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Built to be focal points along "vias" or avenues, the graceful flow of an arch seemed appropriate, but also necessary. If a triumphal army was to march through, making a grand entrance, there had to be space for more than a few soldiers abreast of each other. Post and lintel construction could not possibly supply the needed span of space. The arch was the only answer. We will discuss three in particular, the most evident in the area of the Roman Forum.


Finished in 82 C.E., and named for the Emperor Titus, son and successor of Vespasian, who, as a general in the Middle East, conquered Jewish Jerusalem. His military victory seemed to be a gesture aimed solely towards personal political advancement, and the Arch glorifies his spoils of victory. The walls display carved replications of things stolen from the Temple of Solomon, notably a seven-branched sacred candelabra (see the illustration immediately below).

The conquering and dispersal of the Jews began an exodus, which was to last 1,900 years.

Construction-wise, the single-opening arch has attached columns (as opposed to free-standing). It seems that some historians really pick up on the "logic" theme we spoke of in regards to the Grecian non-use of the arch. The story here is that people just did not understand what made an arch work. Seems like nothing could be simpler to comprehend, but I have no answer to all of this. In any event, columns were supposedly added to alleviate the neurotic confusion surrounding the design concept of the arch. It is exactly like wearing suspenders in addition to a belt. And besides, the columns do nothing structurally. They are pure decoration. Dimensions are 13.3 meters wide by 14.4 meters high (43'-8" x 47'-4").

The columns do begin on a level line raised several feet above the ground. This was representative of the platform on which most major Roman buildings were placed, and that was for effect. People had to go up to an important Roman building. That made you feel inferior and subservient. Unfortunately, that concept still exists today, particularly in city halls, courthouses, and capitols throughout the United States. At least with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) we now have ramps. But this tradition of having to ascend to your government really puts things in the wrong perspective.

The arch, just above its architrave over those columns, then has a tall section, known as an attic. Above the attic were bronze figures. It was common to have a quadriga (four horse chariot) with the particular Roman figure at the reins. Apparently, some stone decorative elements were removed from this arch for construction of the Arch of Constantine.


Built in 203 C.E., this triple arch commemorated the victories of the Emperor Septimus Severus and his sons Geta and Caracalla in Western Asia. The arch is of white marble, features detached (free-standing) Composite columns. The Romans merged the Ionic Scrolls into the Corinthian acanthus leaves, and thus was born the fourth Classical Order, the Composite. An unusual feature of this arch are the lateral openings connecting the smaller side arches with the larger central one. Dimensions are 23.3 meters in width by 20.8 meters in height (76'-4" x 68'-3"). Again, the columns are raised on pedestals. This feature will appear in many later buildings, particularly in the Renaissance, seemingly by designers who might have studied these ruins, but not realized that entire buildings were raised on such pedestals, with a totally different result.

You should notice that we can see here for the first time the Roman tradition of emphasizing the springing of the arch, as well as the keystone. All three of these arches show those characteristics.

Again, details such as these were to be picked up by Renaissance designers, and carried from the 15th through into the 20th century, sometimes properly, other times completely falsely applied; just paste-on decoration.

A seemingly odd, but probably typical Roman bit of barbarism - the name of Geta, inscribed into the arch, was basically erased with the application of another inscription, after Caracalla killed him and assumed the mantle of Emperor of the Roman Empire in 212 C.E. The old adage "out of sight, out of mind" really does go back a long way in time. The attic was topped with the obligatory chariot, this time with six horses, and carried Septimus and his two sons, with Roman soldiers on either side. If you seek extra credit, try finding out what Caracalla did with the bronze figure of his brother in the chariot, and how that might have changed the composition.

A sketch of what remains of the Temple of Concord. Rebuilt several times, the last being in 12 C.E., and described as being of quite opulent marble.

This sketch is of the Arch of Titus as seen through the Arch of Septimus Severus; the two are at opposite ends of the present-day remnants of the Forum.


The Arch of Constantine was dedicated in 315 C.E. to celebrate the Emperor Constantine's victory in what was, basically, a civil war with Maxentius in 312 C.E. The site, just outside of what is left of the old Forum, is along the route taken by Constantine as he returned to Rome from battle and victory. Based on what purportedly was a miraculous vision seen by Constantine Augustus prior to the battle, the victorious Emperor then declared that Romans were free to practice Christianity in the Edict of Milan, 313 C.E. Actually, his declaration covered the Western half of the Empire, while Licinius Augustus charged the Eastern segment. Latin translations of the Edict may be obtained through the University of Pennsylvania, Department of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1897, Vol 4:, 1, pp. 28-30).

The eight columns here (four on each side) are detached, Corinthian, and monolithic. They, too, sit on pedestals. A quadriga stood atop the attic. While some reports say that pieces of the Arch of Titus were removed and integrated here, other reports state pieces were taken from monuments erected by Trajan (his Forum), Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius (his Triumphal Arch). Digging for more extra credit, you might try to puzzle this out for us. What actually came from where? Was anything sacred in Roman times?

There is something native to this Arch, however, and that is a frieze running around all four sides, depicting the battle of the Milvian Bridge, which was the site of Constantine's triumph. In this image, the frieze is just below the circle on this west side, and continues over the smaller lateral arches on the south and north. Shown are scenes in which a surging force of Constantine's soldiers force those of Maxentius, including Maxentius himself, into the Tiber River, fully clad in armor; they all drowned. In a rather non-Christian gesture - assuming it is true - Constantine had Maxentius beheaded, and supposedly paraded that head around a couple of continents (Europe and Africa), mounted on a stake. Shades of the origins of the Greek capital – remember?

Measurements here, for comparison to the two arches above: the width is 25 meters, and the height 20.6 meters (82'-0” x 67'-7"). There are no lateral openings between the arches. The inscription above the main arch on this, the south side of the arch:

"To the emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine Maximus,
 Pius Felix Augustus,
since through divine inspiration and great wisdom
 he has delivered the state 
from the tyrant and all his factions,
 by his army and noble arms, 
the Senate and the Roman People,
 dedicate this arch decorated with triumphal insignia."

Until recently the site, basically, was a traffic island. Trucks rumbling around it began to cause visible damage and, by lucky coincidence, someone uncovered a site of archaeological interest (they're everywhere in Rome - just dig down a few feet) immediately adjacent to the north, thus giving local authorities an indisputable excuse to direct traffic away from this major monument. Romans are volatile to this day - I love many dearly - but they go on strike at the drop of a capello, and earlier attempts at banning traffic and parking were often met with strikes of all sorts. Gradually, however, a street or a piazza at a time, Rome is being reclaimed for pedestrians, and in this case, a monument. Would you believe that the Piazza of St. Peter's Basilica was literally a parking lot until at least the late 1960s? I was once directed by local police to park on the steps of St. Peter's during a busy day when the Pope (Paul VI) was giving an audience inside. Now the only vehicle allowed in the Piazza is the "Pope Mobile."

What is fascinating to see is that when a street is closed to traffic, be it permanently or on weekends, restaurant chairs and tables appear in moments, and dinner is served on sidewalks and on the very street itself.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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