The Tradition of the Arch before the Flavian Dynasty

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 Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches The Arch of Titus

1. General
2. Origin of the Arch
3. Examples of Arches
3.1 Republican Period
3.2 Imperial Period during the Julio-Claudian dynasty
4. Sources
5. See also


The Roman honorary arch is a public, commemorative, monument with passage ways. It serves as both a portal and a statuary base. Arches were called "Fornix", "Ianus" or "Arcus", all meaning something like arch or bow. They were usually built at the entrance of a city, or on passage ways to important civic or religious locations. The often used term Triumphal Arch, or Arcus Triumphalis is actually wrong in many cases. Though some arches indeed played a role in triumphs, this is certainly not true for every arch. Many arches were built to celebrate technical or civic feats, like a road repair project or to celebrate the founding of a Roman colony. Official Roman triumphs were held in Rome, but many arches were built outside Rome, even outside Italy. And not even all arches in Rome can be linked to triumphs [1]. The two arches of our project are related to triumphs, though they will likely have been built after the actual triumph.

Artist reconstruction of the Forum Romanum [9]
  1. Tabularium. Built in 78 BC. Functioned as record office.
  2. Temple of Vespasian. Built in 81 AD by Domitian in honor of Vespasian
    and Titus.
  3. Tullianum. Built in 4th century BC. Functioned as prison and place of
  4. Arch of Severus. Built in 203 AD.
  5. Curia. Place where the senate meetings were usually held. It burned
    down many times, but was rebuilt every time.
  6. Basilica Aemilia: Built in 179 BC, rebuilt in 14 AD by Augustus.
  7. Temple of Divus Julius. Built in 29 BC by Augustus.
  8. Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Built in 141 AD by Antoninus Pius.
  9. Temple of Romulus. Built in 309 AD by Maxentius for his son Romulus.
  10. Atrium Vestae. House of the Vestal Virgins.
  11. Temple of Vesta.
  12. Actian Arch of Augustus. It was later replaced by the Parthian Arch of
  13. Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri. Built in 484 BC.
  14. Basilica Julia. Built in early AD.
  15. Temple of Saturn. Built in 497 BC.
  16. Portico of the Consentes Dii. Portico honoring the 12 main gods of

Origin of the Arch

Propylon at the
Acropolis in Athens [4]

The origin of arches remains debated. Before the arches were built from stone, arches had a temporary role and were made out of wood. Those wooden arches were used in triumphal processions of a victoriously returning general of Rome. A second option might be that they might be a further developed version of early Etruscan portals. A third idea is that it comes from the Greek colonies in Southern Italy. Greeks had columnar monuments, which supported one or more statues. These monuments were called propylaea or propylon. The most famous is that of the Acropolis in Athens.[1]

Marching under the Yoke [10]

A story by Livy suggests that the function of the arch in triumphs was known by other states in Italy. During the Second Samnite War (326-403 BC), a Roman army marched into Samnite territory, a region south of Latium. At the Caudine Forks the army got trapped in a pass barricaded by the Samnites. The army was forced to surrender. They had to abandon all their weapons and much of their clothes. They were then forced to march under the Yoke while the enemy watched. The Yoke was a construction of two spears put in the ground and a third fixed to the top of those two, forming a portal. It was a custom used multiple times in Italy, also by Romans. The practice was deeply humiliating for those having to walk under that Yoke, defeated, without their weapons and being mocked by their victorious enemies[2,3]. It might be that this practice is a parody of the triumph, in which the victorious army proudly marched under an arch. If the Samnites did in fact parody the triumphal ritual, they must have known it.

Examples of Arches

In general we can see an evolution in arches throughout Roman history. Early arches were built from wood and stood for a maximum of a few days. Later arches became more permanent and were built from stone. Early arches appear to have been smaller and had one bay. The arch itself was modestly decorated, with the arch functioning as a base for statues on top of the arch. At first these statues were of gods, not men. Only inscriptions on the arch honored the man who built the arch. Later arches became bigger, and sometimes got three bays instead of one. Statues of men became more common, including a person standing on a chariot. In imperial times, possibly from the time of Nero arches got more extensive relief sculpture on the arch itself. On some arches the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux appear, on many arches Victoria, the goddess of victory, appears.

Victoria on the Arch of TitusThe items Victoria appears to be holding in her handsOne of the Dioscuri [5]

Republican Period

The first known permanent arches were built by Lucius Stertinius around 196 BC. He built a total of three arches, two on the Forum Boarium and one near the Circus Maximus. Because he built three permanent arches, it is assumed that there are previous permanent arches.

Scipio Africanus built an arch on the Capitoline hill, the first known at that location. Though triumphs ended at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on that same hill, the arch does not appear to have had a role in a triumph, because it did not span the Via Sacra, the triumphal road, but was standing next to it. The arch appears to have been built around 190 BC, but Scipio held no triumph in that year. In that year he had left for the east to fight against the Seleucids and he had defeated Carthage years before (at Zama, 202 BC), so it is unlikely that it was built for a triumph.

