Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Arch of Constantine: A Tool of Propaganda and Change for the Roman Empire

Marcus Vizzutti
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008


The reign of Emperor Constantine from the year 306 to his death in 337 was a period of drastic change throughout the Roman Empire. He is well known for being the first of the Christian emperors in Rome and instigating the shift of power from divine emperors of the past, to the church. During his rule, Constantine made many significant revisions to the empire including transforming the city of Byzantium into Constantinople which would become the new capital of the Roman Empire as well as would remain the capital of the Byzantium Empire for over 1000 years. Constantine made many prominent legal reforms during his rule including mandating better treatment of prisoners within Rome, banning of the gladiatorial games and limiting the rights of slave masters. This is our first glimpse into the consistent theme of Constantine’s rule, the benevolent emperor.

Constantine’s predecessor, Maxentius, was a tyrant of the Diocletian system who oppressed Christians in the empire. The most notable of Constantine’s achievements was his signing and implication of the Edict of Milan in 313, which granted religious tolerance throughout the empire. This not only reversed the persecution of Christians that had been occurring under previous emperors, but it also allowed peoples of other religions to practice freely within the empire. For this he has been termed both Constantine the Great as well as Saint Constantine by different sects of the Christian church. One of Constantine’s most ingenious political moves was his allowance of religions other than Christianity. Paganism was not banned at the time Constantine came to power, in fact the coins minted during the first several years of his rule still showed the figures of ancient Roman gods. Moreover, Constantine’s Arch itself contains no direct Christian references. This move allowed the empire a religious grace period in which people could understand the change that was happening and follow by choice. Constantine believed that rapid change would disturb the empire, and especially upset those that wished to maintain the status quo and continue to practice ancient beliefs. Had he forced Christianity upon the citizens in a revolutionary manner, he would have been no better to the people than the tyrant he had replaced.

The Arch of Constantine
The Arch of Constantine was built to commemorate Constantine’s victory over the aforementioned Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, which allowed Constantine to take full power of the western empire. It is said that before the battle, Constantine saw a crucifixion cross of light above the sun that read, “By this conquer.” Constantine in turn commanded his troops to adorn their shields with the chi-rho emblem of Christians. By associating themselves with the Christian God, Constantine and his soldiers were perceived as fighting for Christianity and with the blessing of God. While in the past military victories were seen as acts of the divine emperor, Constantine’s conquest was viewed as an act of God. His victory marked the final obstacle Christians had to overcome in order to practice their religion freely within the Roman Empire. On March 7, 321, Sunday was declared an official day of rest on which markets were taken down and offices were closed, as we still observe today. This declaration of Sunday as God’s day is the first major implication of the Empire’s movement toward becoming wholly Christian.

One of the main differences shown in Constantine’s Arch relative to memorials of past emperors is Constantine’s use of propaganda to show himself as a kind, charismatic ruler, rather than a divine dictator. By showing himself as a benevolent ruler, Constantine hoped to gain the citizens’ loyalty which would compel them to follow him into a new golden age by choice, rather than because of oppression. This particular arch is also seen as relatively more political than artistic when compared with monuments of the past which is why it is of much interest. The Arch is studied largely because of its use of spolia - pieces of art taken from monuments and statues of the past and reused on a new piece - to convey Constantine’s political messages to the Roman citizens. In the case of Constantine’s Arch, the spolia are used to show a juxtaposition of new and old art. The frames taken from the past are extremely detailed and realistic, whereas the Constantinian frames they flank are disproportioned, lacking depth and stiff. When viewed side by side on the Arch, the Constantinian art appears completely flat compared with the scenes from the past. This dramatic change in artistic style allows a connection to be made between the era of Constantine and the prosperous times shown within the spolia while simultaneously showing the transformation in the ruling class to allow a bright future for all in Rome. The importance of this artistic juxtaposition and the transformation within the ruling class will become more apparent once the spolia themselves and the Constantinian art of the Arch have been discussed in depth.

The spolia included on the Arch of Constantine were originally intended to show the victories and merits of the great Roman emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. When examined one will notice that anywhere these three emperors appeared within the different spolia frames, the emperor’s head has been replaced by that of Constantine.

This, in effect, shows Constantine connecting their triumphs with his age of rule. Constantine has made an association within the minds of Romans between his time of power and the affluent times of the past. Another important aspect to consider is the way in which Constantine is shown with his right hand outstretched to the people in several scenes on the Arch. By using the spolia as his own, as well as reaching out to all the people of Rome, Constantine is showing that he is the vital individual to prosperity in the empire, as well as the bringer of a bright future.

The Spolia
One of the three sets of spolia present on Constantine’s Arch is the Great Trajanic Frieze, two panels of which are located on the inside of the middle archway and one on each east and west side of the Arch, for a total of four scenes. The scenes depicted within the frieze give a chronological account of a battle, including an imperial arrival, two battle scenes including Trajan himself, and Roman soldiers with captured barbarians. More important than the narrative illustrated in the frieze is the artistic style in which the figures appear.

The figures in the Trajanic Frieze are shown in a similar fashion to those on Trajan’s column, but are less realistic and more idealized. Examples of this are the ceremonial dress worn by the soldiers, rather than battle garb, as well as Trajan in battle without a helmet. The intention of these idealized scenes is to show the power and dominance of the Roman military and the extent of Rome’s military prowess.

