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Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

Erected by the senate in honor of Constantine the Great (A.D. 272?-337) to commemorate his victory over the usurping emperor Maxentius in A.D. 312. The arch is well preserved and stands in the plaza to the west of the Colosseum. It is decorated with reliefs and statues reused from earlier imperial monuments (spolia) as well as with reliefs dating from the age of Constantine. The victory of Constantine gave a strong impetus to the Christianization of the Empire, but no reference to Christianity is to be found on the arch.

Arcus Constantini

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 36-38.

Erected by the senate in honour of Constantine to commemorate his victory over Maxentius in 312 A.D., as the inscription in the attic (CIL VI.1139) records. The date of its completion is fixed to 315-316 A.D. by the mention of the decennalia in the inscriptions of the side arches; and Grossi-Gondi decides for 316 because the consulship is omitted, whereas in 315 he held it for the fourth time. It is not mentioned by any of our literary sources. It stands at the beginning of the road which traverses the valley between the Palatine and the Caelian from the Colosseum to the south-east end of the circus Maximus, and which is often (though without warrant) called via Triumphalis. The road did not, however, run through it, and indeed lay at a somewhat lower level, though not so low as to necessitate steps for foot-passengers to pass through (Mitt. 1891, 92). The archways and the space round the arch are paved with travertine. The arch is built of white marble; it is 21 metres high, 25.70 wide, and 7.40 deep; the central archway is 11.50 high and 6.50 wide, and the two lateral arches are 7.40 metres high and 3.36 wide. Between the archways and at the corners were eight fluted Corinthian columns of giallo antico, one of which has been removed to the Lateran, while the other seven still remain: they were doubtless removed from other buildings. The sculptures with which it is decorated belong to several different periods (Ill. 5).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    71. Arch of Constantine. Commentary.

    The Arch of Constantine, as proclaimed in the inscription on its attic, celebrates his victory over Maxentius, the reigning emperor (styled “the tyrant” in the inscription) whom Constantine deposed. The friezes immediately below the round reliefs were specifically sculpted for this occasion. The one over the right-side archway, on the Circus-side of the arch, portrays the battle at the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine defeated Maxentius in AD 312. Most of the decoration of the arch, however, was taken from other monuments built under Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, a sign (soon to be confirmed in Constantine's foundation in 324 of the New Rome of Constantinople) that the city was in decline.

    Constantine, though famous for promoting Christianity in the empire, proceeded carefully in the capital, locating his most impressive donations to the Church—the basilicas of St. Peter and St. John of the Lateran—on the periphery of the city. The Senate who awarded the arch was still composed primarily of pagans; hence also the vagueness of the phrase instinctu divinitatis in the inscription, “by divine inspiration,” which is probably a reference to Constantine's vision of a cross in the sky before he defeated Maxentius.


    71. Arch of Constantine. Sources.

    71.1.

    IMP(eratori) CAES(ari) FL(avio) CONSTANTINO MAXIMO / P(io) F(elici) AUGUSTO S(enatus) P(opulus)Q(ue) R(omanus) / QUOD INSTINCTU DIVINITATIS MENTIS / MAGNITUDINE CUM EXERCITU SUO / TAM DE TYRANNO QUAM DE OMNI EIUS / FACTIONE UNO TEMPORE IUSTIS / REM PUBLICAM ULTUS EST ARMIS / ARCUM TRIUMPHIS INSIGNEM DICAVIT

    To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus Maximus Pius Felix Augustus the Senate and the Roman People dedicate this arch [in AD 315] as a memorial to his military triumphs, who by the inspiration of divinity and his own genius avenged, with righteous arms in one instant, the Republic against the tyrant [Maxentius] and his faction.

    ILS 694 = CIL 6.1139


    71.2.

    [In AD 312 Constantine and his armies descended from Gaul into Italy to fight Maxentius, who had usurped the throne.] Realizing that he was in need of assistance more powerful than an army, on account of the deadly and demonic magic assiduously employed by the tyrant Maxentius, Constantine looked for divine aid.… As he weighed the evidence, he reflected that his foes who trusted in numerous gods had all met with various forms of destruction, leaving behind them neither family, sons, lineage, name, nor monuments among men, whereas the God worshipped by his father Constantius had given many clear signs of his power.… He therefore called on this deity in prayer, beseeching him to reveal who he was and to offer his right hand to Constantine in his present difficulties.

    As he was praying for this with intense fervor, a most marvelous sign from heaven appeared to him.… About noon, with the sun just beginning its descent, he said that he saw with his own eyes the victorious sign of the cross, formed out of light in the sky above the sun. This image was accompanied by the inscription “In this Sign Conquer.”

    Constantine said that he continued to ponder and reason out the meaning of this vision as night came on, and that in his sleep, Christ the Son of God appeared to him along with the same sign he had seen in the sky, urging him to fashion a likeness of this heavenly sign and to use it as a protection in all his battles against his enemies.… Afterwards, the emperor made use of this sign of salvation as a safeguard in every battle against enemy forces, and ordered that similar emblems of the cross should be carried in front of all his armies.… Strengthened in his position by well-founded hopes in Him, Constantine advanced to quench the remaining fire of tyranny.

    Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1.27-32, selections


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