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A Monumental Imperial Biography

How Constantine’s architects pieced together the past to create a new vision in the heart of Rome

March/April 2022

Constantine Rome Arch of ConstantineFor the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine the Greatest, pious blessed Augustus, because by inspiration of divinity, in greatness of his mind, from a tyrant on one side and from every faction of all on the other side at once, with his army he avenged the republic with just arms, the Senate and Roman People (SPQR) dedicated this arch as a sign for his triumphs.—Dedicatory inscription, Arch of Constantine, Rome


Constantine Rome Arch Victory InscriptionThe pinnacle of an ancient Roman general’s or emperor’s military career was to be awarded the right to parade through the streets of Rome to celebrate his victories on the battlefield and flaunt the spoils of war in an extravagant display known as a triumph. During these grand spectacles, Romans watched as senators clad in brilliant white togas trimmed in purple made their way through crowded, noisy streets, followed by trumpeters and scores of other musicians, bulls to be slaughtered for feasts, and exotic animals captured in far-off conquered lands. Shackled prisoners, many of whom would later be executed, were hauled through the city, and heaping mounds of booty—gold and silver, marble statues, and more—were piled high on wagons pulled by draft animals. People craned their necks as the victorious general rode by in a four-horse chariot covered in laurel, the symbol of victory, holding a scepter and wearing a purple tunic, a decorated gold toga, a laurel wreath, and a gold crown. He was followed by his troops, whom ancient sources describe as singing loudly and shouting victory chants. Celebrating great military victories did not always end there. On occasion, the Senate also voted to build a monumental arch to celebrate the commander’s conquests. There were once 57 triumphal arches in Rome and more across the empire. Yet little is known about the vast majority of these monuments from contemporaneous or later sources, and no remains of them survive. Only three of the city’s triumphal arches still exist, the largest of which is the Arch of Constantine.


The arch celebrates the emperor Constantine’s (r. A.D. 306–337) victory over the usurper Maxentius (r. A.D. 306–312) at the Milvian Bridge just outside Rome on October 28, A.D. 312. For six years, the two had reigned as co-emperors. This battle brought an end to nearly a century of civil war and cemented Constantine’s place as the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire. Sole rulership of the Eastern Empire would come 12 years later, at which time he became the ruler of the entire empire. The monument rises 69 feet high and measures 85 feet wide, and its decorations represent three centuries of imperial history. It has long been clear to scholars that much of the arch’s sculpture came from monuments dedicated to the earlier emperors Trajan (r. A.D. 98–117), Hadrian (r. A.D. 117–138), and Marcus Aurelius (r. A.D. 161–180). Other decorative elements of the arch were created at the time it was built. These include the dedicatory inscription along the top of both sides of the structure, as well as the winged victory figures flanking the central passageway and several reliefs inside the central passageway, some of which depict the sun god, Sol. The monument was topped by a gilded bronze statue of the emperor in his chariot.



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