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  • Symbiosis and Civil War:The Audacity of the Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine is one of ancient Rome’s best-known monuments, famous for its use of spolia and its status as emblem of the religious and political changes that occurred under Constantine. Yet one of its most ground-breaking aspects is its explicit depiction of Constantine’s civil war against Maxentius. This study examines the historical context for this revolution in Roman art. By analyzing the Arch of Constantine’s topography, architectural form, sculptural decoration, and epigraphy in the context of similar imperial monuments, it argues that Constantine and the Senate intentionally subverted the longstanding norms of an imperial triumphal arch, transposing the implications of the Roman triumph onto Constantine’s civil war victory over Maxentius. It argues further that the two parties worked jointly to design the arch’s unprecedented representations of civil war because of a symbiotic desire to reject the Tetrarchy: Constantine sought to pursue sole power while the Senate hoped to reclaim Rome’s—and its—centrality in the empire.


2015 marked the 1700th anniversary of the dedication of the Arch of Constantine, and the centuries have done nothing to diminish people’s interest in the monument (Fig. 1). No one could accuse scholars of neglecting the Arch of Constantine.1 Yet the predominant approaches obscure some of its most original aspects and thus prevent a fuller understanding. First, there is a tendency to focus on the arch’s prolific use of spolia. This topic is rich in implications, but the emphasis on the arch’s re-used reliefs sometimes results in a thinner treatment of its fourth-century sculptures.2 Second, the common focus on the arch’s sculptural decoration can prevent consideration of the [End Page 42]

Figure 1. Rome, Arch of Constantine, south face (Photo: William Storage, ).
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Figure 1.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, south face (Photo: William Storage,

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monument’s totality: its architectural form, inscriptions, and topographical location.3 Finally, scholars frequently note only in passing one of the most peculiar aspects of the Arch of Constantine—namely, its explicit depiction of civil war—and then waver between whether the arch is in fact proclaiming civil war baldly or rather trying to disguise civil war as a foreign victory.4

This article examines this unusual representation of Constantine’s civil war against Maxentius in the broader context of the arch’s topography, architectural form, and epigraphy. Its civil war depictions are one of the most revolutionary aspects of the Arch of Constantine and deserve greater consideration than they have received. The arch was not the first imperial monument to reuse earlier reliefs, nor was it the first example in Roman art of the so-called late antique style.5 It was, however, the first state monument to depict civil war explicitly in its sculptural decoration.6 In stark contrast to surviving state reliefs from imperial Rome, the frieze encircling the Arch of Constantine offers a narrative not of war against a foreign enemy but of Constantine’s victorious campaign against Maxentius.7

As Mayer has noted, the Arch of Constantine’s visual representation of civil war “was a radical breach with the tradition of imperial praise and cries out for an explanation.”8 Yet scholars generally either ignore this novel aspect of the Arch or mention it merely in passing.9 Mayer and Wienand have offered important correctives, both highlighting the extraordinariness of the Arch of Constantine’s depictions of civil war and attempting to explain this innovation in socio–historic terms.10 Mayer argues that Constantine’s desire to obtain absolute monarchy in the increasingly decentralized Roman Empire and justify his institution of dynastic succession motivated the explicit depiction of civil war. Wienand maintains that civil war had come to be seen in a more positive light during the third century, when the internal conflicts in the [End Page 44] empire transformed it into a regular part of imperial politics.11 In his view, Constantine’s staging of his civil war victory was meant to proclaim his leadership, as well as his military and strategic abilities.

Mayer and Wienand have expanded our understanding of how radically the Arch of Constantine broke with imperial tradition—and why. Questions still remain, however, about why a monument dedicated by the Senate of Rome hews so closely to Constantine’s ambitions for sole power. The present article builds upon this previous work by arguing that we can understand the full reasoning behind and meaning of the civil war depictions on the Arch of Constantine only by looking at the relief decoration and the dedicatory inscription together, in the context of other triumphal arches in Rome and in the particular historical situation of Rome at the time of the arch’s construction. The Arch of Constantine subverts epigraphic and decorative standards for these so-called triumphal arches, as a comparison with the Arch of Septimius, on which the Arch of Constantine was modeled, makes abundantly clear.12 The Arch of Constantine deftly appropriates the semantic associations of the imperial triumphal arch to transfer the positive connotations of the Roman triumph onto a civil war victory.

Finally, I argue that that the revolutionary depiction of civil war on the Arch of Constantine results not from a one-sided effort on the part of Constantine to consolidate autocratic power, as Mayer and Wienand suggest, but from a symbiotic desire of Constantine and the senatorial elite in Rome to reject the governmental system of the Tetrarchy for their own purposes: Constantine to achieve monarchy, the Senate to reclaim Rome as the center of the empire. My aim is neither to offer a definitive interpretation of the Arch of Constantine nor to negate compelling readings of the importance of spolia, solar imagery, and so on in the arch’s artistic program. Rather, I seek to complement our understanding of this fascinating but enigmatic monument by suggesting an explanation for its innovative representations of civil war.

The Arch of Constantine: Dating, Topography, and Appearance

The Arch of Constantine celebrated Constantine’s victory over his fellow Roman, Maxentius, the son of the former tetrarch Maximian.13 Like [End Page 45] Constantine, Maxentius had laid claim to imperial power following the death of Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus, in 306. The Senate voted the arch to Constantine after Constantine’s momentous defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312. The arch was dedicated in 315, the year of Constantine’s decennalia celebrations.14 Inscriptions on the arch’s north face (VOTIS .X and VOTIS .XX) and south face (SIC .X and SIC .XX) refer to Constantine’s decennalia and vicennalia, but the inscriptions referring to the vicennalia were surely intended as vota suscepta (newly undertaken vows), rather than vota soluta (vows that have been redeemed).15

There has been renewed controversy about whether the Arch of Constantine is, in fact, originally Constantinian. Already at the beginning of the twentieth century, Frothingham proposed that it was a Domitianic monument rededicated to Constantine.16 Recently, a group of Italian scholars has contended that the original arch was Hadrianic but was later reused under Constantine.17 The arguments against this hypothesis are preponderous, including that stratigraphic soundings show the arch’s foundations to date to the beginning of the fourth century.18 Most scholars believe (correctly, in my opinion) that the arch is in fact of early fourth-century date.19 The question remains, however, whether the arch is a Constantinian original or a Maxentian project appropriated by Constantine, along the lines of the Basilica Nova and the colossal portrait of Constantine in the Palazzo dei Conservatori.20 It seems likely that the arch was built during Constantine’s reign,21 [End Page 46] but a Maxentian origin for its architectural core would not change the present argument. If anything, appropriating an existing arch of Maxentius would have made the entire monument into a spoil of war, as it were, strengthening the arch’s explicit references to Constantine’s victory over Maxentius described below.

Figure 2. Schematic map of the triumphal route in Rome under Constantine, with the nodes of the route shaded light gray: 1) Arch of Constantine. 2) Fornices Stertinii in the Forum Boarium. 3) Parthian Arch of Augustus in the Roman Forum. 4) Arch of Tiberius on the Vicus Iugarius. 5) Arch of Titus in the Circus Maximus (atop the earlier Fornix Stertinius in the Circus Maximus). 6) Arch of Septimius in the Roman Forum. 7) Arch of Titus on the Sacra Via (Drawing: Leah Solk and Maggie Popkin).
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Figure 2.

Schematic map of the triumphal route in Rome under Constantine, with the nodes of the route shaded light gray: 1) Arch of Constantine. 2) Fornices Stertinii in the Forum Boarium. 3) Parthian Arch of Augustus in the Roman Forum. 4) Arch of Tiberius on the Vicus Iugarius. 5) Arch of Titus in the Circus Maximus (atop the earlier Fornix Stertinius in the Circus Maximus). 6) Arch of Septimius in the Roman Forum. 7) Arch of Titus on the Sacra Via (Drawing: Leah Solk and Maggie Popkin).

The Arch of Constantine’s topographical location was surely carefully chosen. It stands prominently on the triumphal route, where processions would have entered the Colosseum Valley after parading along the eastern [End Page 47] slope of the Palatine from the Circus Maximus (Fig. 2, no. 1).22 As Marlowe has shown, spectators moving along this street between the Palatine and the Caelian hills in the direction of a triumphal procession would have caught a dramatic view of the Arch of Constantine framing the Colossus of Nero, by then transformed into a statue of Sol.23 From the arch, triumphs would have turned to make their way to the Forum along the Sacra Via.