The second of the three sets of spolia are the eight Hadrianic medallions, 2 pairs of which are on each façade, both north and south. Each pair portrays a hunt scene matched with a following sacrificial scene. The four hunt scenes that are represented are the departure for the hunt, a bear hunt, a lion hunt and a boar hunt. Each of the hunts ended with a sacrifice to the appropriate deity, Silvanus, Diana, Hercules and Apollo respectively. These hunting frames illustrate Constantine (re-cut from the original figure of Hadrian) slaying the beast, intended to represent the enemies of the empire. The subsequent sacrifices ensure that the gods will render him fortunate and powerful, which compels the viewer to see that the prosperity of the empire rests in the emperor’s hands.

The final set of spolia is the Aurelian panels from the time of Marcus Aurelius. There are eight total scenes, two pairs on each façade of the Arch. On the south side we see the first set which includes preparation for war with the ritual purification of the enemy and an imperial address, intended to show a harmonious relationship between emperor and his troops. These events are important because in the eyes of the soldiers, both were vital to ensure a victory in the ensuing battle. On the north façade we see the military scenes that take place chronologically between the two sets of panels on the south side. This includes depictions of the emperor administering justice to the enemy as well one military arrival and one departure from battle. These frames give the viewer a sense of the bravery and leadership of the emperor as well as help the viewer understand the importance of the imperial system and generosity of its ruler to the empire’s wellbeing. The second set on the south façade depict the success of the preparations, after the battle has taken place. The victory is shown first by agreements being made between the re-cut Constantine and rulers of conquered peoples to join the Roman Empire, and secondly by the emperor’s clemency to the newly subjected people, which again, follows the theme of the benevolent ruler.

The Constantinian Art
The last component of the Arch is the Constantinian Frieze, which tells the story of Constantine’s rise to power. The narrative frieze describes Constantine and his armies departing Milan, the siege of Verona, the attack on the city, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge,

the enemies signaling retreat, Constantine and armies triumphantly returning to Rome, Constantine addressing the people and finally, Constantine distributing handouts to the citizens. The final two scenes mentioned are of great importance for two reasons, the first being the comparison of these scenes to the spolia directly next to them in terms of artistic style. As was mentioned, the spolia from the past are of much greater detail and precision. By placing a drastically different artistic style directly next to the ancient art, Constantine shows not only a connection to the great traditions of the past, but also difference from the empire of the past for an even brighter future. The second and key piece to notice is the fact that in these Constantinian scenes, Constantine has placed himself in the middle of the people, with each of the Romans facing towards him in an orderly fashion. This layout has a direct relationship to the appearance of The Last Supper. Constantine has subliminally represented to the Roman people that he will be the one to lead the empire to a new age of prosperity, not through tyranny and oppression, but through kindness and compassion.

There are two final elements of the Constantinian Frieze that are significant to the viewer’s perception of the emperor. Within the frieze, there are statues of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius as well as the Arch of Septimius Severus. Constantine is once again placing himself among the traditions of these great emperors of the past. Also, Constantine is shown among people of varying classes such as government officials, accountants, high ranking beneficiaries and a crowd of anonymous petitioners. The fact that there are multiple classes represented is extremely important because this would become a premise for the change of Roman government from a tyrannous dictatorship to a hierarchy of bureaucracy in which the power is vested in new classes and overseen by the emperor.

The central theme projected by Constantine through use of the spolia as well as art of Constantinian style is that of a kind and generous ruler. It should be noted that on the east and west sides of the Arch on which there are the two scenes of Constantine’s armies, one in which they are departing Milan, the other in which they are returning triumphantly to Rome, paired with the medallions of the Sun and Moon gods intended to show a difference in time between the beginnings of the conquest, to its glorious return. In addition, the Constantinian Friezes on the east and west sides of the Arch are shown below those of the Trajanic Frieze in order to convey a predetermined victory and prosperity. The sun medallion has another specific significance in the context of the Arch: the sun god Sol is the subject of pagan monotheism.
This monotheistic connection between Sol and the Christian God formed a bridge for the eventual reform of paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire. Although power is the center of attention within the scenes, it is intended to be the power of Emperor Constantine to conquer, to save, to bring harmony and to benefit all the people of Rome.

The final component of the Arch is the first to catch your eye amongst the many artistic frames upon the arch, the written inscription dedicating the Arch. It reads, “To the emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine Maximus, Pius Felix Augustus, since through divine inspiration and great wisdom he has delivered the state from the tyrant and all his factions, by his army and noble arms, the Senate and the Roman people, dedicate this arch decorated with triumphal insignia.” The inscription wraps up all that has been seen across the entire piece, telling of Constantine’s great power and wisdom and his powerful armies which have allowed the Empire to escape oppression. The phrase of most importance in this inscription is “through divine inspiration,” which is believed to be a reference to the cross of light Constantine had seen across the sun. This idea of submission of the glory to a divine power other than the emperor himself had not been seen up to this point. The ideology that the empire could enter a new Golden Age with an emperor that was benevolent and charismatic to all the people of Rome became the theme of change for the Roman Empire from this point forward.

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