This week Kiri H. discusses the attempts by scholars to interpret the meaning of the foundations of an arch excavated in the Forum Romanum. Much remains uncertain and debate is likely to continue!
In 1888, German archaeologist Otto Richter discovered the foundations of a three-bayed triumphal arch in the Roman Forum. Located between the temples of Caesar and of Castor (fig. 1), these foundations consisted of four rectangular concrete beds topped with travertine blocks, with the outer two bases being considerably narrower than the inner two (fig. 2).
It was later recorded by Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani that the arch corresponding to these foundations had been “found and destroyed” by workmen in the 16th century (Lanciani 1897: 269).
Richter had initially identified the foundations as belonging to an arch that was reportedly built in honour of Augustus after his victory at the Battle of Actium. Cassius Dio wrote of there being two arches dedicated to Augustus in the Forum; one in 29 B.C. for his victory at Actium, and one in 19 B.C. for recovering Roman standards and captives from the Parthians (Cass. Dio 51.19.1, 54.8). Commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid by the Veronese Scholiast states that the ‘Parthian arch’ was located beside the Temple of Caesar (Holland 1946: 53). After fruitless excavations in search for the second arch, Richter decided the foundations he had excavated between the temples of Caesar and of Castor were those of the Parthian arch of 19 B.C.
In the 16th century, an inscription (CIL VI, 873) on a marble block was discovered nearby to where Richter would later unearth the foundations. The (now lost) inscription recorded a dedication to Augustus in 29 BC; Platner suggested that it may have belonged to the triple-arch but noted that its size of 2.67 metres long would have been too small to be the principle inscription (Platner and Ashby 1929: 34). Also excavated in the 16th century were the Fasti Consulares and Fasti Triumphatores (fig. 3), fragments listing all those who had been consul, and those who who had received a triumph, respectively (Rose 2005: 31). Debate exists as to where the Fasti were originally located; the Regia1, a building behind the Temple of Caesar, is one contender, with another being the Arcus Augusti.
Several Roman coins are believed to depict either one or both of the arches (Holland 1946: 54). The earliest coins depicting the arch are denarii from 29-27 BC which depict a quadriga2 atop a single arch, accompanied by the legend ‘IMP CAESAR’. Although minted under Nero, RIC I(2) 143 provides a great example of this style of depiction (fig. 4).
A number of denarii were minted in Spain during Augustus’ reign, RIC I 37.a for instance (fig. 5), and one particular issue, dating to 18-17 BC, also depicts a triple-arch. The outer piers are, too, considerably narrower than the inner piers, and support a quadriga flanked by figures holding Roman standards. The coins bear the legend ‘CIVIB ET SIGN MILIT A PART RECVP’, whilst on the reverse the head of Augustus and ‘SPQR IMP CAESARI AVG COS XI TRI POT VI’, an example of which can be seen on numismatics.org and RIC I 276. Leicester Holland, an American architect, art historian and archaeologist, argued that these legends confirm that the arch depicted on the coins commemorates the recovery of the standards from the Parthians by Augustus (Holland 1946: 54).
Further, denarii minted in 16 BC by L. Vinicius in Rome also bear striking similarities. They depict the triple-arch with narrow outer piers upon which stand the quadriga and its flanking figures holding Roman standards, with the inscription ‘S P Q R IMP CAE’ and can also be found at numismatics.org. Holland argued that the coins minted in Spain and Rome undoubtedly represent the same arch. This is as they all bear the same crowning figures and are the only known examples of a triple-arch from this period (Holland 1946: 55).
Holland further argued that the coins minted by Vinicius present a more accurate image of the triple-arch than the Spanish denarii, because Vinicius “would be thoroughly familiar with a monument erected in his home city three years before” (Holland 1946: 56). On these grounds, Holland proposed that a single arch was erected in 29 BC, and the two wings and statues were added in 19 BC, resulting in the triple-arch depicted by Vinicius (Holland 1946: 56).
