Friday, August 25, 2006

The Arch of Titus

Laura Eiford
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

The Arch of Titus stands across the summit of the Via Sacra, looking down on the Forum Romanum, was built as a celebration of the victory of then-legate Titus (later emperor) in the 70 AD campaign in Jerusalem. The triumphal arch commemorates in stone relief the capture of Jerusalem and the spoils of the Temple, as well as Titus’ postmortem deification. However, the once-detailed stonework of the sections of the Arch of Titus, the details of the Arch’s founding, its builder, when it was built, even what exactly is represented on the reliefs of the Arch have been lost in the nearly two millennia since the Arch’s inception, leaving its scholars undecided as to whether the Arch’s depictions may used as veritable pieces of historical evidence.

The similarity of the present Arch to the original is singularly important in the consideration of the Arch of Titus as historical evidence. The Arch of Titus, as it stands now, with a simple podium on each side rooted in a base strengthening the overall arch design, has a single opening flanked by columns on either side. These columns are the first known example of the Composite Order, used widely in triumphal arches or other architectural celebrations of imperial power, perhaps because it was the only order originating in Rome (see Figure 1.G). However, this order may have been invented as much as a century earlier, during the Augustine era. The Order itself is a combination of the Corinthian order with two lower rows of acanthus leaves and four decorated volutes of the Ionic order as well (Adam 98). These columns are connected at the top by a soffit, the inner surface just below the arch, decorated by deeply recessed coffers and the apothesis of Titus, an engraved image of Titus flying to the sky on an eagle’s back. Above the soffit, rests the keystone, top and center, beautifully carved with the figures of Roma and Fortuna (see Figure 1.A). The area with the dedication, the attic story, is engraved “SENATATVS POPVLVS QVE ROMANVS DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIAN F. VESPASIANO AVGVSTO,” roughly translated from Latin “The Senate and the People of Rome to the Divine Titus, son of the divine Vespasian.” Also engraved, though further down on the columns, are two friezes, on one side, the Emperor Titus in a triumphal car, and on the other, the representation of the spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem.

Figure 1: The Arch of Titus architectural layout as sketched in Boethius’ History of Architecture. 

The arch as it stood, roughly two millennia ago is not so straightforward. In more recent times, we know that the dedication we read today was originally filled with bronze letters, and the arch was topped with bronze quadriga though these precious metals were likely melted down (See Figure 1.F). In the Middle Ages, the fornix of the arch was incorporated into the Frangipane Castle, allowing better preservation of the remaining portions of the Arch, though many pieces from the edges of the Arch were lost. In 1822, the architect Valadier restored portions of the Arch using travertine, to distinguish restoration from the Pentelic marble original (Batsford 83). Some of the heads on the figures in high relief were lost as well, though scholars have attempted to visualize the figures due to replications in paintings such as a drawing at Windsor of the frieze of the arch of Titus (Frothingham 479).

In examining the friezes and depictions of the Arch, its original function and motives, including those of its builders, must be considered. Traditionally, triumphal arches were used as part of the grand procession of the triumphal general and his soldiers to enter Roma, sans weapons, which allowed the victors to cleanse themselves of the muck of war—physically and spiritually, to honor the gods and acknowledge the heaven’s contribution to Rome’s victory, and to popularize the war by literally parading its success. Due to the risk inherent in ‘inviting’ an armed mass into the city, the army camped instead in the Campus Martinus, until formally invited by the Senate to parade into the city, carrying with them the spoils, as shown on the Arch itself. Uniquely, the Arch of Titus depicts the procession, with the characters facing same direction they would have faced when entering the city, Titus in his chariot on one side, his spoils carried by conquered slaves on the other. This depiction allowed, and continues to allow, viewers and any who walk the Via Sacra, to ‘participate’ in the now-ancient procession and glorification as well.

The Arch’s deification of Titus is unquestionable, from the inscription dedicating the Arch to “Divot Tito,” the divine Titus, to the relief of the Triumph of Titus, illustrating Titus in a chariot, center of a triumphal procession, with Victory riding the chariot beside him and wreathing him in laurels, and a goddess (though now missing a head, identifiable as either Roma or Valor) leading the horses. Following the chariot is a young man, representative of the Roman people, and an older man, representative of the Senate. Also, a small relief shows the apotheosis of Titus, as he flies to the heavens on the back of an eagle; depicting him joining the gods in the heavens. The Arch celebrates Titus as a deity, in the presence of goddesses, at the summit of the road through the Roman Forum, placing Titus and his arch on high.

As mentioned, Titus is not the only one glorified by the Arch. The most controversial relief is the Relief of the Spoils of the Jerusalem (70 AD), depicting the triumph that was thought to have culminated the Jewish Wars (66-73 AD). The relief shows the sacred treasures being brought in procession: the sacred seven-branched Menorah, the sacred Table, two receptacles, and two trumpets. There is controversy over whether the Menorah and Table shown are the sacred Jewish artifacts which, according to rabbinical teachings, were prescribed by God to Moses to be placed in the Temple of Jerusalem, and were so holy that it was forbidden, again by God, to make seven-branched Menorahs or copies in gold or any form of metal (and in some sects even in wood). Whether the relief is historically accurate is beside the point, at least as far as glorification of the Romans goes, the ability of the Roman army to carry treasures from the interior of the Temple, which were requested to be left in the Temple by God according to the Jewish, signifies a decisive victory of the Romans militarily and spiritually. Historically, the Roman Empire demonstrated an amazing ability to triumph militarily and hold land by cultural/spiritual assimilation. During this particular time, the conflict between the Jewish and Romans was still brewing, making Roman triumph, especially over the Jewish of emphatic significance in the Arch of Titus.

