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To illustrate some of the key paradigm shifts of their discipline, art historians often point to the fluctuating fortunes of the Arch of Constantine. Reviled by Raphael, revered by Alois Riegl, condemned anew by the reactionary Bernard Berenson and conscripted by the openly Marxist Ranucchio Bianchi Bandinelli, the arch has served many agendas. (1) Despite their widely divergent conclusions, however, these scholars all share a focus on the internal logic of the arch's decorative program. Time and again, the naturalism of the monument's spoliated, second-century reliefs is compared to the less organic, hieratic style of the fourth-century carvings. Out of that contrast, sweeping theories of regrettable, passive decline or meaningful, active transformation are constructed. This methodology has persisted at the expense of any analysis of the structure in its urban context. None of these influential critics has considered the arch as part of a larger urban ensemble or tried to understand how it would have been seen in its particularly flashy setting in the area now known as the Colosseum Valley. Even the most recent and theoretically advanced work on the arch perpetuates the interpretative amputation of the structure from its environment in the densely built-up late antique cityscape of Rome. (2)
This characteristic of the literature on Constantine's Arch in many ways parallels aspects of the scholarship on Constantine himself (r. 306-37), which routinely assumes the emperor's "conversion" to Christianity to have been a personal, internally motivated, and unambiguous act. (3) Such an approach obscures the complex negotiations among competing religious ideologies, cultural traditions, and political interests actually inherent in the process. (4) Constantine's Christianity, like his arch, is all too often divorced from the specific, local contexts for which it was created and which in turn defined its meaning.
This article attempts to redress some of the imbalances in the literature on Constantine's Arch and, by extension, on his religious inclinations in the years immediately following his defeat of Maxentius in 312. To begin with, the siting of the arch at the southern edge of the monument-rich Colosseum Valley added multiple layers of signification to the work. The reconstruction of the visual experience of a spectator approaching and passing through the arch from the Via Triumphalis to the south reveals the dynamic spatial and visual relation between the arch and the ancient, colossal statue of the sun god Sol that stood 353 feet (108 meters) behind it. While a handful of scholars has noted Constantine's interest in the cult of Sol, (5) they have relied primarily on numismatic and epigraphic data, missing the important monumental evidence. Indeed, when religion has been brought into discussions of the arch, the focus has always been on the question of how much Christian content can be read into the monument (and, in particular, into its inscription). This study offers an alternative understanding of the Arch of Constantine by considering the ways its topographical setting articulates a relation between the emperor's military victory and the favor of the sun god. (6)
The Position of the Arch
In Rome, triumphal arches usually straddled the (relatively fixed) route of the triumphal procession. (7) Constantine's Arch, built between 312 and 315 to celebrate his victory over the Rome-based usurper Maxentius (r. 306-12) in a bloody civil war, occupied prime real estate, for the options along the "Via Triumphalis" (a modern term but a handy one) must have been rather limited by Constantine's day. The monument was built at the end of one of the longest, straightest stretches along the route, running from the southern end of the Circus Maximus to the piazza by the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum) (Fig. 1). At this point, the triumphal procession would turn left, pass over the edge of the Palatine Hill into the area of the Roman Forum, and from there wend its way up to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline. Given its centrality, its situation in an arterial valley between several hills, and its location on the piazza dominated by the main entrance to the amphitheater, the zone around the Constantinian Arch must have been one of the most heavily trafficked in the city. (8)
While its prominence no doubt enhanced its attractiveness, the space would nevertheless have posed considerable topographical challenges to the fourth-century designers. Most strikingly, the orientation of the ancient triumphal road and that of the comparatively newer structures in the Colosseum Valley did not match up, being off by about seven degrees (Fig. 2). The road dated back at least to the time of Augustus (late first century BCE to early first century CE). (9) Its course, determined by the contours of the Palatine and Caelian Hills, does not appear to have been altered during the rebuilding of the area by the emperor Nero (r. 54-68), who incorporated the road into the Domus Aurea, his lavish new palace, after the fire of 64 CE. Although Nero preserved the ancient road line, the new structures of the Domus Aurea in the valley just to the north were not aligned with it. Rather, they were angled seven degrees to the east, perhaps taking their orientation from the encircling Velian or Esquiline Hills. Given the vast scale of the Domus Aurea, which extended from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hills and incorporated many preexisting structures into its fabric, it is not surprising to find divergent axes among its constituent parts. Nero's successors, the emperors of the Flavian dynasty, radically transformed or demolished many parts of the despised Domus Aurea and built the great amphitheater and piazza over its remains in the valley. (10) But the Neronian axis in this part of the city was nevertheless preserved. The Temple of Venus and Roma, commissioned half a century later by the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-38), was constructed directly atop the substructures of the palace vestibule on the Velian, just to the west of the Flavian piazza, thus reestablishing the Neronian orientation. The enormous statue base that Hadrian installed between the temple and the amphitheater for the relocated Colossus of Sol (see below) was also positioned along the Neronian grid.