The Arch of Constantine’s architecture aligns closely with that of earlier imperial arches.24 It is triple-bayed, with a tall central passageway flanked by two smaller lateral passages. Each façade has four projecting, disengaged Corinthian columns atop tall pedestals, and the arch is surmounted by a heavy attic, which bears the prominent dedicatory inscription:


To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and fortunate Augustus, because, inspired by divinity and by the greatness of his mind, he has delivered the state from the tyrant and his faction at one instant, with his army and with the just force of arms, the Senate and people of Rome have dedicated this arch, distinguished by his triumphs.25

We do not know the appearance of the attic decoration that would have stood above the arch’s inscription, or even whether the arch had any. Magi has argued that it had a simple parapet above the attic with no attic statuary.26 A lack of gilded bronze attic statuary would be singular among Roman arches, and it is more plausible that the Arch of Constantine had statues atop its attic, perhaps depicting Constantine in a triumphal chariot.27 Unfortunately, we lack numismatic depictions of the arch that would clarify this question. [End Page 48]

Attic statuary or not, the Arch of Constantine has a rich program of relief sculpture, much reused from second-century imperial monuments, including segments of the Great Trajanic Frieze depicting battle scenes;28 Trajanic statues of barbarian prisoners;29 panel reliefs showing scenes associated with imperial virtues, probably from an arch of Marcus Aurelius;30 and Hadrianic tondi with scenes of hunting and sacrifice.31

The Arch of Constantine also displays assorted reliefs carved in the fourth century specifically for the monument. These include two tondi of Sol and Luna on the arch’s short sides, winged victories bearing trophies in the spandrels of the central bay and river gods in the spandrels of the lateral bays, keystone figures, and reliefs on the column pedestals that depict victories on the front faces and Roman soldiers, some leading barbarian captives, on the side panels (Fig. 3). Beneath the fourth-century and Hadrianic tondi runs a frieze that illustrates Constantine’s civil war against Maxentius with anecdotal events from his victorious campaign.32

The frieze’s narrative begins on the arch’s short west side (Fig. 4). At the left, a wagon with two figures atop it departs from a city gate. An entourage of soldiers marches before the wagon, with a mule and a camel bearing baggage in tow. Two standard-bearers toward the right of the frieze carry standards surmounted by small statues of Victoria and Sol Invictus.33 Several soldiers with musical instruments complete the right end of the procession. The scene is usually identified as Constantine’s departure from Milan to wage war against Maxentius. The frieze’s iconography does not dictate this identification, but we know that Milan capitulated to Constantine without a fight.34 As Potter has observed, “To have so easily won control of an important imperial capital was a victory of symbolic significance and led other cities in the area to pledge Constantine their loyalty.”35 This sort of symbolic significance makes it attractive to see Milan as the city from which Constantine departs to undertake his siege of Verona.

Indeed, following the frieze around to the arch’s south façade, one encounters a section depicting the siege of a city, commonly identified as Verona, where Constantine successfully defeated Maxentius’s army (Fig. 5). Verona was also [End Page 49]

Figure 3. Rome, Arch of Constantine, pedestal relief with captives (Photo: Maggie Popkin).
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Figure 3.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, pedestal relief with captives (Photo: Maggie Popkin).

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Figure 4. Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s departure from Milan (Photo: William Storage, ).
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Figure 4.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s departure from Milan (Photo: William Storage,

Figure 5. Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s siege of Verona (Photo: William Storage, ).
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Figure 5.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s siege of Verona (Photo: William Storage,

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the victory that brought Constantine mastery of northern Italy.36 The frieze begins at the viewer’s left with a horse trotting out in front of a tree. Before the horse are two Roman soldiers with large shields. In front of them stands Constantine himself, cuirassed and larger in scale; he is crowned by a winged victory who hovers at the top of the frieze. Before Constantine a phalanx of Roman soldiers bearing shields and a row of archers behind them besiege a walled city, which takes up the right third of the frieze. An enemy soldier tumbles from the city’s left rampart, foreshadowing Constantine’s victory in the encounter.

The southeast frieze depicts the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (Fig. 6). At the relief’s left edge, a group of figures stand atop a platform from which pour the waters of the Tiber, personified as a reclining river god. One of the figures appears to be an average Roman soldier, but two figures represent deities: Roma, recognizable in her Amazonian dress and crested helmet, and winged Victoria. Between the two female deities, the outline remains of a male figure that has been chiseled off. This figure, standing on the prow of a ship and surrounded by gods, must be Constantine. In front of him, a violent battle rages in the river. Constantine’s soldiers, on horseback and on foot at the frieze’s upper edge, strike the flailing figures of Maxentius’s soldiers, who flounder desperately in the water.

On the arch’s short east side, the frieze represents Constantine’s entry into Rome after his defeat of Maxentius (Fig. 7). The scene opens at the left with Constantine seated in a wagon drawn by four horses and driven by a winged victory. The wagon emerges from a city gate, the pier of which is visible at left. Foot soldiers and cavalry advance before Constantine. The soldiers at the right edge of the frieze march through another gate. The frieze is preceded at the left corner by an image of soldiers passing through a quadrifrons gate topped by sculptures of elephants, which matches Martial’s description of the Porta Triumphalis built by Domitian and locates the procession securely in Rome.37 The procession seems not to show an actual triumph, where the emperor would be standing in a two-wheeled chariot rather than seated in a four-wheeled wagon, but instead Constantine’s triumphal entry into the city. The panegyric of 313 employs triumphal imagery to describe Constantine’s entry into Rome, which might mean that the two ceremonies—adventus and triumph—were conflated.38 It is extremely difficult to determine whether the anonymous panegyrist’s use of triumphal terminology denotes a triumph proper or an attempt to glorify further Constantine’s entry into Rome. It is likewise difficult to establish [End Page 52]

Figure 6. Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (Photo: William Storage, ).
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Figure 6.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (Photo: William Storage,

Figure 7. Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s triumphal entry into Rome (Photo: William Storage, ).
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Figure 7.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s triumphal entry into Rome (Photo: William Storage,

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whether contemporaries would have viewed the arch’s frieze as an adventus or as a triumph; even if the former were the case, the presence of the Porta Triumphalis might have given the scene a distinctly triumphal flavor.

The cycle ends on the north façade of the arch with two friezes showing an oratio of Constantine in the Roman Forum in the northwest (Fig. 8) and a congiarium of the emperor in the northeast (Fig. 9). The oratio frieze shows Constantine in military dress standing at the center of the composition on the Rostra, surrounded by senators. At the edges of the Rostra appear portrait statues of Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian; behind the speaker’s platform is the Diocletianic Five-Column Monument. In the frieze’s background, monuments of the Forum are visible, including the Arch of Septimius Severus to the right of the Rostra. In the congiarium frieze, Constantine again appears at the center of the composition, seated on a dais, wearing the toga contabulata, and still surrounded by senators similarly dressed.

Subverting the Traditional Triumphal Arch

Traditional Aspects of the Arch of Constantine

There has been much debate of late about whether it is more appropriate to call arches in Rome “honorific” whenever they cannot certainly be associated with a specific military victory or triumphal procession.39 Blanketing all Rome’s imperial arches with the term “honorific,” however, risks obscuring the diverse motivations behind their construction. Some imperial arches clearly presented themselves as commemorating military victories and/or triumphs achieved by a particular man, or men, and the Arch of Constantine stands emphatically among them.40 In many ways, the Arch of Constantine presented itself as a traditional triumphal arch.

First, the arch’s topographical position on the triumphal route places it in a long series of arches erected on this hallowed processional path, stretching back to our earliest documented arches of the republic: the fornices erected by L. Stertinius in 196 bce to commemorate his victories in Spain (Fig. 2, no. 2).41 Imperial arches along the triumphal route included the Parthian Arch of [End Page 54]

Figure 8. Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s oratio in the Roman Forum (Photo: © Vanni Archive/Art Resource, NY).
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Figure 8.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s oratio in the Roman Forum (Photo: © Vanni Archive/Art Resource, NY).

Figure 9. Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s congiarium (Photo: Maggie Popkin).
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Figure 9.

Rome, Arch of Constantine, frieze showing Constantine’s congiarium (Photo: Maggie Popkin).

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Augustus in the Roman Forum, probably located just south of the Temple of Divus Iulius (Fig. 2, no. 3);42 the Arch of Tiberius on the Vicus Iugarius (Fig. 2, no. 4);43 the Arch of Titus in the sphendone of the Circus Maximus (Fig. 2, no. 5),44 and the Arch of Septimius Severus in the northwest corner of the Forum (Fig. 2, no. 6).45 The extant Arch of Titus on the Sacra Via (Fig. 2, no. 7), while a posthumous funerary monument to Titus, commemorates the Jewish triumph like the arch in the Circus Maximus, as its famous passageway reliefs attest.46 By the time of Constantine, the close connection in Rome between foreign military victory, the triumph, and the monument type of the arch was longstanding.47

In its architectural form as well as its topographical location, the Arch of Constantine aligned itself with earlier imperial triumphal arches. Its design and proportions are closely modeled on the Arch of Septimius Severus specifically (Fig. 10), as Wilson Jones has demonstrated.48 This arch, dedicated by the SPQR in 203, stood in the Forum’s northwest corner. Both the Severan and Constantinian arches have a large central passageway flanked by two smaller lateral passages, and both have Corinthian columns atop pedestals on their façades. Above the body and columns of each arch sits a heavy attic bearing the dedicatory inscription.

