Why Are There So Many Arches In Rome?

Rome has a whole host of famous monuments to its name, many of which are world famous and connected to its long, illustrious past. Walking around the city you’ll be able to see traces of Rome’s ancient past scattered around. Some of these are triumphal arches that offer a glimpse into the military history of Rome. Indeed, there are many arches in Rome!

As the city-state expanded, and victories were won against neighboring tribes and cities, celebrations were held to commemorate these achievements. Part of these celebrations involved erecting these huge arches.

They are a testament to Rome’s war-like past and have inspired arches around the world, from the Arc de Triomphe, one of the most famous places to visit in Paris to London’s Marble Arch and the Sailor’s Arch in New York.

If you are curious to discover the history and the meaning of the many arches in Rome, you are in the right place. I am about to share everything you should know!

Caelian Hill

What Do The Arches In Rome Mean?

That’s a good question. We call them “triumphal arches” because that’s what was awarded after a triumphant general or emperor returned victorious from a battle. Having a structure like an arch built was the greatest honor in ancient Rome, and was the crowning glory of a successful military career.

It would be awarded not just for any old victory in battle, however, but for an achievement such as taking prisoners from a hostile barbarian tribe or staking new claims in territory following military victories.

The returning general or emperor would be the centerpiece of an orchestrated procession that would lead through the arch dedicated to their triumph. They would be riding a quadriga, a symbolic, four-horse chariot, and among the procession would be carried spoils of war — this often included chained or tied-up hostages and prisoners of war walking in line, too. This parade would be a big event and a chance for the city to celebrate.

The procession would stop by at the Temple of Jupiter at the Capitoline Hill, through the Roman Forum, where the general or emperor would make sacrifices to Jupiter.

visiting the Colosseum

The History Of The Arches In Rome

Although the triumphal arches are associated with Rome, the history of them goes back way further.

The passageway through the arch may seem like a gateway, but they were never part of walls or defensive entrances. These were standalone structures that were used as a symbolic element of Rome’s leadership, part religious, part militaristic.

The building techniques that the Romans used to construct their triumphal arches were actually based on Etruscan architecture, as the Etruscans utilized elaborate gateways into their cities. The Romans also leant on their own prowess in building bridges and aqueducts.

Triumphal arches in Rome always have a square top and a rounded portal, which were styles used for the entrances to ancient Greek temples, further showing the eclectic mix of influences at work in these celebratory constructions.

The carved decorations of the arch were an important part of its message; these would include panels depicting battles, captured weapons, triumphal processions, and also imagery of civic ideals. The inscriptions also posed as important artwork, with gilded letters that were finely cut and carefully designed to be easily read — arguably one of the first instances of engineering fonts, and it influences typography to this day.

Most of the arches in Rome were constructed during the Imperial period (27 BC – 476 AD). Thirty-six arches were known to have been built throughout the city by the 4th century AD. Only three of these ancient triumphal arches in Rome survive, but there are many other arches to be seen.

arches in Rome

7 Must-See Arches In Rome

Arch of Constantine

The Arch of Constantine is one of the most famous examples triumphal arches in Rome. Situated just outside the Colosseum, it’s located along the old route to the Roman Forum, aka Via Triumphalis — the route that victorious generals and emperors would take as they made their way to the Capitoline Hill.

The Arch was constructed in 315 AD and was ordered by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine’s victory over his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. Standing 21 meters (69 feet) high, this is Rome’s largest triumphal arch and boasts three portals; one large in the center, two smaller ones flanking it.

Although it is generally considered to celebrate Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, there is actually no mention of Maxentius on the arch. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, triumphal arches were usually constructed for victories over barbarian peoples – not fellow Roman citizens – and so highlighting this would have been in bad taste. Secondly, Constantine embarked on a campaign of damnatio memoriae after Maxentius’ death; this means that efforts were made to erase the memory of Maxentius and strike him from history altogether.

In fact, according to some, the arch may have even been started by Maxentius himself. Some even say that it represents Constantine’s victory over “pagan” Rome and the celebration of Christianity. It even used stone and other elements taken from other ancient monuments in its construction.