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The misalignment between the Via Triumphalis and the valley monuments to which it led was thus preserved over the centuries. For the Constantinian designers, this meant that any monument marking the arrival of the road in the piazza would be off axis with one or the other (or both). This problem had already been addressed by the Flavians, who cleverly installed a round fountain, known as the Meta Sudans, at this juncture, thereby masking the divergence of axes (Figs. 3, 4). (11) The Meta Sudans itself, however, would have presented further complications for the fourth-century planners, since its direct alignment with the triumphal road meant that any arch in front of it, astride that same road, would perforce center on the fountain. While the Meta Sudans was an elegant and no doubt much appreciated urban amenity, it lacked military connotations and gravitas, making it inappropriate as the focal point of a triumphal monument.
The solution to these topographical challenges achieved by the Constantinian designers is ingenious. First, they set the new monument not over the road but rather a bit further north, beyond the point where the road gave way to the piazza proper. (12) The location of the arch in this open space and not atop the road meant that the designers had some flexibility in its positioning and orientation. Freed of the necessity to center the arch on the road, they shifted the monument about 6 1/2 feet (2 meters; equal to about a tenth of its width) to the east, while still orienting it with the road. (13) Because the arch sits atop the Flavian paving rather than atop the road itself, this displacement would probably not have been very noticeable to the observer on the ground, but its effect on the spatial configuration of the valley was profound. It solved the problem of how to put an arch along this stretch of the triumphal route without having the Meta Sudans fill its central passageway: thanks to the two-meter shift, the tall cone of the fountain was almost completely hidden behind the arch's second pier. This is clear from photographs taken before the 1936 demolition of the remains of the Meta Sudans (Fig. 5).
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The clever choice to orient the arch with the triumphal road but not to center it on it had an additional benefit, for the two-meter eastward shift meant that the arch's central passageway framed a different ancient monument in the Colosseum Valley: the (now-lost) colossal bronze statue of the sun god Sol. (14) Although the arch was off axis with the statue, which was oriented with the old Neronian grid of the Colosseum Valley, the long distance separating the two monuments (353 feet, or 108 meters) masked the oblique, seven-degree angle (Fig. 2). Indeed, in early photographs (Fig. 5), the base of the colossus (also subsequently bulldozed by Benito Mussolini) appears to be squarely framed through the arch's central passageway, presenting an illusion of axiality between these structures.
The position of the Arch of Constantine thus had a number of advantages. It created the appearance of design in the Colosseum Valley, whose disparate, misaligned monuments represented a number of key moments in Rome's architectural history. Furthermore, from the point of view of travelers following the triumphal route and approaching from the south, the apparent alignment of the road, the arch, and the colossus would have suggested a natural relation between Sol and the triumphal ritual; the statue would even have appeared, at least temporarily, as the route's destination.