Perched as it is, atop the Roman Forum, at the crest of the Via Sacra, the triumphal procession, as described by Josephus, a Roman historian who accompanied Titus during the sacking of Jerusalem, was allowed to enter the skirts of the city, and wind its way through the Porta Triumphalis, then the Forum Boarium, Circus Maximus, and three theaters, acquiring a large crowd to view the captured golden table and menorah, as well as other spoils of the war, before cresting the hill, where all the most important buildings and citizens of Rome could clearly view the gathered mass. Thus, the arch served as a portal for Titus and the imperium to remind the populace, and in all likelihood the Senate as well, of the greatness of his accomplishments, and cement them in stone in perpetua.

The original builders and date of the Arch of Titus is much debated. Many of the hints of its date of origin come from the form of the Arch itself. This specific evidence narrows the date slightly:

I. The Arch was completed after the death of Titus himself, as he is referred to on the inscription as divus, god, and traditionally Roman emperors were deified only after death. Additionally, McFayden postulates that the ascent into heaven is the subject of the relief on the inner vault of the arch (131).
II. The Arch was completed after the creation of the “tomb of the Haterii” as the Arch is represented on one of the reliefs. However the fragments in the Lateran Museum cannot be accurately dated, though their artistic style suggests not earlier than Trajan and possibly as late as 135 A.D.

Figure 2: A Comparative Timeline of the Emperors of Rome and Jewish-Roman Conflicts.

Arguments for building of the Arch are largely based motives for building: either pro-Titus or pro-Roman/anti-Jewish time periods. These include directly after Titus’s or Domitian’s deaths (pro-Titus) and after Jewish defeats or rebellious outbursts in Jerusalem. (81-135 AD: Range of Potential Times for Arch Completion)

In addition to form, the motive for building is largely used to aid in arguments for or against a certain builder. Titus, for instance, likely did not finish the building of the arch, not only because of the time crunch before his death, but because to deify himself, as a Roman, was just not done.

As the argument goes, his brother and successor, Domitian, another candidate as a builder, likely built the Arch as glorification of Titus would have been at a peak directly after Titus’ death and architectural style is similar to early Domitian architecture, including the completion of the Colosseum and the Temple of Vespasian, restoration after the fire of 80AD on the Temple of Jupiter, and the original building of the Flavian Palace and the Piazza Navona, much of which was built by his favored architect, Rabirius (Sear 145, McFayden 122, Boethius 227). However, Domitian was questionable due to his notorious jealously of his brother especially of Titus’ military triumphs, according to McFayden (122). In the case of the sacking of Jerusalem, Titus completed the work his father and emperor, Vespasian, had half finished, with Vespasian’s legatus and according to constitutional law, Titus had no formal glory for Jerusalem during his own time though his father allowed him to share in the triumph, a fact his brother would be unlikely to overlook. However, Domitian did allow Titus’ deification, though this is dismissed by McFayden as following the traditional deification that had occurred during the time of his father and brother (135). This deification emphasized the merits and imperial dignity of the Flavian family who had been Italian tradesmen until Vespasian and his brother attained senatorial rank, and some believe that the previous emperor, paranoid Nero, only allowed Vespasian to attain rank due to the unlikeliness that a commoner would ever be a contender for the throne. Since unlike father and brother, Domitian had no military triumphs to back his claim to the throne, only his descent placed him as emperor; better descent from deities than from merchants.

Domitian, unlike his militarily-talented brother, was not as popular with the nobility. His attempts to deify his entire family, from aunt to young son, and increase his own dignity only served to alienate the nobility. When aristocrats participated in a series of conspiracies, Domitian responded with repressive measures, confiscations, exiles, and executions; the last years of his reign were spent in persecution of the senatorial class, until his assassination in 96 A.D.

After Domitian, the Senate elected M. Cocceius Nerva as emperor. To placate the Flavian-loyal soldiers, the emperor associated with M. Ulpius Trajanus, the most honored general of his day. Both men are also candidates for builders of the Arch. After Domitian’s death, at the first Senate meeting, his statues and triumphal arches were demolished, his name erased from inscriptions, and most of his policies were reversed. As part of this anti-Domitian outlash Titus’s memory was exalted. Though previously an unpopular emperor due to his harshness and merchant-descent, during this period, Titus was used by historians as a contrast to the harsher Domitian; his virtues were emphasized. Colleges and the temples changed to incorporated him further, one even designates itself as “the college that worships Titus and the other Flavians” (McFayden 141). For these reasons, McFayden strongly postulates that the Arch of Titus was not built during Domitian's time, but during the period of late Nerva or early Trajan reign.
However, whichever builder decided to build the arch, its majestic 15m were built to honor and glorify Titus, to make the viewer look up in awe at the accomplishments of Titus in Jerusalem, and by extension, Rome.

