Roman Honorific Monuments
Honorific monuments have a long history in the Mediterranean world, first seen, for example in obelisks in Ancient Egypt or commemorative columns in Ancient Greece. In the Roman world, arches and columns were commonly erected in honor of particular individuals. As Pliny records, honorific arches and columns raised the individual honored “above the rest of the mortals”. They became common in Rome by its Republican era. In fact, there were so many monuments in 158 BC that the Censors removed monuments in the Roman Forum so that people could move about more easily.
Starting with Augustus, imperial patronage had a major effect of Roman architecture. Augustus himself famously boasted that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. These imperial building projects were meant to improve the quality of life for Roman citizens and aggrandize the image of the emperor. By the early Imperial period, Rome’s fora had gradually developed from places for gatherings into places for monuments, which included statues, columns and arches honoring emperors. In addition, honorific monuments could be found in circuses, amphitheaters and baths – the spaces of public spectacles and leisure where emperors often sought the favor of the masses.
Egyptian obelisks were also frequently erected during the Imperial era. They first were erected in Rome after Augustus defeated Anthony and Cleopatra, thus served as victory monuments. Two obelisks were brought to Rome in 10 BC – one was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus, while the other was used as a sundial. In both cases, their original religious association with solar cults was also emphasized. Constantius erected the last obelisk brought to Rome in the Circus Maximus in 357 AD.
The significance of Rome diminished by the Tetrarchic era, when emperors began to resided in various cities like Nicomedia, Thessaloniki and Milan. This period came to an end when Constantine became the sole emperor and moved his capital to Constantinople. However it was not a regular imperial residence from Constantine’s death until Theodosius I moved there in 380. While major investment in infrastructure ceased at Rome, it continued at Constantinople even during this period. Honorific monuments were part of these construction projects, which accompanied the construction of fora, aqueducts and other public works meant to aggrandize the new capital. These monuments were an integral part of Constantinople’s attempt to emulate and rival the city of Rome.
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris
Commissioned in 1806
Briefly location of Triumphal Quadriga of San Marco in Venice (originally from Constantinople)
One of Rome's most enduring forms of commemorative architecture was the honorific arch (fornix), which was a freestanding, large-scale arch erected to celebrate a military leader or member of the imperial family. It is possible that honorific arches began as decorated gates, which had already been in use for centuries or even millennia. The earliest arch recorded commemorated Stertinius following his military victories in 196 BC. They were a common feature of the Roman world and became a characteristic marker of Roman presence and power across the Empire.
Honorific arches spanned important streets and intersections and the entrances to the fora. These arches lifted the statues of the honorees high up above the streets, so that the traffic passed under them. While commonly known as the triumphal arch, most were less connected with triumphal celebrations. Instead they were often built to commemorate particular building projects or individuals. Because they were erected for different reasons, many of them could also be found in smaller cities.
By the imperial period, honorary arches were erected throughout the empire on the order of the senates populusque Romanus (senate and people of Rome) to commemorate the emperor or a member of the imperial family. Triumphal arches tended to be located along the route of the triumphal procession and typically carried a statue group of the victorious general in a quadriga (the four-horse chariot). The essential features of a triumphal arch are a vaulted passageway supported on pilasters and an attic. The main façades often featured a columnar order and relief sculpture, with the attic carrying a dedicatory inscription and freestanding statuary, frequently in gilt bronze. Early arches have only one vaulted passageway, while later one had three arches, with the central one being larger than the flanking arches. The double arch is rare, though it could be found in city gates and bridges. Sometimes four-sided arches were placed at crossroads, particularly in Africa and the east. As it was one of the main honorific styles in the Roman world, a wide variety and number of arches have survived.
The Arch of Augustus was erected in 19 BC to celebrate the return of military standards taken by the Parthians. The best example of the single arch is the Arch of Titus in Rome, built around 81 AD to celebrate a triumph awarded Titus after his conquest of Jerusalem in 70. Over time, arches became increasingly elaborate. The restrained surface decoration seen on the Arch of Titus, with its modest relief panels and engaged columns, gave way to increasingly articulated facades that featured freestanding columns and extensive sculptural programs, as can be seen in the Arch of Septimius Severus (203 AD). The Arch of Constantine was built on the tenth anniversary of Constantine’s reign in 315. Arches continued to be built through the 5th century in Rome. An arch dedicated to the emperors Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius was built between 379 and 383. The Arch of Arcadius, Honorius and Theodosius was erected in Rome after Stilicho’s defeat of the Goths in 405.