The arch features carvings that make it an important source for art at the time of Constantine’s rule. It shows stylistic changes as the Roman Empire moved from Classical Greek influences, using the best craftsmen in Rome to render human figures in a softer manner. Not only that, but there is a lot of symbolism used, and it is replete with historic friezes that praise the emperor in battle and in his civilian duties.

Although today it is a plain marble arch, in its heyday this would have been a colorful affair. There would have been rich reds, purples, and greens adorning it, as well as much gold; statues also would have adorned its edges.

It has also undergone many different evolutions and uses through the ages, too. One of these is during the middle ages, when it was incorporated into the city’s fortifications. It also became part of a stronghold of a noble family in late antiquity.

Arch of Drusus

Arch of Drusus

Unlike the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Drusus is not a triumphal arch. And it also has nothing to do with Drusus. His full name being Nero Claudius Drusus, he was a superstar general during the Augustan age of Rome (31 BC – 14 AD) and led Rome’s military forces to victory in Germany, defeating a long list of hostile Germanic tribes.

Sadly for Rome, Drusus died suddenly after falling from his horse in 9 BC, returning to camp after an advance into Germany. He was very popular after his death, and the Senate even raised a triumphal arch in his memory that was located along the Appian Way — that, however, has nothing to do with this Arch of Drusus, and is no longer there.

Archaeologists have generally agreed that this particular arch dates back to the 3rd century AD. But its use is less agreed upon. It’s thought that it was created as part of the elaborate aqueduct system that carried water along the Aqua Antoniana to the Baths of Caracalla. However, it seems to predate the aqueduct, so it is sometimes considered to have been a pre-existing structure repurposed for convenience.

Today only the central arch remains. In its heyday this was at least a triple archway, built out of travertine and faced with marble. Strangely, it was never finished, and there is also some additional conjecture that this is the Arch of Trajan instead of Drusus.

Arch of Septimius Severus

Arch of Septimius Severus

Situated between the Curia (the Senate house) and the Rostra, the Arch of Septimius Severus overlooks the Roman Forum at its northeastern end. This impressive triumphal arch dates back to 203 AD, and was constructed to commemorate the victories of Emperor Septimius Severus over the Parthians. It is also dedicated to his two sons, Caracalla and Geta (both of whom would later become emperors).

The two campaigns that Septimus led against the Parthians took place between 194 and 195, and later between 197 and 199 AD. The arch stands at 23 meters (75 feet) high, and features three imposing archways.

We don’t know who actually built it, but it was obviously a skilled architect, who worked with a number of equally skilled artists and artisans to carve the elaborate friezes and reliefs. Those who worked on it were clearly versed in the Antonine style — this was all about elaborate ornamentation.

The decorations were intended to show off the achievements of the emperor’s family. In its heyday, the arch was adorned with a chariot pulled by six horses in gilded bronze. The lettering at the top would have also been gilded and would have gleamed impressively in the sunlight. Today, visitors can see many details in the reliefs, with statues representing the seasons, deities such as Winged Victory, and depictions of prisoners of war on the pedestals at ground level.

To further show off the work, and commemorate its completion to the Roman world, coins depicting the artwork were minted and put into circulation.

The work was completed while Septimius Severus was ruling alongside his son, Caracalla. Caracalla had his brother assassinated, however, and some references to Geta were erased from the arch in the Imperial Roman tradition of damnatio memoriae.

Arch of Titus

The Arch of Titus is actually an honorific and a triumphal arch, as it was erected after the Emperor Titus died in 81 AD and commemorates his military victory. It was Emperor Domitian, Titus’ brother, who oversaw its completion.

Its location in Rome, right next to the Roman Forum, puts it close to other important buildings of the city. And measuring it at 15.4 meters (50 feet) high, it’s an imposing landmark in the city.

The arch commemorates the victory of the Romans over the Jewish rebellion in the Roman province of Judea, and depicts celebrations of the victory that took place in Rome in 71 AD.

