Discussing the Two Arches of Titus and The Triumphal March with Historian Samuele Rocca

Original Stone fragments from the lesser known Arch of Titus at Circus Maximus, June 2022
(Photograph by Brenda Lee Bohen)

As a historic preservationist and licensed tour guide in Rome who passionately advocates the history of the Jews of Rome, I have an academic duty to draw international attention and awareness to Jewish Scholars and Rabbis from around the globe. I feel a responsibility to insist on re-writing, re-documenting, re-photographing, re-investigating the Jewish history in Rome. In my volunteer efforts and my contributions to articles and blogs, I tell a Jewish story by interviewing prominent Jewish scholars of the Torah. A Jewish scholar and a Jewish tour guide narrate references from the original Hebrew texts of the Torah, Talmud, Mishna, Gemara and the Zohar on how the Jews who came from Israel, over 2,000 years ago, before Christianity ever started, contributed to the foundation of the Eternal city, a treasured fact often omitted from our history books.

In Rome, two arches built by the last Flavian ruler, Domitian, are the main memento of the Roman triumph on Judaea. One once stood in the Circus Maximus and the other stands still on the Velia hill. These two monuments, built when Titus had already died, do not simply celebrate the Roman victory on over the Jews, but also stand as a glorification of the whole Flavian family, Vespasian, and his two sons and heirs, Titus and Domitian, explains eminent historian Samuele Rocca.

According to Roman tradition, in 71 C.E., Vespasian and his son Titus celebrated their triumph over the Jews in the capital of the empire. Rocca says they used this ceremony as a political and ideological platform to legitimize the new dynasty and the procession left a deep mark and was evoked in a vast range of images placed on coins and monuments, both instruments of Roman propaganda. The relief depicting the triumph and the golden menorah is without a doubt universally renown, while the second arch, whose existence has been known since the Middle Ages and of which fragments have survived, was located on the eastern edge of the Circus Maximus had completely vanished from collective memory.  In addition, the two triumphal arches, were part of a larger plan of urban reform through which the Flavians, sought to immortalize their power.

In the seventh book of the Jewish War, Josephus describes in detail the Flavian triumph held in the spring of 71 C.E. Although Josephus focuses only on selected episodes and leaves out important information, his is the only known account of a triumphal procession in the early Empire. In fact, the leading authority on the arch of Titus, Professor Steven Fine also confirms that Josephus’s description of Titus’s triumph is the most complete depiction of a triumphal parade in all of classical literature. However, Rocca explains that Josephus published an early version of the Jewish War in Aramaic in the spring of 71 CE, hoping to influence attitudes toward Rome among the Jews of the Parthian Empire and the Roman East. According to Rocca, “We do not know the contents of that Aramaic version, which Josephus mentions in the introduction to his later Greek work. It is likely that the Aramaic version already included a description of the triumph of the Flavians. In addition, according to the later Greek version, the triumphal ceremony was celebrated soon after Titus’s return to Italy in 71 CE. It is probable that Josephus was by then already in Rome and viewed the triumphal parade first-hand, as he had followed the Roman general back to Italy. Josephus might have had sufficient time to include the description of the triumphal ceremony in the Aramaic version of the Jewish War, likely as the crescendo of the entire book. Through his Greek narration of the parade, the longest description of a Roman triumphal parade to survive anywhere in Roman literature, Josephus detailed the Roman victory over the Jews and hailed the new imperial dynasty.”

