Memory and the Arch of Constantine

Constantine Frieze.png

This is a slightly modified pre-publication draft of the following article

Hughes, J. (2014) ‘Memory and the Roman viewer: Looking at the Arch of Constantine’ in Karl Galinsky (ed.) Memoria Romana: Memory in Rome and Rome in Memory, Supplement to the Memoirs of the American Academy at Rome: pp. 103-116.

For copyright reasons, the images are not identical to those in the final published article.

More info about the context of this research can be found on the Memoria Romana project website, and you can also listen to a recent Classics Confidential episode on the topic of Roman Memory, which features (amongst others) the project director, Karl Galinsky.

“History is to the nation rather as memory is to the individual. As an individual deprived of memory becomes disorientated and lost, not knowing where he has been or where he is going, so a nation denied a conception of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. As the means for defining national identity, history becomes a means for shaping history.”
- Schlesinger Jr. A. M. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York, 1992)
“quae acciderunt in pueritia, meminimus optime saepe.”
                                                               - Rhetorica ad Herennium 3.22 


In many ways, the Arch of Constantine in Rome is an obvious choice of subject for an exploration of Roman memory [1]. Not only was its primary function commemorative (it celebrated Constantine’s tenth year of rule, and his victory over Maxentius in 312CE) but it was also constructed from pieces of sculpture and architecture that had, at some point, been taken from the monuments of earlier Roman rulers. Indeed, much of the existing scholarship on the Arch already addresses the topic of memory, although the word ‘memory’ itself is not always explicitly invoked [2]. These earlier discussions deal primarily with themes that might come under the heading of ‘Cultural Memory’ or ‘Collective Memory’, since they consider how the Arch’s makers selected, preserved and re-presented elements of a ‘usable past’ to serve their own, contemporary purposes [3]. Most commentators now agree that the decision to recycle old sculptures was motivated by an ideological agenda rather than a (purely) financial one, taking it to be deeply significant that the older reliefs come from the monuments of the ‘good emperors’, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. The fact that these scholars go on to offer rather different interpretations of the Arch’s program reflects the inherent ambiguity of re-used images, which can simultaneously indicate both change and continuity, and which can assert supremacy over the past at the same time as appropriating its numinous power.

The present chapter builds on this rich tradition of scholarship on the Arch of Constantine. But in contrast with most earlier commentators, here I am particularly interested in memory as a human, cognitive faculty. The figure of the Roman viewer is central to my analysis, and one aim of this chapter is to show how work in the interdisciplinary field of memory studies can bring us closer to understanding the dynamics of viewing monuments in antiquity. I focus principally on two aspects of the complex and mutually formative relationship that existed between the Arch and the Roman viewers who contemplated it. Firstly, I emphasize the fact that viewers approached the monument with a suite of existing memories, which shaped their own unique responses to the imagery and configured its meaning in ways that could both consolidate and subvert the intentions of its creators. Secondly, I suggest that the Arch actively impacted upon the memory of the viewer, shaping the way in which they thought about the past, in the future. This idea of a two-way relationship between a monument and viewer dovetails with those theories that describe memory as distributed between an individual and the physical or social environment in which they operate [4]. Finally, I will propose a third way in which the monument relates to memory, suggesting an analogy between individual memory and national history similar to that described by Schlesinger in the citation above.

The Arch as Monumentum

 Fig. 1 The Arch of Constantine in Rome, seen from the north.

Fig. 1 The Arch of Constantine in Rome, seen from the north.

The Arch of Constantine stands at the Southern edge of the Colosseum valley (figs. 1 and 2). It was probably dedicated in 315CE, having taken approximately two and a half years to build. The duplicate inscriptions that appear on the North and South fronts of the Arch state its raison d’être: it was a gift from the Senate and People of Rome to the Emperor Constantine, after he delivered the state from an unnamed tyrant (Maxentius) [5]. A visual narrative of Constantine’s victory is depicted on the continuous frieze that winds in chronological sequence around the Arch’s middle. This story begins with the departure of Constantine’s army from Milan, then continues with the siege of Verona and the battle of the Milvian Bridge, before representing the emperor’s victorious entry into Rome and his subsequent activities in the city – his address from the rostra in the Roman forum (oratio) and the distribution of gifts to the people (liberalitas). Other fourth-century carvings on the Arch include images of Victories and the Genii of the Seasons on the spandrels, the Victories and captives which decorate the pedestal bases, and the sculpted roundels of the sun and moon placed above the frieze on the Arch’s short sides (fig. 3) [6]. As Adam Gutteridge has noted in his exploration of the depiction of time on the Arch of Constantine, these roundels evoke cosmic time “and its synchronization with the more historical and human events with which it is depicted”[7].

