The Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches

This Wikipage is part of the series "Roman Antiquity: Triumphal Arches on the Via Sacra" . Other parts of this series are:

The Arch of Severus Triumphal Processions The Tradition of the Arch before the Flavian Dynasty The Arch of Titus

In this section, we explore one of the reasons for constructing triumphal arches, namely its purpose to convey a message to an audience. We explain the way in which the message can be effective by using some basic theories in rhetoric. These arches are an effective solution to these problems, as they are static, visible and easy to interpret for the audience. The person to whom it is connected can control what story it tells. For more specific arch related information, see The Arch of Titus and The Arch of Septimius Severus.

1. The Arch as a means of communication
2. Modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos
2.1 Ethos
2.2 Pathos
2.3 Logos
2.4 Conclusion
3. Sources
4. See also

The Arch as a means of communication

One of the important aspects of triumphal arches in general is that they are a means to communicate a message to the people. In a time where there are no things even coming close to the mass media of today - and where a very large proportion of the citizens was illiterate - information and tradition is mostly passed on through speech, and what a person knows depends on his memory or the knowledge of the people around him. But monuments and buildings can communicate as well. A richly decorated building can express wealth and strength, and shows to the passersby the importance of the resident or commissioner. Also, the builder can choose to depict a whole story, one he wants the audience to know. Here, manipulation is easy to accomplish, because few people are able to check it for accuracy.

The apotheosis of Emperor Titus. A detail of the The Arch of Titus on the
Via Sacra in Rome.

Triumphal arches are no exceptions. They were used to tell the story of a victory - either depicting the victory itself or scenes of the triumphal procession with loot, captives and exotic marvels. In the case of the triumph arch, we can discern 1) the arch and its depictions itself, 2) the triumphal procession which it is connected to and 3) the victory that is central to the procession. The aims and purposes of these three elements can be explained by theory of rhetorics. For example, arches are used to promote identification - this is called 'constitutive rhetorics' [1]. It is not accidental that SPQR - Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and People of Rome) is often found on the arches. The "Roman people" are important, especially for an emperor because the citizen's and the army's support was paramount for the legitimacy of his power. The Roman people identify themselves with the strength of the emperor; the Romans are superior.

The arch, as a means of communication, is the more or less 'permanent' object readily available for the audience. Since arches were made out of stone or marble, they existed for more than only a few days. The procession is an event of one or a few days and only a memory of the event remains. The same holds for the victory. An arch, however, was often huge and visible from afar. The practice of durable arches was especially useful for the later emperors who ascended to a 'divine being' (this process is called apotheosis) because not just this process was important; letting the people know was even more important. However, the first permanent arches were already built prior to Augustus, the first divine emperor. This constant reminder of the emperor through arches is in line with the term ethos within the theory of rhetoric.

Modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos


Ethos is defined as an appeal to the authority or honesty of the presenter. The presenter convinces the audience that he has the authority to speak about a certain subject. On the triumphal arch we see scenes of victory and conquest. The purpose of this is to posit the role of being the emperor of the Roman people. In Roman culture, a person was greatly valued by deeds done. This is known as res gestae (things done), a term nowadays used in jurisprudence and law but mostly associated with Res Gestae Divi Augusti [3]. The depictions of the deeds of the emperor make him a valued person in Roman eyes. Were the deeds accepted by the plebs, he received the authority - and for authority to exist, recognition is needed. Whether the depictions are accurate or not, they aid the process known in the theory of rhetoric as the 'shaping of reality'. For authority's sake, the emperor also becomes the argument - wherever he appears, people are reminded of what he stands for.


These depictions also serve the second of the three modes of persuasion: pathos. Pathos is defined as an appeal to the audience's emotions. The culture of res gestae is important here as well. In a culture where males are still dominant and emperors are often military geniuses or ferocious soldiers themselves, a quick conquest and undisputed victory are valued. With pathos, the orator wants his audience to feel what he feels; not only should they agree with him, but they should identify with his argument. In this case, the orator is the emperor, the Populus Romanus his audience.


To conclude the trio of the modes of persuasion, logos is found in the depictions themselves. They are technically not words, but it is about the logical appeal. The emperor's victories are described through a series of scenes put onto the arch. These are facts, although they are not necessarily truthful facts. Logos usually also boosts ethos and this is not surprising, since the depictions on the arch also directly influence ethos. It is important to note here that the depictions actually serve all three modes of persuasion, but in different ways. This is a result of the visibility and availability to the public. The depictions can be seen by everyone, so they were meant to evoke the strongest emotions.


In conclusion, the triumphal arch served a clear and very strong rhetorical purpose. The way the emperor appeared before the public, the things the people believed or knew about him and the legitimacy of his power were not clear-cut cases if they would not be communicated effectively. It was through considerate and conscious manipulation of the mind of the audience that a general opinion was altered or implemented. These arches are, in a sense, a solution to problems dealing with securing power.


  1. Charland, M. Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the peuple québécois. Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 73, issue 2, 1987
  2. Braet, A.C. Ethos, pathos and logos in Aristotle's Rhetoric: A re-examination. Argumentation, vol. 6, issue 3, 1992
  3. Bosworth, B. Augustus, the Res Gestae and Hellenistic theories of apotheosis. The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 89, 1999

See also

This Wikipage is part of the series "Roman Antiquity: Triumphal Arches on the Via Sacra" . Other parts of this series are:

The Arch of Severus Triumphal Processions The Tradition of the Arch before the Flavian Dynasty The Arch of Titus