Once we consider Josephus’s description of the triumph, it is important once more to mention the fact that Josephus came to Rome together with Titus, and there, he was a personal witness of the triumph. Yet, the fact that Josephus gives such a detailed description as well as understanding of the ideological framework of the ceremony points also to the possibility that he studied in detail its meaning. More than that, he probably made use of other sources. Was Josephus aware of the description of the legendary triumph of Romulus, the earliest triumphal ceremony given by Dionysus of Halicarnassus in his Roman Antiquities? While it is clear that Josephus had a deep knowledge of the book, when he wrote the Jewish Antiquities, however, there is no reason to think that he possessed knowledge of the book, when he compiled the Jewish War (Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae II.34). Yet, at least the description of one triumph was known to Josephus and could have served as model for his own description of the Triumph of the Flavians. The final version of the Jewish War clearly demonstrates that Josephus was well acquainted with Polybius. Thus, probably Josephus could have used as source the description of the triumph of Aemilius Paulus, hold in 167 B.C.E., conserved by Livy and Plutarch, but probably stemming in the writings of Polybius. Besides, Josephus would also possibly be aware of the triumphal ceremonies, which consecrated the two most important warlords of the Late Republic, Pompey (Plutarch, Pompeius 45 and Appian, Historia Romana – Civil Wars12.116-117) and Caesar (Cassius Dio, Historia Romana43.19-21; Appian, Historia Romana – Civil Wars 2.101-102).

There is no evidence that supports one of the foremost experts on Roman antiquities, Filippo Coarelli’s reconstruction of the Triumphal march going around the Palatine Hill. What is your opinion and what evidence do you have about the triumphal procession containing the Judaic conquests of Titus passing where the arch stands today?

Samuele Rocca:
Contrary to the earlier triumphal processions held during the Middle and Late Republic, the Triumph of the Flavians, most likely, followed a different itinerary. Scholars suggest two itineraries for the triumph of Juliu  Caesar. The first itinerary, longer, passed though the Circus Maximus, then turned around the Palatine and entered back the Forum through the Via Sacra. The second, shorter, itinerary, went from the Velabrum directly to the Forum (Suetonius, Divus Julius 37.2 and Cassius Dio, Historia Romana 43.21.1).

As demonstrated by Mary Beard, the Flavian triumphal itinerary probably started at the Temple of Isis, located east of the Pantheon, or nearby, maybe in a Villa Publica, where Vespasian and Titus could have been quartered during the night, outside the sacred pomerium, in the southern part of the Campus Martius. Then, once formed, the procession moved to the Porticus of Octavia, where the Flavians were addressed by the Senate. Then, the procession entered the city through the porta triumphalis, probably one of the gates of the Old Republican Wall (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 130-131). Thus, the procession moved southward towards the Forum Boarium, and then to the Porta Triumphalis, the gate to the city itself, located somewhere on the Servian Wall. The exact identification or location of this gate is quite problematic. Some scholars place the gate between the Campus Martius and the Forum, nearby the Circus Maximus or the Circus Flaminius. Others identify it with the Porta Carmentalis, located not far from the Theatre of Marcellus. Indeed, Josephus states that the procession marched through the theatres, that they might be the more easily seen by the multitudes. Possibly Josephus refers to the Theatre of Marcellus as well as the smaller Theatre of Balbus, located nearby. Then, the whole procession would have continued through the Velabrum, reaching the Forum Boarium, and then the Circus Maximus. Although Josephus does not specifically mention the Circus Maximus, however, it is probable that the triumphal procession crossed its whole length. Besides, Domitian set there the second triumphal arch, completed in 81 C.E., which celebrated the Jewish War. The fact that the arch was erected there, points to the possibility that the triumphal procession passed through the building. Then, the procession would have circled the Palatine hill, reaching the Via Sacra, or the triumphal avenue. This avenue crossed the forum, ending in front of the Capitoline Hill. Indeed, as we have seen, this was the path followed by the triumphal procession of Julius Caesar. Mary Beard as well as Peter Connolly emphasize that there is no motivation that the triumphal procession held by the Flavians did not pass through the Palatine and the Forum.