The Arch of Titus, especially its reliefs, has echoes in artwork throughout Western history and the history of Jerusalem. Surprisingly, much of the scholarship about the Arch of Titus is based in part on artwork from the Renaissance and earlier, featuring the Arch.

Figure 3: The Spoils of Jerusalem Relief as depicted by Yarden. Note the prominence of the menorah and other sacred Jewish artifacts from the Temple.

Though the Arch is the most preserved ‘premier’ of the Composite Order, which dominated the style of triumphal arches through the Renaissance, surprisingly, it is the Relief of the Spoils of the Temple of Jerusalem which is one of the most discussed aspects of the Arch. The Arch of Titus possibly shows one of the most longstanding and apparent histories of the lost menorah from the Temple of Jerusalem, a holy object that many Jewish still wish to recover. Some, like H. Strauss in Encyclopaedia Judaica, believe that “The most important testimony for the form of the Temple menorah is the candelabrum on the Arch of Titus…which ought to be considered in conjunction with Josephus’ description” (Yarden 38). Though there are many doubts as to whether the Arch shows the actual menorah in question, due to slight variants in its form from the Biblical prescription and the account of historian Josephus. However, despite questionable identification, this lost Jewish treasure appears to have been captured by Titus, and then placed in the Temple of Peace in Rome till 190, when the temple burned down, though treasure was recovered and replaced in 408 till when the building was destroyed by lightening or earthquake. Afterwards, 455 saw the sack of Rome, wherein a menorah was carried off by the Geiseric the Vandal to Carthage, followed by Justinian’s conquering of the Vandal kingdom in 533, whereupon he reportedly moved the “treasures of the Jews” to Constantine. In 614 it may have been returned to Jerusalem by the Sassanians, or may have been moved from Rome to Constantinople with the transfer of the capital in 330. The relief of the menorah is the only evidence of the artifact so permanently displayed correctly situated to be the correct menorah (the prominent appearance of the menorah on the relief with the spoils so neatly colludes with the loss of the golden menorah at the Temple that it is easy to believe that the two menorahs are one and the same) and so remains of central significance to many Jewish. Recently (2003) President of Israel, Moshe Katzav, requested that the Prime Minister of the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sudano, prepare a list of the treasures held in the Vatican, in hopes of recovering the golden seven-branched menorah, though as of yet the Vatican has not returned any artifacts, predominately the golden menorah which once graced the Second Temple or Temple of Jerusalem.

In a way, the symbolism of the menorah has already returned to Israel. Directly after the formation of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948, E.L. Sikenik was asked to suggest a suitable state emblem. In answer, he created a coat of arms which consists of a shield with the menorah, as it appears on the Arch of Titus, in the center of a field with an olive branch on both sides and the word “Israel” in Hebrew connecting the branches. Ironically, the Arch’s relief, which once celebrated the defeat of the Jewish now, is proudly displayed on their national flag, as a celebration instead of the formation of a nation.

Figure 4: The menorah from the Arch of Titus, Spoils of Jerusalem relief as depicted by Yarden (left) as compared with the menorah on the original flag of the State of Israel (right).

The Arch of Titus, though nearing its second millennia, is still discussed as a point of heated debate, especially whether such a monument could be used as historical reference. In many of the points of controversy: who built the arch, when it was built (though the textbook-attributed date is often 81-2 AD), whether the menorah shown is the sacred menorah whose unique building was decreed to the Jewish specifically by God according to rabbinical teachings, and what the Arch looked like before rains, wind, and time washed many of the figure’s faces from the stone, all tie into this theme. The Arch has collected its own history of preservation throughout the years, and continues to do so, as Valadier began, and M. Chiara Metallo and team continue as they research the effects of pollution on the marble-faced Arch of Titus and surrounding area. But what are they preserving—a testimony to triumph certainly, a piece of a procession probably, and perhaps even a depiction of historical fact. The surviving controversies, as well as the marble, still concern us today, as Israel reminds us, especially in light of the central roll of religious conflicts still going on around the world, now between Christianity and Islam. The keys to the controversies of the Arch, like the Temple menorah are lost to us today, either eroded or yet to be discovered, buried under ruins, leaving us to wonder and conjecture at their answers.

Adam, Robert. Classical Architecture: A Complete Handbook. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1990.

Axel Boethius and J. B. Ward-Perkins. Etruscan and Roman Architecture. Baltimore: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970.

Frothingham, A.L. “A Lost Section of the Frieze of the Arch of Titus.” American Journal of Archaeology. 18. 4 (1914): 479-483.

Jones, Brian W. The Emperor Titus. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.

McFayden, Donald. “The Date of the Arch of Titus.” The Classical Journal, 11.3 (1915): 131-141.

Sear, Frank. Roman Architecture. London, England: Batsford Academic and Educational Limited, 1982.

Yarden, Leon. The Spoils of Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus: A Reinvestigation. Stockholm, Distributor Paul Astroms forlag, 1991.