The notion of a close relation between Sol and imperial triumph would have underscored many key themes in Constantinian propaganda. Constantine's worship of the sun god belonged to an established imperial tradition going back to Augustus and Nero, who were often represented as being under the tutelage of Apollo. (15) In the third century, emperors were frequently associated with Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. (16) With the empire racked by civil wars and threatened by powerful Eastern neighbors, the sun god's attributes of invincibility, eternity, and dominion over the East became irresistible as a model for the figure of the emperor. (17) Although Constantine's immediate imperial predecessors, the Tetrarchs, showed little interest in solar worship, favoring the more traditional state gods Jupiter and Hercules instead, Constantine seems to have been a particularly fervent adherent of the cult of the sun--at least to judge from the material evidence of his reign (as opposed to the overwhelmingly Christian written sources). (18) A number of his numismatic portraits depict him with Sol's rayed crown and raised right hand, while the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI (to the invincible sun, companion [of the emperor]) appears on fully three-quarters of Constantine's coinage between 313 and 317. (19) But the most important evidence for this emperor's special relationship with the sun god is his arch in the Colosseum Valley, in both its adornment and its location.
The Colossus from the First to the Fourth Centuries
Created by the sculptor Zenodorus for Nero's Domus Aurea, the Colossus of Sol originally stood in the palace vestibule on the Velian Hill. (20) The emperor Hadrian had the statue moved down the hill toward the Flavian Amphitheater and onto a new base, to make room for his Temple of Venus and Roma. (21) The site and dimensions of the Hadrianic statue base (whose rubble core is visible in Fig. 5) are today marked by an elevated, grassy island in the piazza (Fig. 6). (22) Ancient images of the statue on coins (Fig. 7) and a gem (Fig. 8) show a nude male figure in a contrapposto stance. He wears a radiate crown, leans on a pillar, and holds a ship's rudder in his right hand; the rudder rests on a sphere or globe. Marianne Bergmann combined these various representations to generate her excellent reconstruction drawing (Fig. 9). (23)
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Although ancient reports of the statue's height are inconsistent, Fred Albertson has recently proposed that it was likely made to match the proportions of the Colossus of Rhodes (also dedicated to the sun god), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (24) Combining the literary testimony with archaeological data about the Rhodian cubit (the standard unit of measurement for colossal statues, Zenodorus's specialty), Albertson calculates that the statue was 60 cubits tall, or 103 feet (31.5 meters). With the long rays of the figure's crown, the total height is estimated at roughly 125 feet (38 meters), excluding the statue base. (By comparison, the adjacent Flavian Amphitheater is 159 feet, or 48.5 meters, tall.)
Whom did the colossus represent? Both Pliny and Suetonius describe the image as a "likeness [simulacro]" or "effigy [effigie]" of the emperor Nero. Some recent scholars, however, dispute this identification, which they see as an expression of the hostility on the part of the Roman elite toward Nero and his distasteful megalomania; they identify the statue instead as the sun god Sol, Nero's protector. (25) It is true that the statue's nudity and extraordinary scale would have been unheard of in an image of a living emperor in Rome, (26) although Pliny mentions another colossal portrait of Nero, also allegedly 120 feet tall, painted on linen and on display in a private garden complex on the Esquiline until it was struck by lightning and destroyed. (27) The question of whether the statue depicted Nero or Sol is, at any rate, largely misguided, for Roman emperors were frequently represented in the guise of their patron deity. Nero in fact did much to meld his own identity with that of the sun god, maintaining that he was touched miraculously by the sun's rays at birth, competing in lyre-playing contests like Apollo Citharoedus, and having himself shown with the deity's radiate crown in his numismatic portraits or, on embroidered curtains at the theater, driving a chariot against a background of golden stars. (28) The statue could thus have been conceptualized as Nero-in-the-guise-of-Sol or Sol-with-the-portrait-features-of-Nero. Either way, Zenodorus's intentions are not particularly relevant for our concerns; what is certain is that the statue bore the attributes of Sol and was widely believed to represent Nero.
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This belief seems to have been a disturbing one. Pliny informs us that the statue was rededicated to the sun god "after the condemnation of Nero's crimes," during the reign of his successor, Vespasian, and Suetonius echoes this report in his biography of Vespasian. (29) Cassius Dio notes that at the time of Vespasian's rededication, some observers believed that the colossus resembled Titus, Vespasian's son and heir. (30) This may indicate that the statue's facial features were altered, to erase what was presumably a …