The Arch of Constantine imitates not only the architecture of the Arch of Septimius but also many of its sculptural motifs. Both, for example, have winged victories in the central spandrels and river gods in the lateral spandrels.49 They share column pedestals decorated with reliefs of Roman soldiers leading barbarian captives, and both have a small frieze running above the lateral bays.50 The Arch of Constantine is but a short walk from the Arch [End Page 56] of Septimius, and people who saw the former were surely familiar with the latter. The Arch of Septimius even appears in the fourth-century oratio relief on the Arch of Constantine, as noted above, so the fourth-century sculptors were certainly aware of the Severan arch (Fig. 8).

Figure 10. Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, west face (Photo: Maggie Popkin).
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Figure 10.

Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, west face (Photo: Maggie Popkin).

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This easily recognizable similarity between the Constantinian and Severan arches would have set up an expectation that the message of the two arches was similar. In cognitive terms, gist-memory encapsulates what people perceive as the “essential semantic meaning” of something.51 In experiments, for example, people presented with a list of words such as “candy, chocolate, pie, honey” and so on will overwhelmingly remember that the word “sweet” was part of the original list, even though it was not. People perceive that the gist of the words on the list is “sweet” and then remember seeing the word “sweet.”52 The gist of an imperial triumphal arch was that it commemorated an emperor’s foreign military victory, and this would have been the expected message of the Arch of Constantine.53 Yet, although the Severan and Constantinian arches were both dedicated by the Senate to an emperor who had come to power in civil war—Septimius against Piscennius Niger and then Clodius Albinus, and Constantine against Maxentius—their treatment of civil war differs fundamentally.54

The Arch of Septimius Severus: Foreign Victory to Obfuscate Civil War

The Arch of Septimius presents that emperor as a general triumphant not in a civil war but against a foreign enemy: the Parthians.55 The pedestal reliefs depict Roman soldiers leading captive Parthians, hands bound and heads lowered dejectedly (Fig. 11). Moving in the same direction as a triumphal procession, the figures on the pedestal reliefs reenact a Parthian triumph in stone. The small frieze on the Arch of Septimius also refers to a Parthian victory. It depicts processions of carts bearing packages (spoils of war?), animals, Roman soldiers, and Parthian prisoners; the processions terminate at a seated figure of Roma, before whom captive Parthians subjugate themselves, and a seated personification of Parthia (Figs. 12, 13). Roma sits with her back straight and her head high, gazing imperiously at the Parthian prisoners from [End Page 58]

Figure 11. Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, pedestal relief with Roman soldiers and Parthian captives (Photo: Maggie Popkin).
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Figure 11.

Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, pedestal relief with Roman soldiers and Parthian captives (Photo: Maggie Popkin).

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Figure 12. Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, detail of frieze below the northwest panel showing procession, with figure of Roma at right (Photo: Maggie Popkin).
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Figure 12.

Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, detail of frieze below the northwest panel showing procession, with figure of Roma at right (Photo: Maggie Popkin).

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Figure 13. Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, detail of frieze below the northwest panel showing procession, with figure of Parthia at center (Photo: Maggie Popkin).
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Figure 13.

Rome, Arch of Septimius Severus, detail of frieze below the northwest panel showing procession, with figure of Parthia at center (Photo: Maggie Popkin).

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beneath her crested helmet. Parthia, in contrast, sits with her head hung low, her back hunched, hands crossed on her knees, as a Roman soldier stands tall before her. Whether or not the frieze depicts a triumphal procession (we see no quadriga, for example), its iconography testifies that Roma, led by Septimius, has vanquished Parthia.56

The attic statuary of the Arch of Septimius, deduced from coin depictions and cuttings atop the arch, showed Septimius in a six-horse triumphal chariot, flanked by Parthian prisoners (Fig. 14).57 The four great relief panels on the Arch of Septimius depict the Roman army besieging Parthian cities.58 Probably modeled on the triumphal paintings that had for centuries hung on the nearby Curia,59 the panels boldly show Septimius’s foreign military accomplishments.

Finally, the Arch of Septimius’s dedicatory inscription emphasizes the emperor’s foreign victory as well. It reads:


To the Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius, son of Marcus, Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus, father of his country, Parthicus Arabicus, Parthicus Adiabenicus, Pontifex Maximus, with tribunician powers eleven times, acclaimed imperator eleven times, consul three times, and proconsul, and to the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius, son of Lucius, Antoninus [End Page 62] Augustus Pius Felix, with tribunician powers six times, consul, proconsul, father of his country, the best and bravest of princes, for having restored the republic and enlarged the empire of the Roman people by their extraordinary virtues at home and abroad, the Senate and people of Rome dedicate this arch.60

The inscription’s reference to the restoration of the republic implies civil war. Yet it noticeably includes the honorific cognomina Septimius received for his victories in the East: Parthicus Arabicus and Parthicus Adiabenicus. It also credits Septimius with enlarging the empire of the Roman people. The inscription thus plays up Septimius’s power in foreign territory and credits him with bringing that territory into Rome’s dominion.61

Figure 14. Denarius of Septimius Severus, 206 , showing the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum (Photo: British Museum, London, inv. no. R.15321. © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.).
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Figure 14.

Denarius of Septimius Severus, 206 ce, showing the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum (Photo: British Museum, London, inv. no. R.15321. © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.).

It is unclear whether Septimius actually celebrated a triumphal procession in 202 for his Parthian Wars. Our two contemporary sources, Cassius Dio and Herodian, do not mention one,62 and the author of the Historia Augusta thinks that Caracalla, not Septimius, triumphed in 202.63 Whether or not [End Page 63] Septimius triumphed, his arch attempts to aggrandize his Parthian victories.64 Its inscription obliquely references the emperor’s civil war against Niger, but its overall effect obfuscates Septimius’s civil conflicts, instead driving home a message of foreign victory. It apparently did not matter that Septimius’s foreign victories in Parthia were dubious, including incidents such as his notorious failure to capture the enemy city of Hatra.65 Better to play up a foreign victory, however tenuous, than to celebrate openly a civil war.66

The Arch of Constantine: Civil War Over Foreign Victory

The Arch of Constantine takes the Severan arch’s studied concealment of civil war and turns it on its head. It is difficult to overstate the audacity of the Arch of Constantine as the first state monument to proclaim and depict civil war explicitly. We are far removed from Caesar’s triumph in 46 bce, when paintings of defeated Romans (Cato, for example) aroused empathy and anger in the Roman spectators.67 Caesar was chastised for showing these scenes of civil war and did not do so on any of his state monuments. The Arch of Constantine, on the other hand, uses its dedicatory inscription and frieze to broadcast this sort of civil conflict not in ephemeral paintings but in stone, the most permanent of ancient media.

Scholars generally interpret the arch’s attic inscription as fairly traditional.68 In the context of arches along the triumphal route, however, the dedicatory inscription is far from conventional. A sufficient corpus of inscriptions from triumphal arches dedicated to emperors who owed their power to civil wars exists to highlight the exceptionality of the Arch of Constantine’s inscription. The inscription of Augustus’s Parthian Arch does not survive, although an inscription recovered and then lost in the sixteenth century in the Roman Forum is sometimes associated with it.69 If this inscription belonged to the Parthian Arch, which is not secure, its mention of the re publica conservata [End Page 64] implies the civil strife that tore at the late Republic, but only obliquely, with no explicit mention of Augustus’s domestic foes.70 The inscription of the Arch of Titus in the Circus Maximus, known from an eighth century transcription, alludes in no way to the civil war that brought the Flavian dynasty to power; it is solely about Titus’s conquest of the Jews and destruction of Jerusalem.71 The inscription even declares, falsely, that Titus was the first Roman to conquer Jerusalem.72 This is the same sort of augmentation or exaggeration of foreign victory that one sees later on the Arch of Septimius, where the inscription proclaims Septimius’s towering victory over the Parthians, even though his Parthian Wars were hardly resounding successes.

