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Part V –  ‘Stone memorialisations’

Many Roman emperors wanted to leave a permanent mark of their power, presence and glory. Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls explain how they chose to do that.
The Forum and Imperial Forum were the heart of political life in Rome where the state transacted his business. But we’ve already seen that as well as practical buildings, housing, local law courts, and archives, and the rest, there were also structures that are just monuments. Things like arches or obelisks or columns. They have no or very little real practical function, but exists solely as markers. The state memorialisation of ideas or events or places or people that the Romans really wanted to make a permanent part of the fabric of the city.
Obelisks are monolithic pieces of granite, Egyptian granite, and many of them are older than the Roman Empire, because they come from ancient pharaonic Egypt. And when Rome conquered Egypt in 30 BC, emperors immediately started shipping the back to Rome as symbol to that far flung exotic conquest.
Another really important sort of monument in the city of Rome is the arch, the triumphal arch. And behind me you see a really great example, the Arch of Constantine. An arch is a, sort of, decorated formal gateway for an important road, often as here the triumphal way. So this is triumphal arch. The triumphal way is the route along which the Roman triumph passes. And the triumph is a victory procession of a general and a chariot painted up to look like Jupiter at the head of his troops marching into the city, breaking the taboo against armed men inside the city boundary, bringing with them all the spoils and booty that they conquered, and parading it through the city.
And this is an honour so significant, so prestigious that as soon as Rome has emperors, only the emperor is allowed to have a triumph. But once the last soldier packs up his kit and trundles away at the end of the day, the triumph is over and gone. So to create a permanent marker within the cityscape, arches like this adorned with statues, inscriptions, relief carvings make a permanent statement the triumph has passed this way. And this is one of many triumphal arches in Rome. So by putting it here over this route, Constantine is boasting that he is the latest in a long line of emperors who’ve held this prestigious honour and celebrated in this way.
We’re back again in the Heberden Coin Room in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. And we’re going to look in a bit more detail of what Roman coins can tell us about emperors in their buildings. For instance, here is a coin of the emperor Trajan– possibly my favourite Roman emperor– who was emperor at the beginning of the second century AD. And his campaigns in what’s now Romania and Ancient Dacia in the early part of that century, were commemorated as we’ve seen on the spiral column, Trajan’s column that still stands.
And here it is portrayed on these coins so even if you couldn’t get to Rome, if you were out in some province of the empire, you can see this column and know that the emperor’s victories had been commemorated in the city of Rome.
Here the Column of Marcus Aurelius does something similar to Trajan’s Column. Using the spiral relief frieze circling up the column to the emperor’s statue on the top to tell the story of his campaigns, this time over Germanic tribes. But there’s something edgy and violent almost panicky about the scenes of battle here. It rather gives the lie to the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ famous calm, stoic personality and philosophy.
Like Trajan’s Column, this one has a spiral staircase inside mirroring the spiral frieze on the outside. And you might be able to see the little slit windows that give light to that staircase inside. When you get up to the top, there’s a viewing platform with wonderful panoramic views out over the rooftops of the Campus Martius this part of Rome. And we even know that there was a custodian appointed here in the late second century, a man called Adrastus whose job it was to manage the flow of visitors coming to column to climb the stairs and look out at the wonderful view.
So that building is still there in Rome, but we can also look at these coins for evidence of buildings that are now lost to us. And here is one of them, the emperor Augustus, first Roman emperor– here he is on his coin– erected an archway leading into the Roman Forum between two temples serving as sort of a gateway into the Forum. That’s now totally lost to us. And this is precious evidence for how the arch might have appeared. The arch has been erected to celebrate the recovery of military standards that were lost to the Parthians some years before. It was a great disgrace.
