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Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine, 312-315 C.E., approximately 20m high, 25m wide, and 7m deep, central opening approximately 12m high, Rome. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Video produced by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee, Dr. Beth Harris, and Dr. Steven Zucker.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lauren Swalec
    My attention was utterly ensnared by the porphyry - that beautiful purple stone. I have heard before that Roman and Greek statues were often painted, but I think this is the first time I have seen inlaid stone like this (outside floors and mosaics). It looks as though all of the Hadrian roundels were surrounded by porphyry originally, but it has been mostly scraped off in many places.

    There seem to be lots of blank areas on the arch that have no sculpture at all (particularly around the corners). Is it possible that these areas once had vibrant inlaid stone? This arch must have been wicked colorful ...
    (5 votes)
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  • female robot grace style avatar for user Madelein Hartzenberg
    At , they show the north side right roundels. Why is it only this one is made almost entirely out of porphyry, and not any of the other roundels?
    What puzzled me even further, at , they show the north side left roundels, and I noticed a tiny bit of porphyry between the roundels. Do we know why there doesn't seem to be very much consistency?
    And what would have happened to all the sculptures that these bits and pieces were pulled off of? Were they completely destroyed?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Rebecca Anderson
    Was his the first documented "lucid dream" or vision of a Christian or religious nature, outside of the Bible, leading to a conversion to Christianity? His plan with the monument may have been to leave a legacy as much symbolically religious as historically natural in light of his becoming the first Christian Emperor and allowing Christians to worship openly. Rather than suffer persecution. He even, supposedly set aside one day a week to worship and set aside Sunday as a weekly Holiday. Perhaps he recognized the importance of his own conversion, alongside other Emperors he deemed great, in history.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] We're in Rome, standing in front of the Arch of Constantine. - [Beth] This is such an interesting and problematic monument, it's one that scholars are still debating today, and not too far away is the Arch of Titus, and not too far away from that is the Arch of Septimius Severus, and there was also an arch to Marcus Aurelius that doesn't survive. - [Steven] Arches were built to celebrate especially important military victories. This particular arch is the first arch that celebrates a victory not over a foreign power, but over a Roman rival. - [Beth] So let's start by looking at the arch. - [Steven] The surface is covered with sculpture. - [Beth] And to make it even more complicated, the sculpture dates from different time periods in Roman history. - [Steven] So many of these sculptures weren't even made by Constantine, he was reusing them from earlier monuments that had been built by earlier emperors. - [Beth] The emperors Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian and Trajan, those are three of the five, what are known as good emperors, who were seen to be especially benevolent emperors in Roman history. So here, Constantine seems to be associating himself with three of those five good emperors, by bringing in sculptures from their monuments here into his own. - [Steven] Let's start with the sculptures at the top. It's a little bit hard to get a sense of just how large those figures are, but I'm estimating that they stand about 10 feet tall. - [Beth] These freestanding figures are borrowed from monuments belonging to the emperor Trajan, and these represent Dacian prisoners. - [Steven] Dacia was more or less what we call Romania, and this was an area that had been previously conquered by the emperor Trajan. - [Beth] We can tell that they're Dacians, we can tell that they're foreigners, by the fact that they wear beards and by their clothing, so they would've been easily identifiable as non-Romans. - [Steven] As barbarians, which simply means foreigner. - [Beth] And so what we see here are figures that have been conquered by the Roman Empire, and this is a theme that reappears throughout the arch in different forms, subjecting foreign peoples to the power of the Roman Empire. The panels in between the Dacians are from monuments belonging to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. - [Steven] This is not freestanding sculpture, this is high relief sculpture, and if we start the left, we see the presentation of a client king. - [Beth] Presenting to the Roman people a foreign king who has been captured. - [Steven] Next to that, Marcus Aurelius receives barbarian prisoners. Then to the right, we have an address, presumably Marcus Aurelius speaking to his soldiers, speaking to the people. And then finally on the right, Marcus Aurelius making a sacrifice before a battle. Then if we walk around the arch, on the other side, we have four additional panels from Marcus Aurelius. These are the arrival of Marcus Aurelius into Rome, Marcus Aurelius leaving Rome, the distribution of largess, that is, Marcus Aurelius distributing money to the Roman people, and the submission of the barbarian prisoners. Look at the beauty of those reliefs, they are very much in the classical style, the bodies float easily, they're in complex poses, there is a high degree of naturalism. - [Beth] Many of the figures stand in contrapposto, their drapery reveals the form of their body underneath in folds that are three-dimensional, and this is an important thing to note for some of the other sculptures we're gonna look at later. So below that, we see freestanding columns in front of pilasters, all with Corinthian capitals, and between those columns, we see roundels, that is, scenes set in round frames. - [Steven] This is some of my favorite decorative sculpture on the arch. - [Beth] These all come from monuments relating to the emperor Hadrian. - [Steven] And remember, Hadrian was one of the good emperors. So on the south side from left to right, we have departure for the hunt, a sacrifice to the god Silvanus, a bear hunt, and a sacrifice to the goddess Diana. On the north side, starting on the left, is a boar hunt, a sacrifice to the god Apollo, and then against a field of purple porphyry, which is an extremely expensive semiprecious stone, is a roundel depicting the aftermath of a lion hunt, and the sacrifice of Hercules. - [Beth] It's important to remember that the Emperor was traditionally the head of the Roman state religion, so making sacrifices to the gods, and then hunting, something that was reserved for the elite, a sign of strength for the emperor. - [Steven] Just like the panels above, the roundels are sculpted in high relief, and the roundel that shows the sacrifice to Apollo, I think is especially beautiful, and it reminds us that this is the classical tradition that the Romans had borrowed from the Ancient Greeks. - [Beth] Look at the figure of Apollo standing semi nude in lovely contrapposto, and the horse moving out into our space, so this incredible naturalism, not only in the body, but even in the treatment of space. As we move below the roundels, we finally get to some sculpture that dates from the time of Constantine. It's a band that wraps around the entire arch, and tells what really was the critical story for Constantine. - [Steven] We're not entirely sure, but many scholars believe that we should start on the west side of the arch, which shows Constantine's army making its way to Verona to attack the army of another Roman emperor, Maxentius. - [Beth] This is a complicated moment in Roman history. For some time, the Empire had been ruled not by a single emperor, but by four emperors, two senior emperors, and two junior emperors, a system of government that was called a tetrarchy, and the idea was that with four rulers in such a vast Empire, you would bring some political stability. - [Steven] There were two rulers who were responsible for the east, and two rulers that were responsible for the west. Constantine was one of the emperors that was responsible for the Western Empire. - [Beth] And he went to battle against Maxentius, who was his co-ruler in the west. - [Steven] The next panel shows Constantine laying siege to the city of Verona, and to Maxentius's troops. Then across the large bay is the most famous scene, this is the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, this is when the two armies confront each other just outside of Rome. - [Beth] And Constantine defeats Maxentius, and Maxentius is killed at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This is the decisive battle that puts Constantine in charge of the western part of the Roman Empire. - [Steven] The panel on the east side of the arch shows Constantine entering the city of Rome. And then on the north side, we have two final panels, the oratorio at the rostrum, and the distribution of money to the Senate and the Roman people. Let's look at the distribution of largess. So the thing that strikes me most is just how different stylistically the carving is. Whereas the panels that had been borrowed from earlier monuments are so clearly classical in their representation, here, the figures are squat, the beautiful proportions of the human bodies have become stunted, and the roundness of the forms, the careful definition of drapery, is now simply incised markings, they seem almost like drawings, not sculpture. About a century ago, when art historians looked at this contrast between styles, they thought what they were seeing was evidence of the decline of the Roman Empire, of the decline of the artistic capabilities of the sculptors of the day. That is, somehow, this more simplified form was less good. What some art historians now conjecture is that Constantine's imagery is not meant to compete stylistically, that it had a different purpose, that it was valued for its clarity. - [Beth] Well, the lack of concern for the correct proportions of the human body, the lack of interest in a space for bodies to exist in, these are characteristics that we associate with early Christian art, and in fact, Constantine is the pivotal figure there, he makes it possible for Christians to practice Christianity legally within the Roman Empire with the Edict of Milan, and becomes, by legend, a Christian himself at the end of his life. - [Steven] And we know that the style of early Christian art is to some extent meant to function symbolically rather than naturalistically. What's most important to Constantine's sculptures is clarity, they wanna make sure that we know that Constantine is the figure in the middle, he's twice as large as every other figure. Sadly, he's lost his head at this point, but we can just make out that his arm is outstretched, and he's holding a tray of coins which are falling into the lap of a man who seems to be gathering the coins in his toga. - [Beth] Senators at the top pass the emperor additional coins. We even see some children receiving the emperor's generosity. This is a very symmetrical composition, with the emperor smack in the middle, and all of the figures turning their attention to him, so there's that idea of clarity and legibility. And then we have these four interesting scenes, two on either side. - [Steven] This is the bureaucrats that count and keep track of the money of the state, and make possible the distribution of money that we see in the central scene. - [Beth] There's a sense of a well-organized Roman government. If we go below, we see sculpture and the spandrels that also date from the time of Constantine. Most of these show victory figures, some of them show Roman gods, and also the seasons. - [Steven] And then in the bases of the columns, you see additional relief carvings, these are also Constantinian, and they show victories and subjugated barbarians. The last two major panels are found inside the main archway. - [Beth] On one side, we see an inscription that translates 'bringer of peace.' Here, we see on the left the emperor being crowned by a figure of victory, and on the right, a battle scene. - [Steven] The opposite panel shows Trajan on horseback, trampling a barbarian, and the inscription above reads 'liberator of the city.' These two enormous inner panels are from the era of Hadrian, but he made them not of his own exploits, but of the exploits of the previous emperor, Trajan. - [Beth] Now, the fascinating thing throughout this monument is that the heads of these previous emperors are often re-carved to the features of the emperor Constantine, so, Constantine not only took these monuments from previous emperors, but had the faces of the emperors re-carved in his own image. So what are we to make of a monument that is essentially a collage where the emperor re-carved the faces of these good emperors, in many cases, and gave them his own features, what did the Roman people make of this? This is something that art historians and archaeologists are still debating today. - [Steven] Art historians struggle with what the arch means, because each of the sculptures within it had its own meaning, and now together, these sculptures from different periods have even more complex layers of meaning, and all of this within the complex fabric of the city of Rome itself. - [Beth] We're looking at it against the backdrop of the Coliseum, the spot that the arch is located on was part of the triumphal route that generals would take during ceremonial parades through the city of Rome, up the sacred way to the Capitoline Hill. - [Steven] Ultimately, Constantine is bringing these fragments together to place himself in the lineage of good emperors, to present himself to the city of Rome and to history as a victorious military ruler, but also as a good provider for the state. (piano music)