 Fig. 2 Spolia on the Arch - diagram from Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 2 Spolia on the Arch - diagram from Wikimedia Commons

 Fig. 3 Arch of Constantine, east side with section of Constantinian frieze and roundel.

Fig. 3 Arch of Constantine, east side with section of Constantinian frieze and roundel.

In addition to these fourth-century sculptures, the Arch also incorporates re-used material, including architectural elements (capitals, bases, column shafts and entablature) as well as figurative reliefs. Sculptures from the Trajanic period include the eight free-standing statues of Dacian prisoners that dominate the Arch’s attic, and eight slabs of a large historical relief frieze showing the historic Roman victory over the Dacians at the beginning of the second century CE. These slabs are displayed in pairs, two in the central passageway, and two in the attic above the Sun and Moon roundels; both these and the prisoner statues are thought to have been taken from the Forum of Trajan [8]. Eight sculpted medallions from the Hadrianic age decorate the North and South fronts of the Arch. These show scenes of hunting and sacrifice, and may originally have been part of an imperial hunting monument [9]. Meanwhile, eight large rectangular reliefs on the Attic represent the civic, religious and military deeds of the emperor Marcus Aurelius [10]. These Aurelianic reliefs may have come from a lost commemorative arch for that Emperor, along with four similar panels in the Capitoline Museums [11].

The juxtaposition of old and new sculptures on the Arch results in an eclectic, dynamic appearance, which would have been even more striking in antiquity. As Mark Wilson Jones has explained, “the original effect has to be mentally reconstructed, since the accumulated centuries of wear has made white and colored marbles alike converge towards a dull buff”[12]. Besides the giallo antico column shafts, the Arch incorporated red porphyry (for the paneling around the tondi), purple pavonazetto (for the cloaks of the Dacian prisoners), greenish-gray cipollino (the prisoners’ bases) and perhaps also a deep-green porphyry (for a now-lost frieze in the main entablature). In addition to these coloured marbles, bronze was used for the letters of the inscription, and for the now-vanished sculptures on the Arch’s top [13]. This array of contrasting materials would have combined with the different shapes, sizes and styles of the figurative sculptures to produce a powerful sense of variety and heterogeneity. In recent years, scholars have demonstrated the centrality of varietas as an aesthetic principle in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, thereby helping us to reconstruct the positive valency of spolia monuments in these periods [14]. But in the context of the Arch of Constantine, one wonders whether varietas might also have had a more particular symbolic resonance. Descriptions of the Roman triumphal procession frequently emphasize the visual variety and cumulative effect of the spectacle, using contrast, volume and heterogeneity to communicate the totality of Roman victory and control (cf. Favro in this volume). Josephus’ description of the Flavian triumph is one example: he notes “the variety (poikileia) and beauty of the dresses” of the captives and “the beasts of many species” before claiming that “it is impossible adequately to describe the multitude of these spectacles and their magnificence under every conceivable aspect, whether in works of art or diversity of riches or natural rarities”[15]. Many of the individual images on the Arch of Constantine evoke the material culture of the triumph (the victories, captives, personifications and the narrative images of battle, for instance), but we might also see the overall aesthetic of the procession as referenced by, and crystallized in, the monument’s busy eclecticism [16].

 Fig. 4 Detail of the head of Constantine, recut from a head of Trajan, from the Trajanic frieze now on the west wall of the passageway in the central opening.

Fig. 4 Detail of the head of Constantine, recut from a head of Trajan, from the Trajanic frieze now on the west wall of the passageway in the central opening.

 Fig. 5 Arch of Constantine, Rome. Trajanic panel from central passageway of arch with inscription FUNDATORI QUIETIS.

Fig. 5 Arch of Constantine, Rome. Trajanic panel from central passageway of arch with inscription FUNDATORI QUIETIS.

Despite its appearance of vibrant chaos, however, the choice of sculptures and their arrangement on the Arch suggest a careful and deliberate decision-making process on the part of the Arch’s makers. In particular, scholars have drawn attention to how the design of the monument reinforced the links between the emperors represented on it. One way in which this was achieved was by altering and annotating the spoliated second-century sculptures. Several of the older emperors’ heads were recarved with the portrait features of Constantine (Fig. 4), as well as with those of another tetrarch (either his co-ruler Licinius, or his father Constantius Chlorus) [17]. The Trajanic reliefs in the side arches were also inscribed with the textual epithets of Constantine: LIBERATORI VRBIS (‘to the liberator of the city’) on the Western side of the bay, and FVNDATORI QUIETVS (‘to the founder of tranquillity’) on the Eastern side (Fig. 5). Notably, the dative case makes it clear that these phrases applied to Constantine, the recipient of the Arch, and thus reminds the viewer of the Arch’s status as a gift. Roman audiences were acutely aware of the reciprocal nature of gift giving, and many of the images on the Arch can be understood in the light of a ‘Do ut Des’ philosophy - that is, not only as demonstrating the traditionalism of the Senate and People who awarded the monument, but also as a public reminder to Constantine of the type of behavior that was expected of him in return [18].

