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Bill Thayer

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Constantine, or The Unconquered Sun

The Arch of Constantine is built in the shape of a long box: the three archways pierce the long and profusely decorated N and S sides, while the E and W faces are the much simpler "ends" of the box. The 2 images below show the only bas-reliefs on one of these ends, the East face; those on the W face are on another page.

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Contrast the above skilful, animated and readable relief of a battle scene, depicting Romans battling Dacians and reused from some monument of Trajan's, with the frieze in the next photo, expressly sculpted for this arch two hundred years later — which is both busy and crudely hieratic:

[image ALT: A stone wall with a large round stone medallion showing mostly horses; under the medallion, a rather busy frieze of a procession. It is a detail of the Arch of Constantine in Rome.]

The roundel (a closer look still) represents the Sun in his quadriga, or four-horse chariot; below, the frieze shows the triumph of Constantine.

Those of you wondering about the title of this page may be thinking of Constantine as a Christian emperor. His coins and inscriptions tell a much less static and clear-cut story, repeatedly glorifying Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. At first it was almost certainly the pagan god Apollo; later, after the embattled emperor saw another light in the heavens, he continued to use the metaphor but much more ambiguously.

You may also want to look at the lunar side of this same Arch. 
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Page updated: 26 Sep 01