In this page:
Arco di Costantino
Tempio di Venere e Roma
Terme di Tito
Terme di Traiano (including Sette Sale)
In the previous page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
- The Building
- Gladiatorial Games and Venationes
- Decadence and Ruin
Among the triumphal arches, that of Constantine is not only the noblest of
any in Rome, but in the world. I searched narrowly into it, especially among those additions of sculpture made in the emperor's
own age, to see if I could find any marks of the apparition, that is said to have preceded the very victory which gave occasion to the
triumphal arch. But there are not the least traces of it to be met with, which is not very strange, if we consider that the greatest part
of the ornaments were taken from Trajan's arch, and set up to the new conqueror in no small haste, by the senate and people of
Rome, who were then most of them Heathens. There is however something in the inscription, which is as old as the arch itself,
which seems to hint at the emperor's Vision.
Joseph Addison - Remarks on several parts of Italy, in the years 1701, 1702, 1703
Arco di Costantino was most likely built for a previous emperor of the IIIrd century. It was renovated and dedicated to Emperor Constantine to celebrate his visit to Rome in 315 and his 312 victory at the Battle of Ponte Milvio against Maxentius. The inscription makes reference to Constantine's instinctu divinitatis mentis (foreknowing the will of the gods); this was viewed by early Christian historians as a confirmation of Constantine's vision of a shining cross in the sky the day before the battle.
The arts of sculpture and of painting continued up to the end of the twelve Caesars (i.e. until Emperor Domitian), they did not, however, continue in that perfection and excellence which they had enjoyed before, for it may be seen from the edifices that the Emperors built in succession one after the other that these arts, decaying from one day to another, were coming little by little to lose their whole perfection of design. And to this clear testimony is borne by the works of sculpture and of architecture that were wrought in the time of Constantine in Rome, and in particular the triumphal arch raised for him by the Roman people near the Colosseum, wherein it is seen that in default of good masters they not only made use of marble groups made at the time of Trajan, but also of the spoils brought from various places to Rome. And whosoever knows that the votive offerings in the medallions, that is, the sculptures in half-relief, and likewise the prisoners, and the large groups, and the columns, and the mouldings, and the other ornaments, whether made before or from spoils, are excellently wrought, knows also that the works which were made to fill up by the sculptors of that time are of the rudest, as also are certain small groups with little figures in marble below the medallions, and the lowest base wherein there are certain victories, and certain rivers between the arches at the sides, which are very rude and so made that it can be believed most surely that by that time the art of sculpture had begun to lose something of the good.
Giorgio Vasari - Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects - preface - transl. by Gaston Du C. De Vere - 1913
Most of the decoration of the arch comes from previous monuments to Emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. There had been two major fires in Rome in 283 and 307 and it is possible that these monuments were badly affected by them. Four marble panels depicting scenes of the Dacian wars were taken from Basilica Ulpia. They show the same high level of workmanship as that of the reliefs of Colonna Traiana and of Arco di Traiano at Benevento.
Reliefs on the northern side of the arch (from a monument to Emperor Hadrian): (left) a sacrifice to Hercules; the young man on the left is perhaps Antinous, the favourite of the Emperor, who was known for his curly hair; (right) a sacrifice to Apollo; the man on the left is perhaps the Emperor, although one would expect him to be portrayed nearer the statue of Apollo
The fame of Trajan is associated with his military successes, that of Hadrian with a long period of peace; the eight round reliefs which were taken from a (lost) arch to that emperor, depict scenes of hunting and of sacrifices; in some of them the head of Hadrian was modified in order to portray Constantine (Hadrian had a light beard, Constantine was clean-shaven).
(left) Reliefs on the northern side of the arch (from a monument celebrating Emperor Marcus Aurelius): a) the emperor distributes money to the poor; b) surrender of an enemy (see a similar relief on Colonna Antonina); (far right) Musei Capitolini: broken statue of a Dacian prisoner which stood on the arch. It was replaced by a copy by Pietro Bracci who in 1732 restored the other seven statues
Eight rectangular reliefs came from a (lost) arch to Emperor Marcus Aurelius built by his son Commodus. It was situated near SS. Luca e Martina where three other reliefs were found in 1515. In the reliefs on the arch the head of the emperor was modified because Marcus Aurelius had curly hair and an elaborate beard.
The eight statues of Dacian prisoners at the sides of these reliefs came from Foro di Traiano.