Besides these modifications of the second-century reliefs, the tight links between Constantine and his three chosen predecessors were also emphasized in the design and placement of the new fourth-century sculptures. For example, both Constantine and Trajan appear fighting and entering the city in triumph, while both Constantine and Marcus Aurelius distribute largesse to the people. The physical placement of the reliefs encouraged viewers to recognize the parallels in their content; it has been noted, for instance, that the walled city represented in the Aurelian ‘Rex Datus’ panel “lends itself to assimilation with the similarly-walled city of Verona shown in the narrative frieze below,” while Constantine’s triumphant march towards Rome on the East end of the Arch “echoes the equally triumphant scenes in the Trajanic relief above it on the Attic”[19]. Meanwhile, the ‘Oratio’ scene on the fourth-century frieze shows Constantine flanked by statues of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius (Fig. 6). Unlike the panels with the recarved heads, this scene acknowledges the bodily boundaries between the emperors, but nevertheless emphasizes their contiguity.

 Fig. 6 Arch of Constantine, Rome, north side with  oratio .

Fig. 6 Arch of Constantine, Rome, north side with oratio.

Not all Roman viewers would necessarily have perceived and recognized (all) the emperors on Constantine’s Arch.[20] For those who did, however, these repeated typological links would have impinged on their understanding of each individual and era involved in the comparison. On the one hand, the Arch’s imagery shaped the viewer’s ideas about Constantine and the present, by showing the traditionalism and antiquity of the new ruler’s actions. This served both to legitimate Constantine, but also (as James Young has remarked of monuments in a different historical context) “to elevate and mythologize current events,” by erasing their particularity [21]. At the same time, the parallels between the spoliated and new reliefs also had the potential to transform the viewer’s perspective on the older emperors, by presenting them in the context of a teleological narrative. As Jas Elsner has noted, this sort of typological exegesis “displayed the past only in so far as the past is validated by, fulfilled in, and made meaningful through the present”[22]. In other words, in their new context these scenes became prototypes for, or anticipations of Constantine, taking on a proleptic significance that was entirely absent at the moment of their manufacture [23].

Remembering at the Arch of Constantine

 Fig. 7 Statue of King George VI located in Carlton Gardens, near The Mall in London.

Fig. 7 Statue of King George VI located in Carlton Gardens, near The Mall in London.

What did viewers remember when they looked at the Arch of Constantine? Monuments can cue many different kinds of memories, as a brief personal anecdote can help to clarify. On a recent trip to central London, I encountered the statue represented at Fig. 7 and discovered, upon reading the inscription, that it represented George VI (the current Queen of England’s father). Immediately, I remembered who he was – or rather, what I actually remembered was the highly successful 2010 film The King’s Speech starring Colin Firth. This film, which was about the life of George VI and particularly his speech impediment, provided me with a concrete visual image of the King, along with a limited set of stories about his reign, some of which sprang to mind as I looked at this statue. At the same time, I also recalled ‘episodic’ memories associated with the film, such as the evening that I went to the cinema to watch it, and the conversations that I had with friends afterwards. As well as these relatively recent events, I found myself thinking about earlier memories of my grandmother telling me stories about the British royal family. All of these memories - but particularly the older memories from childhood – contributed to the vague sense of nostalgia that I experienced when viewing this statue, the ‘positive affect’ which arguably predisposed me to have a sympathetic reaction to the monument and the subject it represented.

This modern example underlines a very simple fact that is nevertheless often obfuscated in modern discussions of monuments: that is, what a monument cues its viewer to recall is not ‘firsthand’ memories of the people and events being commemorated (which often occurred long before their lifetimes) but other, ‘mediating’ representations and experiences.[24] Importantly, these mediating representations can impinge on the viewer’s interpretation of the monument, predisposing them to respond in a certain way to its imagery, as well as its ideological message. Some of these representations are unique to certain individuals, as is the case with the stories told to me by my grandmother. Others can be shared by much larger groups of people: The King’s Speech, for instance, was a box-office phenomenon, and I was probably not the only person who looked at this statue in 2011 and ‘remembered’ the face of Colin Firth. This second type of ‘shared’ memory is central to the view of collective memory put forward by writers like James Wertsch, who notes that groups “share a representation of the past because they share textual resources”[25]. As Wertsch goes on to explain, the use of these textual resources “may result in homogeneous, complementary, or contested collective memory, but in all cases, it is the key to understanding how distribution [of memory] is possible.”