Against this background of imperial arches whose inscriptions at most imply civil war and often strenuously emphasize foreign victory, the Arch of Constantine’s inscription stands out. There is no explicit mention of a foreign victory here. At most, the “triumphs” with which the arch is decorated might allude tenuously to Constantine’s Frankish victories. The explicit reference, however, is to the tyrant and his faction, which for any contemporary viewer would have meant Maxentius and his followers.73 This mention of a tyrannus and a factio—and thus civil war—is unique among comparable arches in Rome.

This vocabulary echoes Augustus’s Res Gestae, which is, to my knowledge, the only other public monument in Rome to reference civil war in a similarly explicit manner.74 The Augustan inscription claims that Augustus saved Rome from the oppression of a faction (most likely a reference to Caesar’s assassins and their followers).75 It is not coincidence that the Constantinian inscription [End Page 65] echoes such a famous monument of Augustus, who came to power in a civil war and, like Constantine, revolutionized Roman government.76 However, the comparable phrase in the Res Gestae is part of a much longer inscription and would not have stood out as much as the phrase in the Constantinian inscription. The Res Gestae was also a private monument. Unlike the Augustan inscription in its funerary context, the Constantinian inscription appears on a state monument—a triumphal arch. The Arch of Constantine boldly brings the Res Gestae’s civil war references to an unmistakably triumphal context and merges epigraphic references with visual representations of civil war.

Indeed, the greatest distinction between the Res Gestae and the Arch of Constantine’s inscription is that, of the two texts, only the latter is accompanied by images of civil war.77 As described above, the arch’s small frieze offers historical anecdotes from Constantine’s campaign against Maxentius and its aftermath. This frieze, though smaller in size than the arch’s other major reliefs, is a full meter tall and closer to eye level than the Hadrianic tondi and attic sculpture.78 If its rich details were originally painted, the color would have increased its visibility.79 The “late antique” style employed in the frieze would have further increased the relief’s legibility.80 When one stands close enough to the Arch of Constantine to appreciate the sculptural detail, the frieze is actually one of the most visible sculptural elements above the lateral passageways, because the spoliated reliefs are seen at such a steep angle as to be extremely foreshortened. Ultimately, the Constantinian civil war frieze would have been strikingly visible to viewers.

A frieze in this location would not have been unexpected; the Arch of Septimius has one in an almost identical location. But where the Severan frieze shows Parthia subjugated to Rome, the Constantinian frieze shows Maxentius’s troops subjugated to Constantine. While the Arch of Septimius’s panels present sieges of distant Parthian cities, we see on the Arch of Constantine the siege of Verona, an Italian city. While the Arch of Septimius shows Roman soldiers embroiled with recognizably foreign Parthian combatants, we see on [End Page 66] the Arch of Constantine soldiers, dressed in the identifying mail of Maxentius’s cavalry, drowning in the waters of the Tiber. Where the small frieze on the Arch of Septimius depicts a procession advancing toward personifications of victorious Rome and subjugated Parthia, we see on the Arch of Constantine his entry into Rome that is triumphal precisely because he has defeated a Roman enemy.81 The Arch of Constantine takes one of the oldest and most poignant symbols of victory over foreign foes—the triumphal arch—and subverts it, transforming it into a symbol of victory over fellow Romans.

Indeed, the revolutionary quality of the Arch of Constantine derives not only from its being the first state monument in Rome to depict civil war, which is remarkable, but also from its depicting civil war on a triumphal arch. It makes the audacious statement that it was no longer just foreign victories, or civil wars presented as foreign victories (such as Actium82), that could merit triumphal celebrations. Any victory the emperor won now counted fully and could be publicly and proudly proclaimed.83 Where the Arch of Septimius had attempted to augment perception of a foreign, Parthian victory to obscure civil war, the Arch of Constantine embraced Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius as deserving celebration in monumental form, on the largest triumphal arch ever built in Rome, at a critical turning point of the triumphal route.84

Some of the Gallic panegyrics also portray Constantine’s civil war victory as worthy of public acclaim. The panegyric of 313, for example, describes the severed head of Maxentius paraded through the streets of Rome in 312 and mocked “in the customary jests of a triumph,” while “the entire populace of Rome broke out in vengeful rejoicing.”85 Nazarius, in his panegyric of 321, [End Page 67] reprises this motif, describing “the loathsome head of the tyrant himself” subjected to “savagery” and “abusive words” and “mocking.”86 Maxentius may not be mentioned by name, but there is no doubt who the tyrant is, no pretending that Constantine’s victory was over a foreign enemy. The Gallic panegyrics recount Constantine’s campaigns against the Franks, but they do not confuse the victory over Maxentius with Constantine’s northern wars.87 The Panegyrist of 313, for example, describes Constantine’s war against Maxentius at great length before turning to Constantine’s Frankish campaigns, and he is quite clear that the former was a civil war and the latter a foreign one.88 The panegyrics, with the exception of Nazarius’s speech, were delivered in Gaul, not for a metropolitan Roman audience. It is understandable that many of the panegyrics describe Constantine’s northern wars, which were of greater immediate impact for residents of Gaul than for residents of Rome, more than Nazarius does. The Arch of Constantine, on the other hand, was very much for a Roman audience, and we should not necessarily expect it to convey messages identical to those we discern in the Gallic panegyrics. Nazarius’s is the only panegyric of the Constantinian era delivered to a Roman audience, and he lavishes all his attention on Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius. In Rome, it seems, Constantine’s civil war victory was thought worthy of acclaim on its own.

Symbiotic Goals in the Arch of Constantine: Monarchy for Constantine, Centrality for the Roman Senate

The Arch of Constantine’s proclamation of civil war stands in stark contrast to triumphal arches that had come before it. But who was responsible for this innovation? And what were the underlying motivations?

The attic inscription states that the Senate and people of Rome dedicated the Arch of Constantine, and the use of the dative in the central passageway inscriptions (LIBERATORI VRBIS and FVNDATORI QVIETIS) reinforces Constantine’s official position as recipient rather than patron. Nonetheless, studies of the arch have often perceived it as propaganda straight from Constantine’s mouth.89 In contrast, some scholars have recently taken the dedicatory inscription as dispositive evidence that the arch represents a strictly senatorial [End Page 68] vision.90 In this view, the Arch of Constantine expresses the Senate’s message to Constantine of the kind of emperor they hoped he would be.91 Zanker has argued that the Senate communicated three specific hopes for Constantine through the arch: that he be a pious emperor, respectful of traditional Roman religion; that he conduct himself as first among equals in relation to the Senate; and that he maintain imperial co-rule along tetrarchic lines.92

Propaganda is a problematic designation for Roman imperial art, and surely the Arch of Constantine’s iconography and epigraphy do not stem directly or exclusively from Constantine and his court.93 Yet the Senate just as surely avoided erecting an arch that displeased the emperor.94 The Senate was, in part, attempting to produce a message that catered to Constantine. An analogy may be drawn here with Constantinian panegyrics. It is now generally accepted that the imperial court did not dictate to panegyrists their compositions; however, it is likely that panegyrists communicated with the imperial chancery about what topics were currently in vogue with the emperor, to ensure that their panegyrics would please him.95 It seems equally likely that even if Constantine and his court did not dictate the iconography of the arch’s sculpture or the precise wording of its inscriptions, they conveyed desires about the arch’s program and possibly even approved it.96 Even Mayer, who generally argues that we should not think of senatorially-dedicated state monuments as imperial propaganda,97 believes that Constantine must have given his consent for something as controversial as civil war to be depicted [End Page 69] on his eponymous arch—or even requested it.98 As Mayer suggests, “ … the panegyric of 313 and the Arch of Constantine justify the guess that he [Constantine] demanded public applause for his victory over Maxentius. …”99 The Senate could have its own messages to convey, to both the emperor and the public, but emperors were not entirely removed from the design of public monuments meant to honor them, and we can imagine that in some instances the interaction between Senate and emperor was involved.

The Arch of Constantine is neither an unfiltered senatorial message nor unadulterated Constantinian propaganda. Most plausibly, the Senate and Constantine were, in practice, jointly responsible for the arch.100 The question should then be not what the Senate or Constantine had to gain through the arch, which presumes that their interests were mutually exclusive, but what both of them had to gain. Through the explicit representation of civil war, the Arch of Constantine expressed symbiotic desires of the Senate and Constantine: the Senate gained, or at least thought it would gain, a return to centrality for the city of Rome, and Constantine gained an appearance of autocratic rule in contrast to the preceding Tetrarchy.

