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Arch of Claudius

"The senate on learning of his achievement gave him the title of Britannicus and granted him permission to celebrate a triumph. They voted also that there should be an annual festival to commemorate the event and that two triumphal arches should be erected, one in the city and the other in Gaul, because it was from that country that he had set sail when he crossed over to Britain."

Cassius Dio, Roman History (LX.22.1)

The Arch of Claudius was dedicated in AD 51 (or very early AD 52) to commemorate the emperor's conquest of Britain in AD 43, a triumph that Suetonius disparages.

"He made but one campaign and that of little importance. When the senate voted him the triumphal regalia, thinking the honour beneath the imperial dignity and desiring the glory of a legitimate triumph, he chose Britain as the best place for gaining it, a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius and was just at that time in a state of rebellion because of the refusal to return certain deserters....[he] without any battle or bloodshed received the submission of a part of the island, returned to Rome within six months after leaving the city, and celebrated a triumph of great splendour" (Life, XVII.1-2; Dio, LX.19.1 says that Bericus, who had been expelled from the island during a revolution, persuaded Claudius to send troops there. Josephus, too, is dismissive of "a triumph bestowed on him without any sweat or labor of his own," Wars of the Jews, III.1.2)).

The arch in Gaul at Gesoriacum (Boulogne), from where Claudius had embarked, has not survived, and there are only fragments of the Roman arch, including reliefs showing scenes of combat. Depictions on the reverse of coins issued in AD 46/47 and AD 49 in anticipation of construction show a single fornix arch and two pairs of columns surmounted by an equestrian statue between two trophies. The arch was a monumental rebuilding of one of the arches of the Aqua Virgo where the aqueduct crossed the Via Lata (modern Via del Corso), a continuation of the Via Flaminia and the main artery leading north out of the city. That the arch was not standing in the eighth century is known from the Einsiedeln itinerary (named after the Benedictine monastery in Switzerland where it is preserved). A guide for pilgrims, it describes eleven walks, from gate to gate through Rome, and the sights to be seen on either side of the route. It tells of broken arches (those of the Aqua Virgo) only to the east of the Via Lata.

In the reconstruction below by Pirro Ligorio (d.1583), one also should imagine the equestrian statue and trophies on top of the arch and a program of panel reliefs running on the architrave below the attic. They are the earliest to survive and likely include some that now are part of the faade of the Villa Medici. Ligorio also indicates that reliefs flanked the attic inscription and the piers between the columns. Beneath the column bases were dedications to the imperial family. It is likely, too, that the inscriptions were duplicated on both sides of the arch, to be seen by travelers as they entered or left Rome.

"The public works which he completed were great and essential rather than numerous."

Suetonius, Claudius (XX.1)

 

 

The inscription on this aureus abbreviates DE[victis] BRITANN[is] (Triumph over the Britons) and is the first allusion to Britain on Roman coinage.

DE BRITANNI on the architrave of the arch may indicate an irregular coin issue (or simply that more room was available).

The restored attic inscription reads

"The Senate and People of Rome [dedicated this] to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus...because he received into surrender eleven kings of the Britons conquered without loss and he first brought the barbarian peoples across the Ocean under the authority of the Roman people."

One should keep in mind that the text is a reconstruction, even if well informed, and that the epigraphic evidence is tenuous. The first five lines and last two likely are formulaic. Lines six and seven, however, are more speculative, and it is not possible to discern the actual number of British kings. Suetonius, who may have taken his own words from the arch, speaks only of "the surrender of the kings of the Britons" (Claudius, XXI.6). To have "conquered without loss" also is problematic. It, too, is echoed by Suetonius in his claim that there was victory "without any battle or bloodshed." Because it is unlikely that Claudius would minimize the difficulty of his own military campaign, a diplomatic triumph may be implied, a reading supported by Dio's observation that Claudius "won over numerous tribes, in some cases by capitulation, in others by force" (LX.21.4).


After an unopposed landing and several skirmishes, the Britons gathered to oppose the Romans at the River Medway. The battle, which lasted two days, was in doubt until Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, one of the legionary legates, led a victorious attack. The Thames was crossed as well, where the advance was halted until the arrival of Claudius, himself. Spending just sixteen days in Britain, he made a triumphant entry into Camulodunum (Colchester), the capital of the Trinovantes, accepted the surrender of tribal chieftans, and then hastened back to Rome, instructing Aulus Plautius, the consular governor, to "subjugate the remaining districts" (Dio, LX.21.5).

Britain was not conquered without loss. Caratacus, one of the sons of Cunobelinus, king of the Catuvellauni when Rome invaded in AD 43, likely was among the subjugated kings mentioned by Suetonius. Retreating west, first to the land of the Silures in southern Wales and then to the Ordovices in the north, where he was defeated, he eventually was surrendered to the Romans. The stubborn resistance of the Welsh, however, had prompted the new Roman governor to disarm the native tribes, even those who were nominal allies. In AD 47, the Iceni were the first to revolt (Tacitus, Annals, XII.31ff), although it may be that only some of the tribe rebelled, as Prasutagus, king of the Iceni (and husband of Boudica), was allowed to retain his position. He, too, may be among those who surrendered to Claudius.


The fragment above, which was discovered in 1641, is displayed in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori (Rome). Three smaller fragments had been found in 1562 but now are known only from drawings.

There is more about the Arch of Claudius in the essay on the Aqua Virgo. Given that the arch was an integral part of the Aqua Virgo, Barrett has suggested that the aqueduct, itself, may have intended as the monument to Claudius' triumph in Britain and the arch, itself, its final crowning achievement. This would explain the eight years that separated the Senate voting the arch and its dedication.


References: The Monuments of Ancient Rome as Coin Types (1989) by Philip V. Hill; Freeman & Sear Catalog No.12 (2005), item 536; "Claudius' British Victory Arch in Rome" (1991) by A. A. Barrett, Britannia, 22, 1-19.

See also Pediment of the Temple of Mars Ultor.

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