No less important is to give a closer look to the order of the procession. According to Peter Connolly, the first part of the procession was opened by the magistrates and the senators. Josephus, however, does not mention nor the magistrates, nor the senators, but he focuses on the soldiers carrying precious objects (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 132-138), who preceded the Jewish captives, dressed in a great variety of garments in fine texture, whose purpose was to conceal their deformities, and probably the wounds and the violence suffered during the fighting and in the aftermath (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 138). These were followed once more by soldiers who displayed paintings, depicting the most important battles, as well as models of the captured cities. All these objects are widely described by Josephus (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 139-147). In the wake of this display, marched the soldiers, who carried the loot coming from the Temple of Jerusalem. The plunder, also depicted on the triumphal arch of Titus, included the Menorah, the golden seven branches lampstand, the show bread table and the trumpets, which were used to announce the coming of the Shabbath, as well as a copy of the Jewish Law (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 148-151). As emphasized by Mary Beard, once more Josephus gives as an exclusive image, which serves to enhance Flavian propaganda, focusing on the opulent loot taken from the Temple. On the other hand, the Jewish historian does not mention the Balsam trees, which were probably one of the main attractions of the ceremony, at least according to Pliny the Elder (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XII.3.2). The loot was followed by chryselephantine statues of Victoria (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 151). The second part of the procession is not described in detail by Josephus. The Jewish historians prefers to provide snapshots, charged with a strong ideological dimension, focusing on the Flavian family and on the end of the ceremony. According to Peter Connolly, this part of the procession was opened by the white sacrificial oxen, which were followed by the two prisoners, Yochanan of Gush Halav and Simon Bar Giora. These were the two Zealots leaders, who directed the defence of Jerusalem, and afterwards surrendered to the Romans. The two prisoners were displayed on a stand carried by soldiers, together with a trophy composed by a set of armor, shields, and weapons taken from the enemy on the battlefield. Josephus, on the other hand, focuses on the Flavians, who closed the triumphal procession (Josephus, Jewish War VII, 152). Thus, the procession was closed by Vespasian, and Titus, riding on a triumphal quadriga, drawn by four horses, and by Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son, riding on a horse.

A 9th century anonymous Christian pilgrim found in the Einsiedeln itineraries suggests that the inscription on the arch of Titus recalls the emperor Titus is celebrated with great flourish as the hero who pulled off the extraordinary endeavour of conquering Jerusalem, after countless others had tried and failed. What did the original inscription read and how is this lesser-known arch different from the Arch that still exists today in the Roman Forums depicting the menorah and its triumphal march?

Samuele Rocca:
The two triumphal arches, the Triumphal Arch on the Velia as well as the Triumphal Arch in the Circus Maximus occupy a special place amongst the buildings erected by the Flavians and associated to the Jewish War. First of all, these structures are the only ones which celebrate the Jewish War directly. These two arches, which commemorated the Flavian defeat of the Jews, are carefully located in a strategic position, in fact emphasizing the military achievements of the new dynasty. Thus, the first arch, located on the Velia stood at the border between the Roman forum, but also in a spot, which dominates the neighboring lower valley, set between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine Hills, where the Flavian Amphitheatre had been erected. Thus, this monument could be spotted from the Coliseum, the Forum, as well as the north eastern edge of the Palatine palace. People going or coming out from the Coliseum to watch games, as well as people going to the forum, still the center of the city, as the Senate House was located there, would have been reminded of the military achievements of Vespasian and Titus.

No less dominant was the second triumphal arch, which was located on the eastern edge of the Circus Maximus. Once more the building dominated the Circus Maximus, till the erection of the Coliseum, most important of all the entertainment buildings of Rome. Therefore, the most important military achievement of the Flavian dynasty, the Jewish War, was omnipresent amongst the masses, when they interacted with the ruler of the oikoumenè, especially during the games.