How can this kind of analysis be brought to bear on the ancient viewer of monuments like the Arch of Constantine? The personal ‘episodic’ or ‘communicative’ memories of Romans are, for the most part, out of our reach – it is impossible to retrieve what Romans talked about with their grandmothers (although presumably stories of earlier rulers would have featured somewhere in the repertoire). However, we do have access to at least some of the mediating texts and images that were accessible to Roman viewers and which may have conditioned their reception of the monument. In her 1997 article in the Memoirs, Dale Kinney uses such a methodology to reappraise the recarved portrait heads on the second-century reliefs in the light of other Roman image-making practices. Noting that “since H.P. L’Orange published his seminal book on the Arch of Constantine in the 1930s, most scholars have accepted some version of his thesis that this was a panegyrical gesture to all four emperors,” Kinney points out that, as far as imperial portraits are concerned, this use of recarving to convey a positive message was very unusual – perhaps even unprecedented. Normally, the reworking of emperor portraits happened in a context of “penury, hubristic appropriation, or damnatio memoriae,” negative practices that, Kinney argues, would have been determinant of the viewer’s reaction to the recarved heads on the Arch of Constantine [26]. In other words, while the designers of the Arch may have intended the recarving to be read as a panegyrical gesture, the ‘remembering viewer’ would have found it difficult to escape the negative connotations of this practice.

Kinney’s interpretation of the reworked portrait heads shows the power of memory to complicate the intentions of a monument’s designers by indicating counter-hegemonic readings. Of course, monuments could also – deliberately or ‘accidentally’ – cue other memories that were entirely coherent with their makers’ ideological program. In fact, Jas Elsner and Karl Galinsky have both pointed out that the reworking of portrait heads occurred in a much wider range of contexts than the negative ones mentioned by Kinney (for instance, the honorific reuse of statues, and the later insertion of portrait heads into mythological scenes on Roman sarcophagi), thereby alerting us to the possibility that the heads on the Arch might have cued positive or neutral as well as negative memories for their viewers [27]. Further similarities might be drawn between the recarved heads and (non-recarved) images such as the ‘theomorphic’ or ‘allegorical’ portraits that were so beloved by imperial patrons. These are visually and conceptually similar to recarved portraits, insofar as they present one subject’s head on another subject’s body. Seeing the reworked figures on the Arch of Constantine in the light of these allegorical portraits would have emphasized the divine or quasi-mythological status of the earlier emperors, by showing them as equivalent to the gods or mythical figures who were normally used as allegorical ‘costumes’. Then, there are the stories and images of bodily metamorphosis, which saturated Roman culture, and which were often set in bucolic landscapes similar to those on the Arch’s Hadrianic roundels. While modern academic interpretations of the Arch’s recarved figures prefer formal terms such as ‘analogy’, ‘typology’ and ‘prototype’, we need to remain open to the possibility that the Roman viewer – who was used to the idea of people and things taking on new forms – might have perceived these images as representing a genuine bodily transformation. Such a reading implies a very literal continuity in the imperial office: the emperors might look slightly different from one another, but they were essentially made from the same substance – they were (to use a term current in Constantine’s lifetime) homoousioi.

The discussion so far indicates the fundamental role of memory as a source of meaning and discrepant viewer experience. Other aspects of the Arch’s imagery would have cued different memories, and all of these would have nuanced the viewer’s reception of the monument in subtly different ways. For instance, the formal similarities between the Arch of Constantine and earlier arches like those of Titus and Septimius Severus may have underlined the conservatism of Constantine’s monument and the traditional values of its makers, while at the same time showcasing the novel aspects of its design and use of spolia [28]. Viewers who remembered Constantine’s interventions in the nearby building projects of his rival Maxentius may have been primed to read the recarved portrait heads in the negative light suggested by Kinney; meanwhile, memories of the original (and now dismembered) contexts of the second-century reliefs would have undoubtedly impinged on their interpretation of the Arch of Constantine [29]. And so on. Of course, in one sense this whole discussion is simply a re-framing of existing theories of intertextuality and reception in which ‘knowledge’ is preferred to the word ‘memory’. But insisting that memory is at stake in viewing is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, as indicated earlier, it reminds us that any viewer’s experience of a monument drew on their unique, episodic, autobiographical memories, as well as the ‘semantic’ memories (knowledge) that they shared with the rest of their ‘textual community’. Secondly, framing the analysis in terms of memory also brings art-historical work into dialogue with other scholarship in the interdisciplinary field of memory studies – a dialogue that potentially holds benefits for all of its participants.

Remembering after the Arch of Constantine

So far, this discussion has implicitly focused on a viewer standing in front of the Arch of Constantine, who is prompted by the Arch’s imagery to recall other objects and experiences. But we might also think about what happened to that viewer once they had walked away from the monument. How did their encounter with the Arch of Constantine transform the way in which they thought about the past (and the present), in the future?

