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Monuments: Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine was dedicated in AD 315 and spanned the Triumphal Way. Both the inscription on its attic and the continuous frieze running around it make specific reference to Constantine's victory over his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Aside from these elements most of the other reliefs on the arch are re-used from earlier monuments, adjusted slightly to represent Constantine. The eight panels that adorn the attic and flank the dedicatory inscriptions on both sides are from a lost monument of Marcus Aurelius, probably another arch. On each the emperor has been re-carved as Constantine. The eight round reliefs beneath these are taken from a Hadrianic monument and depict hunting and sacrifice scenes. Again, the main figure on each is re-carved as Constantine or his co-emperor Licinius. More

The large scenes on the walls of the central archway, meanwhile, are Trajanic in date, originally belonging together as part of a long relief, usually called the Great Trajanic Frieze. Two other sections of this frieze adorn the short ends of the attic at the top of the arch. This frieze depicts the emperor (Trajan, or perhaps Domitian, re-carved as Constantine) both in battle against barbarians and being received as victor by Victory and other personifications. In addition to these reliefs, the arch also employs eight statues of captured Dacians, from Trajan's Forum, which are erected on top of the eight fluted columns which adorn its sides. The Constantinian features of the design, then, include only the frieze - depicting scenes of Constantine's campaigns against Maxentius - and the figures of Victories and river deities which adorn the pedestal bases on each side and the spandrels. The style of these reliefs contrasts markedly with the high-quality of the earlier, re-used panels and is often used as a demonstration of the decline of artistic technique in the Late Roman period. Since the re-carved portraits of Constantine are generally of a high quality we should be careful not to dismiss all of the sculptors working in this period and it is important to distinguish between scenes telling a story, like the frieze, and those representing symbolic scenes, like the panels and roundels; even in earlier periods different styles were employed for different purposes. Still, the reliance on earlier monuments in the Arch of Constantine is striking. Whether these earlier reliefs were meant to symbolise Constantine's continuation of the practices of these earlier, 'good' emperors, or were employed simply because it was quicker and easier than producing new ones remains much debated. The different reliefs of this monument are useful either way for revealing the development of Roman sculptural techniques over time.

Elsner, J. (2000). ‘From the culture of spolia to the cult of relics: the arch of Constantine and the genesis of late Antique forms’, Papers of the British School at Rome 68: 149–84.

Jones, M.W. (2000). ‘Genesis and mimesis: the design of the Arch of Constantine in Rome’, Journal of the society of architectural historians 59: 50–77.

Pensabene, P. and Panella, C. (eds) (1999). Arco di Costantino tra archeologia e archeometria (Studia archaeologica ("Erma" di Bretschneider) 100).

Ryberg, I. S. (1967). The panel reliefs of Marcus Aurelius (Monographs on archaeology and fine arts 14). New York NY.

Touati, A.-M. L. (1987). The great Trajanic frieze: the study of a monument and of the mechanisms of message transmission in Roman art (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska institutet i Rom 45). Stockholm.


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