By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
After 2,000 years and still standing at the center of Rome, the Arch continues to be an emotional monument to this day. It is located on the VIa Sacra, the sacred path of Rome, on top of a rise overlooking the great forum and up the hill from a Temple of Peace built by Vespasian with the art of the world to signify the renewed Pax Romana he had created. The Arch then hovers over the city of Rome – the center of the empire.
From an art history perspective, the Arch of Titus became significant because Christians and Romes gave it status for being massive, with depictions of humans, an incredible sense of movement in the reliefs, grand architectural lines in the composition, and a testimony of empire and military power. It is unique among all the material in the 1st century, while many more monuments survive from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Its significance to Jews became part of its story in the art history canon more recently when Jewish perspectives entered academic narratives. But it was its significance to Romans and then Christians which saved it over time, preventing it from being dismantled and used for blocks, chalk, or so forth. On the outside, it was reconstructed in the 19th century as an entrance to a residential complex. Yet the interior was preserved, and it was so thoughtfully restored that a difficult color stone was used for people to distinguish original elements from the 19th century additions. Its design and its reliefs are a major inspirations for grandeur in architecture and iconography today: its motifs have been easily replicated across the world from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the India Gate in New Delhi and the LA Coliseum's entry.
It contains an inscription and three major reliefs,
Titus on Chariot
TItus rides on his chariot, pulled by four horses, with the goddess of victory crowning his head. At such events there was often a slave holding a wreath over the emperor's head as he wound his way through Rome to celebrate his achievements.
Titus' ascension to the heavens is seen overhead inside the Arch. Upon his death, an emperor would become a god. In Roman imagery, this is depicted as the emperor rising to heaven on the back of an eagle. The Roman author Atonius describes how when Vespasian died he looked at the people at his deathbed and said, "It seems that I am about to become a god."
Depicting the spoils of Jerusalem, the loot from Jerusalem is brought through the Arch itself. The Romans would normally have brought a statue of a god from their conquest's main statue, but the Jews of course did not have a holy statue. Instead, the relief shows the menorah, the table for the showbread with utensils on it, and what are likely the Torah scrolls. There was an inscription likely saying table of the temple of the Jews; another likely saying lampstand of the temple of the Jews; and in the third, the relief has been totally lost, but it is believed to have shown the scrolls and would have said something like law of the Jews. The loot was carried by Roman soldiers wearing wreaths on their heads and what likely were white garments. These objects would be displayed in the Temple of Peace. The scene recedes into low relief as it goes into the distance with the procession entered the Arch of Rome.
The Arch of TItus – made of imported marble from Greece – commemorates the Flavian Dynasty's victory in the Jewish wars, described by Jewish contemporaries and Josephus as a war precipitated by Jewish radicals.
Romans in the first century saw in the Arch that Rome was rebuilt after a crisis that precipitated when Nero committed suicide. In the year 69, there were four emperors who had taken leadership and been deposed. But then Vespasian spent his reign – and his son Titus did the same – cementing his rule and his importance to the Roman society. Part of this process was a massive construction program that people living in Rome would have vividly seen transform (and enhance the grandeur of) their city. So the Arch is part of a statement that Rome survived under the dynasty of this Roman general Vespasian: a story of survival of Roman civilization. More specifically, the Arch was one of two (the second just recently rediscovered) that describe Titus' military prowess as it was proven in his restoration of Roman power over rebellious Jews attacking Pax Romana.
Titus' construction in Rome was not just interwoven with but funded by this narrative of power. The Coliseum itself was built using funds collected in the Judean wars. The Coliseum and the two arches were just part of the whole program, including baths, renovated temples, and distributions of Judea Capta coins celebrating victory over Judea. The coins included the palm tree that symbolized Judea in Roman art. Even the Coliseum itself had a triumphal palm, as shown in a coin depicting the Coliseum. And the Flavian tombs included the Judean palm in their reliefs. Aside from being the clearest imagery of the Herodean Temple today, the Arch and the description of the triumphal parade by Josephus are the clearest records we have of a Roman triumphal procession.
The narrative for Jews is different, of course, as the losers in the conflict with Rome. However, the Arch does serve a powerful purpose that strengthens Jewish cultural identity: the Arch vividly and visually anchors thousands of years of Jewish heritage in the continent. On the other hand, as a symbol of sacrilege, the Arch is a metaphor for animosity against Jews by European powers. The arch graphically shows cultural, physical, and economic violence against the Jews. The archway can be brought into the 20th century as a visual metaphor akin to the archways at the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Yet that also has been reframed: as an argument for leaving Europe to return home, it was an important political tool for Zionists. In fact, it figures into modern Zionism's themes of Jewish indigenousness in Jerusalem in the emblem of the State of Israel. The Arch's depiction of the Temple menorah is the basis for the menorah on the emblem of the State of Israel.
So I turned again to the figures on the stone, the shadows of the night had been gathering meanwhile, and had enveloped everything with their gloom. And yet, do I believe to have seen their limbs move, ere they hardened again, into stone. And to have caught a ray of that flaming eye ere it was covered and it again became extinct. Moses Gaster, 1900
What is intriguing about this passage was that Gaster had a deep experience with the Arch. The impact of the light on the Arch made it seem to flicker alive to him, although he errantly believed it to depict slaves taken from Jerusalem. Hour after hour, the way light changes over the reliefs brings them to life.
Owing to its spectacular reliefs and a long description of the parade within five years of its occurrence by Jewish general turned Flavian loyal Josephus in his well-preserved volume The Judean War, this helped sparked Christian interest through the medieval period of the Arch and Josephus' texts themselves. The Arch was reconstructed in 1824 by Pope Pius II as a reassertion of papal authority under Napoleon, with the work being finished by the pope.
At the entrance to the Circus Maximum, the race track of ancient Rome, a second arch was discovered in 2015. According to an 8th century monk its inscription was as follows,
The Senate and people of Rome dedicate this arch to the Emperor Titus
because with the Senate's advice and counsel and with help of others
he conquered the nation of the Jews and destroyed Jerusalem
which all of the generals, kings, or nations before him
had failed to do or even to attempt.