When Augustus managed to get them back again, this was presented almost as a victory of triumph of arms. And you can see on the coin here, it’s a triple arch with a four horse chariot flanked by human figures waving what might be palm branches of victory on the side of it. And the coin caption tells us that this is for the recovered Parthian standards.
Elsewhere in the city, later emperors put up their monuments, and coins can help us recover these too. Here for example is the emperor Claudius, while an elderly and infirm character when he came to power. He perhaps had something to prove, so he organised a military expedition and conquered Britain, previously visited by Julius Caesar, but otherwise not yet a province of the empire. So he organised a military expedition here in AD 43, claimed to conquer Britain, came back to Rome in triumph, celebrated his great victory parade, and put up this arch, which is now lost but is pictured on the coin.
We know that it was an adaptation of an arch that was going as part of aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo, that was crossing one of the main roads into Rome the Via Flaminia. And where he crossed over the road, he dressed up the archway as a great triumphal monument. But here we see a picture of the arch with De Britannis written on it, conquest over the Britons. And on the top, pictures of captured trophies of arms, and the emperor sitting on horseback holding a sword. So a nice picture of an arch that’s otherwise totally lost to us.
Just as this arch puts itself on the triumphal way claiming that hallowed mantle of triumphs past, say to it the artwork perhaps putting Constantine in a long sequence of Roman emperors. But there are a few things about this arch that don’t quite add up, however hard it’s trying to be just one more triumphal arch in a long and proud history. For a start, Constantine’s victory was not over barbarians on a distant battlefield. It was over fellow Romans and quite close to home. So there’s maybe an uncomfortable feeling here that this arch boasting of conquest and triumph is really boasting of killing fellow Romans.
Constantine borrowed from the artworks and the monuments of previous emperors to adorn this arch making actually quite a careful selection or so it seems. He’s gone for artwork associated with great emperors of the past, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius. Men whose reputations by this time was solid and positive.
The artistic styles of these borrowed panels is quite different to the stuff that Constantine commissioned from scratch. Here in this fourth century artwork, you see a stockier, stumpier sort of proportion, figures carved more in the round, more crowd than the vigorous scene of action. So a very different artistic style. And perhaps Constantine just couldn’t get the craftsmen to finish off the arch in the style he wanted and had to raid stockyards, previous monuments to finish it off in time for his dedication in AD 315. In fact, we don’t really know. And there’s a final mystery here, a religious mystery, because Constantine– by the end of his reign at least– was Rome’s first Christian emperor.
And he was responsible for the process that ended up transforming the Roman Empire into a Christian empire and made Rome the seat of the papacy. We’re told by a later source, Constantine won the battle commemorated on this arch when he saw in the sky a vision of a fiery cross with a promise this is a sign in which you will conquer. So perhaps this arch wants to make a gesture towards Christianity. Well if you read the inscription, it says that the victory in the battle was granted ‘instinctu divinitatis’ at the impulse, at the bidding of a divinity? the divinity? the divine? We don’t really know.
But maybe that idea of a single god is just a nod towards Christianity, a non-committal gesture at a date when Constantine was still feeling his way towards that new religious faith. Because elsewhere on the arch, we have plenty of pagan gods. We have sun and moon gods in their chariots. We have the emperor conducting pagan sacrifice. So this is a monument of ambiguity of hedging its bets of trying to turn a civil war victory into a triumph. A very interesting marker on the triumphal way.

Not every building in ancient Rome had a practical function. Monuments such as obelisks and arches cemented their builder’s legacy into the landscape of the city forever.

I visit the monuments which still stand (such as the impressive Trajan’s Column and the Arch of Constantine) in Rome today and look at digital reconstructions of these, as well as buildings that don’t survive. I show you coins that depict arches now lost to us and discuss what they tell us about the message Rome’s leaders wanted to pass throughout their empire.

As you watch this video, you may like to think about:

  • Whether the commemorative landscape of ancient Rome is similar to cities today.

  • Many of these monuments celebrate the military conquests of Roman emperors. Did you spot any such features in the video?

Share your thoughts in the comment area below.

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