Book Review: The arch of time

From its invention by the Romans, the monumental arch has been a feature of the built environment ever since


All visitors to Rome are familiar with the three arches which stand in or near the Forum, named after Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine. Most people, asked about their origin, would suppose that they were erected for triumphal processions to pass through. This idea might seem to be borne out by the relief within the Arch of Titus which shows his triumph after the capture of Jerusalem in AD71. On the other hand, they might be puzzled by the fact that the Arch of Septimius Severus is approached by steps—hardly suitable for the triumphator’s chariot.

The truth is that the origin has to be sought elsewhere. The elder Pliny tells us that the arch was a “recent innovation”, and compares the practice of erecting columns on which statues would be raised high up (familiar to us from Nelson’s Column). He says that the arch was also intended as the base for statuary, and it could obviously accommodate more than just one statue. We know that arches were regularly crowned by chariots drawn by four (or more) horses, or even elephants: none survives from antiquity, but they are shown on coins, and we only have to think of the Arc du Carrousel in Paris, where the chariot was originally driven by Napoleon. The Greeks did not use the arch until about 300BC, where it first occurs in gates in city walls. The Romans learned to use it for structural purposes from the Middle East, but with them also it first appears in city gates, in the second half of the third century BC. It is easy to see how a free-standing gateway might be conceived as a commemorative structure, just as the originally structural column came to be used as a free-standing ornamental object.

Arches in history

Pliny, writing in the 70s of the first century AD, tells us that the three earliest arches were erected at Rome by Lucius Stertinius on his return from his Spanish command in 196BC: he adds that he did not even attempt to be granted a triumph. We have no idea what these arches looked like, apart from the fact that they bore gilded statues. Stertinius’s motive must have been to ensure that there were monuments to commemorate himself. Under the Republic, arches were usually erected by military commanders themselves, but for Octavian’s victories at Actium (over Antony and Cleopatra) and over the Parthians, the Senate decreed arches in the Forum. Once the empire was established, arches were only erected at Rome in honour of emperors. Their purpose was commemorative, so they might honour a member of the imperial family for a victory, for the building of a road or bridge, or simply for a visit. In the provinces an arch might commemorate the dead, like the arch at Pula in Croatia.

The earliest surviving arch is probably the one at Aquino, south of Rome, though its origin is unknown. During the Roman Empire great numbers of arches were erected throughout the whole of its area, from North Africa to Britain. Particularly fine examples were the two erected to Trajan at Benevento (covered in sculpture) and on the quay at Ancona—perhaps the most beautiful of all. The arches in the south of France, of which that at Orange is exceptional in its architecture and relief decoration, were also well known. Arches were so common in Africa that one obscure little town had four, one at each entrance.

The versatile arch

The term arcus triumphalis oddly occurs only on two African arches of the second century AD, and in the writing of one fourth-century historian. It came to be used in about AD800 for the arch at the entrance to the sanctuary of a basilica. The tradition of erecting temporary arches at Rome for the procession made by new Popes from the Vatican to the Lateran goes back at least to the 12th century, when there was a new interest in antiquity, and carried on up to the early 19th century. From the early 16th century it was common for such arches to be put up to welcome rulers or other important people to cities (what in the Low Countries was called a “Joyous Entry”). The most celebrated of all was the entry of the Archduke Ferdinand to Antwerp in 1635, for which the arches were designed by Rubens. This tradition has never entirely died. The 19th century was especially ingenious in using local products such as chairs, iron, coal and salt, usually to greet members of the royal family. Permanent arches were less common, but examples in London include the Marble Arch, erected in front of Buckingham Palace by John Nash in 1825 but later moved, and the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner by Decimus Burton, of 1827-28. An American entrepreneur built a Millennium Arch as the centrepiece of a new development in Atlanta, Georgia, with sculpture by Alexander Stoddart.

It is hardly surprising that permanent arches have appealed to dictators. Hitler, the failed architect, produced a megalomaniac design for Berlin in 1925 and more recent ones have included Saddam Hussain’s sword-holding arms in Baghdad (1990, made in Basingstoke), and monstrosities at Pyongyang (1982) and Banjul (1996). A recent example with a political message is the arch built in 2012 at Skopje as part of Macedonia’s self-promotion.

The triumphal arch as an architectural motif has had a remarkable resonance. The three principal Roman arches remained visible and accessible, which made them easy to study. Sometimes the idea has been used with symbolic reference, but often it is a formal device. As such it was particularly influential in the Renaissance, for such architects as Alberti, Sanmicheli and Palladio. Later architects fascinated by the motif include Robert Adam and Sir John Soane.

Constantine’s Arch

Iain Ferris’s The Arch of Constantine is intended to add to the few introductory books in English on the major individual monuments of Rome, and as such is welcome. It is surprising that it does not give a general account of the triumphal arch, but context is not the author’s strong point: he claims that this arch was the last erected in ancient Rome, whereas that was the so-called Arco di Portogallo, on the Corso, dating from the late fifth century, and there were at least three others built in the interval. Ferris rightly dismisses recent attempts to prove that the Arch of Constantine was actually built by Hadrian. The re-use on the arch of sculptures taken from monuments of the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius is an oddity for which his explanations are not entirely convincing: if their use is due to the idea of “memory”, then, as he admits, the re-carving of the heads to represent contemporary personages is surprising to say the least. The stylistic difference between these and the comparatively stiff contemporary reliefs used to be interpreted as decline, an idea which goes back to a letter of 1512-13 attributed to Raphael. Ferris refers to Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena, but does not quote the amusing passage in which the use of the earlier sculpture is explained by Constantine’s fury at the poor quality of the new sculpture: “‘Then God damn it, go and pull the carvings off Trajan’s arch and stick them on mine’ …‘Spoken like a man, my son,’ said Helena.” Now the style of these reliefs is regarded as interesting, possibly influenced by popular art, and possibly revealing oriental influence. Ferris’s discussion—a “phenomenological approach”—of the setting of the arch would be made much clearer by the inclusion of a plan.


The Arch of Constantine

Iain Ferris

Amberley Publishing, 176pp, £18.99 (pb)