The arch of Constantine


The Arch of Constantine seen from the Via Triumphalis

The arch of Constantine was a gift of the Senate and the people of Rome (SPQR) to Constantine in 315 AD for his victory over emperor Maxentius at the battle at the Milvian bridge on 28 October 312. Constantine the Great , who was emperor of the Roman empire in the years 306-337, believed that he owed his victory to the Christian God. In 313 he gave Christians freedom of religion by the so-called Edict of Milan: the Christian church was recognized as an institution and the Christian clergy received privileges. Constantine himself also converted to the Christian faith.

The arch of Constantine in the centre of Rome is a conspicuous monument which raises many questions. This Wiki page will focus on two important interpretations of the arch, namely the use of spolia (reused artefacts) and the religious interpretation of the arch. These interpretations answer to the problem of consolidating Constantine´s position.

Contents
1. The arch
1.1 Description
1.1.1 Triumphal Arches
1.1.2 Constantine
1.1.3 Arch
2. The use of spolia
2.1 Identification with other emperors
3. Religious interpretation of the arch
3.1 The Sun God
3.2 The Christian God
4. Conclusion
Sources

The arch


Description

Triumphal arches

Monumental gateways had already been used for thousands of years by some civilizations (such as the Hittites). These gateways were often made of wood and were the precursors to the Roman triumphal arches. In the Roman empire triumphal arches were built to celebrate great military victories.

The first documented triumphal arches date from the Roman republic. Generals who won important military triumphs were honored with these monuments. At the start of the imperial period Augustus decided that only emperors could have the right to be granted with triumphs and that triumphal arches would only be given to emperors by the Senate. Most triumphal arches in Rome were raised in imperial times. Documentary sources speak of 36 arches in the city of Rome at the end of the fourth century. There are some general characteristics that all of the triumphal arches share; the façade is decorated with marble columns and sculptured panels that displays victories and achievements. Nowadays only three triumphal arches are still present in Rome: the arches of Titus, Septimus Severus and Constantine.

The main reason why these triumphal arches were constructed was to give a message to the people. The arch emphasizes the power of the emperor and strengthens his position. Triumphal arches became propagandistic monuments. See also: The Rhetorical Power of Triumphal Arches

Constantine

Constantine was emperor of Rome in the years 306-337. Constantine played an influential role in religious tolerance throughout the Roman empire.

One of the most important occurrences in Constantine´s life was the battle at the Milvian bridge, a bridge over the Tiber near Rome. In this battle Constantine defeated his opponent Maxentius. Purpose of this battle was the power over the Western part of the Roman empire. After this victory Constantine became the sole emperor of the Western provinces of the Roman empire [2].

Before this battle Constantine had a vision, in which a cross in the sky appeared. Constantine interpreted this as a Christian sign. Because of this he commanded his soldiers before the battle to adorn their shields with the Christian symbol of the cross. Constantine believed that his victory was achieved with the help of the Christian God [2].

After this vision Constantine´s commitment to Christianity grew. By the Edict of Milan (313) he was the first Roman Emperor who gave the Christians freedom of religion. Furthermore, from that moment on the Christian church was recognized and received several privileges. Constantine himself also converted to the Christian Faith and was baptized shortly before his death on 22 may 337 [3].

Arch

The arch of Constantine is situated next to the Colosseum and the Forum Romanum. It was a part of the route of the Roman triumphal processions, called ´the Via Triumphalis´ and was a gift of the Senate and the people of Rome to Constantine in 315 AD, for his victory at the Milvian bridge over Maxentius. [4]

It is a triple-arched triumphal arch, the central arch being larger than the two lateral ones. It is suggested that the general design is modeled after the example of the Arch of Septimius Severus on the Forum Romanum , which already existed since 203 AD. This arch also has a main part that is structured by detached columns and an attic with the main inscription [1]. Both sides of the arch are designed in the same way.