Of many triumphal arches which stood
formerly in Rome, there are only three now
remaining, all of them near the Capitol,
and forming entries to the Forum; those
of Titus, Septimius Severus, and Constantine. The last is by much the finest of the
three; but its chief beauties are not genuine,
nor, properly speaking, its own; they consist
of some admirable basso relievos, stolen from
the Forum of Trajan, and representing
that Emperor's victories over the Dacians.
This theft might, perhaps, not have been
so notorious to posterity, if the artists of
Constantine's time had not added some
figures, which make the fraud apparent,
and, by their great inferiority, evince the
degeneracy of the arts in the interval between the reigns of these two Emperors.
John Moore - A View of Society and Manners in Italy - 1781
The decoration of the arch was completed with reliefs made for the occasion and depicting events of the 312 campaign against Maxentius (two reliefs can be seen in the historical section of this website). It is interesting to observe that two round reliefs were dedicated to the Sun and the Moon; these were not very common themes for the decoration of a Roman monument celebrating an emperor, but Constantine was a devotee of Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun), a belief which was very popular among his soldiers too.
(above) Central section of a relief portraying Constantine delivering a speech from the Rostra; (below) central and right section of a relief portraying Constantine distributing subsidies to the poor (a detail of which can be seen in the image used as background for this page); officers booking the payments are depicted in the boxes
The fašade of the Rostra is represented on a relief of the arch of Constantine: from this picture it is clear that the balustrade had an opening in the middle, possibly so that a staircase could be placed there, leading down into the Forum, on the occasion of some of the great ceremonies of State which took place on the Rostra. The same representation shows honorary statues at the corners of the facade. (..) The columns with statues, which are visible on the relief, stood either on the platform of the Rostra or behind it on the Clivus Capitolinus.
Christian HŘlsen - The Roman Forum, its history and its monuments - 1909
The two seated statues portray Marcus Aurelius (left) and Hadrian (right) and those at the top of the columns most likely the Tetrarchs. Some of the features of these reliefs, e.g. the frontal depiction of the Emperor, the hierarchical and symbolic representation of the figures, the use of the drill, etc, anticipate those of Byzantine art (see some mosaics at Ravenna and some capitals at Philippi).
Reliefs in the lower part of the arch which resemble those of Arco di Settimio Severo, but are more flattened
Little sculpture was produced in the Byzantine Empire. The most frequent use of sculpture was in small relief carvings in ivory, used for book covers, reliquary boxes, and similar objects which became fashionable already in the IVth century. Today art historians have abandoned the concept of "decline of the art" which, beginning with Vasari and until the mid of the XXth century, considered the reliefs of the time of Constantine as unworthy of attention.
Illustration from "S. Russell Forbes - Rambles in Rome - 1887" showing also Arco di Tito
Popular tradition narrates that the gladiators used to wash here after combat: it is certainly possible, but not very probable, that they would come outside to wash at an open fountain. Forbes
The site of Meta Sudante (yellow dot); the fiberglass columns on the terrace of Tempio di Venere e Roma were erected for a special event
The plate shows the ruin of Meta Sudante, a Roman fountain, in front of Arco di Costantino. In 1936 it was pulled down to allow military parades to go through the arch. The fountain had a conical shape which resembled that of metae, conical poles at turning points of a Roman circus (see a small example at Cuicul in Algeria). It was built by Emperor Domitian. It was not a spouting fountain, but a "sweating" one (It. sudante): water slid on its surface. In the XVIth century Pirro Ligorio designed two sweating fountains at Villa d'Este.
The site of Meta Sudante and that of Tempio di Claudio on the hill in the background
In the same Monastery (S. Maria Nova), next to the Coliseum stands a great Arch (in the Italian text: Nicchione), under which as they were digging, they lighted upon a great Street (in the Italian text: Platea / Piazza), pav'd with greenish Marble, and what is wonderful, these Stones were thirteen Spans in Length, nine in Breadth, and three in Thickness. (..) Here is much casing of yellow Alabaster, and tho' there were Niches for Statues in the same Place, yet no Sign of any Statue remain'd, because it is likely they had been stoln.
Flaminio Vacca - Memorie di varie antichitÓ trovate in diversi luoghi della cittÓ di Roma - 1594
Templum Isidis & Serapidis sive Solis & Lunae now S. Maria nuova. The present Church is no part of the old Temple, nor built exactly upon the place where it stood: but behind the Cloyster are some part of the ruines of the old Temple still remaining.
John Ray - Observations topographical, etc. made in a journey through (..) Italy; publ. in 1673.
