Triumphal arch celebrating the victory of Constantine I over Maxentius, 312 CE
Why Reuse Parts of Old Monuments?
There are at least three different explanations for this reuse of parts of older monuments, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One possible explanation is lack of highly skilled artisans. At the start of the 4th century Rome had not been at the centre of government for some time, and without the presence of the imperial court the artistic workshops would have much less to do, and hence be fewer.
Another possibility for the reuse is lack of time. The period from Constantine's first appearance in Rome (312 CE) and the tenth anniversary of his ascent to power (315 or 316 CE) left little time for the execution of the numerous sculptures and reliefs needed for the monument.
The third possible explanation for recycling is a desire to place Constantine in the same group of emperors as Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, who are also known as the Good Emperors, because they brought peace, prosperity and safe succession to the empire. This might be flattery or wishful thinking on behalf on the senate, or it might be a part of the self-image Constantine wanted such a monument to reflect.
Neither of these possible explanations exclude any of the other, so any combination of them is also a possibility.
Is the arch itself recycled?
There is a somewhat heated academic debate about the relation between the present day monument and what might have occupied the spot before. The traditional view, and the view most often repeated, is that the arch was built anew in the years 312-215 CE using in part spolia from older monuments and in part artwork made for the occasion for the decoration.
Various archaeologists have argued that almost the whole arch is recycled. Excavations in the late 1990s [Conforto 2001] have revealed older foundations below the current, dating from the time of Domitian. It is known from written sources that Domitian erected arches to his own honour, but if the remains below the Arch of Constantine is from one of these, then the arch was either been torn down following the damnatio memoriae inflicted on Domitian after his death or it was dilapidated and abandoned.
The next level of foundations found was dated to the time of Hadrian, but they are the foundations of the current arch! If this is correct, at least the lower parts of the current arch must be from the time of Hadrian. No ancient sources mention an arch erected by Hadrian, but neither do they mention the Arch of Constantine. The theory is supported by the fact that the only pieces of spolia that do not appear to have been remounted in a new location are the Hadrianic Roundels. According to this theory they have never been removed.
There are further evidence that an existing arch has been modified to make the Arch of Constantine. The lower parts, including the arches, are made in opus quadratum of very high quality, but the attic is made of opus latericium covered with marble slabs. There is little reason to change construction technique like that if the whole structure is made at the same time. Hence, the lower parts are Hadrianic, while the attic is Constantinian.
There are also signs that the eight columns were originally attached to the arch itself, and later detached from the main mass of the arch by moving the bases and extending the cornice around the top to accommodate the extra distance. This intervention can be deduced from small changes in the way the cornice is made. It is possible that an error had crept in while constructing the Arch of Constantine and the columns had to be moved, but it is more likely another sign that the the Arch of Constantine is a modification of an earlier arch that had the columns attached.
This theory (and others like it) is not uncontested. It has also been argued [Pensabene 1999] that the arch is the first major monument at that spot, and that even the works of art from the time of Constantine are spolia from another Constantinian monument.
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