Trajan’s Column and the Arch of Constantine: when art celebrates history

Among the most important monuments of Roman history are Trajan’s Column and the Arch of Constantine. Though always right under everybody’s nose, being part of the urban structure and visible just by simply walking in the centre, their symbolic value may not always be so obvious. We are talking about monuments extremely rich in symbols and references to historical events widely separated in time, created for the purpose of celebrating or recounting the deeds of the emperors who had promoted the development of Roman society. But why are these monuments mentioned together?

Brogi Giacomo - Arco di Costantino

The Arch of Constantine, as its name suggests, is related to the emperor of the fourth century, who gave impetus to the Christian religion in the West. In those years the social climate was very tense, culminating with the battle of the Milvian Bridge. The Arch of Constantine rises precisely to convey and celebrate the events of which the emperor was protagonist. To do so, this emperor looks to the glories of the past and to the emperor Trajan, who was a great promoter of the Roman expansion in Dacia, in the eastern part of the Empire. It is for this reason that some reliefs on the Trajan Column were taken as a model for the Arch of Constantine.

Robert MacPherson - Trajan's Forum and column

Let’s take a look at some further details. The Trajan’s Column, inaugurated in 113 AD, formed by nineteen blocks of marble, displays a long spiral-shaped frieze that wraps around the surface of the column. As previously mentioned, the theme of the monument is the celebration of the emperor’s victories in Dacia (101-106) and therefore of his military campaigns. The narrative is lively, the figure of Trajan is represented well sixty times and depicted in various episodes like marches, ceremonies, embassies and in crucial moments of battle.

All these scenes are set in natural, realistic and well represented environments, which suggest the existence at the time of written sources or precise reports, used as a model for its construction. As for the attributions, these reliefs are generally related to the “Master of Trajan’s Column”, a renowned artistic personality in the Empire’s official life and an acute connoisseur of the Hellenistic arts.

Arco di Costantino

Constantine’s Arch, a short walk from the Coliseum, is a triumphant arch, 21 meters tall, with three fornixes (or three openings). The arch was erected by order of the Roman Senate to celebrate and commemorate the victory of Emperor Constantine against Maxentius. We are talking about the famous battle of the Milvian Bridge, which took place in 312 AD.

The structure is made of marble and the decoration boasts several reliefs that narrate the main episodes related to the life of the previous emperors, of the second century, by which Constantine was inspired: Marcus Aurelius, Trajan and Hadrian. It is precisely the second century to be seen as the blissful century of the Roman world, of which these emperors are the symbol.

The arch presents a special frieze, the great frieze of Trajan, originally carved and placed in Trajan’s Forum. The depicted theme is that of the emperor’s feat and his triumph over the Dacians. The narrative is therefore strongly linked to the already mentioned Trajan Column. Various researchers have also suggested that these reliefs are the work of the same artist, but although being very similar, these works actually have a different style: the Trajan’s Column has a documentary purpose, while the Constantine’s Arch is more a celebratory one. In spite of the evident similarity with the Trajan Column in the execution of the work, The Arch does in fact present an extraordinary abundance of details and subjects.

Trajan's Column Etching, colorized, Engraved by M. Dubourg. Published London 1820.

Trajan’s Column Etching, colorized, Engraved by M. Dubourg. Published London 1820.

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