Nardinus (Famiano Nardini - Roma Antica - 1666) affirms the Temple of Venus and Rome was that same Heap of Ruins now to be seen in the Gardens of St. Mary Nova but he who hesitates at almost every Monument, seems here to be positive without any ground. (..) What those Arches, which are still standing in the Orchard of St. Mary Nova might be is uncertain. Some will have them to have been the Temples of Piety and Concord, others those of Isis and Serapis, but upon slight conjecture.
The Travels of the Learned Father Montfaucon from Paris thro' Italy - 1712
Vasi showed the eastern apse of Tempio di Venere e Roma near the right margin of the plate and he described it as "ancient ruin in the yard of S. Maria Nova" aka S. Francesca Romana. At the time the origin of the ancient building was uncertain.
The foundation stone was laid on the birthday of Rome, April 21, a. d. 131, and the dedication solemnized in 135. Antonio Nibby, who led the excavations of the temple from November, 1827, to December, 1829, found many brick stamps of 123, and a few of 124. (..) Nibby says that the bed of rubbish immediately above the antique pavement was composed of architectural fragments, split and charred; that he found in 1810 a lime-kiln near the Arch of Titus, bordered by pieces of precious columns of porphyry - a material refractory to fire - and filled with sculptured fragments; and that, while restoring the church of S. Francesca in 1828 and 1829, he found the walls built with pieces of marble.
Rodolfo Lanciani - The ruins and excavations of ancient Rome - 1897
Side of the temple which was dedicated to Venus
With the aid of the architect Decrianus he raised the Colossus and, keeping it in an upright position, moved it away from the place in which the Temple of Rome is now, though its weight was so vast that he had to furnish for the work as many as twenty-four elephants. This statue he then consecrated to the Sun, after removing the features of Nero, to whom it had previously been dedicated.
Historiae Augustae - Life of Hadrian
The identification of the ruins with the Temple of Venus and Rome was consistent with historical accounts of the life of Emperor Hadrian who was personally involved in its design.
(left) The walls of the two apses; (right) western apse (it can now be accessed via "Museo del Foro" inside the cloister of the convent)
He sent Apollodorus the plan of the temple of Venus and Roma by way of showing him that a great work could be accomplished without his aid, and asked him whether the proposed structure was satisfactory. The architect in his reply stated, first, in regard to the temple, that it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement, so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the theatre without anyone's being aware of them beforehand. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. "For now," he said, "if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so." When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man. Cassius Dio - Roman History - Loeb Classical Library edition, 1925
Porphyry columns in the western side of the temple and niches which housed statues
The temple was made up of two identical back-to-back buildings facing the Roman Forum and Colosseo. The dedication to Venus of one of the two temples was due to the role of the goddess in the history of Rome. She was the mother of Aeneas, whose descendants founded the city. Another temple to Venus stood in Foro di Cesare.
The two temples were placed on a large artificial terrace (it measures 100x145 metres / 109x159 yds) and they were surrounded by more than a hundred grey granite columns. The building was damaged by fire at the beginning of the IVth century and it was repaired by Maxentius, (also his basilica was decorated with porphyry columns).
(left) A fragment of the marble architrave with an egg-and-dart decorative motif which can be seen also in another temple built by Hadrian in Rome and in one he built at Termessus; (right) detail of the stucco niche
At the extremity of each cella was a large niche, as is
seen, for the reception of the statue of each divinity; and
ancient medals represent both as seated. (..) The medals represent
Venus holding in her right hand a Victory, and in
her left a spear, and Rome with a globe in her right,
and a spear in her left hand (see a Renaissance personification of Rome). The side walls of the cella
had niches, as is still seen, which were adorned with
statues; and the intervals between the niches were decorated with porphyry columns, fragments of which have
been found on the spot. We still admire the beauty of
the vaulted ceilings overhanging the vacant shrines of
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1842
The statue of the deity was placed in a gigantic niche, the decoration of which inspired many artists (see Francesco Salvi's niche in Fontana di Trevi and the portico of Palazzo Massimi).
Archaeological Park of Colle Oppio which includes the ruin of Domus Aurea (see its entrance)
After one of the most damaging fires (64 AD) ever occurred in Rome, Emperor Nero redesigned some parts of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill.
The Emperor was suspected of having set fire to Rome to enlarge his residence, which actually he expanded
by including parts of the Esquiline and Caelian hills in it. This vast area became a large villa, with small woods, fountains, gardens and a pond at its centre. Nero built a large pavilion overlooking the pond on the first slopes of the Esquiline; it was known as Domus Aurea (Golden House) and it was damaged by fire in 104.