Due to its age, the Arch of Titus has been a prototype for triumphal arches through the ages, especially for those erected following the Renaissance in the 15th century — just take a look at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The decorations on the arch are fascinating. They depict both symbolic and realistic events, meaningful for Romans of the era. For one example, there’s a relief of Titus as the triumphator, or the triumphant one, riding his four-horsed quadriga in a procession.

There are panels that depict spoils taken from the fall of Jerusalem; you can actually spot a menorah being taken away. This design of this menorah actually served as the template for the design of the menorah on the Emblem of Israel.

Like other structures in the city, in the middle ages the arch was modified by a noble family — this time the Frangipane family. They fortified the arch by adding a second story, turning it into something of a stronghold for the wealthy inhabitants.

Arch of Janus

Arch of Janus

The Arch of Janus may be named after the two-headed god, but the Roman deity himself is not part of this ancient portal. Instead, it’s named the Arch of Janus as it uniquely sits on a crossroads and is an example of a quadrifrons arch: a cubic shaped arch with a gate on each side.

Built in the 4th century AD using material from other buildings, the meaning of the arch is not very well known. Some believe that it was merely a marker for the boundaries of the area; others believed that it was used as shelter by the traders of the nearby Forum Boarium (Cattle Market).

One theory states that the arch was known as the Arch of the Deified Constantine, and was dedicated to either Constantine I or Constantius II; it was mentioned in ancient texts as this, after all. If this is the case, then it would also mark the Emperor Constantine’s famous victory over Maxentius at Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.

Looking at the archway today, with its many niches (48 to be exact), it’s clear to see that there would have been many statues occupying the now-empty spaces. It is believed that the current name of the arch, the Arch of Janus, was bestowed upon it in the Renaissance era or even later.

It’s yet another arch that the powerful Frangipane family converted for their own use, turning it into a fortified building. More recently, in 1993, a Mafia car bomb exploded nearby and damaged the structure; today there is a fence around it, so you can’t actually get close to it.

arches in Rome
Tomk2ski, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Arch of Gallienus

The Arch of Gallienus is another of Rome’s arches, but not a triumphal one. It was part of the Porta Esquilina, an ancient gate to the city that traditionally dates back to the 6th century BC (though 4th century BC is probably more correct). This is usually considered to have been built by the Roman King Servius Tullius.

The gate itself allowed passage for people between Rome and the Esquiline Hill to the east of the city — before the construction of the Aurelian Wall and the expansion of the city, that is. The Arch of Gallienus marked the start of the ancient roads of Via Labicana and the Via Tiburtina.

It was built as a practical gateway rather than a triumphal arch, but in 262 AD it was re-dedicated by the equestrian (a noble class) Marcus Aurelius Victor to the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina.

The equestrian actually replaced the original inscription on the archway, in an attempt to drum up some good PR for Gallienus. During his reign, the empire had undergone some setbacks. In particular, his rule is known for coming under what is known as the Crisis of the Third Century, during which the empire was split into three and ruled by separate usurpers, almost leading to the collapse of the Roman Empire altogether.

The arch still stands today at just under 9 meters (29 feet) high; you can still read the inscription, too. You may find it hard to find; tucked away between two buildings, a church, and a private residence.

Arco di Dolabella
MarkusMark, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arch of Dolabella and Silanus

Sometimes simply referred to as the Arch of Dolabella, this arch is situated right at the top of the Caelian Hill, and once served as one of the entrances to Rome through the ancient Servian Wall (built in the 4th century BC).

The original name for this arch was the Porta Caelimontana, and it was built under a decree by the Senate in 10 AD, specifically under the auspices of the consuls Publius Cornelius Dolabella and Gaius Junius Silanus.

It is generally thought to have been a rebuilding of the original Porta Caelimontana. Today, the modern-day Via di S. Paolo della Croce runs through it, which in turn traces the route of the former Clivus Scauri — an ancient road that branched off from the one leading from the Circus Maximus to the Colosseum.

It’s certainly not the most elaborate arch you’ll find in Rome, but with its curving brick structure and the surrounding layers of historical wall, it’s a testament not only to Roman engineering, but to the long history of the city as a whole.

Further Readings

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