Whether the third-century Roman Empire suffered a crisis or crises is the subject of vigorous debate, with many scholars now arguing that for most people living across the empire, life proceeded apace, unaffected by the unrest at the level of the imperial office.101 Regardless of one’s position on the socalled crisis of empire in the third century, the city of Rome saw its position within the Roman Empire transformed over the course of the century.102 Emperors increasingly hailed from provinces outside Italy and stayed away from Rome. With the rise of the Tetrarchy, Rome, if still the symbolic capital of the empire, saw itself challenged by not one but multiple new imperial capitals, from Trier to Milan, Nicomedia, and Thessalonica.103 Most of the Tetrarchs all but ignored Rome. As Herodian wrote, Rome was wherever the emperor was—and that was increasingly not the city on the Tiber.104 Maxentius, basing himself in Rome, was really the only emperor in this period who [End Page 70] spent a significant amount of time in the capital city,105 and while this earned him goodwill from Rome’s inhabitants at the beginning, relations soured and there had even been open riots by 312.106

The dire picture painted by third-century authors is often dismissed as irretrievably biased because senators were chagrined at the increasing power of the army. While such elite sources probably do not indicate how people perceived any crisis or lack thereof in many Roman provinces, they suggest that senators were not all pleased with the course of events in the third century.107 The increasing peripheralness of what had once been the central city of the world must have stung the senatorial elite: Rome’s diminished prestige diminished their own. Presumably they would have been eager to change Rome’s status if the opportunity presented itself.108 Lenski has argued that the frieze on the Arch of Constantine of the emperor’s triumphal entry into Rome shows Constantine riding in a carruca, the vehicle of senatorial aristocrats. Lenski interprets this detail as demonstrating the Senate’s desire to coopt Constantine “as one of their own, a civilis princeps for the fourth century.”109 Bravi has suggested that the arch’s Aurelian relief panels and Constantinian frieze emphasize the path leading the emperor toward Rome.110 The reliefs in this case might also express the Senate’s desire that the emperor be one of them again and that, once more, all roads lead to Rome. Constantine’s generous treatment of Maxentius’s senatorial allies after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge might have made that hope seem all the more within reach.111

If the Senate wanted to restore Rome’s centrality in the wake of events at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine, for his part, was after “absolute monarchy,” in Mayer’s words.112 At the time of the arch’s construction, Constantine was still technically a co-ruler of the empire, with Licinius in the East. But there seems to have been little effort made in Rome to highlight Licinius as Constantine’s joint ruler. Nazarius’s panegyric of Constantine, delivered in Rome in 321, does not mention Licinius.113 Nazarius, like the [End Page 71] Arch of Constantine, was delivering a message that the emperor would have embraced: one of sole rule. Given that both the arch and the panegyric elide or at least minimize Licinius, it appears that Constantine was not keen to have a system of joint rule emphasized. Constantine had not chosen a Caesar to rule beneath him.114 Even his portraits reject tetrarchic conventions in favor of a more Augustan classicism.115 Constantine, it seems, did not want to preserve the Tetrarchy.

Instead, the Senate and Constantine both had something to gain from the abolishment of the Tetrarchy, or thought they did.116 The Senate could gain the hope that Rome, with the Senate at its head, would be returned to its rightful place as the center of the empire, rather than one city among the constellation of tetrarchic capitals.117 Constantine could inch closer toward his ambitions of sole rule. History proved the Senate’s hope misguided even as it fulfilled Constantine’s, but at the time of the arch’s construction and dedication, both parties could genuinely have believed they had something to gain from presenting Constantine as victor not over a wholly foreign foe, but over Maxentius. This helps explain why both the Senate and Constantine would have wanted to show civil war on the Arch of Constantine; they both desired to show the dissolution, or at least impending dissolution, of the Tetrarchy.118 Victory over Romans provided an appropriate motif to signify victory over this form of Roman government. What better way to signify the end of this particular system of co-rule than to show Constantine’s defeat of a “co-ruler?”

The designers of the Arch of Constantine do not entirely elide the Tetrarchy from the arch’s visual program. As Rohmann has observed, the second emperor in the recarved tondi has a traditionally tetrarchic portrait type, which contrasts with Constantine’s distinctively Augustan–Trajanic portrait type used on the arch.119 In the Constantinian oratio frieze, the Five-Column Monument, a quintessential symbol of the Tetrarchy, is visible behind the Rostra (Fig. 8). The arch’s goal was not to suppress entirely the memory of the Tetrarchy but rather to present it as something alive in people’s memory [End Page 72] against which Constantine could be contrasted.120 The second emperor in the tondi shows a traditional tetrarch to highlight the novel nature of Constantine’s portraits. The Five-Column Monument in the oratio relief provides a tetrarchic background against which Constantine stands as the new direction of Roman government.121

That the Arch of Constantine and its patrons did not have high hopes for co-rule is also shown by the conspicuous absence of Licinius or his minimal presence, depending on one’s interpretation of some of the arch’s recarved portraits. Some scholars identify Licinius in the recarved Hadrianic tondi; others prefer to identify the portraits in question as Constantius Chlorus.122 In either case, Licinius is completely missing from the inscription and the fourth-century frieze.123 The inscription would have been the largest individual element on each façade, and Licinius’s absence here is striking. Licinius hardly receives a prominent display in the arch’s overall program.124 The arch emphasizes Constantine above everyone else—and this remains true however one identifies the second emperor in the tondi.

That imperial arches could celebrate co-rule when desired is attested to by the Arch of Septimius, where the original inscription honored Caracalla and Geta in addition to Septimius. The Arch of Galerius in Thessalonica celebrates Galerius individually but also the Tetrarchy as a whole; all four tetrarchs appear prominently enthroned on the southwest pillar and in niche portraits on the arch’s main façades, where they are represented as equals.125 Rohmann argues that Licinius must appear on the Arch of Constantine because, given the tetrarchic tradition of representing the college of emperors together, it would have been a tremendous snub to Licinius not to be included in the arch.126 Considering how much more prominently Licinius could have featured in the inscription and sculptural decoration, however, one senses that Constantine’s arch is snubbing Licinius. Rohmann is correct that early fourth-century viewers would have been trained to expect to see groups of co-rulers.127 At the Arch [End Page 73] of Galerius, as just noted, the four tetrarchs are shown close together, jointly enthroned. In the famous porphyry portraits in Venice and the Vatican, the four emperors are again shown in close proximity, literally embracing each other.128 Viewers do not see this mode of joint representation on the Arch of Constantine, however. Licinius, if he appears in the recarved tondi, is shown discretely, visually distanced from Constantine. The arch’s designers could have shown Constantine and Licinius grasping hands, embracing, or even just sitting next to each other. The deviation from traditional representations of the Tetrarchs suggests that the Senate and Constantine were more interested in presenting the emperor in the west as an independent ruler.129

The compositions of the oratio and congiarium friezes further suggest rejection of the Tetrarchy. Constantine is shown surrounded by senators, not by soldiers, as one would expect. The senators’ physical proximity to Constantine signals their close connection to him and distances the emperor from the army, which, in the third century, had often come to be the Senate’s adversary in relations with the emperor. Thus, as Lenski has argued, the Constantinian friezes were “in many senses a statement subversive of tetrarchic patterns of rulership.”130

The arch’s inscription also distances Constantine from the Tetrarchy by naming its dedicatee as Flavius Constantinus. The inclusion of “Flavius” moves away from the Valerian tetrarchic dynasty towards a blood-related Flavian dynasty; it suggests rejection of collegiate rule in favor of a “traditional” imperial dynasty along the lines of the first-century Flavians, many of whose grandest monuments, such as the Colosseum and the Meta Sudans, surrounded the Arch of Constantine.131 MacCormack has argued that the Arch of Constantine further rejects the Tetrarchy by associating Constantine with Sol, as opposed to Jupiter, the favored divinity of Diocletian and other Tetrarchs.132 The Arch of Constantine hardly shows Constantine using the Tetrarchy as his means of legitimation, and it is difficult to accept Zanker’s assertion that the Senate was directing Constantine to maintain tetrarchic co-rule.

