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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Arch of Constantine in Rome

What is the Arch of Constantine?

The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch in Rome that was dedicated in 315 AD commemorating Emperor Constantine’s victory over his brother-in-law Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Arch of Constantine History

Despite living much of his life as a pagan, Emperor Constantine was allegedly the first emperor to convert to Christianity, playing an influential role in spreading a philosophy of religious tolerance and building a new imperial capital, Byzantium, later Constantinople and now Istanbul. Dedicated to the emperor in AD 315 following his victory at the Milvian Bridge, the Arch of Constantine is the largest and most modern triumphal arch in Rome, and the first to celebrate a victory not over a foreign power, but rather a rival Roman.

In the late 3rd century, the Roman Empire was vast, stretching all the way from Britain to Egypt. The Emperor Diocletian decided that the only possible means to govern was by splitting it into four regions. However, when Diocletian decided to abdicate due to a debilitating sickness, there was an almighty power struggle. Constantine and his brother-in-law, Maxentius, both staked their claim to be successor of the western half.

A series of civil wars ensued, the first of which concluded with the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in the north-west of the city. It was here that Constantine won a decisive victory over Maxentius, forging his way to becoming the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Maxentius drowned in the River Tiber during the battle and, after being retrieved, was decapitated and paraded through the streets of the city.

The arch itself is packed with intricate sculpture, dating from as early as 200 years prior to its dedication. Constantine reused works from the monuments of three of the so-called ‘five good emperors’, in an attempt to style himself as their worthy successor. The three-metre-high statues at the arch’s top are depictions of foreign prisoners from Emperor Trajan’s campaigns, whilst the high relief panels in between show images of Emperor Marcus Aurelius distributing money to the Roman people and barbarian prisoners surrendering at his feet. The figures, in classical style, are fashioned in complex poses with impressively realistic garments falling from their angled bodies.

Arch of Constantine

Below, between the enormous Corinthian style columns, we see round decorative sculpture from monuments relating to the Emperor Hadrian, another of the ‘good emperors’. These depict a variety of hunting and sacrificial scenes, two of which are set against a brilliant field of purple porphyry, an extremely expensive semi-precious stone.

Beneath is a band of relief images that wraps around the entire structure, which includes the monument’s most famous scene, from the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Unlike the carvings above, the figures here are stunted and round, with basic drapery formed from incised markings, more like drawings than sculpture. In the centre below the porphyry section, a now headless Emperor Constantine, a figure twice as large as those that surround him, benevolently distributes gifts to the Roman people. These more simplistic figures, at times out of proportion, are features that we would tend to associate with early Christian art, and were meant to function symbolically rather than naturalistically.

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