When Constantine killed Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 312 AD, he marched triumphantly into Rome. After the victory parade was over, Constantine decided he wanted people to remember this victory, and he put up a large stone triumphal arch, like the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Septimius Severus, or the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, to remind people that he had won this important battle.
The Arch of Constantine, though, is a little different from the earlier arches, because Constantine was reminding people about a civil war, not a war against foreign enemies. Titus had conquered the Jewish revolt, and Septimius Severus had conquered the Germans, but Constantine had conquered another Roman emperor.
On top of the arch, Constantine had an inscription carved that reminded people of his victory. It’s carefully phrased, so that while it refers to God, it doesn’t specify which god – a Roman god like Jupiter, or the Christian God? In 312 AD, Constantine was already a Christian, but he wasn’t ready to put it on a public monument yet.
Around the lower part of the arch, just over the side archways, Constantine put pictures of the battle itself. One scene shows Constantine’s troops outside the walls of Rome. Next comes the battle for the Milvian Bridge, with soldiers drowning in the water underneath.
On the side, we see Constantine entering the city of Rome in triumph after beating Maxentius. See him in his chariot on the left? (The little inscription under it reminds us about a Pope who fixed up the arch).
These scenes are all long and crowded with many small figures with large heads. They look a lot like slightly earlier scenes from Amaravati, in India. But it’s hard to know whether the styles are really connected or not.
And on the back of his triumphal arch, Constantine showed himself giving money to the poor (he’s sitting in the middle, and the poor are all in a row, lifting up their arms). Notice the use of colored marble, which is new – earlier arches were just white travertine or marble.
One funny thing about the Arch of Constantine is that a lot of the other carvings, like the round ones that you can see above the rectangular scenes, were taken from other earlier monuments that showed earlier emperors (mostly Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius). Probably these were sculptures that had been in storage, from monuments that had been taken down for some reason. Why did Constantine reuse these old carvings?
Some people think that by 312 AD, it was hard to find anyone in Rome who was a good stone-carver, so Constantine had to use the old carvings (he recut the heads to look like him). Other people think Constantine needed to save money. But it is also possible that Constantine, as a usurper, just wanted to make a connection to earlier, more legitimate Roman emperors.
Unlike a lot of other Roman monuments, this one is in pretty good shape. Because Constantine was a Christian, the Popes were interested in preserving this arch, which shows the triumph of Christianity over Roman religion. So they paid workmen to take care of this arch, as their inscriptions on the sides show.
Learn by doing: tell a story in a series of five or so drawings
More about the Arch of Titus
More about the Arch of Septimius Severus
And more about Trajan’s Column
Ancient Rome: A Guide to the Glory of Imperial Rome, by Jonathan Stroud (2000). A day as a time-travelling tourist in ancient Rome, for kids.
Constantine, by Nancy Zinsser Walworth (1989). A biography for kids.
Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine, by Nancy and Andrew Ramage (4th Edition 2004).The standard textbook.
The Life and Times of Constantine the Great: The First Christian Emperor, by D. G. Kousoulas (2nd edition 2003). A biography of Constantine.