One possible approach to this question involves highlighting the agency of the Arch’s makers, whose choices in selecting and presenting material for display influenced what future audiences – including ourselves as historians – were (collectively) enabled to remember.[30] We might note, for instance, that Roman history according to the Arch of Constantine is an imperial history – there is no room for Regal or Republican episodes in this coherent story of emperors and their victories over men and beasts. Such ellipses are significant because, as Eviatar Zerubavel has pointed out, “The extent to which our social environment affects the ‘depth’ of our memory is also manifested somewhat more tacitly in the way we conventionally begin historical narratives…. After all, by defining a certain moment in history as the actual beginning of a particular historical narrative, it implicitly also defines for us everything that preceded it as mere ‘pre-history’ which we can practically forget” [31].

 Fig. 8  Adventus  scene from the Arch of Constantine. featuring a reclining personification of the Via Flaminia.

Fig. 8 Adventus scene from the Arch of Constantine. featuring a reclining personification of the Via Flaminia.

Along these same lines, we might emphasize that the version of Roman history presented by the Arch of Constantine is a relentlessly male one. Diana Kleiner has already pointed out that in the Constantinian scene of oratio the Roman population is represented solely by men and their male children (Fig. 6) [32]. A quick count of the extant, recognizable figures on the Arch reveals more than 370 mortal men, including soldiers and emperors (although the latter category straddle the mortal-divine boundary), and at least twenty divine or allegorical male figures, including statues of gods and male personifications. Divine and allegorical females also number approximately twenty; again, these include statues of goddesses, Victories and personifications like Virtus, Honos and the Via Flaminia (Figure 8). But besides these idealized, fetishized figures, only one ‘real’ mortal woman can be found on the Arch, waiting for a handout from her emperor on one of the Aurelianic reliefs (Figure 9). The creation of this spolia monument might thus exemplify the multi-layered process through which women have often been written out of their national histories. Here, the process began when the second-century sculptures were made and decisions were taken about who and what was worth commemorating. The fourth-century makers of the Arch of Constantine then made their own selections from the supply of available sculpture, tilting the gender balance even further in the process. The elision of women from this version of Roman history was completed by the passage of time, which disposed of the real individuals who could supply alternative narratives or ‘counter-memories’ [33], and whose physical presence would highlight the gaps in this monumental account of the past. Clearly, these various stages of ‘filtering’ the past leave no trace on the monument itself, which continues to be invoked as a totalizing compendium of Roman sculpture and history. Such comprehensive erasure from the historical record is arguably more damning than acts of normative inversion like damnatio memoriae, which tend to recast the past rather than negate it, and to confirm memory even as they dishonor it [34].

 Fig. 9  Liberalitas  panel from the Arch of Constantine.

Fig. 9 Liberalitas panel from the Arch of Constantine.

In addition to interrogating the contents of the Arch(ive) [35], we can also ask how the visual format in which these contents were presented might have impacted on how – and how effectively – they were remembered. Such an approach is, in fact, suggested by the Roman rhetorical texts on the ars memoriae – an artificial memory system that relied on its practitioners equating ‘to be remembered’ items with visual images (imagines), and then placing these images in fixed places (loci), which often took the form of architectural backgrounds (“for example, a house, an intercolumnar space, a corner, an arch, and other things that are similar to these”) [36]. The writers of these Roman texts, and in particular the anonymous author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, demonstrate a palpable awareness of the differing mnemonic potential of visual images, acknowledging the fact that some images are more easily stored in and retrieved from memory than others. Indeed, we might examine the Arch of Constantine in the light of the ancient texts themselves, noting, for instance, the use of “great and good images”, of “purple cloaks” (the Dacian prisoners) and the “tainting of images with red” (the porphyry around the Hadrianic panels) [37]. These elements of the Arch’s design would all – so the Roman art of memory suggests – enhance the monument’s visual saliency, and the successful encoding and easy retrieval of its contents.

New research on human memory in the cognitive sciences might also give some fresh insights into how Roman viewers perceived and subsequently remembered the Arch’s imagery. In her 1997 book Wax Tablets of the Mind, Jocelyn Penny Small showed how modern psychology research might be used to provide empirical support for the ideas of the ancient authors on ars memoriae [38]. But cognitive research on memory can also draw attention to other mnemonic features of Roman monuments that do not appear in the ancient texts on memory [39]. We might take as an example the concept of ‘cued retrieval’ – the idea that a piece of information such as a word, image or odor can be used to access memory traces. The classic experiments investigating this phenomenon were conducted by Canadian psychologist Endel Tulving and his colleagues in the 1960s and 1970s. These involved presenting subjects with lists of words to be retained and then recalled (‘target’ words), some of which were accompanied by a partner (‘cue’ words) [40]. When subjects were asked to recall a target word – either unaided or prompted by the relevant cue word – Tulving found that the presence of the appropriate cue significantly increased the chance of subjects recalling the target. Notably, he also discovered that for a cue to function efficiently it must already have some semantic association with the target word (a phenomenon known as ‘feature overlap’) and that the target and cue must have been presented at the same time (‘encoding specificity’). The effect of cued retrieval suggests that the presentation of pairs of words together shortens or strengthens the neural pathways between them, meaning that it takes less energy to pass from one to another. Since their description by Tulving, these ideas about cued retrieval have been given practical applications in fields such as law, politics and television advertising. But how might they be relevant to the Arch of Constantine?