The only known monumental arch in Constantinople was the Arch of Theodosius. It was a triple arch that was erected in the Forum of Theodosius around 390. The Milion, the milestone of Constantinople, was built in the form of a tetrapylon (“four gates”). Another important triumphal arch from Late Antiquity is the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki. The commemorative arch continued in use long after the Roman Empire, as seen in Carrousel Arc de Triomphe in Paris in commissioned 1806.
Photo by Sosnovskiy
Reconstruction of Columna Rostrata
Photo by Lalupa
Reconstruction of Rostra Augusti
With five columns erected by Diocletian
Sculpture group from the Baths of Constantine and obelisk from the Mausoleum of Augustus
Honorific columns were common in both Ancient Greece and Rome. They often consisted of a monolithic shaft standing on a base and supporting a capital on which a statue rested. In both the Republican and Imperial eras, statues on columns were a standard form of commemoration, especially for military victories. They also served a funerary purpose from an early date.
A column erected to honor the prefect Lucius Minucius Augurinus in the 5th century BC might have been the first one erected in Rome. Columns were used to commemorate naval victories, as with a column set up in 338 BC to honor of Gaius Maenius for his victory at Antium. The columna rostrata was a specific form of column set up for naval victories. The bronze prows (rostra) of ship captured could be attached to a column, as seen in the Column of Gaius Duilius erected to celebrate his victory over the Carthaginians in 260 BC. The prows could also be melted down and recast as a solid metal column, as with the column erected to celebrate Augustus’ victory at Actium in 31 BC.
Honorific columns were often located in fora. A monolithic column of Numidian stone was set up in the Roman Forum in honor of Julius Caesar shortly after his death, cremation, and burial there in 44 BC. Several columns were erected on or near the Rostra Augusti (an orator’s platform where ship prows were once set up) in the Roman Forum. A set of five honorific columns made of Aswan granite were erected in 303 AD when Diocletian visited to celebrate the twentieth year of his reign and the tenth year of the Tetrarchy. One of their marble pedestals, known as the Decennalia base, was discovered in 1547. The last monument added to the Roman Forum was the Column of Phocas (Columna Phocae) erected in 608.
The Column of Trajan is the most important honorific column in Rome. Trajan’s column was erected in the Forum of Trajan and dedicated in 113 AD. A statue of Trajan was placed atop the column, while elaborate sculpted reliefs spiraling around the column depicted his entire campaign in Dacia. The base housed the ashes of Trajan and his wife, Pompeia Plotina - thus combines both elements of victory and funerary monument. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Verus set up a monolithic column of Aswan granite in honor of their adoptive parents, Antoninus Pius and Faustina, following the emperor’s death in 161 AD. While the column itself is not extant, the surviving pedestal is now located at the Vatican Museums. The Column of Marcus Aurelius was dedicated in 193 in honor of Marcus Aurelius and his wife, Faustina. It was modeled on Trajan’s column and depicted scenes his campaigns north of the Danube. The Column of Trajan also served as the model for the Column of Theodosius and the Column of Arcadius in Constantinople.
Even though Constantinople would never match the number, size and splendor of Rome’s honorific monuments, there are several noteworthy examples of similar monuments in Istanbul today. The most prominent are the Column of Constantine and the Obelisk of Theodosius, which are better known due in part to being located in popular touristic areas of the city. In addition, the Column of Marcian, Column of the Goths and the Masonry Obelisk are still standing, while remains of the Serpent Column, Arch of Theodosius, Column of Theodosius and Column of Arcadius can also still be seen in situ. The Column of Justinian, now lost, was one of many honorific columns located in the Augustaion, which also included a column erected in honor of Helena. The remains of honorific monuments can be found in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums as well as in the gardens of Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace.
Columns of Constantinople
Obelisks from the Circus Maximus
Monuments of the Hippodrome of Constantinople
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt edited by Donald B. Redford
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