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Constantinian Art on the Arch

The rest of the decorative elements are from the time of Constantine I. The most important are the inscription and the long narrative frieze that encircles the entire arch.

The Inscription

The central inscription is repeated on both sides of the attic. Only the holes in which the original bronze letters were mounted are preserved, but the text is easily readable:

The inscription on the S. face
The inscription on the S. face

Imp(eratori) Caes(ari) Fl(avio) Constantino Maximo
P(io) F(elici) Augusto S(enatus) P(opulus)q(ue) R(omanus)
quod instinctu divinitatis, mentis
magnitudine, cum exercitu suo
tam de tyranno quam de omni eius
factione uno tempore iustis
rempublicam ultus est armis,
arcum triumphis insignem dicavit.

To the emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine Maximus,
Pius Felix Augustus,
since through divine inspiration and great wisdom
he has delivered the state
from the tyrant and all his factions,
by his army and noble arms,
the Senate and the Roman People,
dedicate this arch decorated with triumphal insignia.

The tyrant mentioned is Maxentius and the battle is that of the Milvian Bridge. The most debated part of the inscription is the words instinctu divinitatis, "by divine inspiration", which has been seen as a reference to the famous vision Constantine is said to have had just before the battle.

The Main Frieze

The main contribution to the decoration of the arch from the time of Constantine is the almost continuous frieze located just above the lateral archways and at the same height on the ends of the monument. Each part of the frieze measures c. 1m in height and between 5.5-6.5m in length.

Constantine leaves Mediolanum

The narrative starts on the W. side (towards the Palatine Hill) where Constantine and his army leaves Mediolanum (Milan). The soldiers are marching towards the right (where the narrative continues around the corner) with their gear loaded on carts and horses. The emperor does not appear on the relief.

The army attacks Verona, left partThe army attacks Verona, right part

The frieze continues on the S. face, where the siege of Verona is depicted to the left. Constantine's soldiers have dismounted their horses and spurred on by Victoria above them, they attack the fortified city to the left in the relief. The defenders on the walls are throwing rocks at the attackers, and one has been hit and is falling from the wall. The emperor does not take part in the fighting.

The battle of the Milvian Bridge, left partThe battle of the Milvian Bridge, right part

On the right side of the S. face the battle of the Milvian Bridge is illustrated. Part of the battle took place on the bridge and on a temporary bridge made of small boats. The relief shows the bridge from the side. The soldiers of Constantine are on the bridge while Maxentius' troops are fighting for the lives in the water under the bridge. To the left a missing figure could be Constantine overlooking the battle. On the opposite side of the river trumpeters are signalling retreat to the loosing forces of Maxentius.

Constantine enters Rome triumphantly, left partConstantine enters Rome triumphantly, right part

On the E. side of the arch (towards the Colosseum) Constantine and his soldiers enter Rome triumphantly after the victory at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine riding a quadriga (a four-horse chariot) to the extreme left with his army marching in front of him with a group of prisoners.

Constantine speaks from the rostra, left partConstantine speaks from the rostra, right part

The N. face of the arch shows the final ceremonies of the triumph. First, on the left, Constantine addresses the people from the rostra, the speakers platform on the Forum Romanum. Constantine is standing on the platform in the centre (his head has been knocked off), surrounded by his generals. The rostra is decorated with honorary columns and two seated statues of former emperors, probably Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. To the right, behind the listening crowd, is the Arch of Septimius Severus, and to the left the Arch of Tiberius and the Basilica Julia.

Constantine distributing money to the people, left partConstantine distributing money to the people, rigth part

On the right, still on the N. face, Constantine is distributing money to the people, the congiarum. This ceremony was held in the Forum of Caesar on January 1st, 313 CE. Constantine is sitting on the throne in the centre (his head is missing here too) surrounded by toga clad dignitaries. On both sides the people of Rome is receiving the hand-outs from officials sitting in the rooms (probably the tabernae of the forum) shown above them.

Column Bases, Spandrels and Roundels

Sculpted plinth, north faceSculpted plinth, north faceSculpted plinth, south faceSculpted plinth, south face

The bases for the eight Corinthian columns are sculpted on three sides. The front of each plinth has a relief of Victoria, the winged goddess of victory, carrying various symbols of triumphs while subdued prisoners sit at her feet. On both sides of the plinths there are reliefs of captured enemies and victorious soldiers.

In the walls inside the lateral passageways are inserted a total of eight portrait busts, two in each wall, but they are so poorly conserved that they are unrecognisable.

Central archway, north face, leftCentral archway, north face, rightCentral archway, south face, leftCentral archway, south face, right

As is customary with triumphal arches, the spandrels of the central archway are decorated with images of the goddess Victoria presenting signs of victory, in the form of poles with the armour and weapons of the defeated, to the images on the keystones. Unfortunately, these images are deteriorated and unrecognisable. On the spandrels of the lateral passageways there are depictions of fluvial divinities.

East side, the Sun on a quadrigaWest side, the Moon on a biga

There are two other roundels on the Arch of Constantine, besides the eight Hadrianic Roundels. They are placed on either end of the arch. On the E. side the roundel shows a representation of the Sun god on his quadriga (four-horse chariot), while the roundel on the W. side shows the moon, Luna, on a biga (two-horse chariot).

Changes in Artistic Style

The change in artistic style when compared to the earlier works is clear. The Hellenistic naturalism of the classic imperial period has given way to a much more symbolic approach. Persons and monuments are no longer shown in they normal sizes and proportions as dictated by perspective and depth in the composition. Instead the sizes of the figures are dictated by the importance of each person, the emperor being physically bigger than the dignitaries, who in turn are bigger than the commoners. Sizes and relative position of monuments in the background have been changed to utilise the available space completely, often totally sacrificing perspective. Physical appearance of the individual figures is downplayed in return for a more symbolic representation. Emphasis is less on "this is emperor Constantine", and more on "this is the Emperor". Frontality is used throughout the reliefs. Only the emperors are shown frontally, while the others face towards them in symbolic submission.

Hadrianic and Constantinian
Hadrianic and Constantinian

These changes away from the classic style are often described as a step backward for the arts, due to lack of skill and professionalism of the artists, but this is not so. In the early 4th century, society and culture had changed profoundly since the time of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius more than two centuries earlier. Different ideas of power and authority had developed, and were expressed differently. The Constantinian artists did not simply try to copy their predecessors. Their artistic programme was different leading to a different result.

Antiquity was slowly fading away, and the first steps towards what will later be called the middle ages, had been taken. Some of the tendencies on the Arch of Constantine will only reach their full potential much later, first in Byzantium, later in Western Europe.

This article has been split into 6 separate sections. Use the menu below to jump to another section.

  1. Introduction
  2. Reuse from Older Monuments
  3. Constantinian Art on the Arch
  4. Why Reuse Parts of Old Monuments?
  5. Literature and Links
  6. Photographs

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Copyright © 2003 René Seindal, last changed 2003-08-06

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