The first known permanent arch that can be connected to a triumph is the arch built by Fabius Maximus Allobrogicus around 120 BC. It was called the Fornic Fabianus and stood on the Via Sacra in Rome. It might also be the first with portrait statues.

Imperial Period during the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Many arches were built during the reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, starting with Augustus in 27 BC and ending with Nero in 68 AD.

Augustus had built an arch for his natural father, Gaius Octavius, on the Palatine Hill. It was a modest arch, only decorated with statues of gods, not of himself or his father. It appears that decorations on the arch were mostly limited to the area of the arch above the arcus, known as super arcum. Cassius Dio is the only source for an Augustan arch built in honor of his victory over Sextus Pompey. He is also the only source for another Augustan arch built in Brindisi, Southern Italy. On coins an Augustan arch can be seen with Augustus in a four-horse chariot on top of the arch. It might be the Actian arch, built in honor of the victory at Actium, Greece over Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The chariot appears on many later arches. The Actian arch was probably located at the Forum Romanum, but was later torn down and replaced by a new Augustan arch. This new arch is known as the Parthian Arch of Augustus. A reason for tearing down the previous arch might be that it celebrated a victory over other Romans. The Parthian Arch stands next to the Temple of Divus Julius, or divine Julius (Caesar). It had a form not known before this time, being a central arched bay, with smaller rectangular passageways on both flanks. On the spandrels appeared Victoria, the first known example of what was to become a common practice in later arches.

Remains of the Parthian Arch of Augustus on the Forum Romanum, with the Temple of Vesta to the
right [6]

Coin possibly depicting the Actian Arch
of Augustus [7]

On the Arch by Salvia Posthuma Sergi in honor of her deceased family (built somewhere between 29 BC and early AD) are Victoria's, just like those on the Augustan Parthian Arch. In the vault of the bay are decorations like rosettes in lozenge-shaped frames, with a central relief framed by dolphins, depicting an eagle carrying a serpent towards heaven, a clear symbol of Apotheosis, or divinization. Similar decorations were later used in the vault of the Arch of Titus.

Arch of the Sergii in Pula, Croatia [8]

Tiberius was Augustus' successor and his own heir was Germanicus. They built an arch to celebrate the recovery of the legionary standards lost in the disaster at the Teutoburg Forest, during Augustus' reign. It was built on the Forum Romanum, between the Rostra and Basilica Julia, on the Via Sacra near the Temple of Saturn. It thus stood at the foot of the road leading up to the Temple of Jupiter, standing opposite the Parthian Arch of Augustus. This was likely intentionally, because the Parthian Arch also celebrated the recapturing of lost legionary standards, being those that were lost at Carrhae by Crassus. The arch had one bay. Multiple other arches were built for Germanicus and Tiberius's own son, Drusus, of which some were located in Rome.

Coin depicting an arch of Drusus [7]

Both Germanicus and Drusus died before Tiberius. He was thus succeeded by Germanicus' son, Caligula, who only reigned for four years, was deeply unpopular and was murdered. Still, even he had at least one arch built. An arch in Thugga, Nothern Africa, is certainly of him, though his name was removed from it by his successor, Claudius. One arch in Rome might also have been from Caligula.

Claudius had built multiple arches for his military victories. One for his Germanic campaign, another for his campaign in Britain. One Britannic Arch stood on the Via Flaminia, the road leading from Rome to the north, thus in the direction of Britain. It was torn down in the 9th century.

Coins depicting arches of Claudius [7]

Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. After his death the new rulers tried to wipe him from history, a so-called damnatio memoriae. Due to this the only written evidence on Nero's Arch is Tacitus' Annals. The arch was built for success against the Parthians and success in Armenia. It was built near the Capitoline hill. Previous arches depicted on coins focused on the statues on top of the arch with a relative small arch below it, but on the coins of Nero's Arch there is much more focus on the arch itself, and relief sculpture can be seen. That this coin does depict the relief on the arch, suggests that this was one of the first arches with extensive relief sculpture, since without it the statues are of most interest, not the arch itself. Despite the coins, the exact appearance of the arch is debated.

Coin depicting the Arch of Nero [7]


  1. Fred, S. Kleiner. The arch of Nero in Rome: a study of the Roman honorary arch before and under Nero. Roma: G. Bretschneider;1985
  2. W. Warde Fowler. Passing under the Yoke. The Classical Review. 1913 Mar; Vol. 27, No. 2 :48-51
  3. Titus Livius Patvinus (Livy). Ab Urbe Condita Libri, 9.2-9.6 english translation retrieved from

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 Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches The Arch of Titus