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p125 Arcus Triumphalis

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp125‑126 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ARCUS TRIUMPHALIS (a triumphal arch),a was a structure peculiar to the Romans, among whom it seems to have taken its origin from the Porta Triumphalis, the gate by which a general celebrating a triumph led his army into the city, on which occasions the gate was adorned with trophies and other memorials of the particular victory celebrated. In process of time other arches were erected, both at Rome and in the provinces, to celebrate single victories, the memorials of which were carved upon them or fixed to them, and these remained as permanent monuments. They even came to be erected in memory of a victory for which there had been no triumph; nay, even to commemorate other events than victories. That at Ancona, for example, was erected in honour of Trajan, when he had improved the harbour of the city at his own expense.

Triumphal arches were insulated structures built across the principal streets of the city, and, according to the space of their respective localities, consisted of either a single arch-way, or of a central one for carriages, with two smaller ones on each side for foot passengers, which sometimes have side communications with the centre arch. Sometimes there were two arches of equal height, side by side. Each front was ornamented with trophies and bas-reliefs, which were also placed on the sides of the passages. Both façades had usually columns against the piers, supporting an entablature, surmounted by a lofty attic, on the front of which was the inscription, and on the top of it bronze chariots, war-horses, statues, and trophies.

Stertinius is the first upon record who erected any thing of the kind. He built an arch in the Forum Boarium about B.C. 196, and another in the Circus Maximus, each of which was surmounted by gilt statues (Liv. XXXIII.27). Six years afterwards, Scipio Africanus built another on the Clivus Capitolinus, on which he placed seven gilt statues and two figures of horses (Liv. XXXVII.3); and in B.C. 121, Fabius Maximus built a fourth in the Via Sacra, which is called by Cicero (in Verr. I.7) the Fornix Fabianus. None of these remain, the Arch of Augustus at Rimini being one of the earliest among those still standing. That these erections were either temporary or very insignificant, may be inferred from the silence of Vitruvius, who says nothing of triumphal arches. We might be sure, from the nature of the case, that such structures would especially mark the period of the empire.

There are twenty-one arches recorded by different writers as having been erected in the city of Rome, five of which now remain:b

  1. Arcus Drusi, which was erected to the honour of Nero Claudius Drusus on the Appian way (Suet. Claud. 1).

  2. Arcus Titi, at the foot of the Palatine, which was erected to the honour of Titus, after his conquest of Judaea, but was not finished till after his death; since in the inscription upon it he is called Divus, and he is also represented as being carried up to heaven upon an eagle. The bas-reliefs of this arch represent the spoils from the temple of Jerusalem carried in triumphal procession; and are among the best p126specimens of Roman sculpture. This arch has only a single opening, with two columns of the Roman or composite order on each side of it.

  3. Arcus Septimi Severi, which was erected by the senate (A.D. 203) at the end of the Via Sacra, in honour of that emperor and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, on account of his victories over the Parthians and Arabians.

  4. Arcus Gallieni, erected to the honour of Gallienus by a private individual, M. Aurelius Victor.

  5. Arcus Constantini, which is larger and more profusely ornamented than the Arch of Titus. It was erected by the senate in honour of Constantine, after his victory over Maxentius. It consists of three arches, with columns against each front, and statues on the entablatures over them, which, with the other sculptured ornaments, originally decorated the arch of Trajan.


Thayer's Notes:

a But see J. C. Rolfe's note on Ammian XXI.16.15.

b five of which now remain: to which it is useful to add at least two monuments of Antiquity in the City, about 100m apart, which are not triumphal arches but are often given the courtesy title of "arch":


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