This triumphal arch, even bigger than the one that stood on the Velia was located on the eastern edge of the Circus Maximus. According to Tonio Hölscher, a fragment of relief postulates the existence of a third arch, possibly located on the processional road towards the forum, yet its existence is purely hypothetical. The existence of this arch, located in the Circus Maximus, was known from the Middle Ages onwards.
The Circus Maximus, located at the feet of the Palatine, was the most important and bigger chariot racing stadium in Rome and could seat an audience of 150.000. It was 621 m long and 118 m large. As the Circus Maximus was the site where the emperor could meet the people of Rome during the ludi, or public games, hold during Rome’s religious festivals, the building assumes a special meaning. In fact, it was there, more than anywhere else, that the people of Rome could together acclaim the emperor and to show him his favor. Besides, as the Circus Maximus was located at the feet of the Palatine, the traditional seat of Imperial power, from Augustus onwards, entirely rebuilt as imperial palace by Domitian, the association between imperial power and the population of Rome was once more emphasized. This highlights the importance of the second arch of Titus, which was, therefore, set in a spot, no less important than the forum.

Also, this arch, completed in 81 C.E., was erected by Domitian, following the death of his brother. The arch took the place of earlier fornix erected by L. Stertinus in 196 B.C.E. The triumphal arch itself was 14 m high and 17 m large. Contrary to the triumphal arch of Titus located on the Velia, the arch on the edge of the Circus Maximus consisted in a central higher and wider arch, flanked by two smaller arches, framed each by a column on each side. The arch was topped by an attic, on which stood an inscription. This arch, as well, was decorated by reliefs. The only remain is a fragment, which depicts a soldier, possibly emphasizing his virtus, or bravery.

The main inscription, which topped the arch, was copied a long time ago. The inscription in Latin was far longer than that of the arch located on the Velia and reads:

“Senatus populusq. Romanus imp. Tito Caesari divi Vespasiani f./Vespasian[o] Augusto pontif. max., trib. pot. X, imp. XVII, [c]os. VIII, / p. p., principi suo, quod praeceptis patr[is] consiliisq. et auspiciis gentem/ ludaeorum domuit et urbem Hierusolymam , omnibus ante se ducibus/ regibus gentibus aut frustra petitam aut omnino intem[p]tatam, delevit.” CIL VI, 944, ILS I, 264, 83.

“The senate and the people of Rome (dedicated this arch) to the emperor Titus, Caesar, son of the divine Vespasian, Augustus, high priest of the Roman state, holder of the tribunician power for the tenth time, (acclaimed) imperator for the seventeenth time, consul for the eighth time, father of the country, their leader, (who), following the orders of his father and the advises of Providence, subjugated the Jewish people and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which had been previously attacked in vain by military leaders, kings, and peoples, who did not succeed in conquering (it).”

As more than once stated, the victory on the Jews served to enhance imperial propaganda. The victory on the Jews, presented as an external enemy, not just as a rebel province, took the place of the celebration of a victory against fellow Romans. In fact, the city of Jerusalem had been, previously, conquered by Pompey in 63 B.C.E., and then, once more by Herod and Sosius in 37 B.C.E., and by Varus in 4 B.C.E. The remaining fragmentary relief, once compared to the inscription, points to the possibility that one of the main thematic of this arch was the bravery of Titus, displayed during the war. Yet, the few fragments make also this assumption hypothetic (Tonio Hölscher, “Rilievi provenienti da monumenti statali del tempo dei Flavi”, in F. Coarelli (ed.), Divus Vespasianus, Il bimillenario dei Flavi, Milano 2009,46-61; Fergus Millar, “Last Year in Jerusalem: Monuments of the Jewish War in Rome,” in J. Edmondson, S. Mason, J. Rives (eds.), Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome, Oxford 2005, 101-128.).

Josephus’s description of the triumphal march remains one of the most important testimonies of Flavian propaganda. How do the “Judea Capta” coins help us understand the ideology of the new ruling family?

Samuele Rocca:
The Judaea Capta coins were a series of commemorative coins originally issued by the Roman Emperor Vespasian to celebrate the capture of Judaea and the destruction of the Jewish Second Temple by his son Titus in 70 CE during the First Jewish Revolt.
There are several variants of the coinage. The coins were struck in gold, silver, and bronze throughout the reigns to be produced during the reign of Vespasian (69-79), Titus (79-81) and at start of Domitian’s. While on the obverse is depicted the head of the emperor, Vespasianus or Titus, on the reverse can be depicted the personification of Judaea seated beneath a palm tree; the victorious emperor and a mourning personification of Judaea; a standing captive Jew and a seated, mourning, Jewess; and a seated, mourning Jewess beside a tropaeum, a pile of arms. Central is the depiction of the palm tree, a symbol of Judaea, that can also be associated to the menorah.

