Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Propaganda of the Roman Triumph and the Arch of Constantine

Kristine Atchison
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

“The Triumph lasted three days. On the first, which was scarcely long enough for the sight, were to be seen the statues, pictures and colossal images… On the second, was carried in a great many chariots the finest and richest armor of the Macedonians…” These are some of the images Plutarch recalls of the Triumph of Amelius Pauleus in 168 BC. Other records of these decadent and lavish victory celebrations of the Romans are found on the Triumphal Arches erected to celebrate the Triumphs as well as to glorify the Roman general honored by the ceremony.

The Roman Triumph was a Roman military victory celebration. It was celebrated throughout Rome’s history, from the first Triumph of Romulus to the last triumph in the sixth century. It was a lavish ceremony aimed at justifying the recently ended war, purifying the troops and city of the bloodguilt of war, and appeasing and honoring the gods. The triumph was only awarded to successful generals who had 1) been the presiding officer at the specific battle, 2) killed 5000 enemy troops, 3) fought against a foreign enemy, 4) been fighting a sanctioned war of conquest, and 5) if the battle had led directly to the end of the war. If these qualifications were met the general could return to Rome to receive his Triumph. The Triumphs themselves were glorious affairs that are hard for us to imagine. All of the spoils of the war were paraded through the streets of Rome, filled with people in their holiday best. The interesting, valuable, exotic and rare were all placed on huge carts and drug through the city as strange animals were led along behind the humiliated enemy captives. The day would have been full of celebration and feasting and the distribution of largess to the troops and the people. And amidst it all rode the Imperator in his quadriga, or four horsed chariot, his skin painted red, wearing a gold-embroidered purple toga with a laurel wreath held over his head. Yet the celebrations were not simply aimed at admiring the general; the ceremony was sanctioned by the Senate, giving validation to the recently ended war. Sacrifices to purify the army and the city were offered to the gods both before the parade and at the peak of the Capitoline Hill at the end of the ceremony. The entire parade was meant in part to honor the gods of Rome through conquest and sacrifice.

As time progressed and the monarchy moved into the Republic, the Triumphs grew more elaborate and generals started to desire even more glory, so they started to build fornix. The fornix were wooden arches meant to commemorate specific triumphal processions and glorify the honored general. When Augustus came to power at the end of the first century BC he changed the Triumph so that only an emperor could achieve a Triumph, thereby reserving the greatest honor and highest mark of prestige for those who were seeking to concentrate power into their own hands. He also built the first marble Triumphal Arches, giving a more permanent form to the magnificent structures.

At the end of the third century, however, there seemed to be little reason for Rome to celebrate a Triumph. The empire had been wracked by civil wars for years and the latest era of peace under the tetrarchy and Diocletian had come to a bloody end. Yet at the beginning of the fourth century a young general named Constantine had managed to defeat all but one of his rivals for power. At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge he faced the last of these rivals, Maxentius, and handed him a sure defeat. He then made a triumphal entry into Rome, complete with all of the splendor and pomp that Rome could give to its new emperor. Three years later, for Constantine’s decennial celebration, the Senate unveiled one of the last imperial monuments, the Arch of Constantine.

The Arch of Constantine is a triple bay arch modeled after the Arch of Septimus Severus in the Roman forum. It is decorated with sculpture and reliefs of various styles and time periods. Four columns grace each side, topped with figures of Dracian captives from the Forum of Trajan. The attic is decorated with four panels taken from an Aurelian monument flanking an inscription which reads, “To the Emperor Ceasar Flavious Constantine, the Great, the Pious, the Fortunate, the Exalted- inasmuch as through the inspiration of the deity and the greatness of his mind, he, with his army, avenged the State, both of the tyrant and on all the partisans of his faction- the Senate and the Roman people dedicate this arch adorned with Triumphs.” On the North and South sides the arch is also decorated with four Trondi taken from a Hadrianic monument describing scenes of a hunt and a long continuous frieze depicting Constantine’s battles, triumphal entry, and scenes of the distribution of largess. The arch’s spandrels are decorated with winged victories and river gods, and the column bases are decorated with winged victories leading foreign captives. In the central bay and on the East and West Attic there are scenes of a battle frieze taken from a Trajanic monument. The East and West sides of the arch are decorated with roundels showing the rising of the sun god Sol (in the East) and the setting of Luna (in the West). They also have continuations of the Constantinian frieze, which starts in the Northwest corner, under the setting of Luna, and wraps around the arch in a continuous narration of Constantine’s exploits.