However, excavations led by Gamberini Mongenet in 1950-52 resulted in the discovery of two foundation piers spaced nearly 7 m apart, located immediately in front of the northern end of the triple-arch foundations. These piers indicated the existence of an earlier, single-bayed arch at this location. Mongenet’s excavations also revealed that one of the piers was supported by “a complex system of bracing walls and underground props built to prevent a crack from developing” (Gurval 1998: 45). These finds concluded that the single-bayed arch was indeed the Actian arch, and that it was later demolished and replaced with the more ornate triple-bayed Parthian arch. In 1981, Italian archaeologist Filippo Coarelli proposed that the removal and the replacement of the Actian arch with the Parthian was a political manoeuvre, due to the fact that the former celebrated Augustus’ victory during the civil war, something from which, perhaps, Augustus later chose to distance himself (Simpson 1992: 836).
In 1983-85, during excavations at the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the archaeological evidence was again re-examined. Some had proposed that the foundations were of the Parthian arch, built on top of the former arch of 29 BC. This hypothesis was disproved by Elisabeth Nedergaard during her investigation, which dated the structure to between 29 BC and AD 6, meaning that, by her dating, it could not have been built over an older structure (Rathje and Lund 1991: 51).
Professor Paul Zanker, in 1990, argued that an arch was built next to the Temple of Caesar in honour of the “triple triumph of Augustus”, and bore the fasti (Zanker and Shapiro 1990: 203). They argue that the fasti were inscribed on marble slabs and attached to the arch, recording that the Senate decreed a triumph for Augustus that he refused. Despite this, the senate still erected a three-bayed arch featuring a quadriga “over Augustus’ objections” in order to recognise his achievements (Zanker and Shapiro 1990: 187).
In 1992, C. J. Simpson reviewed the evidence surrounding the Parthian arch in order to clarify its speculative nature. Simpson argued that there is “no sure numismatic or historical evidence that the so-called Parthian arch was ever built” and that “we may legitimately suspect that the arch was never built” (Simpson 1992: 841). This hypothesis was based on several key factors. Firstly, Simpson stated that the arch was decreed by the Senate in 19 BC, but was not necessarily erected (Simpson 1992: 836). Secondly, that there is no actual evidence of the identity of the respective foundations discovered by Richter and Mongenet, as those proposed were purely speculative. Additionally, Simpson questioned Coarelli’s proposal that the reasons behind the demolishment of the Actian arch had a political agenda, that of an attempt by Augustus to distance himself from the civil war, stating that he, Coarelli, was “just too imaginative”. Simpson found it “a very difficult concept to accept”, that the Actian arch could have been built, yet destroyed only a decade later (Simpson 1992: 836).
The coins that are believed to be associated with the arch depict Augustus in a triumphal chariot. Yet Simpson cites Cassius Dio to provide evidence that Augustus refused to mount the chariot when returning to Rome in 19 BC (Cass. Dio 54.8), stating that it is unlikely a statue of Augustus in a triumphal chariot would have been erected when he “would not mount one in real life” (Simpson 1992: 837). Simpson thus concluded that the coins are not evidence for the completion of an arch, but a portrayal of a projected monument. In 19 BC, an altar to Fortuna (ara Fortunae Reducis) was erected in honour of Augustus, mentioned by him in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, and also by Cassius Dio (Cass. Dio 54.10.3). However, Simpson goes on to explain that it is only in the writings of Cassius Dio that a further arch and ovation were also used to honour Augustus. The Res Gestae mentions neither of these. Simpson highlights the inconsistencies of Dio as, despite his previous assertion, he later states that Augustus refused all honours but the altar; once again finding no clear evidence of the existence of the arch.
However, in 1998, Galinsky argued that both an Actian arch and a Parthian arch existed in the Forum, the latter next to Caesar’s temple (Galinsky 1998: 24). He stated that Augustus was involved “to varying degrees” in these building programs and that the triple-arch was commissioned by the Senate (Galinsky 1998: 379).
