A triumph was the greatest honour that an Emperor or general would ever receive in ancient Rome. Adding to the triumphal arches of Rome was the absolute highlight of a successful military career. It required the conquest of new territory, the acquisition of great riches for Rome and the inevitable capture of prisoners of war to supply the all-important slave economy.
Think the 4th of July parades in America. The conquering hero would enter the city in a quadriga, the four-horse chariot, and follow a prescribed route through the circuses and streets of Rome. The entire population would line the streets to cheer the great victory and party, party, party. Every triumphal procession ended parading through the Roman Forum to make sacrifices to the number one god Jupiter at his temple on the Capitoline Hill.
The procession would include the army, the prisoners, representations of the new Roman provinces and the spoils of war held aloft. It was a fabulous day out for all the citizens. The funnily wicked poet Ovid suggested that a triumph was a great occasion to pick up a girl. Roughly translated ‘Choose the prettiest girl and stand next to her in the huge crowd. Point out the highlights – there is the personification of the river Tigris. There are the treasures from Persia. It does not matter if you are correct, but if you impress the girl you may have your own triumph’
Why all the fuss?
Quite apart from the prestige for the General and the general merriment of the crowd on a free holiday, a Triumph was very significant to the smooth running of the city. At its height, Rome had a population of perhaps one million. Ten times larger than any other city at that time. And many of that million were extremely poor and living on a free grain dole. They were living in wooden apartment blocks, insulae, with no heating or lighting or running water and no toilets, much like Rome today!
This had the potential for civil unrest. The answer? Keep the people content with free food, free games and demonstrate that they were on the winning team. How do you advertise a great victory, before the time of Twitter? How about great victory parades? And then, so the victory is remembered, carving it in stone – literally.
Rome had many triumphal arches, most of them were recycled after the Empire fell – and I use the word recycled as it sounds so much better than stolen! Most were pulled down and the material used to make later buildings, many churches I have to say.
Today we have three remaining, but each of them is a monumental historical document carved in marble. The press releases of the day.
The Arch of Titus
Marking one end of the Roman Forum, the Arch of Titus is the oldest surviving triumphal arch. Constructed in 81AD, it commemorates the Roman victory at the siege of Jerusalem. The Emperor Titus destroyed the temple and returned to Rome with the most sacred relics of the Jewish people. And an estimated 50,000kg of gold and silver. And perhaps 70,000 prisoners of war to be sold into slavery.
It seems particularly apt that this arch is just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum, as it was the money and slaves from Jerusalem that built it!
Made from the best pentelic marble from Greece, the carvings of the intrados tell the story of the triumph. On one side, the head of the procession, Titus in his quadriga. Behind him is the figure of a lady with wings, crowning him. She is not an angel, she is Nike, the Greek winged Goddess of victory. Why do you think Nike put a wing on their sports kit? Not a swoosh or a tick but a wing. Symbolism carrying on throughout history.
On the opposite side we see the same triumphal procession, but much further back. We see the Jewish slaves in chains, holding up the sacred Minora and the silver trumpets, To the victors, the spoils.
The Arch of Septemius Severus
Built in 203AD, at the far end of the Roman Forum, stands the arch of one of Rome’s African Emperors – Septemius Severus – a harsh but fair military ruler. It was built to celebrate his victory over the Parthians, the Persian Empire.
Well, I say victory. The Persians were always one of Rome’s fiercest enemies. Some accounts suggest it was more a case of ‘Invade! Quick skirmish! Get out fast! Proclaim victory! Erect triumphal arch!’
One of the most interesting features of this arch is what is missing. Septemius Severus had two sons, Caracalla and Gaeta, and they HATED each other. Shortly after their father’s death on campaign in Britain, Caracalla had his brother killed in front of their mother. He became sole Emperor and proceeded to damn his brother’s name and have it removed from every image or monument. Today, we can still see the discoloured section of the inscription of the arch where Gaeta’s name used to be. Brothers in ancient Rome – they did seem to follow a fatal pattern.
The Arch of Constantine
Our final arch is, perhaps, the most famous, celebrating the victory of Christianity over paganism. Maybe. Possibly. Not really.
In 312AD, the ambitious General Constantine defeated his bitter rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge. Allegedly, the night before the battle, Constantine had a dream or vision directing him to hold up the cross of Christianity ensuring victory.
Is it not strange then that this vision, this Christian symbol and the battle itself are nowhere depicted on the triumphal arch? In fact, this arch says very little about Constantine at all. It is a composite of other monuments erected to three of the best Emperors of all time – Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.
Constantine would go on to make Christianity legal and change the course of history. However, his arch broke the mould by being less of a press release and more a harking back to the time of Rome at its height.
Most importantly, the Arch of Constantine is where you’ll find us everyday because its our Colosseum Tour meeting point! Check out our interactive 3 hour tour of Ancient Rome and discover what life was like for the senators, gladiators and emperors nearly 2000 years ago.
These three remaining arches are enduring monuments to Roman military victory, self-publicity and amazing art. In many ways they can tell us more than the history books as they were there at the time! Good luck to Twitter in 2000 years of time.