Posted by: ken98 | November 12, 2009

The (very) Embarrassing Arch of Constantine

Day 62 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.14, pp.420-430)

Well, it’s late again, but I struggle on with the first volume. Gibbon is becoming like an old, importunate friend: familiar and funny, visiting late without calling first and often times inconveniently, but in the end a very welcome break from the tedium of daily routines and habits. It’s always good to get these posts done and published, but more fun to plow through Gibbon’s text and discover the parts that excite me and get me interested in history again.

Unfortunately, a small side effect is a slight tendency I’ve been noticing for my writing style to slip back a couple of centuries to Gibbon’s now-familiar voice – a poor imitation I’m sure of his rolling, melodious prose –

Enough of me – on with the wars – – –

We are still deep in the civil wars following Diocletian’s abdication, and later death. The events are less chaotic and extravagant, the remaining players contending for the prize of sole rule over the Roman empire are becoming fewer and fewer and more cautious and devious. Constantine waits and strikes carefully like all the others.

Civil War against Maxentius. When last we looked at Constantine in Britain and Gaul, he was preparing for war against his fellow emperor Maxentius in Italy. That leaves the other emperors Licinius and Maximinian Daia in the East standing and watching.

The Story

  • Maxentius assembles army/stores in Italy for war 170,000 foot, 18,000 horse (312)
  • Constantine assembles army/stores in France (Gaul) for war 90,000 foot, 8,000 horse (312)
  • Const. marches into Italy (40,000 soldiers) crosses Alps (Mt Cenis)
  • Battle of Susa, Const. wins easily, saving town
  • Battle of Turin, Const wins Max. loses an army, Milan and N. Italy recognize Const. as their emperor
  • Battle of Verona, Const. wins Max. loses 2nd army
  • Famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Const. wins (10-28-312)
  • Const. converted to Christianity by winning the battle of the Milvian Bridge (Gibbon goes into greater detail in chapter 15)
  • Rome accepts Constantine as emperor in Maxentius stead
  • Constantine raises very poor Triumphal Arch to celebrate his victory
  • Constantine finally abolishes forever the Praetorian Guard, disarming the capital permanently
  • Constantine makes a voluntary, large “victory gift” by Roman senators into a permanent Roman tax
  • Constantine only visits Rome 2 more times – on his 10th and 20th years of his reign – the capital is now a political backwater (its teeth pulled militarily and administratively by Constantine – a course followed by future emperors)

    A Historical Thought from the Author
    I’ve been thinking about Constantine and this, the 1st decade of the 21st century, and there seem to me to be a lot of parallels. In many respects we are at the same place in world history as Constantine found himself in the early 300’s. The past is becoming increasingly meaningless, and we don’t know anymore where we are heading to so rapidly and earnestly. Something new is being born, but no one is sure quite what – the old rules don’t seem to apply as directly as they once did, the new rules are still being written. I’ll circle back to this thought in the days and weeks to come.

    A Note on Gibbon and Christianity
    For a historian with his strong reputation of anti-Christian leanings (at least in terms of Christianity as a state church), Gibbon is strangely and perfectly silent about persecutions, church politics, and the Roman state. This will be rectified in the long chapters to follow on the history of Christianity(15 and 16) which complete his first volume (published 1776) of the Decline and Fall. The two aforesaid chapters drew a firestorm of protest.

    The Embarrassing Triumphal Arch of Constantine
    The triumphal Arch of Constantine is a sad (or happy, depending on your point of view) sign of the times – the waning of Classical civilization and the hesitant entrance of another kind of civilization.

    Constantine's Triumphal Arch - with embarassing workmanship and sculptures stolen from other emperor's arches

    Constantine's Triumphal Arch - with embarrassing workmanship and sculptures stolen from other emperor's arches

    The workmanship is appalling, and a third of the sculptures were STOLEN from previous emperors’ triumphal arches (Trajan’s, Hadrian’s and Marcus Aurelius’). What must these older arches have looked like after their friezes and statuary had been removed? They were still there, standing in the city. What city or citizens would allow this to happen to sacred political monuments (an interesting question with a more interesting answer)?

    Arch of Constantine showing pieces stolen from other monuments - fully a third - and nonsensical choices also - emperors from only 150 years before are turning into myths before our eyes

    Arch of Constantine showing pieces stolen from other monuments - fully a third - and nonsensical choices also - emperors from only 150 years before are turning into myths before our eyes

    The form and general idea of a triumph still exists, but the purpose, justification and spirit of a triumph are now hazy and foggy, if understood at all. We are fast approaching the time when the ruins of classical cities will be solemnly (and officially) ascribed to demons or giants. Popular culture is moving on and becoming something else other than the Classical World – i.e. it is becoming the Middle Ages, the beginning of modern Europe and the end of Rome and Antiquity.

    This is especially true with a christian emperor celebrating a pagan ritual in stone (a triumph), entering a capital city which is no longer used as the capital of anything, and having artists and engineers construct objects they no longer quite understand (and don’t really want to understand).

    Gibbon on the Arch of Constantine
    “The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded. The Parthian captives appear prostrate at the feet of a prince who never carried his arms beyond the Euphrates, and curious antiquarians can still discover the head of Trajan on the trophies of Constantine. The new ornaments which it was necessary to introduce between the vacancies of ancient sculpture, are executed in the rudest and most unskillful manner.” (DEF ch.14, p.428).

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