The hypothesis offered here involves thinking about the act of viewing of the Arch as analogous to the first stage of Tulving’s experiments, in which the pairs of words were first presented together. This time, however, the pairs are images of emperors: Constantine and Trajan, Constantine and Hadrian, Constantine and Marcus Aurelius – figures who are already semantically related by virtue of the fact that they are all emperors (thus fulfilling Tulving’s criterion of ‘feature overlap’). As we have already seen, the Arch’s designers linked these pairs of emperors in different ways, namely through the addition of portrait features and epithets to the spoliated reliefs, the drawing of parallels between Constantine’s deeds and those of his predecessors, and the representation of Constantine in the vicinity of the earlier emperors’ statues. The viewer scanning the monument would thus find several repetitions of the links between Constantine and his chosen predecessors, each of which would consolidate and shorten the semantic pathways between these men in the viewer’s memory. Significantly, the psychological evidence raises the possibility that one partner in the pair could subsequently function as a retrieval cue for the other, and that a viewer who examined the imagery on the Arch of Constantine and then went on to encounter other images of Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius on display elsewhere in the city might be cued automatically to recall their own Emperor. Scholars are already aware that Constantine was a master of appropriating the past, reusing earlier images to a greater extent than any previous emperors [41]. However, the cognitive work on memory adds another dimension to this discussion, by suggesting that Constantine (or rather, the makers of his Arch) might have appropriated the images of his predecessors without ever laying a chisel on them.

Cued retrieval represents just one of several ways in which cognitive work on memory resonates with the Arch of Constantine and its imagery. Other areas that might be explored include the saliency of visual images (a theme already present in the texts on the ars memoriae), theories about ‘levels of processing’ (the idea that complex images are more memorable than simple ones), and Ebbinghaus’ discoveries about ‘spaced repetition’ (which here may shed light on the effect of repeat encounters between a moving viewer and fixed monument) [42]. Now, in all of these cases, the broad insights that cognitive science allows into the workings of viewer memory need to be balanced, supplemented and problematized by historical analysis of individual cases. If many of the existing readings of the Arch’s imagery postulate (as Dale Kinney has objected) “an ideal viewer with historically-specific knowledge,” the cognitive approach outlined here postulates an ideal viewer with no historically-specific knowledge – one who exists in silent, experimental test-conditions, rather than the noisy and visually crowded environment of ancient Rome [43]. Even the example of cued retrieval offered here needs to be tempered with the caveat that each imperial portrait seen on the viewer’s ‘post-Arch’ journeys around Rome would have had its own peculiar set of viewing conditions, which may have overwritten the idealized reading described here. But despite such caveats, the different questions and perspectives that are suggested by modern cognitive work on memory can only enrich our work on historical case studies, and underline the formative power that ancient images have over how we think about the past. Moreover, it is worth noting that the effect of cued retrieval proposed here is often simply assumed as a matter of course in discussions of typological and allegorical imagery, which take for granted the capacity of this type of representation to construct long-lasting associative links between pairs of people or narratives.

Postscript: Memory, History and Autobiography

This chapter has explored some aspects of the relationship between the Arch of Constantine and its viewers. It has also investigated the relationship between individual and ‘collective’ memory, thinking about how far one viewer’s experience of the Arch might be in line with – or different from – those of the people around them. For instance, we have seen how the viewer’s reception of the Arch may have been influenced by their memories of other cultural resources, many of which would also have been available to their contemporaries; at the same time, I have argued that the Arch itself worked on the memories of those who saw it, with the result that many of monument’s viewers came to share a homogenized set of images and narratives with which to internally visualize the past. These are broad conclusions that might be applied to any monument, but I would like to end this chapter by suggesting one additional and quite unique way in which the Arch of Constantine brought individual and group memory into dialogue with one another. This suggestion involves taking a fresh look at the relationship between the second-century spolia and fourth-century frieze, whose contrasting appearances have been the focus of so much of the scholarly literature on the Arch. While previous studies have normally paid attention to the different artistic styles of the sculptures, here I want to focus on the strikingly different ways in which they present historical narrative.