In 111 Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect of Foro di Traiano, filled Domus Aurea with earth from the excavation of Velia, a hill which he levelled to the ground to make room for the forum. Apollodorus reinforced the walls of the pavilion and used them as foundations for the baths he built for Emperor Trajan.
Domus Aurea was discovered and "excavated" in the early XVIth century. The site was visited by many artists, including Pinturicchio, Raphael and Michelangelo, who found inspiration in the decoration of its halls (grotesque after Italian grotta, because these underground large spaces resembled caves). You may wish to see a page on The Vanishing Frescoes of Nero's Golden House.
Terme di Tito
Emperor Vespasian came to power one year after Nero was forced to commit suicide; in order to gain the favour of the
Senate and popular support he built Colosseo on the site of the pond; so what was meant to give pleasure to the sole emperor, became the venue devoted to the entertainment of the Romans.
The baths of Nero's villa were slightly modified and were opened to the public by Emperor Titus, his son. Their remains stand opposite the northern side of Colosseo.
Museo Pio-Clementino: Laocoon and his two sons. The group was found in 1506 near Domus Aurea, but it most likely decorated the baths of Titus (see an ancient head of Ulysses which was found at Sperlonga and a XVIIth century head which both resemble that of Laoco÷n)
Laoco÷n, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, is a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvellous folds.
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book 34 - Translation by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley.
Though the statues that have been found among the ruins of old Rome are already very numerous, there is no question but posterity will have the pleasure of seeing many noble pieces of sculpture which are still undiscovered, for, doubtless, there are greater treasures of this nature under ground than what are yet brought to light. They have often dug into lands that are described in old authors, as the places where such particular statues and obelisks stood, and have seldom failed of success in their pursuits. There are still many such promising spots of ground that have never been searched into. (..) I was shown two spaces of ground, where part of Nero's Golden House stood, for which the owner has been offered an extraordinary sum of money. What encouraged the undertakers, are several very ancient trees which grow upon the spot, from whence they conclude that these particular tracts of ground must have lain untouched for some ages. Addison
View of Terme di Traiano (which at the time were called Terme di Tito) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1756)
The etching indicates with (A) the walls of Domus Aurea supporting (E) a large exedra at the southern end of the baths; (C) are large niches at the four corners of the garden surrounding the baths; (D) are buildings of the baths and or of its palestrae. Piranesi was very effective in depicting the overall plan of the baths, considering that his bird's eye view was taken from an imaginary point.
On November 18, 1786. With the
varieties of stone, of which all the great edifices, whether old
or new are built, Tischbein has made himself perfectly acquainted;
he has thoroughly studied them, and his studies have been
greatly helped by his artistic eye, and the artist's pleasure in
sensible things. (..) There are opportunities enough here for my collecting many more specimens. In our way to the ruins of Nero's
palace (Terme di Traiano), we passed through some artichoke grounds newly
turned up, and we could not resist the temptation to cram
our pockets full of the granite, porphyry, and marble slabs
which lie here by thousands, and serve as unfailing witnesses
to the ancient splendour of the walls which were once
covered with them.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbeth
In 1936 in the frame of the changes made to the area surrounding Colosseo, a large avenue was opened accross the remaining ancient buildings. While it provides a spectacular approach to the amphitheatre it rather confuses the viewer who sees ruins of the baths on both sides of the avenue.
The whole of this region, - comprehending all that remains of the residence of the emperors, and the golden house of Nero, - is now a desert, full of ruins, and fragments of temples, and baths, - presenting an awful picture of fallen greatness. The spot is beautiful, and commands a fine view of Rome. The soil seems rich, if one may judge from the crops of cabbages and artichokes, which it is now made to produce. Great part, however, of this vast tract is covered with wild brush-wood, where you may easily lose yourself if you will.
Henry Matthews - Diary of an Invalid - 1817/1818
By the end of the eighteenth century most of these ruins had been destroyed, and the principal remains now visible belong to the exedrae at the north-east and south-west corners.
Samuel Ball Platner, Thomas Ashby - A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome - 1929
Rear side of the south-western exedra
The period from Trajan to the first Antonines, marks a decided improvement in the solidity of the work. The angles and arches are built of bricks, and the wall itself is strengthened by horizontal bands of the same material. (..) The extensive warehouses of Ostia, the substructures of the Thermae Traianae, Hadrian's villa near Tibur, the inner harbor and docks at Porto, and a hundred contemporary edifices, are built in this manner. Lanciani
The south-western exedra is thought to have been a library. Its walls and those of the other buildings of the baths were faced with marbles.
