Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Arch of Titus and the Roman Triumph

Schuyler Vowell
Honors in Rome - Summer 2007

I. Introduction

Judea first fell into the hands of Rome in 6 AD, when the Emperor Augustus removed Archelaus, king of Judea, from power and transformed Judea into a Roman province. Though Rome herself demanded only a modest tax, the local governors of Roman provinces could pocket anything over that quota, a right that was often abused. Jewish peasants immediately fell into poverty, until only the counsel of the High Priests could soothe away rebellion. But the High Priests, since the beginning of Rome’s occupation, were under Roman control, their office awarded by the Roman government, weakening their authority over the people. A group of Jewish extremists, the Zealots, gathered strength for the inevitable rebellion, and in 66 AD, The Emperor Nero triggered the beginning of the war.

When the Emperor Nero decides to make a withdrawal, nations fall. In 66 AD, Nero chose Judea, demanding the treasures of the Jewish temple be confiscated for the glory of the Empire. A series of bad choices among the local Roman government and the Zealot leaders led to a full scale assault on Roman strongholds in Judea. This was an offense the Romans could not ignore. After Syria’s governor marched on Judea to restore order, only to suffer a humiliating defeat, Nero called for Vespasian.

Though Vespasian had fallen out of Nero’s favor by falling asleep during one of the Emperor’s many recitals, Nero knew the general’s reliability would serve Rome well. Forgiving Vespasian’s nap, and supplying him with an army, Nero sent Vespasian to Judea. Hearing of the civil war erupting in Jerusalem among the Jewish Zealot groups from fleeing Jewish moderates, Vespasian chose to let his enemy weaken itself, and focus instead on Judea’s other major strongholds. By 69 AD, Vespasian had made incredible progress, leaving only two major Jewish strongholds. However, incredible news from Rome dragged the war to a halt: the Emperor Nero was dead.

Unlike Judea, Rome flew into activity, Galba, Vitellius, and Otho all held the title Emperor within a year, before Vespasian’s diplomatic maneuverings gave him the support of the army in the east and the title of Emperor. Leaving Judea in the hands of Titus, his son, Vespasian returned to Rome. Titus was not slow to regain Vespasian’s momentum in Judea, immediately marching on Jerusalem.

The siege on Jerusalem began long before Titus’ arrival, and the city was certainly feeling strained. Outside the city’s three walls, the Romans had constructed their own wall, just after the city had been filled with pilgrims intent on celebrating Passover in the holy city. Capturing and crucifying anyone leaving the city, the Romans watched as civil war ravaged their enemy inside the city. Upon Titus’ arrival, the city of Jerusalem was hungry and tired, and only managed to break out of civil war when the Romans finally began building ramparts to scale and destroy Jerusalem’s walls. Though even the women and children of Jerusalem fought fiercely to defend their city, Titus’ army soon breached all three walls and reached the temple. Because the Jews had used it as a fortress, the general rule of leaving temples intact was ignored, and after sacking the temple Titus ordered his army to burn the temple to the ground. In 70 AD Jerusalem fell and the war was over, though fighting would continue for another three years, until the fall of Masada.

Titus returned early, however, his job finished with the fall of Jerusalem. Upon his arrival, a triumph was immediately awarded to him, and to his father Vespasian and brother Domitian. Though their combined deeds merited three separate triumphs, they elected to hold a single immense triumph instead, riding together into the city to proclaim the glory of Rome.

II. Description

Lonely but conspicuous on a hill between the Colosseum and the forum, the arch stands proudly. Traveling along the Via Sacra from the Colosseum, there can be no doubt about this arch’s purpose. Even from a distance, the letters inscribed on a panel in the attic of the arch are clearly visible:


“The Senate and people of Rome (dedicate this) to the deified Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the deified Vespasian.” This is the Arch of Titus: a tribute felt to a man who was a hero, an emperor, and a god of Rome.