Jas Elsner has already noted of the Constantinian frieze that “What seems aesthetically the odd choice of having the frieze spill over the end-corners of the Arch, beyond the last projecting pilaster on each of the long sides, is an effective visual marker of the continuity of the frieze’s narrative action around the Arch, by contrast with the self-contained icons above”[44]. This observation draws attention to the structural disparity between the spoliated reliefs (the Trajanic segements, as well as the Hadrianic roundels and Aurelianic panels), all of which present single ‘snapshots’ of history that appear as ‘discrete icons’, and, on the other hand, the wrap-around fourth-century frieze, which presents history in the form of a long, sequential narrative, whose continuity was emphasized by the insistent forward movement of the participants, as well as by their ‘spilling’ around the corners [45].

This juxtaposition between a historic past in the form of single, fragmentary images and a recent past presented in the form of a continuous narrative is deeply interesting in the present context, because of the analogy that it suggests with the structures of human autobiographical memory. Writers on memory from antiquity to the present often draw attention to the different qualities of childhood and adult memories (see, for instance, the citation from the Rhetorica ad Herennium at the opening of this chapter). In both autobiographical literature and cognitive science studies, childhood memories are frequently described as stronger and more intensely visual than adult memories. Crucially, for the present argument, they also have a fragmentary quality, appearing as single moments excised from their broader narrative context. Biologist Stephen Rose’s book on The Making of Memory contains one fairly typical example of this: “Another snapshot – a moment at my fourth birthday party, racing with my guests, around a circular rosebed, arms outstretched, making aeroplanes. But what came before or after this frozen moment in time? Who were my party guests? Did I have a birthday cake? I have no idea”[46]. These ‘eidetic’ and fragmentary qualities of childhood memory contrast with adult memories for recent events, which can be stitched with ease into a continuous narrative, albeit one that is constantly reconstructed and reshaped in the process of remembering.

In this case, looking at descriptions of individual memory draws attention to the fact that the presentation of history on the Arch of Constantine echoes the narrative structures of human autobiographical memory, with the continuous, linear narrative of recent events contrasting sharply with the fragmented and jumbled images of the city’s early life. In noting this analogy I am by no means suggesting that it reflects a conscious decision on the part of the Arch’s designers; rather, I see it as a useful but probably unintended consequence of the incorporation of spoliated sculptures, which by definition represent the past in the form of fragments hewn from a larger picture. Other commentators have drawn attention to the ways in which the Arch creates analogies between different timescales (such as the cosmic and historical – see above p. 3). In this way, the monument’s evocation of the human lifespan simply adds another dimension to its rich multi-temporality [47]. While the sun and moon roundels may elevate the historical events depicted on the Arch to the cosmic, universal level, the form and content of the spolia bring them down to a more intimate and personal scale – that of the remembered human life. Of course, both the cosmic and the autobiographical analogies have a powerful naturalizing function, but the evocation of human memory has the added power to engender in the viewer a sense of ownership of, and personal identification with, the history of the Roman state. This conflation of the boundaries between individual and state has obvious ideological implications, but it also resonates with modern debates about the usefulness and precision of the term ‘collective memory’. Many scholars have criticized what they see as the inaccurate and potentially pernicious metaphorical use of memory as a paradigm for understanding history [48]. The reading of the Arch of Constantine proposed here does nothing to counter those objections, but it does suggest that our own modern analogies between individual memory and group history might, in fact, have a very long ancestry.




[1] My research into spolia and memory was generously funded by a grant from the Memoria Romana project. I am grateful to Karl Galinsky, Adam Gutteridge, Janet Huskinson, Maggie Popkin and Hugo Spiers for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

[2] On the Arch of Constantine, see the following selective bibliography, with further references: Faust 2011, Gutteridge 2010; Marlowe 2006; Liverani 2011, 2009, 2004; Holloway 2004, 19-54; Holloway 1985; Elsner 2003; Elsner 2000; Elsner 1998; Wilson Jones 2000. Pensabene and Panella 1999, Kleiner 1992 (pp. 444-455 with bibliography on p. 464), Peirce 1989; Brilliant 1984, 119-123; Ruysschaert 1962-3; Giuliano 1955, Berenson 1954.

[3] For the concept of ‘usable past’ see Zamora 1998.

[4] See e.g. Wertsch 2002. Notably, this is a different view from the one presented by Roman writers, who often imply that monuments provide a direct, unmediated link to the people and events of past eras. Cf. Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.49; Cicero as cited by Nonius, Epist. ad Caes fr. 7. Marcellus 32.17.

[5] “To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.”

[6] L’Orange and von Gerkan 1939.

[7] Gutteridge 2010, 166.

[8] On the Great Trajanic Frieze, see Leander Touati 1987, Kleiner 1992, 220-223, 264. On the statues of prisoners, see Waelkens 1985, 645 nos. 3-9; Packer 1997: I, 437-438.

[9] Boatwright 1987 190-192; Evers 1991; Kleiner 1992 251-253, 265.

