Updated: Nov 28, 2021
by Isobel Lee
Ancient cities like Rome were always surrounded by walls, to keep out invaders and establish the limits of the city. You can still see fragments of the early walls or mure Aureliane constructed by the Emperor Aurelius between 271 and 275 AD on a Rome tour, which were built to contain the seven hills, Campus Martius, and the district of Trastevere Rome on the west side of the river Tiber. While most of the masonry has vanished, many of the stately gateways into the city remain. Near Circus Maximus, Porta San Sebastiano, for example, marks the beginning of the old Appian Way; while in front of the modern British Embassy in the Nomentana district stands the grand old Porta Pia.
Gateways had an ancient, symbolic resonance for the Romans, who associated them with death and victory. Both imply a passage into a brave new world and the Roman armies, masters of siege warfare, breached many a city gate to expand across the globe. So it was that the custom arose to construct triumphal arches to celebrate a particularly decisive victory achieved by a Roman general, a few examples of which still stand today.
The Roman custom of the “Triumph” was a symbolic parade for a general returning from war, which saw the victor enter the city in a chariot drawn by four horses via the Porta Carmentalis with his troops, prisoners and other spoils of war, before parading along the city’s principal streets and entering the Forum. He was accompanied all day by a slave that would hold a laurel wreath above his head, while whispering reminders of mortality to the warrior. The general would then climb up the Capitoline Hill to the Temple of Jupiter, where he would make a sacrifice and lay his wreath. This custom was supposed to mark the exit of a general from active political life, but by the end of the Republic, it tended to lead to a life-long career in politics, and victorious leaders were rather celebrated with the construction of a triumphal arch, a permanent record of valiance.
Supposedly inspired by an even older, Etruscan tradition, Rome’s triumphal arches –– like the Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum –– are also a reminder of Roman architectural innovations, which saw the integration of a round arch and a square entablature in a single, free-standing structure. In the Roman Forum today, only three ancient triumphal arches remain (the other two are the arches of Titus and Septimus Severus) of the 34 recorded. But they have inspired copies all over the world: when Napoleon Bonaparte seized Rome in 1797, he carried off many of the city’s classical statues and went on to build the Arc du Triomphe in Paris, after the Roman Arch of Titus, as well as the Arc du Carrousel. Triumphal arches were traditionally topped by a quadriga, a four-horsed chariot, of which the only surviving example from the ancient world was taken from Italy to Paris by Napoleon to decorate his second arch. After his downfall, this treasure was returned to St. Mark’s basilica in Venice, where it can still be seen today. In London, Britain went on to build the Wellington Arch to celebrate their own victory over Napoleon. Later examples, such as the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Washington Square Arch in New York and the Barcelona Triumphal Arch are all heirs of this rich tradition.
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