Though the Jews on these coins are depicted as vanquished foes according to the conventions of imperial propaganda, the males are also show as brave and manly adversaries and the women as chaste. Thus, the Judaea Capta coins effectively spread the news of Rome’s triumph to all social strata of Roman society both within Italy and the provinces. As with the monuments built in the center of Rome, the Judaea Capta coins were an important instrument of imperial propaganda. These coins, thus, helped to celebrate and highlight the brutal repression of the rebellion of Judaea, a small province of the Roman empire, which was presented by imperial propaganda as a war of first magnitude on a foreign enemy, almost echoing Augustus’s triumph on Cleopatra and the Parthians, also celebrated on coins and with the erection of triumphal arches in the Roman forum. The celebration of a victorious war on the “other”, the foreigner, served the purposes of imperial propaganda, to downplay the annihilation of Vespasian’s political enemies, during the civil war, and the instauration of a new regime, with a clear-cut autocratic character (Ya’akov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba (Jerusalem: Yad ben-Zvi, 2001): 185-191; Jane M. Cody, “Conquerors and Conquered on Flavian Coins,” in Flavian Rome, Culture, Image, Text. Edited by Anthony, J. Boyle, William J. Dominik (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2003): 103-124.); Samuele Ranucci, “La monetazione dei Flavi. Caratteri generali e aspetti tipologici”, in Divus Vespasianus, Il bimillenario dei Flavi, Edited by Filippo Coarelli (Milano: Mondadori-Electa, 2009): 358-367).

The Arch of Titus is indeed a dynastic monument in which Vespasian’s and Titus’ achievements ultimately serve to give prominence to Domitian who, in fact, built it. Was the arch the work of Rabirius, the architect who designed the Domitian’s palace (Domus Augustana) on the Palatine?

Samuele Rocca:
The Triumphal arch of Titus was maybe a work of Rabirius, the architect who designed the Domus Augustana, Domitian’s palace on the Palatine.  Josephus describes in the seventh book of War (Josephus, War VII.119-162), the triumphal ceremony of Titus. The present arch was finished in 82 CE, during the reign of Domitian. Yet, it is probable that its work was begun sometimes before, during the rule of his brother Titus. The fact that by the completion of the arch Titus was already dead is made clear by the depiction of the apotheosis depicted on the ceiling of the archway and by the inscription set on the western attic.

The arch measures 13.50 meters wide, 15.40 high, and 4.75 deep. The building, which follows the scheme of the traditional Roman triumphal arch, is characterized by the presence of two great piers joined by an archway, which is crowned with a flat entablature, the attic. Each façade is framed by an engaged and fluted Corinthian column, standing on a square pedestal. The capitals of these columns are the earliest examples of the composite style. The upper attic is framed by four piers on the corners.

The surviving inscription, “the Roman senate and people (dedicate this arch) to the divine Titus Vespasianus Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian”, is set on the western attic.  The inscription is very important, as in its brevity and conciseness; it conveys the main ideals of Flavian imperial ideology. First, the fact that the Senate and the people of Rome dedicated the arch, emphasizes the legitimacy of the new dynasty, which, in fact, won the supreme authority over Rome after a vicious civil war. Besides, the inscription also hints to two other important facets of the Flavian ideology, mainly the ideals of providentia and concordia. Providence had chosen Vespasian as ruler, as he could provide heirs, thus, giving to the empire a future of concord and prosperity. Thus, the close family ties between the Flavian rulers, are emphasized. More, than that. Titus, already divine, is portrayed as the son of the divine Vespasian. Thus, both father and son, divine, add to the legitimacy of Domitian, who in fact completed the arch.