Even the inscription’s description of Maxentius as tyrannus might express the symbiotic goals of Constantine and the Senate. Constantine might have [End Page 74] wanted to present Maxentius as an illegitimate usurper, which Lenski has suggested would have elided Maxentius’s distinction as a domestic enemy; if he was not a rival emperor, he could not be the victim of a truly civil war.133 One imagines, though, that Romans viewing the arch would surely have known Maxentius was Roman. Barnes has argued that Constantine labeled Maxentius a tyrant to portray Maxentius as a persecutor of Christians.134 A desire to paint Maxentius as anti-Christian, however, likely did not motivate senators to include tyrannus so prominently in the arch’s inscription. Instead, we might consider the word’s long history in Roman literature of referring not only to usurpers but also to legitimate but bad emperors, sovereigns “who broke the delicate equilibrium between emperor and senate,” to quote Neri. The use of tyrannus on the Arch of Constantine could present Maxentius as a ruler who failed to maintain good relations with the Senate and, consequently, present Constantine as the restorer of the libertas senatus—a civilis princeps who would reestablish the Senate’s importance in Roman political ideology.135 The Senate thus had something to gain by painting Maxentius as a tyrant, and Constantine, for his part, could present himself in the tradition of earlier (sole) emperors who had succeeded “bad” rulers such as Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Commodus.136

The reused reliefs on the Arch of Constantine would have reinforced its reassertion of Rome’s centrality and assertion of Constantine’s sole power. There are many reasons why the arch’s designers decorated it with reliefs from older monuments, ranging from the practical to the ideological, and these reused reliefs have many potential interpretations. I would simply note that the spoliated reliefs do not disrupt, and if anything contribute to, a message that rejects the Tetrarchy. If viewers could recognize the origins of the reused reliefs, then they would have seen the examples of Trajan and Hadrian, both strong sole rulers, and Marcus Aurelius, who, even if he co-ruled for a time with Lucius Verus, reinstated dynastic government. And even viewers who might not have recognized the origins of the second-century reliefs would have seen the sculptures’ emphasis on the emperor, singular, not on a rule of four or even two.

Ultimately, the goals of the Senate and of Constantine proved to be divergent. The Senate wanted Rome to return to being, in Nazarius’s words, “the citadel of all nations and of all lands the queen.”137 The Senate probably was not attempting to convey the message of a “monarchy reconstituted out of [End Page 75] chaos and tetrarchy.”138 That is, of course, what they wound up getting. The heads of Constantine in the fourth-century frieze of the Arch of Constantine are all missing, some clearly chiseled out intentionally. Holloway has argued provocatively that Constantine’s portrait heads were intentionally removed by the emperor’s enemies. He suggests that “the attack on the imperial images of the small frieze of the arch was a manifestation of Roman sentiment and anger” after Constantine refused to sacrifice to Jupiter during his visit to Rome in 326.139 The source of Romans’ resentment toward Constantine might not have been only his refusal to perform the pagan sacrifice. Perhaps they were angry that he had reneged on the promise implicit in the arch: that Constantine would restore Rome and its Senate to their rightful place in the empire.140 Instead, Constantine had largely removed himself from the city since 315, and his major building projects in Rome after the first flurry of appropriating Maxentian projects were, of all things, Christian basilicas.141 The defacing of Constantine on his eponymous arch could offer evidence that Rome’s still primarily pagan elite had come to understand that the symbiotic promise offered by the arch was a sham.142


Although the Arch of Constantine is most often considered in terms of its spoliated reliefs and as an emblem of Constantine himself and the momentous religious changes that occurred under this rule, it stands out as the first monument in Rome to represent civil war in both word and image. Although this aspect of the arch is often overlooked, a comparison with earlier imperial triumphal arches, especially the extant Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum, demonstrates how revolutionary the Arch of Constantine’s depiction of civil war is. The earlier arches all emphasize foreign victory through their [End Page 76] locations on the triumphal route, their form as triumphal arches, and their decoration and epigraphy, even, or especially, when the emperor being honored had come to power in a civil war. The Arch of Septimius, for example, insistently proclaims Septimius as a triumphant victor over the Parthians, even though his Parthian victories were tenuous and even though he had come to power after a protracted and bloody civil war. Like Septimius, Constantine came to power after a civil war but also had some foreign victories to his credit that he could have depicted. Yet in contrast with the Severan arch, which emphasizes foreign victory while eliding the internecine conflict, the Arch of Constantine displays images of Constantine’s campaign against the Roman Maxentius on its fourth-century frieze, and the prominent dedicatory inscription announces Constantine’s victory not over a foreign people but over a tyrannus—a clear reference to Maxentius. The Arch of Constantine is in many ways a traditional triumphal arch modeled on the Arch of Septimius, but it celebrates a civil war victory instead of obfuscating it.

The responsibility for this innovation in Roman art lies not with Constantine only, who is sometimes credited as the sole generator of the arch’s propaganda, nor with the Senate alone, which technically dedicated the arch and is increasingly interpreted as the sole author of its message. Those scholars who have considered the Arch of Constantine’s depiction of civil war have generally concluded that it resulted from Constantine’s drive alone. This article, however, has argued that the Arch of Constantine must be seen as a product of a symbiotic relationship between Constantine and the Senate. The aftermath of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge presented both the Senate and Constantine with problems they each wanted or needed to address. The Senate of Rome faced the problem of the slipping centrality and prestige of the capital city and consequently of itself. Constantine faced the problem of consolidating his power and achieving sole rule of the Roman Empire. In response to these challenges, they jointly devised a triumphal arch that depicted Constantine’s civil war against Maxentius as a means to signify the defeat of the Tetrarchy—the collegiate system of government that had stripped Rome and its Senate of much of its strategic and political relevance and that was thwarting Constantine’s autocratic ambitions. Was this solution ultimately viable? For Constantine, yes. For the Senate, no. Regardless, it is the specific historical context of the early fourth century—in which the Roman Senate and Constantine had a symbiotic motivation to undo the Tetrarchy—that generated some remarkable firsts in Roman art: not only the depiction of civil war on a state monument but also the choice of a triumphal arch as the canvas for this explicit commemoration of the victory of Romans over Romans. [End Page 77]

Maggie L. Popkin
Case Western Reserve University


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I am grateful to Noel Lenski and Jessica Hughes for generously reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article. I would also like to thank the two JLA reviewers, Diane Conlin and a second who remains anonymous, for their helpful comments. I, of course, am solely responsible for the content of this article.

1. See Elsner 2000, with bibliography; and recently Bravi 2012; Hughes 2014; Lenski 2014; and Varner 2014, all with further bibliography.

2. Varner 2014 is emblematic of this approach.

3. Though see Marlowe 2006.

5. The Arcus Novus, for example, reused reliefs. On the stylistic point, see, F. Kleiner 2003, 177–78, with numerous examples.

6. See Wienand 2011, 247; Ferris 2013; Varner 2014, 69. Mayer 2006, 147, notes a fragmentary monument of Claudian date from the Bay of Naples, now in Budapest, that shows the Battle of Actium, with both its Roman sides (see Hölscher 1994, 100, figs. 10 and 11 for this monument). This is a particular instance (Claudius claimed descent from both Augustus and Antony), and the details of the monument’s circumstances are unclear. It does not indicate that civil war depictions ever became acceptable on monuments in the city of Rome—until the Arch of Constantine.

7. Cf. Richardson 1975, who argues that the arch’s frieze shows generic scenes of war and victory.

10. Mayer 2006; Wienand 2011; 2012, 212–14. See also Lange 2012, although he focuses less on the arch and more on whether Constantine celebrated a triumph.

11. Even so, Constantius Chlorus took the cognomen Britannicus Maximus after defeating the British usurper Allectus, indicating even at this late point that it was still desirable to present civil strife as foreign conflict, Wienand 2011, 243. See also Wienand 2012, 206.

12. See Wilson Jones 2000. The Arcus Novus may have also served as a model for the Arch of Constantine (De Maria 1988, 204–5), but its exact form remains unknown.

13. The fundamental description of the arch remains L’Orange and von Gerkan 1939.

14. Richardson 1975 has argued that the dedication occurred on the occasion of Constantine’s vicennalia. Frothingham 1912, 376, believes the arch was dedicated as early as 313. Neither hypothesis finds much acceptance today, see Buttrey 1983. Part of Richardson’s argument is that the Senate did not realize Constantine’s antipathy to Rome or feel the need to win him back until 326. As I argue, however, the arch was built when the Senate still had hope that Constantine would embrace Rome, not after that hope had been dashed.

15. As De Maria (1988, 317–18) notes; see also Capodiferro 1993, 87; Liverani 2005, 65. Similar inscriptions appear on reliefs surviving from the Arcus Novus.

16. Frothingham 1912; 1913; 1915a; 1915b. It strains credulity that an arch dedicated to Domitian was defaced after his so-called damnatio memoriae only to stand derelict in the heart of the city for over two centuries before finally being repurposed.

20. Knudsen 1989; Hannestad 1994, 66; Ensoli 2000, 87; Holloway 2003; 2004, 50; 2006, 26; Potter 2013, 133. On Constantine’s appropriations of Maxentian projects, see Curran 2000, 76–90; Marlowe 2010, 203 (on the colossal portrait of Constantine), 208–11 (on the Basilica Nova).

22. The triumphal route is a fraught subject, but its major nodes remained relatively constant, see Popkin 2016, with bibliography.