In the same year, associate professor Robert Gurval reviewed the arguments surrounding the foundations of the single arch and hence suggested that the removal of the arch may have been the result of a failed attempt to save a damaged monument (Gurval 1998: 45). However, Gurval goes on to argue that “the numismatic, literary, and archaeological evidence is inconclusive and uncertain”, and that historians need to move away from the notion that Augustus’ victory at Actium must have resulted in a commemorative arch (Gurval 1998: 46). Gurval stated that, despite Dio’s recording of an arch awarded to Augustus after the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BC, there is no other evidence for the existence of the Actian arch nor that of Naulochus. Gurval suggested that it is inconsistent for scholars to believe one arch did exist and not the other (Gurval 1998: 41), thus proposing that a single arch did exist, but that it did not mention Actium and, instead, may have celebrated the overall general achievements of Augustus. He argued that the triple-arch did not replace the previous arch as a notion of political change, but that it “marked the beginning of the imperial age” (Gurval 1998: 47).
In 2005, American archaeologist Charles Rose agreed with Gurval in that it was uncertain as to whether the arches of Actium or Naulochus existed (Rose 2005: 29). Nonetheless, he argued that the triple-arch foundations in the Forum are, indeed, of the Parthian arch. Rose demonstrated that this was supported by “a wealth of evidence”, citing associated archaeological, numismatic and literary data in proof (Rose 2005: 29). He further analysed the form and fragments of the fasti, noting that the decorative elements associated with the consular and triumphal lists were more in keeping with the style of the Parthian arch than that of the Regia (Rose 2005: 31). Also, he highlighted that many of the fasti fragments were found surrounding the arch as opposed to the Regia, thus concluding that “all of the evidence points toward the Parthian Arch as the original site of the fasti” (Rose 2005: 32). Additionally, the last triumphator listed on the Fasti Triumphales was awarded a triumph in the year the Parthian arch was decreed. Rose hence suggested that the fasti were part of the Parthian arch, and probably located on the walls within the passages (Rose 2005: 32).
The discovery of the foundations of a triple-bayed arch in the Roman Forum in 1888 by Otto Richter sparked much intrigue and debate surrounding the nature of the Arcus Augusti, which continues to be a source of discussion, today. Scholars have examined and re-examined the available archaeological, numismatic and literary evidence in an attempt to understand if and how Augustus’ triumphal arches existed. This ongoing debate exemplifies how our understanding of the development of the city of Rome evolves as new evidence is continually brought to light. Yet it also encapsulates that a sizeable portion of our knowledge concerning ancient Rome is still based largely upon interpretation and speculation. As new technologies and techniques of research become available, we may use them in conjunction with the critical analysis of both modern and ancient sources to test hypotheses and examine past research. It is through this multi-faceted approach that we strive to create a more holistic understanding of the nature of ancient Rome.
Galinsky, K. 1998. Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction. Princeton Paperbacks. Princeton University Press. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Ejwhh6cXwoQC.
Gurval, R.A. 1998. Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War. University of Michigan Press. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=qVd4vuhkVqcC.
Holland, Leicester B. 1946. “The triple-arch of Augustus.” AJA 50 (1). Archaeological Institute of America: 52–59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/499748.
Lanciani, R. 1897. The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome. Boston; New York, Houghton, Mifflin; Company.
Platner, S., and T. Ashby. 1929. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Oxford University Press. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/_Texts/PLATOP*/home.html.
Rathje, A., and J. Lund. 1991. “Danes Overseas - a Short History of Danish Classical Archaeological Fieldwork.” Acta Hyperborea, no. 3. Museum Tusculanum: 11–56.
Rose, C. B. 2005. “The Parthians in Augustan Rome.” AJA 109 (1). Archaeological Institute of America: 21–75. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40025103.
Simpson, C. J. 1992. “On the Unreality of the Parthian Arch.” Latomus 51 (4). Societe d’Etudes Latines de Bruxelles: 835–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41536451.
Zanker, P., and A. Shapiro. 1990. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Jerome Lectures. University of Michigan Press. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=pDc2fp73B2oC.
Built along the Sacra Via, the Regia was thought by the Romans to have been the residence of their early kings. It, later, became the residence of their chief priest, the Pontifex Maximus.↩
A chariot drawn by four horses. It was mainly used in either triumphs to carry the victorious leader or in chariot races.↩