This arch was a traditional form of monument that had its roots in the fornix of the Late Republic. Even the use of spolia was a common practice by Constantine’s time, so its form and decoration are fairly traditional. However, the carvings from Constantine’s time are quite new and innovative. Instead of adhering to the realistic sculpting of the second century, which is demonstrated on the arch itself in the Aurelian panels and Trajanic frieze, the Constantinian carver decided to work in a new style. This style is more frontal and utilized a hierarchy of scale, making the most important people the biggest, determining size based on importance. Also, the sculptor paid less attention to realism, instead focusing on telling a story with his panels.

The Arch of Constantine was meant to be seen by the Roman citizens as a memorial to and instruction about their emperor. It was placed on the road entering the Forum, the gathering place of the Roman people. It was also right next to the Flavian amphitheater, the largest amphitheater in Rome and the sight of the popular gladiatorial games. The arch’s close proximity to this building meant that it would be viewed daily by thousands of people. Since the Constantinian Frieze can be read like a story it is fair to say that the arch was placed at this busy intersection in order to instruct and remind the citizens of Rome about the exploits of the emperor.

The use of spolia also had a very specific function. Spolia was incorporated into the arch’s decoration to relate Constantine to the emperors in the past, such as Hadrian, Trajan and Marcus Arelius. So while the Constantinian frieze told the onlookers a story, the spolia brought to mind venerated and very popular emperors of old. The decorations were meant to bring to mind specific images and ideals associated with the emperors Constantine had chosen to emulate.

The inscription and numerous pictorial references to the sun god Sol were also meant to minimize the emperor’s new conversion to Christianity. In the ancient world, the stability of the empire, nature, and the state of life in general were often seen as directly tied to the piety of the emperor or king of a country. Constantine’s conversion to a new religion that, for many Romans, was a perversion of everything holy was a very bad omen for the future of the empire. The Arch Constantine emphasizes Constantine’s connection to a monotheistic paganism - his worship of the sun god, Sol. Some have argued that Constantine actually believed there was little to no difference between the sun god and Christ, and many Christian idioms used to describe Christ, such as the light of the world, blurred this distinction further. The arch used pictures and references of Sol to emphasize the emperor’s traditional piety.

Addressing the Goals of Constantine:
Constantine had several very specific goals in mind when he built his triumphal arch. He wanted to inform the people about his reign and his deeds as emperor, while associating himself with a good past to indicate a bright future. In his frieze he depicts several things that are meant to be read as a story by his contemporary viewers. He depicts on the North side of the arch his battles at the siege of Verona and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and on the south side scenes of oratio and largesse, which show the emperor addressing and interacting with an adoring public. These scenes are used to remind the people of Rome of the emperor’s prowess in battle, a mark of prestige and power, and of his generosity and beneficial relations with the Roman public. This frieze also correlates with scenes in the Aurelian panels, again relating Constantine’s actions with those of an emperor that fourth century Romans venerated and respected.
Associating himself with good emperors of the second century was the second of Constantine’s goals in building his arch. He primarily uses the spolia to do this, although he also had busts of other good emperors behind him in the oratio scene of the Constantinian frieze. The spolia was taken off of other public monuments in what was most likely a very public manner, so the people who saw the carvings in their new setting probably new where they had come from and which emperor they correlated with. This served to align Constantine’s vision with the visions of these emperors. Because the third century was so full of civil wars, the second century emperors were honored by the late third and early fourth century Romans as protectors of peace and Roman virtue. By aligning himself with these emperors, Constantine compared himself to men that were venerated by the public, trying to show himself in a very good light.

Even though the last Roman Triumph was thousands of years ago, and the Arch of Constantine was the last of the Imperial Monuments, the Triumph and the Triumphal Arch have been used in many different mediums into the modern era. Medieval writers adapted the triumph for allegorical use, writing poems about the Triumphs of Love, Chastity, Death, and Time. Other artists of the time used these allegorical triumphs as subjects in paintings and decorations. The quadriga, the four horsed chariot that the Imperator rode in, has also been given more modern meanings. It now tops buildings and monuments as a winged victory, symbolizing the triumph of the victory of whichever country paid for the monument. The Triumphal Arch has also been rendered in several different mediums. It has been used as a background in paintings to symbolize the triumph of the subject, as Bottecielli did in his panel of the Sistine chapel wall. He depicted Moses fighting the Korahs, and to symbolize their defeat by Moses he overshadows the battle with the Arch of Constantine. The form of the Arch itself as a monument has also been making a comeback as a war memorial, such as the Arc d’ Triumph in Paris.

In this assignment I was surprised by the different sculpture styles that were used on the Arch of Constantine. I thought it was interesting that in one monument two styles were utilized for different purposes. I also was fascinated by the Constantinian frieze. The way it told the emperor’s idealized story, even though the figures were not very realistic was fascinating. I really enjoyed reading an in depth discussion of the different scenes in that frieze and analyzing why Constantine would choose to include that scene from his life.


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