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  • Provincial Patrons and Commemorative RivalriesRethinking the Roman Arch Monument
  • Kimberly Cassibry

The Roman arch monument had a remarkably fluid commemorative identity. Like figurines, sculpted panels, and column monuments, it could concretize religious vows and serve as a gift to the gods.1 Like stelai and tower tombs, it could honor the dead.2 As with temples, amphitheatres, and even fora, its sculptural program could—but did not invariably—celebrate an emperor's military victories and triumphal processions.3 The patrons of ancient arch monuments spanned a surprisingly broad spectrum of imperial society: men and women; freed slaves and emperors; businessmen, priests, and military officers; city councils and the Roman [End Page 417] senate.4 The results of this patronage remain impressive. A recent estimate puts the number of known Roman arch monuments at more than 800.5 Only a very small number—about 30—of these can be proven to have resulted from decrees of the Roman senate.6 The majority of Roman arch monuments were in fact commissioned by private citizens and city councils, and are to be found not in the city of Rome, but in the Roman provinces.

Appropriate to so many different contexts and accessible to such a broad body of patrons, arch monuments preserve local perspectives from all corners of the Roman Empire. Therein lies their great value for Roman historians and art historians alike. It has, nevertheless, been the relatively rare appearance of centralized imperial propaganda on arch monuments that has garnered the most sustained scholarly treatment to date. Within such visual programs, individual citizens play—at best—supporting roles: on the arch the Roman senate erected for Trajan at Beneventum, for example, the emperor is shown meeting officials from cities improved by his public works projects; on the senate's arch for the Severan dynasty in the Roman Forum, anonymous soldiers are shown waging battle under the emperor's sound leadership.7 These regular citizens, however, were also [End Page 418] major patrons in their own right, and the many monuments they themselves erected reflect a rather more revealing light upon them. What prompted individuals such as city councilmen and soldiers to commission arches?

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Figure 1.

Cast of the Arch of Dativius Victor, Mainz, Germany. Author's photograph.

The Roman arch monument's ubiquity can make its patronage seem almost inevitable, at least from a modern perspective. Inscriptions, however, indicate that arches were commissioned not for their own sakes, but [End Page 419] rather to serve a particular purpose, whether religious, funerary, civic, or more broadly honorific. In none of these contexts was the arch the only available option. Unfortunately, individual patrons have not left us detailed accounts of their decision-making. Analyzing an arch monument's form—its broad surfaces primed for elaboration—may offer insight into other genres with which it was in dialogue. Looking at the alternatives pursued by a given patron's peers may also help to reconstruct the range of possibilities for specific kinds of dedications. If we can identify which monuments were rejected in favor of an arch, we may gain a better understanding of the latter's special appeal.

This reconsideration of the Roman arch assumes that monuments were intended to attract the gazes of viewers and that the most successful monuments developed novel strategies for doing so. Alfred Gell's anthropological theories of art address this process: Gell treated artworks as empowered elements within social contexts, elements which could be acted upon by patrons and craftsmen, but which could in turn compel action from potential viewers.8 Focusing attention on what an artwork "does," rather than merely trying to decipher what it "means," has the potential to open up a new perspective on the Roman Empire's monument-rich landscape.9

Two arches, dedicated by city councilmen (decurions) residing at opposites ends of the empire, illustrate what can be gained by rethinking the Roman arch monument in this way. The first, commissioned by Dativius Victor in Mainz, Germany, constructs a complex relationship to local religious art that has long been scrutinized. The significance that such a local process of definition holds for the larger study of Roman...


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pp. 417-450
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