Inscription
Above the central archway an inscription can be found. This inscription still raises questions. The ambiguity of the words instinctu divinitatis in the inscription has caused some debate. The inscription*:

IMP(ERATORI) CAES(ARI) F(LAVIO) CONSTANTINO MAXIMO
P(IO) F(ELICI) AVGVSTO S(ENATVS) P(OPVLVS)Q(VE) R(OMANVS)
QVOD INSTINCTV DIVINITATIS MENTIS
MAGNITVDINE CVM EXERCITV SVO
TAM DE TYRANNO QVAM DE OMNI EIVS
FACTIONE VNO TEMPORE IVSTIS
REMPVBLICAM VLTVS EST ARMIS
ARCVM TRIVMPHIS INSIGNEM DICAVIT

*The words between brackets complete the abbreviations in the inscription.

The translation:

To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus Maximus,
Father of the Fatherland the Senate and people of Rome,
because with inspiration from the divine and the might of his intelligence
together with his army he took revenge by just arms on the tyrant
And his following at one and the same time
have dedicated this arch made proud by triumphs [5]

This inscription explains why the arch was dedicated to Constantine and by whom (the Senate and people of Rome). 'Tyrant' in this inscription refers to Maxentius, who was Constantine´s opponent at the battle of the Milvian bridge and an emperor at that time. The interpretation of Divinitatis in the third line causes a lot of discussion. Divinitas means divinity [6] and can refer to a single god or any divine being, such as a divinely inspired emperor [23].

Reliefs
The arch contains many reliefs and almost the entire surface of the arch has been covered with sculptures. Most of these reliefs are spolia, reused materials taken from other monuments. The use of such spolia will be explained in the next section. The reliefs can be divided into four groups. Each series was originally made for a specific emperor, namely Hadrian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and Constantine.

Arch of Constantine divided into the four series
Spandrel at the main archway
representing the goddess Victoria
Medallion eastern side; Sol the
sun god (no 17 )

Main section
The bottom of the arch consists of four bases (no 1) which support the columns. These bases depict the goddess Victoria, captured barbarians and Roman soldiers. The spandrels on the small arches (no 3) show river gods and the spandrels on the main archway (no 2) depict symbols of victory.

The frieze above the small spandrels (no 5, 6 en 18) is considered to be the masterpiece of the arch. It consists of a band of reliefs that tells the story of Constantine defeating Maxentius and his entry in Rome.

The short sides of the arch contain tondos (no 17) which depict the Sun and Moon god. The column bases, spandrel reliefs, tondos on the short sides and the frieze are of the time of Constantine. The main section also contains four tondos (no 7, 8, 9 and 10) which were originally made for Hadrian.

Northern side of the frieze; Constantine talking to the citizens of Rome from the rostra
Panel small side; War against the Dacians
(no 16)
Standing Bar-
barian (no 15)

Attic
On the free standing columns of the attic four sculptures of standing barbarians (no 15) can be found. In between there are four relief panels (no 11, 12, 13 and 14) which were originally made for Marcus Aurelius. These panels show different victory scenes. The inscription (no 19) is placed in the middle of the attic and is originally made for Constantine. The short sides of the attic are covered with panels originally made for Trajan (no 16). These panels are the oldest panels on the arch and depict the wars against the Dacians.


The use of spolia


On the arch of Constantine many reliefs can be found, including many reliefs that were not originally made for the arch. The series of Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian date from the second century and were originally intended for and part of other monuments. They are spolia: earlier building material or sculptures that are used for new monuments.

The use of spolia was very common in the Late Antiquity. The Arch of Constantine is one of the best known examples of the use of spolia. Other examples include the colonnade of Old Saint Peter´s Basilica and the Arch of Janus. The reliefs on the Arch of Constantine date from the second century and were made by different artists. In order to get some similarity between different styles of spolia several reliefs were adapted in order to reach uniformity of the series on the arch [17].

There is a lot of discussion about why the Romans used sculptures from other monuments and periods for the construction of the arch of Constantine. Possibly, the Senate used spolia because of an economic crisis or to ensure that the arch was built in time. However, the main reason for the use of spolia on this arch is most likely to strengthen the position of Constantine, as will be discussed below [22].

