Nestled gracefully in the heart of Rome, the Arch of Constantine, or Arco di Costantino, stands as an enduring testament to the legacy of the emperor Constantine the Great. This triumphant arch, a masterpiece of Roman architecture, was commissioned by the Roman Senate to immortalize Constantine’s historic victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Join us on a journey as we explore this iconic structure that has captured the imagination of generations.
Design and Inspiration
The arch’s three-bay design, adorned with detached columns, draws inspiration from the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum, a design that was replicated in several other arches, albeit now lost to time. What truly distinguishes the Arch of Constantine is its captivating sculptural decoration. Interestingly, many of these adornments were not originally created for Constantine but were repurposed from earlier triumphal monuments dedicated to other emperors such as Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. In a clever twist, the portrait heads on these statues were replaced with Constantine’s likeness.
Scholars have long debated the arch’s origins. Some argue that it should not be exclusively associated with Constantine, suggesting that it may have been an earlier work from the time of Hadrian, later modified during Constantine’s reign. Another theory posits that Maxentius initiated the arch’s construction, possibly as early as the time of Domitian. These debates add layers of intrigue to this historical masterpiece.
Symbolism and Decoration
A Story in Stone
The Arch of Constantine is adorned with elements from older monuments that take on new meaning within its Constantinian context. The exquisite friezes tell the story of Constantine’s campaign in Italy, celebrating the emperor’s prowess both in battle and in his civic duties. Decorations from the “golden times” of the Empire, featuring reliefs of 2nd century emperors, place Constantine among these revered rulers. The artistry within evokes images of a victorious and virtuous ruler.
Each column is crowned with large sculptures representing Dacians, dating back to the time of Trajan. Above the central archway, an inscription takes center stage, identical on both sides of the arch. Flanking this inscription, four pairs of relief panels grace the minor archways, totaling eight in all. These reliefs were repurposed from an unknown monument dedicated to Marcus Aurelius.
The Architectural Layout
A Harmonious Facade
The arch’s main facade is symmetrical, featuring four columns on bases that divide the structure into a central arch and two lateral arches. Above the latter, two round reliefs are set against a horizontal frieze, creating a captivating tableau. The columns, crafted in the Corinthian order and hewn from Numidian yellow marble, once numbered four. One of these columns now resides in the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, having been replaced by a white marble column. The column bases are adorned on three sides, showcasing reliefs of Victoria and scenes of captured barbarians, either alone or with Roman soldiers.
Tales of Hunt and Sacrifice
The round reliefs above the lateral archways date back to Emperor Hadrian’s era. They depict scenes of hunting and sacrificial rituals. On the north side, scenes include the hunt of a boar, a sacrifice to Apollo, the hunt of a lion, and a sacrifice to Hercules. On the south side, the left pair showcases the departure for the hunt and a sacrifice to Silvanus, while the right pair portrays the hunt of a bear and a sacrifice to Diana. The medallions originally featured Hadrian’s likeness but have since been reworked to include Constantine or other emperors, depending on the scene.
Reliving Constantine’s Italian Campaign
A Historical Frieze
The horizontal frieze below the round reliefs offers a chronological narrative of Constantine’s Italian campaign against Maxentius, the very reason behind the arch’s construction. The journey begins with the Departure from Milan (Profectio) on the western side and proceeds to the Siege of Verona (Obsidio) on the southern face, highlighting the critical events of the war in Northern Italy. The eastern side captures Constantine and his army’s triumphant entry into Rome (Ingressus), notably avoiding imagery of a triumphant conqueror. The northern face, gazing towards the city, showcases the emperor’s actions following the conquest of Rome. On the left, Constantine addresses the citizens on the Forum Romanum (Oratio), while on the right, he is depicted distributing money to the people.
The Arch of Constantine stands as an enduring symbol of Roman history, an architectural masterpiece that encapsulates the triumphs and tribulations of its era. From its controversial origins to its rich symbolism and stunning decoration, it is a testament to the greatness of a ruler and the enduring legacy of an empire.