24. See De Maria 1988, 316 for the arch’s dimensions.

25. CIL 6.1139.

27. Giuliano 2000, 468; see also Elsner 2006, 258. See De Maria 1988, 207 on other fourth-century arches.

28. On the Great Trajanic Frieze, see Leander Touati 1987.

29. On the origins of the Trajanic statues of barbarians, see Pensabene and Panella 1999, 28–33; Holloway 2004, 30.

30. On the Aurelian reliefs, see Ryberg 1967.

31. On the Hadrianic tondi, see Calcani 1996–1997. On the triumphal nature of the spoliated sculptures, see Harries 2012, 40.

34. Pan. Lat. 12(9).7.5–8 (ed. Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 598).

36. On the siege of Verona, see Pan. Lat. 12(9).8.1–11.4 (ed. Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 598–600); Pan. Lat. 4(10).25.3–26.5 (ed. Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 620–21); Lenski 2006, 69; Potter 2013, 141.

37. Mart. Epig. 8.65 (Loeb 95: 208–11).

38. For example, Pan. Lat. 12(9).18.3 and 12(9).19.1–4 (ed. Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 322–24).

40. Kähler 1939; Hinterhöller 2008, 8. See Hrychuk 2010, 14–15 and Hrychuk Kontokosta 2013 on Roman arches’ intimate connection with military victories and triumphs. Whether Constantine celebrated a triumph after his defeat of Maxentius is debated. Some scholars say yes: Lenski 2006, 70 and 2008, 207 with Lange 2012. Others say no: Frothingham 1912, 374; McCormick 1986, 84; Curran 2000, 72. There may be no clear answer: Lee 2006, 171; see also Wienand 2011, 248–49.

41. On the Arch of Constantine as the culmination of a series of imperial arches, see F. Kleiner 2003, 174; Wienand 2011, 247. On the arches of Stertinius (two in the Forum Boarium and one in the Circus Maximus), see Liv. 33.27.4; Hrychuk 2010, 80–119; Hrychuk Kontokosta 2013, 8 and 11–15.

42. Cass. Dio 54.8.3 (Loeb 83: 300–301); Schol. Veron. 7.606 (ed. Baschera 1999, 116). The location of Augustus’s Parthian Arch is controversial (see Hrychuk 2010, 194–226 for a summary of the debates), but it most likely stood south of the Temple of Divus Iulius, see Nedergaard 1988; 1993; also F. Kleiner 1985, 25–6; 1989; Favro 1996, 159; Scott 2000, 189–90; Haselberger et al. 2002, 51–52. Contrast Coarelli 1985, 258–308; Rich 1998; Lange 2012, 34.

43. Tac. Ann. 2.41 (Loeb 249: 446–47); Coarelli 1983, 54–55; De Maria 1988, 275–76; Coarelli 1993; Scott 2000, 183–84; Martini 2008, 83; Hrychuk 2010, 311–14; Favro 2011, 343 n. 55. Some scholars argue that the Arch of Tiberius stood in front of the Basilica Iulia, F. Kleiner 1985, 51; Künzl 1988, 61–62; Hinterhöller 2008, 4–5; Schipporeit 2010, 153–54. Instead it should be identified with the pylons still visible in the Vicus Iugarius where it enters the Forum.

48. Wilson Jones 2000. On the Arch of Septimius in general, see Brilliant 1967, more recently Hinterhöller 2008.

49. The extant Arch of Titus on the Sacra Via also has winged victories in its spandrels.

50. The Arch of Constantine’s small frieze continues around the arch’s short sides, however, unlike the Arch of Septimius’s frieze, which appears only on the two façades.

53. Lange (2012, 37) misses the point when he writes that we should not overemphasize a “necessary link between triumphs and (triumphal) arches.” A triumphal arch does not necessarily equal a triumph celebrated, but, at a minimum, this monument type emphasizes military victory. I would argue that there was a link in people’s memories between arches, military victories, and triumphs that emperors exploited.

54. On Septimius’s civil wars, see Birley 1988, 108–28.

55. Lange 2012, 34, argues that Septimius used his eponymous arch in the Forum to celebrate a civil war victory as well as a foreign one. He claims that the Severan arch’s inscription is ambiguous, because it does not specify a foreign foe, but the inscription’s use of Septimius’s Parthian titles and the arch’s iconographic fixation on foreign victory demonstrate that the arch commemorated foreign conquest, not civil war.

56. Brilliant 1967, 137–47; Kolb 1995, 646; Hinterhöller 2008, 15–16; and Lusnia 2014, 85 argue that the frieze represents a triumphal procession. De Maria (1988, 184) argues that it depicts an adventus; Thomas (2001, 174), the transfer of spoils from Parthia to Rome; Chastagnol (1987, 501), a military equipment train; and Favro (2014, 97), a convoy of materials for Septimius’s decennalia. See Popkin 2016.

57. For coins, see RIC 4.1, Septimius Severus, 259, 764; RIC 4.1, Caracalla, 87A, 212A, 419; Gocht 2007. For cuttings, see Claridge and Cozza 1985, 36.

58. The identifications of the cities depicted in the panels are controversial, with those proposed by Brilliant 1967, 175–82 most widely accepted, e.g., by Koeppel 1990; Lusnia 2006; Hinterhöller 2008, 25–35; but cf. Rubin 1975; De Maria 1988, 306; Desnier 1993, 554–67. Regardless, the panels would have been perceived by anyone viewing the arch as Roman victories over enemy Parthian cities.

59. See Lusnia 2006. For triumphal paintings, see Holliday 1997; 2002, 22–62, 80–3.

60. CIL 6.1033 = 31230 = ILS 425. The inscription’s fourth line (optimis fortissimisque principibus) originally contained the name and titles of Geta, Septimius’s younger son. Geta’s name was erased and these additional plaudits for his older brother, Caracalla, added after Geta’s assassination in 212.

61. Septimius was commonly presented in inscriptions as propagator imperii, Birley 1974.

62. Hdn. 3.8.9 (Loeb 454: 312–13); 3.10.2 (Loeb 454: 324–27); Cass. Dio 76.1.1–5 (Loeb 177: 238–41).

63. SHA Sev. 16.6–7 (Loeb 139: 408–9).

64. On the question of whether Septimius triumphed and whether the Arch of Septimius has distorted historical memories of this putative triumph, see Popkin 2016.

65. On Septimius’s failure to capture Hatra, see Birley 1988, 130–32; Campbell 2005, 6. Hdn. 3.9.3–8 (Loeb 454: 316–21) offers criticism of this episode. Ando 2012, 28, describes Septimius’s Parthian campaigns as “vanity projects” with far-reaching negative consequences for the Roman Empire.

66. On the tradition of eliding disturbing details of civil wars in imperial visual programs, see Wienand 2012, 201.

67. App. B Civ. 2.101 (Loeb 4: 412–15).

68. Bravi 2012, 446. Some trace parts of its phrasing back to Cicero and Livy, Hall 1998 and Lenski 2008, while other elements derive from Augustus’s Res Gestae, as discussed below.

69. CIL 6.873. Senatus populusque Romanus/Imp[eratori] Caesari divi f[ilio] co[n]s[uli] quinct[um] co[n]s[uli] design[ato] sext[um] imp[eratori] sept[imum]/re publica conservata. See Hrychuk 2010, 196–98. Lange 2012, 34–35 argues that the inscription belongs to Augustus’s Actian Arch.

70. The Parthian Arch’s other, non-dedicatory inscription consisted of the Fasti Capitolini, the inscribed lists of Rome’s consuls and triumphatores, InscrIt 13.1; Degrassi 1954. The triumphal fasti emphasize foreign victory, listing the foreign people or king over whom each general earned his triumph. For the fasti’s location on Augustus’s Parthian Arch, see Taylor 1950; 1951; Nedergaard 1988; 1994–1995; 1999; Beard 2003; 2007, 61–62; Itgenshorst 2004; Rose 2005, 31–2; Bastien 2007, 41–84; Schipporeit 2008, 115–27; Östenberg 2009; Hrychuk 2010, 215–22. Cf. Simpson 1993.

71. CIL 6.944 = ILS 264. The inscription of the Arch of Titus on the Sacra Via states simply that the SPQR dedicated it to the deified Titus, CIL 6.945.

72. Pompey the Great and C. Sosius had already managed to sack Jerusalem, Joseph. AJ 14.54–68 (Loeb 489: 28–37), 14.468–87 (Loeb 489: 244–55); BJ 1.138–54 (Loeb 203: 64–73). See Millar 2005, 122.

73. See De Maria 1988, 317; Grünewald 1990, 64–73; Lange 2012, 43 (noting also that the arch’s inscription is untraditional). Holloway 2004, 20 argues that the multiple triumphs referred to in the inscription’s final line are an exaggeration meant to ascribe “total victory” to Constantine.

