The Arch of Constantine

We head east through the Via dei Fori Imperiali and end up at the Colosseum and the arch of Constantine.

 Via dei Fori Imperiali The Colosseum and the Arch of  Constantine aerial picture   G.B. Falda map Colosseum and the surrounding 1676
Colosseum luchtfoto Rome

It helps to have small binoculars with you. Only then can you really make out the reliefs. Bluffton University has three pages with excellent images of the arch of Constantine. Click here for Wikipedia.

The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine large size
The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine

foto: Ramon Oria

At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius (click here for Wikipedia). As a token of his gratitude, Constantine commissioned a triumphal arch in 315. One year after their victory over Maxentius, the Christians received their freedom to religion with the 313 Milan Edict. The Christians owed this in part to a vision by the emperor before he defeated his opponent Maxentius. In a dream, he saw a cross at heaven with the maxim:  ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’, in this sign shallt thou conquer. In reality, archeological research revealed the arch to have been built 200 years earlier, in the days of Hadrianus.

As explained, triumphal arches were a great way for the emperor to spread his propaganda. This is precisely what Constantine does, to demonstrate that he bestows gifts to the people. The text on the arch also reveals why Constantine had this triumphal arch built. A lecture by professor Kleiner from Yale University can be seen here (Youtube starts at 60 minutes).

Inscription Arch of Constantine large size
Inscription Arch of Constantine
Translated: To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest
pious, and blessed Augustus: because he,
inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind
has delivered the state from the tyrant
and all of his followers
at the same time
with his army and just force of arms,
the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.
The front and back have the same inscription.

source: Wikipedia (Dutch) and Wikipedia English

The remarkable thing is that for the first time, a style is sculpted that announce the Christian Middle-Ages. The themes are however anything but Christian. For instance, it shows reliefs of sacrifices to the heathen gods like Diana and Hercules. Constantine only baptised himself as a Christian twenty-two years after building this arch.

The arch of Constantine 315 large size    Reconstruction of the arch    Reconstruction    Map of the reliefs of the arch     Reliefs of several  emperors
Youtube Khan Academy Arch of Constantine (10.50 minutes)         Youtube Dr Ronald Weber (6.13 minutes)
The Arch of Constantine


Floor plan
1. Departure of the legions from Milan (frieze)
2. The moon (round relief)
3. Battle of Trajan against the Dacians and the crowning by Vitoria (attic)
Southern frontside red Trajan, blue Hadrian green Marcus  Aurelius:   Floor plan
4. Victory and the prisoners (south or north?)
5. River Gods (spandrals)
6. Victory of  Verona (frieze)
7. Battle at the Milvian bridge (frieze)
8. Hadrian hunts (portrait by Constantine)
9. Hadrian sacrifices to Silvanus
A. Inscription devoted to  Constantine
B. Battle against the Dacians
C. Arrival of Trajan in Rome
  10. Winged victories (spandrals)
11. Hadrian  hunts a beare (portrait Constantine)
12. Hadrian sacrifices to Diana (right)
13. Four images of Dacians
14. Barbaric king presented to Constantine (left)
15. Prisoners in the presence of  Marcus Aurelius (right)
16. Speech by Aurelius to his army
17. Sacrifice by  Marcus Aurelius (right)
Nothern front site:   Floor plan
21. Victory and barbarian prisoners  front and side
22. River Gods (spandrals)
23. Constantine speaks to  the people at the rostra
24. Constantine hands over gifts to the people at the forum Caesar
25. Hadrian hunts boards
26. Hadrian offert aan Apollo
27. Victories
A.   Inscription devoted to Constantine
  28. Hadrian hunting (right)
29. Hadrian sacrifices to multiple gods (left)
30. Four images of Dacians (one)
31. Arrival Aurelius in Rome (left)
32. Marcus Aurelius Aurelius leaves Rome for a battle (right)
33. Aurelius hands gifts to the people (left)
34. Surrender king of the barbarians (right)

18.   Arrival of Constantine in Rome
19.   The sun
20.   Battle against the Dacians (attic)

Most reliefs on the arch of Constantine were taken from other imperial triumphal arches, including those of Hadrianus, Marcus Aurelius and Trajanus. The sculptors were tasked with removing the heads of these emperors and replacing them with the head of Constantine (n.  8 and 11). We’ll notice a world of difference between the style from Constantine’s days and the reliefs of the other emperors.

After the year 300, sculpting as an art was barely able to depict figures and landscapes naturalistically. There are but a handful of reliefs from the days of Constantine. Only the friezes directly above the small arches and the medals on the narrow sides hail from the early 4th century (numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 18, 19, 23 and 24). The manner in which the sculpture was performed at the friezes (numbers: 1, 6, 7, 18, 23 en 24) has nothing to do with classical art anymore.

Two details from the frieze in the days of Constantine
frieze Arch of Constantine


Battle at the Milvian bridge
Arch of Constantine Battle at the Milvian bridge


Constantine hands gifts to the people
Arch of Constantine Constantine hands gifts to the people

We will have a closer look at the frieze (number 23) where Constantine hands gifts to the people at the rostra on the Forum Romanum.

The small figures were placed rather unnaturally in an architectonic frame. When you look at the folds, which is only possibly with a binocular, you’ll see that they’re but shallow grooves that are hardly convincing. The heads and bodies of the sculpted people are far from realistic, but rather schematic indications. Moreover, the arrangement of the figures was determined via a strict hierarchy. Constantine is right in the centre and towers above anything else. Even with Constantine now having lost his head.

Hadrian hunts wild boar and sacrifices to Apollo large size
Arch of Constantine Hadrian hunts wild boar and sacrifices to Apollo
Hadrian hunting lion and sacrificing to Hercules large size
Frieze (early 4th century) and medals (early 2nd century) of the arch of Constantine
Arch of Constantine Hadrian hunting lion and sacrificing to Hercules

Very different when compared to the two medals from the early 2nd century above this frieze, where Hadrianus is seen hunting and sacrificing to Hercules. The manner in which sculptors from the days of Constantine shaped their design will become dominant in the Middle Ages. It was no longer around portraying things realistically, but to convey the divine message, a Christian one, to the viewer. Precisely as we’ve seen this Saturday afternoon in the Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura at the 7th century apse mosaic.

Herman Van Swanevelt ‘Arch of Constantine’ 1645 large size
Gerard ter Borch battle Dacians Arch of Constantine 1609     Etienne DupĆ©rac Arch of Constantine mid-16th century     Detail
Piranesi Arch of Constantine mid-18th century
Herman Van Swanevelt Boog van Constantijn 1645

We now walk to the Colosseum. In this amphitheatre, gladiators fought for eternal glory or their lives. It is here where criminals and Christians faced a gruesome death.

Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum large size
Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum Rome

picture: Anne and Ray

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