Identification with other emperors

Reliefs on the arch of Constantine show the connection between Constantine and the great emperors of the second century, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. These three emperors were well known and popular among the people of Rome, they had an image of strong leaders. The use of sculptures from monuments dedicated to these emperors suggest a relation between Constantine and these well-known leaders. The heads of most portraits , which originally depicted Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian or Trajan, were adapted in such a way that they represented Constantine or his father Constantius Chlorus . In this way, the Senate wanted to associate Constantine with former emperors of the second century [22].


Religious interpretation of the arch


The religious interpretation is a matter of debate among scholars. It has been argued that the arch is religiously neutral, or refers to either the Christian God or the Sun god. The latter two interpretations will be discussed below. The explanation of the inscription plays an important role in the religious interpretation of the arch.

The Sun God

It is possible that divinitatis in the inscription refers to the Sun god, Sol Invictus. On several of the sculptures from the series of Constantine the Sun god is depicted, for example in the historical frieze on the west side and in a tondo on the side of the arch.

A tondo from the arch of Constantine, depicting Sol
The placement of the arch in relation with the statue of Sol.

The arch itself is also connected with Sol, because it was built in a specific way. Through the central archway a statue of the Sun god, the former colossus of Nero, could be seen in the time of Constantine. (figure X)

The relation between Sol, and Constantine is shown by the fact that the statue of the emperor on the porphyry columns in Constantinople probably depicts Constantine as Sun god. In poetry he is depicted as a bringer of light and on coins Sol and Constantine are depicted together.[25]

The Christian God

The arch of Constantine itself does not contain direct references to Christianity. It has been argued that the Senate did this on purpose [27]. Constantine believed that a rapid religious change in society would disturb the empire and would especially harm those who wanted to continue practicing ancient beliefs. He figured that when he would force Christianity upon the people, he would not have been better than the tyrant he replaced and people would not support him as much as they did (XXVII). The arch thus contains only indirect references to Christianity.

An indirect reference to Christianity, although not very likely, can be seen in the Sun medallion. The Sun was the subject of pagan monotheism. This monotheistic connection between the Christian God and the Sun god could represent a bridge from the pagan polytheistic belief to the monotheistic Christian belief. Besides this, the Christian belief has adopted a few rituals from the culture of Sol, for example the images of Christ with a crown of sunrays around his head. The Christian belief is thus linked to the culture of Sol and indirectly represented by the arch.

Constantine´s vision of the cross, painted by Rafael.

The role Christianity played in Constantine´s life and rule is also an important clue for the referral to Christianity in the inscription by the words instinctu divinitatis. Before the battle of the Milvian bridge Constantine had a vision of the cross (figure X). It has been said that this vision and the help of the Christian God during this battle led, according to Constantine, to his victory. This vision of the cross brought Christianity to Constantine and Constantine´s connection to Christianity enhanced the acceptability of Christianity in the Roman empire. For example in 313 Constantine declared the Edict of Milan which gave freedom of religion to the Christians.

In short, linking the arch and thus Constantine to these gods strengthens Constantine´s position, because of the importance of religion and divinities in the Roman empire. Furthermore, the failure to specify the divinity meant by 'divinitatis' enhances the general acceptability of the inscription. Because of the unclarity both pagan and Christian readers could interpret the arch of Constantine in their own way and thus it makes Constantine´s government acceptable for both pagan and Christian inhabitants of the empire.

Conclusion


The arch of Constantine was a gift of the Senate and the people of Rome to Constantine for his victory over emperor Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge. The triumphal arches were built to enhance the position of the emperor for whom the arch was built and were a clear statement of the power and ability of the emperor to the people of Rome. Constantine the Great , who was emperor of the Roman empire in the years 306-337, believed that he owed his victory to the Christian God. In 313 he gave Christians freedom of religion by the Edict of Milan. Constantine himself converted to the Christian Faith.