[10] Ryberg 1967; Angelicoussis 1984; Kleiner 1992, 288-295, 314.

[11] De Maria 1988, 316; Pensabene 1988.

[12] Wilson Jones 2000, 63. See idem. 54 fig. 7 for a diagram showing the locations of the different marble types.

[13] Marlowe 2006, 240 n. 52.

[14] Brenk 1987; Hansen 2003 173-178; Carruthers 2009.

[15] Josephus BJ 7.132-133, 136, 138.

[16] On the imagery of the Roman triumphal procession, see Ostenberg 2009.

[17] Galinsky 2008, 14. Kleiner 1992, figs. 185 and 186. On the Trajanic panels, see Leander Touati 1987, 91-95; for the Hadrianic roundels see Wilson Jones 2000, 70-72; L’Orange and Van Gerkan 1939, 165-169; Rohmann 1998. On the later re-carving of the heads on the Aurelianic panels, and on the post-antique reception of the Arch in general, see Punzi 1999.

[18] Cf. Elsner’s comments at 2000, 171. The Arch’s relationship to the future has been discussed by Gutteridge 2010, 165-166, who draws attention to the proleptic significance of the Constantinian scenes of liberalitas and adloctuutirio and of the Votisx X and Votis XX inscriptions, which ‘reflect a promise and a control over the times that were yet to come’. See also Brilliant 1984, 121 and Peirce 1989, 415.

[19] Wilson Jones 2000, 69; Elsner 2000, 173.

[20] Liverani 2004. Like most previous interpretations of the Arch, some aspects of my own reading postulate a viewer who was able to identify the emperors represented on the Arch. However, the methodology outlined here emphasizes the multivalency of the monument, and suggests ways in which memory might be used to reconstruct discrepant as well as idealized responses to the Arch’s imagery.

[21] Young 1993, 10.

[22] Elsner 2000, 176; cf. Brilliant 1970, 78 and Gutteridge 2010, 164-165.

[23]  Parallel to the process ofd intertextuality; see  Rosati in this volume..

[24] Cf. Quintilian’s observation that “When we return to a place after considerable absence, we not merely recognize the place itself, but remember things that we did there, and recall the persons whom we met and even the unuttered thoughts which passed through our minds when we were there before.” Inst. Or. 1.2.17.

The (eventual) temporal separation of monument and viewer is assumed by Roman writers. Cf. Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.49; Cicero NoniuCicero, Epist. ad Caes. fr. 7; sNonius (citing Cicero) 32.17; Horace, Odes 3.30.1.

[25] Wertsch 2002, 26.

[26] Kinney 1997, esp. p. 58. Note that damnatio is a modern term of convenience, and as such should be used with caution. See Flower 1998, esp. 156.

[27] Elsner 2000, 174; Galinsky 2008, 15.

[28] On the ‘mimesis of the Arch of Septimius Severus’ see Wilson Jones 2000, 65-67.

[29] On the Arch’s interplay with Maxentian building projects and other nearby buildings, see Marlowe 2006. On the provenance of the spoliated sculptures, see Kinney 1997, 127-128.

[30] This is familiar territory for scholars working within the field of cultural memory studies: see for instance Fowler 2007.

[31] Zerubavel 1996, 287.

[32] Kleiner 1992, 450, and 462.

[33]  Foucault’s contre-mémoire; see Introduction, n. 33.

[34] Galinsky 2008, 20; Hedrick 2000, xii and 113-130.

[35]  “Archive” has been an operative notion in memory studies; cf. Assmann 1999, 343-347 with reference to Derrida and, similarly, Frischer in this volume.

[36] On the ars memoriae see Small 1997, 95-116 and Onians 1999 177-205.

[37] These examples are drawn from the Rhetorica ad Herennium 3.22.

[38] Small 1997.

[39] Cf. Brilliant 1984, 110.

[40] See for instance Tulving and Pearlstone 1966; Tulving and Osler 1968.

[41] Prusac 2011.

[42] Ebbinghaus 1885. Accessible introductions to cognitive work on memory include Schacter 2001, Baddeley, Eysenck and Anderson 2009, and Boyer and Wertsch 2009.

[43] Kinney 1995, on the view of L’Orange and his successors.

[44] Elsner 2000, 165-166; cf. Gutteridge 2010, 167.

[45] ‘Discrete icons’ is Elsner’s phrase: 2000, 165. A different view is presented by Kleiner 1992, 466: she describes the frieze as representing ‘discrete historical episodes’, in contrast to the earlier, encircling friezes of the Arch of Titus in Rome and Trajan in Beneventum.

[46] Rose 1993, 41.

[47] See in particular Gutteridge 2010.

[48] E.g. Kansteiner 2002; Novick 1999, 267-268; Wertsch 2002, 37.


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