city. This particular subproject focuses on the ancient period. Two objects form the center of this research, the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Severus. These two arches are in a relatively good state and are similar in their background story. Both arches were built by a new imperial dynasty, who came to power following a civil war, known as the "Year of the Four Emperors" and the "Year of the Five Emperors" respectively. Both are also located on, or close to, the Forum Romanum and span the Via Sacra.

This is the main page of our project, an abstract basically. The interested reader is encouraged to read the main articles as well.

The Arch of Titus[18]The Arch of Severus[19]

1. Introduction
2. Arches in general
3. Triumphs
4. Rhetorical functions of arches
5. The Arch of Titus
6. The Arch of Severus
7. Sources


Which problems were solved by the construction of the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Severus. To answer this primary question of our research, we first need to know why they built an arch. What is the history of Romans and arches and what did it mean to them? What role did arches play in a triumph and what message did the arches convey to the Roman people? With this general information in mind, we will then take a closer look at the two arches themselves and the problems they solved.

Arches in general

Main article: The tradition of the arch before the Flavian dynasty

Arches in Rome were not only built to celebrate victories. One of the reasons for building an arch is a triumph, but there were more reasons, so unless an arch has a clear connection with a triumph it would be better to speak of honorary arches, rather than triumphal arches [4]. The arches of our focus have such a connection with triumphs, so the term triumphal arch is appropriate here.

The origin of the arch remains debated, but it is certain that it is a long standing tradition. In Rome, arches were at first built from wood, and quickly taken down. In the late Republic we see a shift to permanent arches built from stone. In general we can also see a change in the size of the arch, the number of bays and the sort of decoration. This shows clearly the competition between the Roman elite, who always wanted to achieve bigger things than their predecessors, hold bigger triumphs and dedicate bigger and more impressive buildings and arches. Arches generally had statues on top, and later the base of the arch would have detailed relief sculpture [4].

Throughout the late Republic and the Julio-Claudian dynasty the construction of arches was frequently done [4].


Main article: Triumphal Processions

The practice of triumphal processions was presumably adopted from the Etruscans. It was a well planned religious ritual, which lasted about two days. There was a preset route the procession would follow. There existed clear rules about the requirements for holding a triumph. Though no hard line can be drawn, some believe the tradition of the triumphs ended with Constantine, who changed a lot about the religious rituals of the triumph, since Constantine's rule was largely a Christian one. During the triumph a temporary triumphal arch would be used, but sometimes a permanent version was built after the triumph. This is the case with the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Severus [5-9].

A Roman Triumph[20]

Rhetorical functions of arches

Main article: The Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches

One of the reasons for building the triumphal arches is the message they convey to their audience. Considering constitutive rhetorics [3] they serve the identification of the Roman citizens with their emperor and the Roman Empire itself. This affiliation was crucial to the emperor's success. Another means to identify purposes is the classical rhetorical theory. We can find all three elements of persuasion [2] in the arches. The display of achievements convinces the audience of the legitimacy of the emperor's power [1]. The size and location of the arch convey a feeling of power and strenght to anyone standing in front of it, and leaves them with a feeling of awe. Logical reasoning and argumentation can be found in the stories told by the inscriptions.

In summary, the arches served a rhetorical function. The audience was manipulated to see the greatness of the person who built the arch. This was especially important for the arches of our focus, as we will later see.

The Arch of Titus

Main article: The Arch of Titus

The Arch of Titus has been built in 82 AD to honor the emperor Titus, who successfully put down the Jewish rebellion and took Jerusalem in 70 AD [14]. On the arch are depictions of the soldiers taking spoils from Jerusalem and the Temple, Titus holding his triumph in Rome and the apotheosis of Titus [15]. An inscription displays the senate's approval of the emperor's achievements [15,16]. Several parts of the arch have been damaged and were partially restored in 1821 [17]. Nevertheless, the arch is still quite well preserved, and stands as a permanent memorial for Titus's victory in Judea.

The Flavian dynasty had the problem of being a new dynasty. The Flavian emperors had to impress the people to strengthen their rule [14]. The victory in Judea provided what they needed. A victory over an enemy who revolted against Roman rule, with many spoils taken. The victory showed their power and military capacity. It also showed they would protect the interest of the Empire. The arch reminds the Roman people of this and thus helps secure the imperial throne for the Flavian emperors. Its size and the message of the inscription and decorations are basically an ancient form of propaganda, that would be seen by many Romans.

The Arch of Severus

Main article: The Arch of Septimius Severus

The Roman senate has built the arch in 203 AD in honor of Septimius Severus' victory over the Parthians. After a long period of civil struggle with other competitors for the imperial throne Septimius had managed to secure his position as emperor of the Roman empire [10,12]. He extended the empire with the province of Mesopotamia, which was a major contribution to him getting approved as emperor by the army and the people [10,11]. The arch itself accompanies a triumphal procession that could not be attended by Severus himself, who suffered from health issues. The magnificent monument is a permanent reminder of his deeds and achievements and thereby even more important in conveying the message that he is the ruler of the Empire. Its central location, its size and its decoration are meaningful tools to convince the observer of the emperor's legitimacy and power and deter possible Roman opponents [10,12,13].


  1. Bosworth, B. Augustus, the Res Gestae and Hellenistic theories of apotheosis. The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 89, 1999.
  2. Braet, A.C. Ethos, pathos and logos in Aristotle's Rhetoric: A re-examination. Argumentation, vol. 6, issue 3, 1992.
  3. Charland, M. Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the peuple québécois. Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 73, issue 2, 1987.
  4. Fred, S. Kleiner. The arch of Nero in Rome: a study of the Roman honorary arch before and under Nero. Roma: G. Bretschneider;1985.
  5. Beard, Mary: The Roman Triumph,The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, England, 2007.
  6. L. de Blois & R.J. van der Spek, Een kennismaking met de Oude Wereld, Bussum: Uitgeverij Coutinho, 2010.
  7., Chapter XXXIII.
  8. Philip , Souza de, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  9. Künzl, E. Der römische Triumph: Siegesfeiern im antiken Rom., Munchen: Beck, 1988.
  10. A Goldsworthy. The Fall of the West. The slow death of the Roman Superpower. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 2009
  12. Anthony R Birley: Septimius Severus
  13. Richard Brilliant: The arch of Septimus Severus in the Roman Forum
  14. A Goldsworthy. In the name of Rome. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 2003.
  17. Ward-Perkins: Roman Imperial Architecture