The Sculpted Speech
by Justin Bradshaw
The creators of ancient monuments employed a visual language to transmit complex abstract messages which can easily be missed by modern eyes. Today, more used to photographic and cinematic images, we tend to interpret a scene literally, instinctively understanding it as a reenactment of an event as it happened.
A citizen of Rome, looking at this scene carved in stone on the Arch of Constantine, would have interpreted a language of gestures and symbols and understood a message which lay beyond a simple 'photograph' of an event. This scene is part of a cycle of six reliefs which run around the arch, describing the taking of power in Rome by Constantine. The scene reproduced here relates to the speech given by Constantine to the romans after his victory and triumphal entry into the city.
The central figure of Constantine stands on the rostra, below the Capitoline hill at the eastern end of the Forum (various buildings of the forum are depicted in the background). The rostra was typically the principle platform for important public announcements. He holds up his open-palmed right hand, a gesture that indicates that a declaration or announcement is being made. We still use it, for example, to swear an oath. Many statues of orators, and often the figure of Christ in the apse mosaics of medieval churches, use the same gesture. Usually these orators hold a book or scroll in their left hand, which symbolizes the words that are being pronounced. Here, Constantine's left hand is hidden by his cloak, drawn across the front of his body, indicating that any book that he holds, containing the names of those who recently fought against him, has been hidden away. His announcement is one of clemency.
The emperor also shares his stage with a group of senators (recognisable by their togas and by the pallium, a strip of cloth worn over their shoulders, which is a precursor of the sash worn today by mayors and the pallia of popes and bishops), sending the message that he intends to reign with the consent and support of the senate, respecting the ancient rights of the romans. This promise is almost obligatory for a newly installed emperor, and subsequently ignoring it was equally common. Reinforcing the image of Constantine as a wise and enlightened governor are the statues of Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian either side of the rostra, both famous and admired for these virtues.
Constantine's message is directed to all romans, and a figure in the crowd on the left, with his right hand raised reproduces his gesture, showing that he is repeating Constantine's words for the benefit of those who are too far away to hear. A kind of ancient public address system. The citizens respond to Constantine's speech with their hand on their heart, swearing allegiance to their new leader.
So, while this scene does represent an event that conceivably happened, it also shows the content of the speech and how we are supposed to see the leadership of Constantine as a reinstatement of traditional roman values thanks to a leader endowed with the qualities of mercy, wisdom and strength. Reality would prove to be more complicated and troubled, and these same senators and traditional values were about to become the main victims of the rise of Christianity.