A reminder of the triumph awarded to Titus, a hero of the Romans for his victory in Judea, the Arch of Titus is the spirit of the Roman triumph captured in stone. Though the ideals of the Flavians called for a somewhat plain style, the arch is not lacking in decoration. Just below the attic lies a relief that revives the triumph, even including the animals being led to the temple of Jupiter for sacrifice. This relief may have completely encircled the arch originally, but if so, time has removed most of it. Below this relief, on each of the spandrels, flies the winged goddess Victory, a very common symbol on the triumphal arches of Rome. Between the goddesses stand the representations of the goddess Roma (facing the Colosseum) and the personification of the people of Rome (facing the forum).

Centered in the coffered intrados of the arch, is a much smaller relief depicting the apotheosis of Titus. More concretely, this relief shows Titus riding an eagle, about to become a god. Below the apotheosis are the two most famous relief panels resting opposite one another on the inner walls of the arch.

The panel on the south side shows the spoils of the First Jewish War on their way to be displayed for the satisfaction of the Roman mob. Chosen to represent the vast wealth brought back from Judea are the most sacred artifacts of the Jewish faith: the seven-branched menorah, the silver trumpets, and the table of showbread, all plundered from the innermost sanctum of the Jewish temple. On the right is the Porta Triumphalis, the destination of the procession. The Porta Triumphalis is topped with statues of horse drawn chariots, a typical example of the bronze statues present on all triumphal arches, including the arch of Titus. In addition to the loot, the Romans carry three placards which would have been painted to describe some element of the war, explaining the victory to future viewers. Assuming the pagan Romans knew little about the Jewish faith, the placards may have been used to explain the significance of the displayed stolen goods.

The north panel shows the triumphator himself. Riding in a quadriga (a chariot) pulled by four horses, Titus stands high in the scene, drawing the viewers attention. Riding behind Titus in the chariot is the winged goddess Victory who crowns Titus with a laurel wreath. The figures below Titus are the personifications of the Senate and the people of Rome, assuring the viewer that the triumph and the arch were bestowed upon Titus by the Senate, with approval of the people. Leading the horses is another personification, this time the goddess Roma. Surrounding her and leading the procession are twelve lictors, the Emperor’s bodyguards. The lictors each carry ceremonial fasces, a bundle of sticks tied together about an axe that represented the strength found by bringing together weaker elements.

Artistically, both of these panels show extraordinary understanding of depth, skillfully composed to draw the viewer’s attention to the most important details of each piece. On the south, the Menorah is by far the most prominent figure, to the south, Titus stands out. These focal points are both surrounded by flat space, indicating empty space, with the rest of the scene well below them. To further emphasize depth, both scenes show the procession moving in the direction of the triumphal route and either into or out of the relief. The men carrying the spoils of war march into the relief, towards the Porta Triumphalis lying in the background. Titus and those around him seem to be headed out of the relief, perhaps trying to reach the Porta Triumphalis on the other side of the relief.

Although personification of deities was common, the Arch of Titus olds the first known example of the combination of both goddesses and people in the same relief. However, this example was quickly incorporated into the standard guidelines of the triumphal arch. Also, the Arch of Titus holds the first known example of columns of Composite order: the capitols of the engaged columns have both the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order and the large volutes of the Ionic order.

As mentioned earlier, the Arch of Titus was not only a monument to Titus’ victory in Judea, but also a base for bronze statues meant to further glorify the deified Titus. Enormous four horse chariots carrying the triumphant general and the goddess Victory often adorned the tops of triumphal arches. Also, the inscription would have bronze lettering, as is apparent by the holes left in the stone which would anchor the letters onto the arch. Unfortunately, medieval Europe had the bad habit of turning bronze decorations into weapons, so along with the other triumphal arches of Rome, the Arch of Titus lost some of its most important and elegant decorations. Also lost is the paint that would have colored much of the arch, making it stand out even more as it towered above the crowds on the Via Sacra.