Ruin of buildings which were part of the baths, most likely the wall of a palaestra and the apse of a hall
No account of their construction is to be found in classics, except in a brief passage of Pausanias, where the baths "which bear Trajan's name," are placed at the head, of the list of his works. When the statues of the gods were removed from the temples, in which divine honors had been paid to them, and distributed among the state buildings of Rome as simple works of art, the Baths of Trajan received their full share at the hands of Julius Felix Campanianus, prefect of the city at the beginning of the fifth century. Lanciani
The inscription which was found in 1670 D(is) M(anibus) / Iulius Felix Campanianus / v(ir) c(larissimus) praefectus urbis / ad augendam t(h)ermarum / Traianarum gratiam collocavit is today dated ca 470 and is particularly interesting because it retains the customary pagan dedication to the spirits of the dead.
The history of the destruction of this noble edifice, as I have been able to reconstruct it from documents preserved in Roman archives, would fill a volume. The monks of S. Pietro in Vinculis are responsible for it: they sold the marbles to lime-burners, the bricks to master masons, and allowed excavators to tear up the foundations of the frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium. While the architects of the sixteenth century were still able to draw their plan and design their shape without difficulty, very little is now left standing above ground. (..) These few remains, a perfect specimen of Roman brickwork of the golden age of Apollodorus, are well taken care of, and appear to great advantage in their frame of evergreens. Lanciani
Rear side of the north-eastern exedra
The wide use of circular walls, vaults and coffered domes which characterizes the baths led to the design of the rotunda of the Pantheon and of many large brick mausoleums of the Late Empire e.g. those of Helena and Costanza in the environs of Rome and that of Galerius at Thessalonica. See a simple page on Roman construction techniques.
Building not oriented in line with the baths
HŘlsen points out that the placing of the calidarium in such a position as to give it as much of the sun's heat as possible, by orientating the building from north-west to south- east, was a most important innovation, which was followed in subsequent edifices of the kind. Platner & Ashby
Students are allowed to visit the beautiful grounds. If they wish to single out the various remains which they contain, they must remember that the Domus Aurea (and the Baths of Titus) were "oriented" on the meridian line, while the axis of the Baths of Trajan diverges towards the east by 30░. Lanciani
The remains of a building near the north-eastern exedra is thought to have belonged to the Domus Aurea because its orientation is consistent with that of Nero's house.
The Villa Field contains also the magnificent reservoir, known by the name of Le Capoccie or the Sette Sale, divided into nine compartments by eight parallel walls. The nine sections communicate by means of four openings through the cross-walls, placed not opposite each other but diagonally, so as to prevent the violent rush of the water from one receptacle to the next. The reservoir seems to have been kept in use, first for the baths of Titus, and afterwards for those of Trajan. Lanciani
A series of cisterns provided a constant and controlled supply of water; of these cisterns seven were never covered by vegetation or other buildings. You may wish to see the etching by Piranesi showing their interior (it opens in another window).
(left) A small lodge which was built on the site of the "frigidarium"; (right) a small round building of the baths
The baths designed by Apollodorus set a pattern which was followed for the construction of Caracalla's and Diocletian's baths and for many other similar complexes throughout the empire (e.g. those of Carthage and Leptis Magna); they included other facilities (e.g. libraries and areas for physical exercise) in addition to the baths; they were all placed inside a walled garden.
Return to page one.
Next plate in Book 2: Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano.
Next step in Day 1 itinerary: Chiesa di S. Clemente.
Next step in your tour of Rione Monti: Villa Altieri.
Next step in your tour of Rione Campitelli: Casino Fini.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Su questa piazza eravi anticamente un sasso che dicevasi scelerato; perchŔ presso di esso si bandivano, e si flaggellavano i Cristiani. Ora vi si vede un muro rovinoso, e rotondo, fatto di semplici mattoni, quale Ŕ miserabile avanzo della celebratissima Meta sudante, ed appresso si ammira il magnifico Arco eretto a Costantino Magno dal Senato, e Popolo Romano, in memoria dell'insigne vittoria riportata in virt¨ della ss. Croce contro Massenzio Tiranno, come diremo, appresso ponte Molle. E' questo costrutto tutto di marmi con colonne, e bassirilievi molto preziosi, fuor che quelli da basso, perci˛ dicono, che quelli fossero levati dall'Arco di Trajano, e queste fatte in tempo di Costantino, quando le belle arti erano in gran decadenza.