It helps to have small binoculars with you. Only then can you really make out the reliefs. Bluffton University has three pages with excellent images of the arch of Constantine. Click here for Wikipedia.
At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (Molle), emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius (click here for Wikipedia). As a token of his gratitude, Constantine commissioned a triumphal arch in 315. One year after their victory over Maxentius, the Christians received their freedom to religion with the 313 Milan Edict. The Christians owed this in part to a vision by the emperor before he defeated his opponent Maxentius. In a dream, he saw a cross at heaven with the maxim: ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’, in this sign shallt thou conquer. In reality, archeological research revealed the arch to have been built 200 years earlier, in the days of Hadrianus.
As explained, triumphal arches were a great way for the emperor to spread his propaganda. This is precisely what Constantine does, to demonstrate that he bestows gifts to the people. The text on the arch also reveals why Constantine had this triumphal arch built.
IMPERATORI CAESARI FLAVIO CONSTANTINO MAXIMOPIO FELICI AVGVSTO SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVQVOD INSTINCTV DIVINITATIS MENTIS
MAGNITVDINE CVM EXERCITV SVO
TAM DE TYRANNO QVAM DE OMNI EIVS
FACTIONE VNO TEMPORE IVSTIS
REMPVBLICAM VLTVS EST ARMIS
ARCVM TRIVMPHIS INSIGNEM DICAVIT
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.
The front and back have the same inscription.
Source: Wikipedia (Dutch) and Wikipedia English
The remarkable thing is that for the first time, a style is sculpted that announce the Christian Middle-Ages. The themes are however anything but Christian. For instance, it shows reliefs of sacrifices to the heathen gods like Diana and Hercules. Constantine only baptised himself as a Christian twenty-two years after building this arch.
Southern side red Trajan, blue Hadrian green Marcus Aurelius:
4. Victory and the prisoners (south or north?)
5. River Gods (spandrals)
6. Victory of Verona (frieze)
7. Battle at the Milvian bridge (frieze)
8. Hadrian leaves for hunt (portrait by Constantine)
9. Hadrian sacrifices to Silvanus (Licinius’ portrait)
10. Winged victories (spandrals)
11. Hadrian hunting bears (portrait Constantine)
12. Hadrian sacrifices to Diana (right)
13. Four images of Dacians
14. Barbaric king presented to Constantine (left)
15. Prisoners in the presence of Marcus Aurelius (right)
16. Speech by Aurelius to his army (left)
17. Sacrifice by Marcus Aurelius (right)
A. Inscription devoted to Constantine
B. Battle against the Dacians
C. Arrival of Trajan in Rome
21. Victory and barbarian prisoners plinths front and side
22. River Gods (spandrals)
23. Constantine speaks to the people at the rostra frieze
24. Constantine hands over gifts at the forum Caesar frieze
25. Hadrian hunts boars (left)
26. Hadrian sacrifices to Apollo (right)
28. Hadrian lion hunting (right)
29. Hadrian sacrifices to multiple gods (left)
30. Four Dacians
31. Arrival Aurelius in Rome (left)
32. Marcus Aurelius Aurelius leaves Rome for a battle (right)
33. Aurelius hands gifts to the people (left)
34. Surrender king of the barbarians (right)
A. Inscription devoted to Constantine
Most reliefs on the arch of Constantine were taken from other imperial triumphal arches, including those of Hadrianus, Marcus Aurelius and Trajanus. The sculptors were tasked with removing the heads of these emperors and replacing them with the head of Constantine (n. 8 and 11). We’ll notice a world of difference between the style from Constantine’s days and the reliefs of the other emperors.
After the year 300, sculpting as an art was barely able to depict figures and landscapes naturalistically. There are but a handful of reliefs from the days of Constantine. Only the friezes directly above the small arches and the medals on the narrow sides hail from the early 4th century (numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 18, 19, 23 and 24). The manner in which the sculpture was performed at the friezes (numbers: 1, 6, 7, 18, 23 en 24) has nothing to do with classical art anymore.
The small figures were placed rather unnaturally in an architectonic frame. When you look at the folds, which is only possibly with a binocular, you’ll see that they’re but shallow grooves that are hardly convincing. The heads and bodies of the sculpted people are far from realistic, but rather schematic indications. Moreover, the arrangement of the figures was determined via a strict hierarchy. Constantine is right in the centre and towers above anything else. Even with Constantine now having lost his head.
Very different when compared to the two medals from the early 2nd century above this frieze, where Hadrianus is seen hunting and sacrificing to Hercules. The manner in which sculptors from the days of Constantine shaped their design will become dominant in the Middle Ages. It was no longer around portraying things realistically, but to convey the divine message, a Christian one, to the viewer. Precisely as we’ve seen this Saturday afternoon in the Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura at the 7th century apse mosaic.
We now walk to the Colosseum. In this amphitheatre, gladiators fought for eternal glory or their lives. It is here where criminals and Christians faced a gruesome death.