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Bill Thayer

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Upstaging an Emperor:
Ancient and Modern Inscriptions on the Arch of Titus

First, the ancient inscription on the E face of the monument. For nearly 2000 years it has been the first sight to meet the eyes of any Roman descending the Sacred Way:

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The inscription on the E face — or, to be technical, the holes left now that the bronze letters of the actual inscription have gone. It is, as one might expect of a major monument to a victorious emperor at the entrance to the Sacred Way, perfectly carved; except to modern eyes, for the minimal spacing between words: but notice that the interpuncts are there to mark word division.

Transcribed and expanded:
The Senate
and the People of Rome
to the late revered Titus Vespasian, Augustus,
son of the late revered Vespasian.

Nothing much to it: simplicity, and the Senate first. Titus had died (otherwise, he would not be styled divus) and Domitian, a detestable man by all accounts, was the new emperor: I like to think that the Senate, conspicuously alone on the first line of this inscription, was attempting to assert itself. A pity they didn't manage more than this token gesture.

For those of you coming here from the do-it‑yourself epigraphy page, that single letter I hope you didn't misread in this very easy inscription: F at the end of line 3; P might have tempted some, but shouldn't have.

Today, the Arch of Titus looks like it survived the centuries in great shape, but this is not quite the case: instead of regular maintenance, it was in fact subjected all thru the Middle Ages to various depredations, so that by the early 19c, according to Platner, "The injury to the structure was so great that it was taken down in 1822 and rebuilt by Valadier, who restored a large part of the attic and the outer half of both piers in travertine. The frieze and inscription are therefore preserved only on the side towards the Colosseum."

Travertine instead of marble: both were widely used in Antiquity, but here the travertine is an intentional and discreet sign of restoration. The inscription is another matter, and presented a golden opportunity. Here then is the opposite face of the Arch:

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Transcribed and expanded:


(This) monument, remarkable in terms of both religion and art,
had weakened from age:
Pius the Seventh, Supreme Pontiff,
by new works on the model of the ancient exemplar
ordered it reinforced and preserved.
• In the year of his sacred rulership the 24th •

A remarkable inscription in many ways, by a remarkable man.

A close look will show just how discreet this is, in exactly the same way as Giuseppe Valadier's restoration. The lettering does not in fact exactly match that of the Roman inscription — notice the latter's characteristic P's and Q's, the slightly different proportions, the slightly wider spacing in the modern inscription — yet the style is as Roman as travertine.

Similarly, notice the preferred ancient use of IIII rather than the more customary modern IV. I'm not so sure, even, that the parallelism hasn't been pushed ever so slightly, in the abbreviations: in each inscription, only one word is abbreviated, the last word of the third line!

And indeed Pope Pius VII was a great lover of Antiquity, not only restoring the Arch of Titus but for example founding two major museums in the Vatican, to one of which, the Museo Chiaramonti, he gave his family name.

Those are just details, however. Pius VII was first and foremost the Vicar of Christ and temporal ruler of the city of Rome and a fair chunk of central Italy, and thus a man doubly beleaguered at the beginning of our modern age. (Consider that his immediate predecessor had been kidnapped and dragged to France by Napoleon, whose government referred to him as "citizen Braschi", and imprisoned in a small house where he died under miserable conditions.) Well, Napoleon had come and gone, and the new Pius had remained: by the end of his pontificate, both the Catholic Church and the Papal States appeared to have weathered the crisis fairly well.

Here is where Pius' inscription suddenly becomes fascinating. The popes, of course, had long appropriated the political vocabulary of ancient Rome; but nowhere that I know, to such wonderful effect. Pius manages to pay tribute to Titus and ancient Rome, and upstage them both.
  Will you look closely with me at some of the highlights of this extraordinary document?

  • insigne religionis monumentum: this tactful and ambiguous phrase is in fact the first salvo in a sort of epigraphical blitzkrieg. The monument is indeed remarkable in terms of religion (if you're not getting this, you're missing some of the basic facts: see this page and its photos) and the implication is clear: where Titus destroyed, Pius rebuilt. It's not the only self-referential statement in the inscription.

  • Pontifex maximus: as Roman emperor, Titus had been pontifex maximus also; but since he had died, the title does not appear in his inscription.

  • servari: a splendid choice of words; would we all wrote this well! Many other terms would have done, but this is the verb used in the Fathers of the Church and Catholic theology after them for "to be saved". Titus' arch, at the summit of the Sacred Way and memorializing the destruction of the Old Covenant, has been redeemed by the New.

  • sacri principatus: the crowning phrase, so to speak. . . Fiendishly difficult to translate, it conjoins the ideas of high priest and supreme temporal ruler, yet avoids, just as the Roman emperors did, any suggestion of "king". The emperors styled themselves principes, first among nominal equals: for historical reasons, "king" was taboo to the Romans — yet the title meant there was no one above them. Pius too styles himself princeps: while he too is first among equals, his avoidance of "king" neither stems from fear, nor lays claim on being above all: his King is Christ.

Pius VII Chiaramonti has taken the Arch of Titus and claimed it as his own triumphal arch; "yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Galatians 2.20).

Dropping from the sublime to something quite different: for a similar inscription of the same pope, yet with a most unfortunate effect! see this slice of Roman life from the Piazza della Rotonda, the square in front of the Pantheon.

Page updated: 10 May 01