Italian Architecture: Triumphal Arches

In the early 200s AD, emperor Septimius Severus was campaigning against the Caledonians in Britain when he died of an illness. Had he survived and vanquished the Scottish tribes, he would have returned to Rome and held a magnificent triumphal parade. He, his family, his army, and the plunder from their conquests would have traveled up the Via Sacra, through the Forum Romanum. Before arriving at the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, he would have passed through a structure he had built several years before to commemorate his victory over the Parthians. This, the Arch of Septimius Severus, still stands today. 23 meters high, this structure has three arches- a twelve-meter-high central arch flanked by two smaller ones. It is richly decorated with friezes carved into the stone. Most depict scenes from the war with the Parthians, including the capture of enemies. Perhaps the most magnificent are above the central arch, where winged victories with the four seasons at their feet face the keystone, where Mars stands. The carvings are divided by elaborate columns with intricately carved capitals. The arches themselves could technically be called barrel vaults, and have coffers (Etruscan inventions perfected by the Romans) to lessen the load. The arch is built of brick and stone and clad in marble. No grandeur is lost today; from the east, it provides a dramatic background to the Forum’s skeletal ruins. Even though it is overshadowed by the Capitoline Hill, any visitor to the Forum will agree that it has a commanding presence.


Arch of Septimius Severus

The arch was the first major addition to the Forum Romanum in 80 years. It was located diagonally opposite of the Arch of Augustus, which is sometimes seen as a symbolic gesture, Septimius Severus likening himself to the great first emperor. The Arch of Septimius Severus is one of the only intact buildings left in the Forum Romanum because in the Middle Ages it formed part of a church. The edifice was fortunate to actually remain as part of the structure, rather than being dismantled and having its parts used in various places, a fate suffered by other Roman buildings. However, several parts of the arch are still missing. These include a flight of stairs that led through the central arch and, on top, giant bronze statues of chariots with Septimius Severus and his sons inside. Another interesting missing element is any reference to Severus’s son Geta. Upon the death of Severus, Geta was assassinated by his brother Caracalla, who then secured his power by erasing Geta’s name from monuments.


Left to right: Temple of Saturn, Temple of Vespasian, Column of Phocas, Arch of Septimius Severus

About a century later, the emperor Maxentius and his rival Constantine were embroiled in a civil war. Their armies met at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, where Maxentius died as his army was routed by Constantine’s smaller force. This battle was significant historically because it led to Constantine’s reign and later the Byzantine Empire, theologically because it allowed Christianity, through Constantine, to become very prominent, and architecturally because it led to the construction of the Arch of Constantine. Similar in appearance to the Arch of Septimius Severus, it has three archways. Each archway is topped by friezes which are divided by Corinthian columns, The lower part of the arch is made entirely of marble, while the top is brick with marble cladding. At 20 meters high and 25 wide, it is considered to be one of the best-proportioned triumphal arches. For all this grandeur, however, the Arch is dwarfed by its neighbor, the Colosseum.


Arch of Constantine

An unusual feature of the Arch is that many of the friezes and reliefs were taken from earlier monuments. Statues on top of the columns were taken from Trajan’s Forum, and the reliefs between them from buildings of Marcus Aurelius. The circular reliefs, or roundels, that greatly differentiate it from the Arch of Septimius Severus, are from the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Some of the figures in the old reliefs were remodeled to resemble Constantine, and carvings from Trajan’s Forum showing the capture of Dacian soldiers were altered to show the capture of Maxentius’s soldiers. Nobody is certain why these recycled carvings, or spoila, were used. It may be because Constantine wanted the Arch to be constructed quickly. Another explanation is that Constantine wanted to identify himself with the older, successful emperors. The decorative elements that are not spoila show Constantine’s civil war campaigns and defeat of Maxentius. The Arch was a part of many of Constantine’s triumphs, having been completed in the first three years of his reign. Interestingly, it was not Constantine but the Senate who commissioned the Arch’s construction. This was probably due to the fact that the senate had supported Maxentius in the civil war and needed to show they were instead now loyal to Constantine. Although there was renovation work in the late 1990s, the Arch has generally always been in good condition because later Christians honored Constantine, who legalized and later popularized the faith in Rome.


Spoila and carvings on the Arch of Constantine

Since the Arches of Constantine and Septimius Severus are so similar, their influences and importance in Roman and later times can hardly be differentiated. Their three arch designs are seen in other Roman arches. One such arch is the Arch of Hadrian in Jerash, Jordan, which is still mostly standing. They also inspired many later triumphal arches, built by societies who wished to mimic the grandeur of Ancient Rome. This practice started in the Renaissance, when interest in the classical civilizations was flourishing. In Naples, the Roman-style Aragonese Arch leads into the Castel Nuovo. However, the construction of new arches reached a new height in the 19th century amongst imperialistic European nations. London’s Marble Arch, which draws heavily on the three-arched structures of Septimius Severus and Constantine, forms a gateway to Buckingham Palace. The country that build the most Victorian-era  triumphal arches was France. The Arc de Triomphe- as much a symbol of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame- is probably the most iconic triumphal arch, more so that its Roman predecessors. Less well known is the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which is closer in appearance to the Roman arches I discussed, with three archways and elaborate ornamentation.


Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, with the more famous Arc de Triomphe in the background. Originally, the Arch of Septimius Severus had a similar chariot sculpture on top. (photo by Pline, Wikimedia Commons)

The beauty of these arches makes it easy to forget that they are symbols of power and often oppression. The arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine showcase military might and, through their statues and carvings, pay homage to the triumphators. The arches of the imperialists were built using wealth from exploited colonies. Today, the world’s largest Roman-style triumphal arch stands in Pyongyang, North Korea as a visual reminder of the power of its totalitarian government. However, all the arches that have been discussed would have been dwarfed by the 119 meter tall edifice that Adolf Hitler planned for Berlin. It was a size planned to match the dictator’s ego and to surpass the Arc de Triomphe in recently-occupied Paris. Due to the scale of the Second World War, construction was not even begun. Despite all this, visitors to Rome marvel, as they have done for centuries, at the arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine, two of the most intact and influential monuments left from the ancient world.

Note: This article is adapted from an essay I wrote for my Latin class two years ago. Now that I’ve actually visited the arches, I’ve added new details and photos.


Arch of Constantine seen from Colosseum


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