All roads lead to Rome, but some pass through a gate born in legend, attached to superstition, and celebrated in glory.
The Porta Carmentalis was a gate in the Servian Wall with two arches. The two separate arches came to be known as the Porta Scelerata and the Porta Triumphalis. Though Porta is the Latin term for gate, each arch came to be called a ‘porta’, rather than simply a ‘fornix’ or an ‘arcus’, Latin terms for an arch. The Porta Carmentalis was a double-gate, and though the Scelerata and Triumphalis are distinct arches, both were part of the same structure. The composition of the gate was most likely similar to the material used for the rest of the Servian Wall; a variety of limestone known as tufa, most likely quarried in the Etruscan north.
Carmenta, the Namesake
The origins of the name of the Porta Carmentalis, or the Carmental Gate, originate from the gate’s proximity to a neighbouring temple to the goddess or nymph Carmenta. Many ancient writers attest to Carmenta as being the namesake of the double gate; Virgil in his Aeneid (Virgil, Aen. 8.337-41), and Solinus in his ‘Wonders of the World’. (Solinus 1.13) Dionysius of Halicarnassus also affirms this connection, and places the temple of Carmenta at the south-west foot of the Capitoline Hill (Dionys. I.32.2) Carmenta, originally named Nicostrata, was believed to have produced the Latin alphabet by altering 15 letters in the Greek alphabet, and sources by writers like Gaius Julius Hyginus affirm this legend as truth. (Hyginus, Fab. 277) Carmenta, and her son Evander, are remembered for having founded the city of Palladium on the banks of the river Tiber; the future site of Rome. Dionysius places the founding of Palladium 60 years prior to the outbreak of the Trojan War, making the association between Carmenta and Rome more ancient than the eternal city itself. (Dionys. I.31.1)
Porta Scelerata, the Accursed Gate
As the Porta Carmentalis was a double gate, the first of these two arches was the Porta Scelerata. As Scelerata was Latin for ‘accursed’, it is no surprise that the origin of such a designation was said to be attached to the legend of the disaster at Cremera. During the city’s infancy, conflicts between Rome and her Etruscan neighbours consistently broke out. In 479 BC, the Fabii clan offered to take Rome’s responsibility for the war against Veii, a rival city. Livy writes that the Senate accepted this; 306 Fabii soldiers built a camp on the banks of the Cremera, and were successful in their raiding of the Veientes for some time. However, a military disaster occurred later in 477 BC. The Veientes ambushed and slaughtered all 306 men of the Fabii clan, with the exception of a boy too young to fight. (Liv. 2.48-50) What exactly was the connection between the battle of the Cremera and the Porta Scelerata? The 306 Fabii, when leaving Rome to fight, were said to have departed through the “right-hand arch of Carmentis’ gate”. (Ovid, Fast. II.201-4) The Romans, ever the superstitious people, designated the Porta Scelerata as ominous and accursed to depart through - it became custom to, when using the Porta Carmentalis, only leave the city through the Porta Triumphalis, and only enter through the Porta Scelerata. Though the Romans held this legend as the explanation behind the name of the Porta Scelerata, the chronology of the legend fails to add up. The Servian Walls, including the double-gate of Carmenta, were traditionally believed to have been built in the 6th century BC during the reign of Servius Tullius, the 6th and penultimate king of Rome. Modern analysis has shown the Servian Walls were in fact most likely built during the 4th century BC. (Carter, 1909. p. 136-140) As the battle of the Cremera occurred over 80 years prior to the building of the Porta Scelerata, and therefore could not have departed through the arch, modern scholars have put forth other explanations for its name. Richardson points to the Porta Scelerata as being the gate by which corpses were carried out to funeral pyres in the Campus Martinus, (Cass. Dio. 56.42.1) and naturally, an association between the Porta Scelerata and ill omen formed. (Richardson, 1992. p. 301)
Porta Triumphalis, the Gate of Triumph
The Porta Triumphalis, or the Triumphal Gate, was the gate by which generals who had been granted a triumph entered into the city. Ancient writers from Cicero to Tacitus (Tacitus, Ann. 1.8.4) assert the existence of a gate dedicated to the triumphal procession. Due to the seriousness the Romans placed upon this procession, it was considered improper for any governor returning from a province to enter into Rome through the Porta Triumphalis. (Cicero, Pis. 55) Only a triumphator was allowed to enter through this gate; all other traffic entering through the Porta Carmentalis was to be through the Scelerata arch. However, there were some notable exceptions to this custom. When Emperor Augustus died, his funerary procession was given the honour to pass through the Porta Triumphalis, preceded by a statue of Victory. (Suetonius, Aug. 100.2)
As the Servian Wall, and by extension the Porta Carmentalis, was built sometime in the early 4th century BC, it was undoubtedly subject to the ravages of time. As such, during Emperor Domitian’s reign (sometime from 81 AD to 96 AD) it was decided the Porta Carmentalis should be rebuilt following victory in war against the Sarmatians. Domitian’s rebuilding of the gate attached a sculpture of a chariot to which “many an elephant” were yoked, as recorded by Martial. (Martial 8.65.1-12) On the note of sculptures, some archaeologists hypothesize that a relief sculpture of Marcus Aurelius beginning his triumph may depict the Porta Carmentalis in the upper right hand side, shown below. (Ryberg, 1967. p. 19-23; Sobocinski, 2009. p. 137)
Carter, Jesse Benedict. “The evolution of the city of Rome from its origin to the Gallic catastrophe.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 48, no. 192 (1909): 129-141.
Frank, Tenney. “Notes on the Servian wall.” American Journal of Archaeology 22, no. 2 (1918): 175-188.
Platner, Samuel Ball, and Thomas Ashby. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Completed and Rev. by Thomas Ashby. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
Richardson Jr, Lawrence. A new topographical dictionary of ancient Rome. JHU Press, 1992.
Ryberg, Inez Scott. Panel Reliefs of Marcus Aurelius. Vol. 14. Archaeological Institute of America, 1967.
Sobocinski, Melanie Grunow. “Porta Triumphalis and Fortuna Redux: Reconsidering the Evidence.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 54 (2009): 135-164.
Platner and Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Rome, in particular their entries on the Porta Carmentalis and the Porta Triumphalis.
For further information regarding triumphs and triumphator, please click on the image below to watch a Youtube video animation of the triumphal process: