It wasn’t enough for the Romans to enslave the Jews, plunder Judea, conquer Jerusalem, destroy the Temple and then erect a massive triumphal arch to commemorate those feats of war for millennia to come: They had to build a second, even larger monument to celebrate their victory.
Archaeologists in Rome have uncovered the remains of a second triumphal arch dedicated to the emperor Titus and his success in putting down the Great Revolt of the Jews in the first century C.E.
The building was nestled between the bleachers of the Circus Maximus, the sprawling arena where chariot races and other competitions were held. It is less than one kilometer away from the famous Arch of Titus on the Palatine hill, which famously depicts the menorah and other holy objects from the Temple being carried in a triumphal procession following the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 C.E.
The discovery of the second arch offers insight into the political climate of the late first century and the workings of the imperial propaganda machine, says Marialetizia Buonfiglio, the archaeologist in charge of the dig.
While Roman leaders and generals loved to boast about their successes in battle, the archaeologist could not recall another case of two arches being built to celebrate the same victory.
Domitian, desperately seeking respect
Both arches had been built around 82 C.E. by Domitian, who became emperor following his elder brother Titus’ brief, two-year reign. Rumors implicating Domitian in Titus’ sudden death by a mysterious fever were never proven, but what’s sure is that the young emperor lacked the natural charisma and the military record of his brother and their father Vespasian.
He may have felt the need to consolidate his power by latching on to the glorious past of his predecessors, Buonfiglio speculates.
The Roman empire had also suffered a series of setbacks recently, including a devastating fire in 80 C.E. that damaged parts of the capital, and the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius a year earlier.
For Domitian, whose family had already built wonders like the Colosseum, it was the perfect time to start a grandiose program of construction or restoration of roads, circuses, palaces and temples.
“Under the Flavian emperors [the dynasty founded by Vespasian] and especially under Domitian, a lot of propaganda was done through construction and infrastructure projects, especially in very symbolic places like the Circus Maximus,” Buonfiglio told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “It’s not very different from what some politicians do today.”
Domitian’s plan worked, up to a point. An efficient administrator and popular leader, he was beloved by most of his subjects. But the Senate and the aristocracy resented his ruthless, authoritarian rule, and had him assassinated in 96 CE.
Finally, subduing the Jews
Actually, scholars had long suspected the existence of the second Arch of Titus, from depictions in ancient maps and Roman art, but its remains only came to light over a decade-long archaeological dig at the southern end of the Circus Maximus, which reopened to the public late last year.
Experts now have a good idea of how the arch would have looked like. At a width of 17 meters and a height of more than 10 meters, the massive triple arch was much larger than its single-gated counterpart on the Palatine. Decorated with a bronze statue of Titus driving a four-horse chariot, just like the ones that raced in the circus, it was the first major sight for visitors entering the city from the south, and a key landmark under which military parades and religious processions would pass.
The two arches would have had slightly different purposes, says Buonfiglio: The one on the Palatine was more a monument to Titus, marking his post-mortem deification. The arch in the circus “was a proper triumphal arch” commemorating his victory over the Jews, the archaeologist explains.
As much is confirmed by the arch’s dedicatory inscription, which has not survived, but was transcribed into the account of an anonymous ninth-century pilgrim. The text bombastically proclaimed how Titus, “following the advice and direction of his father, subdued the Jewish people and destroyed Jerusalem, something which all other generals, kings and peoples before him had not even attempted or had failed to accomplish.”
Yet time has not been kind to this symbol of Roman supremacy. Thanks to the ninth-century chronicle, we know the arch must have been in fairly good shape in the early Middle Ages. It may have been damaged by an earthquake in 847, which also collapsed part of the nearby Colosseum, and its precious marbles and decorations were likely looted for reuse, Buonfiglio said.
By the 12th century, the Circus Maximus, which once housed 150,000 spectators, had become farmland, and a new aqueduct to water the fields and supply the city was channeled through the arch, further increasing the damage.
Today, only a few broken fluted columns, the plinths on which the arch stood and fragments of the decorations have been recovered amongst the ruins of the Roman bleachers and a later medieval fortification. We do not know what scenes from the Great Revolt or Titus’ triumph decorated this arch. The only figurative decoration recovered is fragments showing the legs of some combatants, and the face of a Roman soldier.
*The article was published in Haaretz on March 20, 2017.