The Arch of Constantine: A Façade of Triumph and Debut of Roman Cultural Abatement

The Roman Empire, a once vast and glorious display of dominance, now only a documented occurrence in the ancient past, left an array of art and architecture behind after its fall in 476. Many of the buildings that are scattered across Europe and even in the East are a testament to the power held by the many men who asserted the title of Roman Emperor. In countless instances, these buildings were erected in commemoration of accomplishments attained by these influential men. From the Flavian amphitheater to the Pantheon, these structures give insight to the grandeur of an Empire that would be imitated up into modern history with the crowning of Napoleon as Holy Roman Emperor. However, there is one type of monument that depicts both the incredible egos of some of the Roman Emperors as well as their importance to the people they ruled over. The triumphal arches are a beautiful display of the victories, and the “larger than life” Emperors of Rome. The evolution of these arches is clear, as each one is unique, but also shares characteristics with the others that both persists, and dies out. Each individual arch exhibits expert Roman craftsmanship. The purpose of this is not to discuss the excellence of these monuments, but to use them to support the claim that the last of them, the Arch of Constantine, is not truly an arch of triumph. Through direct contrasts of the arches in the styles, intricacy, and artistic principal, as well as discussing the implications of Constantine’s arch it will be established that the final arch of Triumph does not belong among the ranks of its predecessors.

For the purpose of its commission the Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch in that it was erected to commemorate a victory at the battle of Ponte Molle 312–315 CE. In all other respects it most certainly is not. To begin, one must start by examining the visual aspects of the Arch of Constantine. It is very clear upon initial viewing that this arch, unlike the others, is not one consistent piece of work. Instead it is a conflicting mixture of styles and carvings. Upon closer inspection, one discovers that there are three distinct areas of origin for the carvings on the arches panels. Two of the panel reliefs, and four medallion reliefs distinctly come from monuments dedicated to Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. This is crucial for two reasons, the first is that the reliefs taken from other monuments offer sharp contrast when compared to the carvings from Constantine’s era, and secondly, they are more closely related to the panel reliefs on the other triumphal arches. In fact if one were to exclude these carvings when comparing the arch to the others, the only similarity would be the tripled-arch style in which it is constructed. The borrowed aspects are mentioned here not to debate the aesthetics of the arch, but because of what they imply.

Now, to uncover the essence of what separates the Arch of Constantine from its distant brothers. To quote a scholar and expert in classical architecture “From afar it is unmistakably triumphal, but up close it becomes a parody…The carvings that belong specifically to the time of Constantine possess a uniform insignificance.”[1] At the basis it holds no continuity. Specifically, visual elements that are distinct in the arches of Titus and Septimius Severus such as illusionism are not apparent in the reliefs that are purely Constantine’s contribution. The understanding of spatial relation and creation of atmosphere that draw a viewers’ attention to the menorah in the “Menorah” panel on the arch of Titus does not exist outside the borrowed panels on the arch of Constantine. In fact it appears that this concept is completely lost to the craftsmen working in Constantine’s era. For example, the reliefs of the Oratio and Congiarium show an entirely different method of sculpting. These panels use a technique that is more geometrical and frontal than any that has been seen before, and they are balanced with each side corresponding to the other. The focus is directed toward the middle of the relief where the emperor is continually found, giving him an idol-like persona unprecedented and possibly even avoided in previous centuries. These panels, as well as the military depictions, are crowded in a way that eliminates all free space. The characters appear the same size and on top of one another rather than behind one another. All of the other arches use illusionism extensively to place focus away from center and on an object or person that stands out in the free space.

Another aesthetic element that disappears in the carvings belonging to sculptures of Constantine is the classical concept of realism. To evidence this, one need only compare the relief of Victory and her prisoner on the pedestal of the arch to any classical sculpture, but to satisfy the point, specifically a depiction of Victory from only twenty years earlier. Constantine’s is almost an exact replica of one from the destroyed arch of Diocletian in 294 CE (Fig.9). It is different in many ways; the sharp detail is lost and the winged figure appears to be chubby and much less elegant. She takes on a stiffer and less fluid appearance, losing gracefulness, and the belly, hips, and other aspects of anatomy below the belt cease to be recognizable. These carvings seem to be alien, and not in any way, shape, or form Roman, but merely a cheap imitation of the panels on the other arches of Triumph. In actuality, they closely resemble art of the medieval era, and could very well be the origin of that art. There seems to be only one real explanation for this. Given the troubled state of Rome during this time, many of the stonecutters who were real sculptures fled for safety in other countries such as Spain and Gaul or even to the Aegean world. They left behind them native artisans who had little to lose and no real place to go. This class of unskilled laborers, who possessed little to no training in classical sculpture, produced the disproportional copies of earlier art.[2] While these artists give way to an entirely new form of art that will persist through the middle ages, it was in no way intentional, and is visually inferior to the skills of classical artisans. This also goes to prove that while Constantine did achieve victory, a fractured empire that would only continue for another century was what awaited him. This calls into question the validity of that triumph. The carvings of the arch reflect a cultural shift to a dilapidating path.

Much of the differences in sculptural styles that have been discussed thus far, along with borrowing and editing of other carvings, imply more about the state of the realm than about art of the time. The first of these implications is directly related to the borrowing of reliefs from other monuments that were dedicated to other emperors. This action of drawing upon past emperors is without question a confession of inferiority, whether that be simply artistic, based on the lack of skilled stonecutters, or economic in the respect that after the struggle for power the empire did not possess the fiscal resources to acquire that skilled labor, or even to pay for the arch in its entirety.[3] This is important on several different levels. The simple fact that he could not construct an arch that was solely his shows the emperor now holds either less power or fewer resources. Another implication is based on the context. Constantine would have been seeking legitimacy following the victory over Maxentius, which could mean he needed to bolster support from the dissenters by relating himself to former great emperors.

Also, the nature of this triumphal arch is vastly different than its predecessors. All of the others represent resolute victories of reigning emperors, and are constructed as one unit. That alone separates it from the others. It is similar in that it is a tool of propaganda, but on the contrary the haste behind its construction, reliefs being pulled from other monuments, reveals even in the slightest form a sense of desperation. This is yet another difference. Also, now a reoccurring question is that of the validity of that triumph.

Lastly through the arch of Constantine one can obtain a glimpse of the beginning of a mentality of “looking back.” A mentality of copying and imitating the Romans that will continue on with empires and nations rising and falling up until the 14th century, which never truly manifests. There is also a clear decline in the actual procession of the Roman Triumph under Constantine. It becomes less important and less practiced.[4] Perhaps the arch of Constantine is a symbol of an emperor aspiring to achieve the status of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, but knowing he is delicately holding an empire that is too fractured to ever be whole again, giving the people only a façade of triumph. While the empire persisted, the Imperial Roman artistic culture disappears until the Renaissance. The arch of Constantine embodies that decline.

In summation, through examining the aesthetic aspects of the reliefs commissioned specifically under the reign of Constantine for his triumphal arch, along with contrasting it to the other arches, defining differences are apparent. Given the context of the arch’s creation, the nature of the triumph, and the symbolic aspects and implications leading into the future, surely this final triumphal arch does belong in the same category as its glorious ancestors.

[1] Roman Triumph, Robert Payne (pg. 173–184)

[2] The Arch of Constantine or the Decline of Form, Berenson (pg. 15–48)

[3] Architectural symbolism of Imperial Rome and the Middle Ages, Smith (pg. 19–31)

[4] Roman Triumph, Robert Payne (pg.185–203)