75. RG 1: rem publicam a dominatione factionis oppressam in libertatem vindicavi, Cooley 2009, 58. Giuliano 2000, 442; Hunt 2003, 105; Mayer 2006, 146; Van Dam 2007, 49; 2011, 128; Wienand 2011, 251 n. 41; Lange 2012, 43. On factio in the RG, see, e.g., Cooley 2009, 108; Levick 2010, 229.

76. See Wienand 2011, 251 n. 41. Van Dam 2007 compares Augustus’s and Constantine’s “Roman revolutions.” Many Constantinian panegyrics refer directly to Virgil, another example of Constantinian allusions to Augustus: e.g., Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 289 with reference to Pan. Lat. 12(9).

77. Östenberg 2014, 189–91 argues that Romans in the Late Republic and early Augustan period expressed civil war victories through calendars. Many of these fasti do not come from Rome, and, in any event, like the Res Gestae they would not have included any images of civil war.

78. Zanker (2012b, 48) argues it would have been prominent; cf. Holloway 2004, 21; Potter 2014, 351–52.

80. It is likely to achieve greater legibility that the Column of Marcus Aurelius shifted toward this style compared to the Column of Trajan (D. Kleiner 1992, 295–300).

81. See Elsner 2006, 259 on the Arch of Constantine’s “unprecedented” use of traditional motifs in the context of civil war. As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to discern whether the frieze depicts a triumphal entry or a triumph proper, let alone how contemporary viewers would have interpreted the scene. Some scholars (for example, Carlson 2010, 173) maintain that the relief cannot depict a formal triumph, while others (for example, Lange 2012, 43 n. 97) insist that it does depict a triumph. Constantine is not shown in a quadriga, which might argue against the scene’s identification as a triumph, but we admittedly do not know all the details of how triumphs were performed under the Tetrarchy, and it may be rash to insist that this one detail disqualifies the procession as a triumph. I am inclined to view the procession more as an adventus than a triumph proper, but I am well aware that others could reasonably disagree.

83. See Wienand 2011, 249; 2012, 213–14. As Mayer 2006, 150–54 and Wienand 2011, 249–51 observe, this transformation under Constantine influenced later fourth- and fifth-century emperors, who increasingly presented civil war victories as glorious triumphs.

84. The arch does not blur civil and foreign victories into one, as some have argued, Carlson 2010; see also Harries 2012, 118; Lange 2013. The Trajanic and Antonine reliefs present an emperor victorious over foreign enemies. The fourth-century frieze presents the emperor victorious over Roman armies. The arch presents these two kinds of victories distinctly, but as both worthy of public acclaim.

85. Pan. Lat. 12(9).18.3 (translation Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 322).

86. Pan. Lat. 4(10).31.4 (translation Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 377).

87. Warmington 2012, 346–47 discusses how the panegyrics emphasize Constantine’s northern wars.

88. He is explicit about the nature of Constantine’s war against Maxentius: “O Rome, fortunate at last in a civil war victory (O tandem felix civili, Roma, victoria)!” (Pan. Lat. 12[9].20.3 [translation Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 325]).

89. E.g., Peirce 1989; Giuliano 2000; Carlson 2010. See also Grünewald 1990, 63–112, focusing on the arch’s inscription.

91. Zanker 2012a. See also Lenski 2008, 218–19, though he recognizes that Constantine must have had some say in the arch’s conception.

93. See Stewart 2008, especially 112–17, for objections to using the word propaganda for Roman art.

94. An “obvious point,” as Elsner (2006, 259) points out, but one that is sometimes overlooked. See also Zanker 2012a, 77–79.

95. Bleckmann 2006, 24; also Mayer 2006, 144; Nixon 2012, 235. Cf. Grünewald 1990, e.g., 63. On Constantinian panegyric as a means of communication between emperor and people and as an important aspect of imperial representation, see Wienand 2012, 26–43.

96. See Rohmann 1998, 265; Bleckmann 2006, 17; Prusac 2012. See Stewart 2008, 116 on how panegyric might be a better concept with which to understand public Roman monuments than propaganda. After Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius, a number of milestones were set up in his name around Italy that proclaimed him liberator orbis terrarum, see Grünewald 1990, 88–89; Dey 2012, 303. Although dedicated to Constantine by local councils, the milestones likely reflect language Constantine himself used in official correspondence. The Arch of Constantine’s passageway inscriptions declare Constantine liberator urbis; like the Italian milestones, this may be an echo of Constantine’s self-presentation as liberator.

98. Mayer 2006, 142–43, 149. See also Wilson Jones 2000, 72; Lange 2012, 43. Lenski (2014) argues that the Senate was the main agent behind the arch’s iconographic program, though he reasonably recognizes that Constantine and his court must have had some influence on its design.

100. Bravi 2012, 449, 458 alludes to this sort of cooperation, although she ultimately attributes much greater agency to the Senate than to Constantine.

101. E.g., Strobel 1993; Witschel 1999; 2004. Dey 2009 and 2011 summarize the state of the debate. Liebeschuetz 2007; Hekster 2008, 3–6; and Ando 2012 defend the concept of a third-century crisis. See Gerhardt 2006 for the historiography of this terminology.

104. Hdn. 1.6.5 (Loeb 454: 32–33); see Watson 1999, 14.

108. Harries (2012, 4) suggests that Romans might have welcomed the emperor’s absence from Rome because it gave them “freer rein” to compete for “office and status.” However, senators in late antique Rome viewed status and honor as being conferred by the emperor, see Weisweiler 2012.

111. On Constantine’s treatment of Maxentius’s allies and Rome’s senatorial families, see Lenski 2008, 210–13; 2014, 182; Bravi 2012, 457–58.

115. On Constantine’s desire to present himself not as the inheritor of Diocletian but as a new Augustus, see Giuliano 2000, 468.

118. Havener 2014, 177 argues recently that the Senate in the late republican and early Augustan periods shied away from referring to civil war victories in permanent monuments; for example, no civil war triumph appears on the Fasti Triumphales. This earlier unwillingness of the Senate to monumentalize civil war victories underscores the dramatic shift represented by the Arch of Constantine.

120. Prusac (2012, 144–45) agrees Constantine was not trying to suppress the memory of the Tetrarchy, though for different reasons than I suggest. Cf. L’Orange and von Gerkan 1939, 89.

122. Portraits of Licinius: L’Orange and von Gerkan 1939, 167–72; Rohmann 1998, 261–73; Zanker 2012b. Portraits of Constantius Chlorus instead: Calza 1959–1960; De Maria 1988, 209; Calcani 1996–1997, 197; Smith 1997, 191 n. 124. It is perhaps most plausible that we cannot surely identify the heads as either Licinius or Constantius (Prusac 2012, 140–42).

123. See De Maria 1988, 209 on the inscription. See also Calza 1959–1960, 140–41.

125. On the Arch of Galerius, see Harries 2012, 41; D. Kleiner 1992, 418–25, figure 390 (in other scenes, Diocletian appears alongside Galerius).

129. Rohmann recognizes the ambivalence created by the distinction between Licinius and Constantine’s portrait types on the Arch, but he does not take into account the lack of physical proximity between the two figures on the arch.

131. On Constantine’s “Flavian dynasty,” see Van Dam 2007, 79–129; see also Bardill 2012, 94–95.

132. MacCormack 1981, 36. On the arch’s Sol imagery, see Marlowe 2006. Cf. Bardill (2012, 96), who argues that Constantine used the Tetrarchy to legitimate his rule; see also Potter 2014, 353.

137. Pan. Lat. 4(10).35.2 (translation Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 380).

140. See Van Dam 2011, 151 on Rome’s deteriorating relationship with Constantine.

141. On Constantine’s appropriation of Maxentian monuments, see Marlowe 2010. On Constantine’s church foundations in Rome, see Krautheimer 1983, 7–40 and Curran 2000, 90–115. Constantine hardly abandoned Rome in terms of monumental building (Hunt 2003), but most of Constantine’s “traditional” (i.e., non-church) building munificence occurred early in his reign. The Basilica Nova, Arch of Constantine, and Baths of Constantine were completed soon after 312; the same is probably true for Constantine’s renovations of the Circus Maximus (see Pan. Lat. 4[10].35.5 [ed. Nixon and Rodgers 1994, 626]; Aur. Vict. Caes. 40.27 [ed. Groß-Albenhausen and Fuhrmann 1997, 132]; Humphrey 1986, 129).

142. Hunt 2003 argues that there were more Christians among the elite ranks of Rome than normally thought, but the majority of the Senate must have remained pagan. Moreover, as Holloway 2006, 28 observes, Rome’s prefect from 326–329, when Constantine returned briefly to Rome and when Holloway suspects the arch was defaced, was a powerful pagan; see also Lenski 2008, 207.

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