The Arch of Constantine

Standing near the mighty Colosseum is one of the last great monuments of Roman antiquity, the Arch of Constantine (Arco di Costantino). It is a monumental arch, consisting of three bays, that spans the route great men would follow when celebrating a military triumph.

The Arch of Constantine, peeking around the Colosseum

The Roman Senate knew it was a good idea to build something pleasing to get in the good graces of an emperor. During the reign of Emperor Augustus, they built him a magnificent piece of art and propaganda, the Ara Pacis. After Constantine defeated his rival emperor, Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E., they built him this arch.

Looking up at the Arch of Constantine

But times were different by then. Rome was on the decline, and money was tight. You can see this when you look at the Arch of Constantine, if you know what to look for. In other words, you can see the clues that suggest that the Roman Senate built it on the cheap. Re-using older building materials or art pieces was a regular practice during the Roman era. For example, a statue of a man could be re-used, but with a new head — quicker and cheaper than commissioning an entirety new statue. The builders of the Arch of Constantine took a similar approach.

Take, for example, the roundels (the round bits of sculpture that look like discs). There are eight of them that are “recycled,” four on each long side of the arch, as you can see in the photo directly above. Here is a close-up of two of them:

Two of the roundels depicting Hadrian

These round sculptures have nothing to do with Constantine. Indeed, they are taken from a monument to the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138. In the two roundels above, Hadrian hunts a wild boar on horseback, and makes a sacrifice to a pagan god. The head of Hadrian was recarved a bit to make it look more like Constantine, but it’s still clear these scenes have nothing to do with him; indeed, he would not be sacrificing to pagan gods, since he converted to Christianity when he came to believe that the Christian God had helped him win at the the Milvian Bridge.

On the highest level of the arch are figures of conquered barbarians, their hands tied, their eyes downcast. Again, these are re-used sculptures that relate to the Emperor Trajan, who preceded Hadrian. Between the barbarians are carved panels that depict scenes in the life of yet another emperor, Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180).

Two barbarians, their hands bound, wear their little hats and look downwards

Nevertheless, there are some parts of the Arch of Constantine that were carved just for the monument, such as this frieze:

Lengthy frieze on the Arch of Constantine, showing Constantine (now missing his head) making a speech

Compare the quality of the carvings of this frieze to one of the re-used panels that were made to commemorate Marcus Aurelius,

Well-provisioned, and elegantly carved, Roman soldiers

The contrast is pretty drastic. Some historians have posited that one of the reasons for the re-use of the carvings from monuments to the earlier emperors was because Rome could no longer attract great artisans. This rings true to me, looking at the quality of the carvings. My suggestion that this was to save money is entirely consistent with this theory. Other historians also opine that the use of the carvings relating to the other emperors, who were known as the “Five Good Emperors,” was also a propaganda campaign to suggest that Constantine would also be a great, or at least “good,” ruler. Perhaps all these reasons are true.

So when you stand in front of the arch and see it with your own eyes, examine it carefully — because the story it tells is not a simple one. Like Rome itself, the arch is a story built layer, upon layer, upon layer.