III. Function
The triumphal arch was only a symbol of a much more important Roman tradition: the Roman triumph. This celebration brought the entire population of Rome to the streets, circuses and theaters to witness the emperor himself presiding over a parade of tremendous scale bringing prestige and fabulous wealth back to the city. The triumphator could acquire tremendous public support through the triumph, raising him near the level of the gods in the eyes of the people which in turn built a sturdy foundation for political maneuvering. But the triumph was not dedicated to the triumphator alone, but instead gave credit to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Without the favor of the gods, Rome would fall, and so the triumphator himself would beg Jupiter for the continued prosperity of Rome.

In the days of the republic, being awarded a triumph meant satisfying very exact conditions. A triumph was only awarded for accomplishments in the military, meaning the triumphator must be a “dux,” a general. This meant the triumphator must be a magistrate—consul, praetor, or dictator—a position always associated with the Roman army. While serving as general, the triumphator must win a substantial victory over a foreign enemy of equal status, killing at least 5,000 enemy soldiers, and earning the title imperator. This means civil wars and slave rebellions never merited a full triumph. The triumphator must also bring his army home, signifying the end of the war. Most importantly, the triumph must be approved by the Senate. This last requirement stopped many otherwise deserving generals from holding a triumph until the fall of the republic. But triumphal arches held no such restrictions, and could be constructed for any reason. Some may have been associated with actual triumphs, but many were built to celebrate nothing other than the wealth of the patron. This trend would also change with the rise of imperial Rome.

In imperial Rome, triumphs were little more than a whim of the emperor, though many Emperor’s chose to follow the rules of the republic and even get approval from the Senate. The right to be awarded a triumph passed from the magistrates to the imperial family alone. The army, now professional, was not required to return to Rome, though the triumph always included a small portion of the army in the festivities. Thanks to Augustus, authority to build triumphal arches was restricted to the emperor, and further restricted to be monuments to military success.

Once a triumph was awarded, preparations for the immense festival began immediately. On the day of the triumph, the doors of every temple in Rome were opened wide, and the temples were filled with the sweet aroma of incense and magnificent bouquets. Gathering in the Campus Martius, the triumphator would relinquish his command and his army would remove their weapons before passing through the Porta Triumphalis, a gate only opened for triumphal processions, to be cleansed of the filth of war as they entered Rome. The exact location of this gate is unknown, it may have even been a freestanding arch in the Campus Martius, so that the triumphal procession would actually enter the city trough a different gate. Upon entering, the triumphator and his army would meet the senate and the other magistrates (only the senate after the fall of the republic) who would then turn and lead the triumph through Rome. To allow as many spectators as possible to see the procession, the route circled through both the Circus Flaminus and Circus Maximus, along with several theaters, before finally turning about the Meta Sudans (added during the Flavian dynasty to mark the final turn of the triumphal route) onto the Via Sacra, which leads to the Temple of Jupiter in the Forum. At the temple of Jupiter, the Triumphator would end the official portion of the triumph by laying down his laurel crown to show he had no intention of becoming king and beg Jupiter for his continued favor, offering two white bulls as a sacrifice.

Like the route, the order of the procession was fairly rigid, though many magistrates and emperors expanded on the standard parade to offer the people an even more memorable spectacle. Generally, the Senate and magistrates (other than the triumphator) without their lictors led the procession, followed by musicians. Then the spoils of the war, cartloads of loot stolen from the enemy. The two white bulls destined for sacrifice followed, and then the arms and insignias of the enemy leaders followed by the leaders themselves (who would soon be executed in the Forum). Next came the lictors of the triumphator with their ceremonial fasces, followed by the triumphator himself, along with his adult sons and officers. The triumphator always rode in a chariot drawn by two horses (four, eventually) with a slave standing behind him reminding him to remain humble in the face of such glory. Then, finally, came the army, without arms or armor. This basic plan was often embellished with exotic flora and fauna from the captured nation, additional musicians, recreations of battles, and other crowd-pleasing spectacles.

Once the triuphator reached the temple, the official portion of the triumph ended, but celebrations could last for days. The Roman citizens were treated to feasts, shows, games, and any other manner of excess that the returning army’s prosperity could fund. The triumph was meant for the people of Rome as much as it was for the returning general, a way to prove the superiority of the Roman government, and sustain the prosperity of the ever growing Roman nation.