The attic of the arch was originally crowned by more statuary, perhaps a gilded chariot. In the spandrels there are winged Victories. The two Victoriae, the goddess of victory, serve to emphasize one of the most tangible benefits of the Roman Empire, military victory. The south panel depicts the spoils taken from the Jerusalem Temple. The seven-branched Menorah is the main focus and is carved in deep relief. Other sacred objects, spoils taken from the Temple, being carried in the triumphal procession are the Table of Showbread, and the silver trumpets. These spoils were likely originally colored in gold, with the background in blue. In 2012 the Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project, under the leadership of Professor Steven Fine of the Yeshiva University, discovered remains of yellow ochre paint on the menorah relief. The north panel depicts Titus riding on the quadriga, during his triumph. A winged Victory crowns him with a laurel wreath. A helmeted Amazon like figure, the personification of Virtus, leads the quadriga. On the background there is a procession of various personages, lictores, who carry fasces as well as animals being led to sacrifice. Titus is assisted by the Genius of the senate and that of the Roman people.

As well emphasized by Mary Beard, the “documentary realism of the panel is framed by idealizing fantasy” (Beard, Mary, The Roman Triumph, Cambridge (Mass.), Belknap Press 2009). Indeed, as highlighted by Diane Kleiner (Kleiner, Diane E.E., Roman Sculpture, Yale University Press, New Haven (Conn.) 1984, 183-189) the two central panels, which focus on Titus and on the spoils taken from the Temple of Jerusalem depict together human and divine characters. This depiction makes clear, that contrary to the portrait of the triumphal procession dressed by Josephus, here, the artist did not choose to depict a definite historical episode. Thus, the reliefs serve to make a general statement of power, highlighting the figure of Titus, but still with an emphasis on the majesty of the Roman Empire and on the invincibility of Rome. This, of course, mirrors Josephus’s statement at the beginning of his description of the Flavian triumph, in which he declares that the purpose of the main triumph is to enhance the dignity and magnificence of Rome (Josephus, WarVII.132-133). Besides, the depiction of the spoils taken from the Jerusalem Temple, and the depiction of Titus riding on the quadriga during his triumph can be compared to two passages in Josephus’s description of the Flavian Triumph, which are possibly the two main descriptive elements of the whole episode. Once we consider Josephus’s passage, which describes the loot taking from the Temple of Jerusalem, and we compare it to the southern panel, we find many similarities (Josephus, BJ VII.148-150). Also the relief focuses on the depiction of the seven-branched Menorah, which is the main focus of the panel. Other sacred objects depicted, spoils taken from the Temple, being carried in the triumphal procession are the Table of Showbread, and the silver trumpets, also mentioned by Josephus. Only the Torah Scroll is lacking. Each object was identified by a placard. Indeed, the depiction of the menorah is the key element, once we wish to correlate the text of Josephus to the relief. Therefore, the close correspondence between the object described by Josephus and the one depicted on the relief must be emphasized. Also, the successive passage, in which Josephus focuses on the imperial family, can be compared to the northern panel, which depicts Titus riding on the quadriga, during his triumph (Josephus, BJVII.151-152). Josephus as well as the relief focus on the image of Victoria and on Titus, riding on a quadriga. Yet, there are important differences. In Josephus’s text, the image of Victoria precedes and do not follow the Flavian family. Besides, there is another apparent difference. Nor Vespasian, probably riding on a second quadriga, nor Domitian, riding on a horse is depicted. As made clear by the inscription, Titus and not Vespasian was the main protagonist.

The Arch of Titus , June 2022
( Photography by Brenda Lee Bohen)
About the Author
Brenda is a Latina and a proud Veteran of the United States Army Reserves. She holds dual citizenship in both the United States and Italy. She is a trained historic preservationist who tirelessly advocates the scholarship and history of the Jews of Rome. She has her certification in Jewish leadership and continues advanced studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Brenda is also a licensed and accredited tour guide at the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Vatican Museums.