The arch of Constantine was built to propagate the greatness of Constantine to the people of Rome and to express the people´s trust in Constantine as its emperor. Constantine´s position was consolidated by linking him to former great emperors and gods. The reliefs used to strengthen this message. So in short, this arch was built as a propagandistic monument by the Senate of Rome. Religiously the arch of Constantine can be interpreted as referring to either the Christian God or the Sun god, or perhaps to an association of these two gods.

Sources


  1. Holloway, R. Ross (2004) Constantine and Rome. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.
  2. Pohlsander, Hans A. (1996) The emperor Constantine. Londen, Routledge. Page 19-20
  3. Pohlsander, Hans A. (1996) The emperor Constantine. Londen, Routledge. Page. 75-76
  4. Sear, F.B. and John, R. (2010) Triumphal arch. Oxford, Oxford Art Online
  5. Holloway, R. Ross (2004) Constantine and Rome. New Haven and London, Yale University Press. Page 19
  6. Holloway, R. Ross (2004) Constantine and Rome. New Haven and London, Yale University Press. Page 19
  7. Giuseppe, C. di (2000) Constantine´s Arch. Ficulle, Comosavona
  8. Touatie, Anne-Marie Leander (1987) The great Trajanic frieze. Stockholm, Stockholm university. Page 29
  9. Niels Hanestad, Tradition in late antique sculpture, conservation, modernization, production, Aarhus university press, 1994
  10. Touatie, Anne-Marie Leander (1987) The great Trajanic frieze. Stockholm, Stockholm university. Page 17
  11. Inez Scott Ryberg. (1967) Panel Reliefs of Marcus Aurelius. New York, Archaeological Institute of America.
  12. Holloway, R. Ross (2004) Constantine and Rome. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.
  13. Holloway, R. Ross (2004) Constantine and Rome. New Haven and London, Yale University Press. Page 21-25
  14. Elsner, J. (1998) Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph. Oxford, Oxford History of Art.
  15. Bardill, Jonathan (2012) Constantine, divine emperor of the Christian golden age. New York, Cambridge University press. Page 227
  16. Holloway, R. Ross (2004) Constantine and Rome. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.
  17. Hannestad, Niels (1994) Tradition in late Antique Sculpture. Aarhus, Aarhus University Press
  18. Holloway, R. Ross (2004) Constantine and Rome. New Haven and London, Yale University Press. Page 21
  19. Elsner, J. (1998) Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph. Oxford, Oxford history of Art
  20. Giuseppe, C. di (2000) Constantine´s Arch. Ficulle, Comosavona
  21. Prusac, Marina (2012) “The Arch of Constantine: Continuity and Commemoration through Reuse”. Acta ad archaeologiam et atrium historiam pertinentia, vol. XXV N.S. 11 Rome, Scienze e Lettere
  22. Prusac, Marina (2012) “The Arch of Constantine: Continuity and Commemoration through Reuse”. Acta ad archaeologiam et atrium historiam pertinentia, vol. XXV N.S. 11 Rome, Scienze e Lettere
  23. A.L Frotingham (1913) “Who built the Arch of Constantine? II: The Frieze”. American Journal of Archeology, vol. 17, no 4. Page 487-503
  24. Bardill, Jonathan (2012) Constantine, divine emperor of the Christian golden age. New York, Cambridge University press. Page 226
  25. Bardill, Jonathan (2012) Constantine, divine emperor of the Christian golden age. New York, Cambridge University press. Page 292-109
  26. A.L Frotingham (1913) “Who built the Arch of Constantine? II: The Frieze.” American Journal of Archeology, vol. 17, no 4. Page 487-503.
  27. Gillian Clark. Christianity and Roman Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
  28. Noel Lenski. “Evoking the Pagan Past: Instinctu divinitatis and Constantine´s Capture of Rome.” Journal of Late Antiquity. Vol. 1, Number 2, 2008. Page 204-257.