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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Arch of Titus in Rome

What is the Arch of Titus?

The Arch of Titus is a well-preserved triumphal arch erected by Emperor Domitian in AD 81 in honour of the victories Emperors Titus (his brother) and Vespasian (his father) had won in the province of Judaea.

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus History

A military triumph was the greatest honour that any Roman general could hope to achieve, an extravagant parade put on for all the city to behold. The victorious general would be drawn along in a chariot, accompanied by his band of soldiers, the spoils he had won on the way, and any prisoners taken captive on his campaign. The procession would wind its way through the narrow streets and up the Capitoline Hill, where the general would offer a sacrifice at the Temple of Jupiter. This ceremony was more than just a celebration; it was an ostentatious display of Rome’s military power.

During the reign of Emperor Nero, a revolt broke out in the province of Judaea, now modern day Israel and Palestine. Tensions were running high between the Romans and the Jews. In order to quash the uprising, Nero despatched his top general, Vespasian, an experienced commander with an impressive knowledge of Rome’s eastern provinces. However, after three years of bloody and destructive conflict in Judaea, the Romans ceased their efforts due to growing political turmoil back home.

One of Nero’s governors had declared himself to be emperor and public support was overwhelmingly in his favour. Seeing no other option, Nero fled Rome and in fear of being executed as a public enemy, took his own life. Rome, however, remained riven with political strife. In the space of a single year, AD 69, now known as the year of the four emperors, no fewer than three emperors successively rose to power and just as soon fell. Finally it was Vespasian’s turn. Having garnered support from the governor of Syria, he ascended to power, leaving behind the military command in Judaea to his son, Titus.

After a brutal five month siege of Jerusalem, home to the rebel resistance, Titus was finally victorious in the province. Military success of this magnitude was given a fitting celebration: a triumphal procession and later, after Titus’ death, the erection of an imposing commemorative arch.

As you approach the arch, you’ll see a panel of relief sculpture on either side of its interior walls. These are not depictions of a military campaign, but are in fact the triumphal procession held in the city following Titus’ victory in AD 70. The figures appear to march westward towards the Capitoline Hill and Temple of Jupiter, the site of religious sacrifice. On one side, the victorious commander is drawn along by a four-horse chariot, surrounded by armed soldiers. This iconography unites both mortal and divine, for the chariot is guided by Roma, the female personification of the city, while the winged goddess of Victory crowns the general with a wreath. The opposite panel depicts men carrying a menorah, the seven-branched candlestick (which remains the symbol of Judaism today), and other military spoils from Jerusalem. The force of both panels is emphasised by the deep style of the relief, which helps to create strong shadows.

The Arch of Titus has been a model for a number of triumphal arches constructed since. Most famously, it inspired the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but its classical style also lives on in structures like the India Gate in New Delhi, and the National Memorial Arch in Pennsylvania.

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