What Does the Arch of Titus represent?

There are only two arches left that exist as remnants of the Roman Empire. The Arch of Titus is one of them – do you know the story behind it?

The Arch of Titus dates back to the 1st century AD and was erected by Domitian in 81 AD. Located on the Via Sacra in Rome, the monument stands just south-east of the Roman Forum. The arch is a popular tourist attraction for its rich history and grand structure. Towering over its surroundings, the arch contains panels which depict the triumphal procession celebrated in 71 AD after the Roman victory culminating in the fall of Jerusalem, and provides one of the few contemporary depictions of artefacts of Herod’s Temple. 

The History of the Arch of Titus

Emperor Domitian was Roman Emperor from 81 to 96 AD and was the last ruler of the Flavian dynasty which had included his father Vespasian and elder brother Titus. He continued the restoration work of his predecessors and family, and also strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage. The first project of his 15-year reign was commissioning a tribute to his brother Titus to commemorate his success in the Jewish War. This tribute was named the Arch of Titus. Based on the style and sculptural details of the arch, scholars believe Domitian favoured architect Rabirius for the task who also designed the massive Flavian Palace on Palatine Hill and the Alban Villa at present day Castel Gandolfo. Located on the highest point of the Via Sacra, Domitian created the Arch along the busiest street of ancient Rome to depict how important this past emperor and victory was. Throughout time the arch has remained a longstanding structure, even surviving the fall of Rome in the 5th century. However, the arch underwent a repair in 1817 due to the slow deterioration of the exterior columns and outer decoration.  

The Decoration of the Arch

The arch was constructed using Pentelic marble, with the original inscription on the east side of the arch still in situ, although originally the letters would have been inlaid with gilded bronze. It reads: “The senate and people of Rome, to Divus Titus, son of Divus Vespasian, Vespasian Augustus”. The use of ‘divo’ before Titus’s name is to signify that the arch was erected after his death. Unfortunately, there is no inscription hinting to who constructed the arch, with the architect remaining unknown. With only a single opening the arch is smaller and more modest in its decoration than other surviving arches, and its decorative sculptures have not aged well. Nevertheless, one can still see the significance of some of the sculpture scenes, most notably the side panels. One of the panels shows the start of Titus’ 71 AD victory procession as it passes through the Porta Triumphalis to the Forum Boarium with the participants carrying booty from the Temple of Jerusalem after the sacking of the city. The other panel shows Titus riding a four-horse chariot and being crowned by a personification of Victory. The goddess Rome stands in front, holding the bridle of one of the horses. Illustrating scenes of actual happenings, fictional events, and symbolism. Majority of the images illustrate the defeat of the Jewish people, depicting Titus as a divine god-like person heading towards heaven. 

The significant of the Arch

The Jewish-Roman wars were a series of large-scale revolts by the Jews against the Roman Empire between 66 and 135 AD. Fought in Roman-controlled Judea, the revolts resulted in the destruction of Jewish towns, the displacement of its people and the appropriation of land for Roman military use. Titus managed to breach Jerusalem, when the city’s walls began to fall, ransacking and burning the entire city. This shows how the arch is not only a memento to Emperor Titus, but also a political and religious statement. It symbolises the final episode of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. With many illustrations on the arch depicting the parade of treasures, the Romans took from the temple of Jerusalem into Rome. As well as many more symbolising its final destruction. The two panels described above are also significant in history for their development of Roman art, as they are the first full attempt by Roman sculptors to create the illusion of space. This is successfully achieved in the arch in several ways; first by receding the background figures gradually into the distance, with the central figures carved higher than those on the edge. 

Where to see the Arch of Titus

Having been around for thousands of years the arch has since undergone restoration work since its initial construction. The majority of which was carried out in the 19th century, in particular, on parts of the piers and attic which were built using travertine limestone. In fact, the whole arch was dismantled and reassembled piece by piece so as to best preserve this piece of ancient architecture. Venture down to the heart of the Roman Forum to see the Arch of Titus for yourself. With an array of other attractions, including the funeral altar of Julius Caesar, the House of Vestals, as well as the Curia. The forum has no signs or information sections, so your best bet is to travel with a local guide so they can inform you of all of Rome’s secrets! 

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