IV. Patron
The arch of Titus was constructed immediately following Titus’ premature death by the Emperor Diocletian. A clever strategy: both Titus and Vespasian had proved able Emperor’s, and the inexperienced Diocletian may have wished to prove himself to the people. Son of Vespasian and brother of Titus, Diocletian had a strong resume, if he only could reaffirm his loyalty to the memory of his predecessors. And he did, with a triumphal arch dedicated to the recently deified Titus. With the senate’s permission, and Domitian’s funds, the arch quickly rose over the Via Sacra.

Much later, the arch found a new patron. Incorporated into a wall of a fortified tower by the Frangipani family in the middle-ages, the arch lost much of its original splendor. The attic of the arch became a small room, and holes were bored into the arches two most famous reliefs to support a gate. Yet as part of a wall, it escaped complete demolition, and so when it was “rediscovered” as a work of art, the arch could be rebuilt. Starting in 1817 by Raffaello Stern, and continued by Valadier in 1821 with the funds of Pope Pius VII, the collapsed sections of the arch were rebuilt with travertine stone, easily distinguishable from the darker pantelic marble of the original remains.

To commemorate the restoration and ensure that future viewers would be aware that much of the arch is not original, one side of the arch was given a new inscription, complete with bronze lettering, reading:


“(This) monument, remarkable in terms of both religion and art, had weakened from age. Pius the Seventh, Supreme Pontiff, by new works on the model of the ancient exemplar ordered it reinforced and preserved. In the year of his sacred rulership the 24th.”

V. Conclusion
The triumph of the Flavians is perhaps the most well documented triumph in ancient Roman history, and serves as the model for the reconstruction of the Roman triumph. With the Arch of Titus’ surviving reliefs, and Josephus’ written account, fascinating details of the process of a triumph are revealed. Because its history is so well preserved, the arch stands out among its more thoroughly decorated peers. In addition, the Arch of Titus has retained a grim second life, because of its association with the First Jewish War. This arch is a monument to the end of the Jewish nation, one of the most devastating blows ever suffered by the Jewish people, and to this day many Jews refuse to walk through the arch. Only the formation of a new Jewish state merited a return to the Arch of Titus, when a large portion of the Roman Jewish community walked through the arch backwards, opposite the direction of the triumph. Very few Roman ruins can claim to hold such lasting influence, or such detailed history as Titus’ simple hilltop arch.

VI. Personal Observations
Though the Renaissance returns to and builds upon the style of classical (Roman, mostly) art and architecture, I noticed a very interesting difference in who gets credit for the work. When hearing about Roman ruins, we only here about the patrons, generally the emperors of Rome. In and after the Renaissance (and even in the middle-ages, to some extent) it is the artist’s name that lives on with the work. Domitian did not build or even design the Arch of Titus, and though he may have had input on the content of the arch, someone else provided the design and labor. And Michelangelo would have created nothing if not for the rich patrons who funded his work, especially the papacy. When asked about the Sistine chapel, most people would immediately think of Michelangelo and the chapel’s ceiling, only a few would even mention Pope Julius II (not to mention the many other artists and architects who also shared in the decoration and construction of the chapel). Who carved the outstanding friezes of the Arch of Titus? Who cast the enormous bronze statues that would have rested atop the arch? The only name we ever hear is Domitian.

To be honest, I did see the name of a man who may have been the architect of the arch, but I think it was on Wikipedia. The reliability of the source is questionable.

VII. Bibliography
Boatwright, Mary T., Gargola, Daniel J., and Talbert, Richard J. A. The Romans from Village to Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: Biography of a City. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Ramage, Nancy H., and Ramage, Andrew. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1991.

Wheeler, Mortimer. Roman Art and Architecture. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1964.

Zaho, Margaret Ann. “The History of the Roman Triumph.” Imago triumphalis. New York, 2004. “Art History Reader: The Families Who Made Rome.” University of Washington Copy Center, 2007.