Reconstructing Claudius’ arch in Rome

by AryanArtnews
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Roman Emperor Claudius

In AD 41, the Roman emperor Claudius was in a weak position in Rome. After the assassination of his predecessor Caligula, he needed a military victory to maintain his authority. No Roman leader has conquered Britain – this magical land lies in the boundless waters of the “Ocean”. Julius Caesar was the first to cross the ocean to invade England in 55 and 54 BC, but failed to conquer the island, instead establishing an annual tribute to Rome. Claudius chose England as the place for his conquest ambitions.

Why was the British Isle so attractive to the Roman imagination? In Greek mythology, as the successor to the Roman elite, the ocean was endless and surrounded the inhabited world. Oceanus, the Greek god of the sea was one of the Titans, and as the Romans gained experience in the Atlantic, the ancestral god’s domain was pushed further north. As a vast island in the ocean, Britain has a special and otherworldly identity that reflects a lack of understanding of its people and land. This gave Roman generals and emperors who invaded Britain a special place in their quest to increase their power – and thus invade Britain. Hence, “ocean” is capitalized here to indicate its personification in Greek and Roman traditions.

Claudius invaded England in AD 43, taking advantage of the political instability following the recent death of the most powerful king of southern England, Kunobelin (Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”), to a famous victory. The initial phase of the conquest of southern England progressed rapidly under General Aulus Protius, who won several battles before many of the British surrendered. Plautius then summoned Claudius to travel from Rome to Camelodunum (Colchester), the most important political center (opium) Britain before the Roman invasion – after these initial victories. Additional information from a classical writer suggests that Claudius spent only 16 days in England, and probably spent most of his time traveling from Kent to Camulodunum and back again. At Camulodunum, Claudius received submissions from “kings” of about 11 peoples. After the first few weeks of the invasion, much of southern England seemed to surrender for months without serious fighting. Claudius’ propaganda exaggerated the extent of the fighting in a rather swift campaign of conquest.

Arc de Triomphe

The Roman Senate awarded Claudius the honorary title of “British Nix” and conferred upon him his victories in Rome. An annual festival was announced to show the importance attached to the conquest of southeastern England in AD 43, and the Senate ordered the construction of the Arc de Triomphe in Rome to celebrate the victory of Claudius.

The Arch is a material expression of the importance of conquering England to the Roman Senate elite. It was built in the Aqua Virgo aqueduct on the Via Lata road to the north of the city as part of the redevelopment plan. There are many triumphal arches within the city of Rome, including the famous examples of Titus and Constantine, which still exist today. Only fragments of the Arch of Claudius have survived, but we have some lost fragments and ancient paintings of the images on Roman coins.

There is an inscription on the arch, only a part of which remains, which gives very important information about the conquest not recorded in the canonical writings of Tacitus and Dio that are available. The surviving inscriptions tell us that Claudius had accepted the surrender of many British kings, was conquered without loss, and was the first to bring a barbarian people across the ocean under Roman rule. Unfortunately, due to incomplete inscriptions, the number of kings submitted is uncertain, but is usually interpreted as 11.

It also helps to provide dates for the arches. Construction of the arch appears to have taken several years, and an earlier arch may have been built a few years after AD 43, and then possibly modified in 51-2. By the time the arch was completed, Rome was already in conflict with people in western England named Silures and Ordovices. These battles led to Roman victory in central Wales, the capture of Karatakus, son of the resistance leader Kunoberin, and the defeat of the British. Caratacus and his family paraded through Rome in 52, which may have been when the arch was finally completed (or rebuilt).

The significance of water in the design of arches

The inscription on the arch refers to the control Claudius established over people beyond the ocean, and the arch itself has a fascinating relationship with water.

Oceanus, the Greek god of the sea, is the father of all forms of water, including rivers, springs, wells, and rainfall. This means that the gods who are thought to dwell in them are seen as children of the sea. The Aqua Virgo was one of 11 aqueducts that supplied water to Rome, and it carried water to the city through a channel that spanned the vault of Claudius. Much of Claudius’ work in Rome and Italy during his reign was based on the idea that he was the master of all forms of water. Other celebrations throughout the empire also commented on the emperor’s role, including the marble relief of the Turkish Aphrodisiac, showing Claudius accepting the surrender of land and sea in the form of two gods.

The original design concept of the Arc de Triomphe was to control the flow of water by being built into the Aqua Virgo aqueduct. It complements the arch of Drusus, the father of Claudius, celebrating his victory over Germania, built on the road south of Rome, the Via Appia. Travelers entering and leaving the city via these routes will be strongly influenced by these magnificent gateways.

It seems likely that the decoration of the Arch of Claudius includes scenes derived from the conquest of the “sea”, including sea monsters and ships. No known fragments depicting these creatures have survived, and the most impressive battle scene believed to have originated from the arch is recorded in a 16th-century painting depicting Roman soldiers fighting the English.

Although it no longer exists, there is enough information about the monument for a color reconstruction.

Reconstruction of the Arch of Claudius


The reconstructed imagery was intended to convey the influence of Claudius’ power base in Rome on the British conquest. Although the exact original appearance of the arch is unknown, the reconstruction brings together information from different types of material records and remains, and draws on the symbolism of water to Claudius’ conquest.

construction and reconstruction conquer the ocean Anthony Barrett was extremely helpful in his article published in the Journal of Archaeology, Britannia, It considers in detail the composition of the arch’s general design and its imagery and material evidence. Barrett reviewed surviving fragments of carvings attributed to the arch, as well as others recorded in drawings drawn only in the 16th century. After the first recorded excavation of the arch in 1562, the Neapolitan architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio recorded the arch lying in a pile of marble fragments. He reconstructed the façade of the arch, built into the aqueduct, and pointed out the location of some sculptural details. After this, all traces of the arch were removed, but part of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct remained.

The starting point for the reconstruction of the arch was the scale of the planned building. This is usually known from surviving examples, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Orange, France, and in more detail, the dimensions of the main inscription panel originally displayed above the portal; it is about six meters long and three meters high.

Since all classical sculpture is at least partially colored, whether through painting or through the use of a specific medium, it was crucial to reconstruct the color of the arch to convey the dramatic visual impact of the original design. The use of yellow and red is provided by fragments of fluted marble columns mentioned by the 17th century antiquarian Giacinto Gigli. These were carved from dark yellow marble, possibly from North Africa, with red veining possibly from North Africa, fragments of which were found near the arch in 1923. A blue base green is also used for contrast, similar to the reconstruction of the green, red and yellow capitals on display at the Seaport Museum in Xanten, Germany.

Bringing all this information together while filling the conceptual gaps – constructing an entire building design with a dramatic appearance that fits the theme – was a fascinating challenge. Each image reflects our position (intentionally or not) and our current agenda. If we know this, we can express these things in our image making, critique and question, and try new ways of “seeing” things.

Although Arch did not survive, the conquest of southern England was the greatest achievement of Claudius’s successful reign. Since the way the Romans conquered Britain played a role in the island’s status as a maritime kingdom, we thought it was important to recreate the colors of the arches to convey their importance. Much of the information on the conquest of Roman Britain is highly fragmented, derived from a combination of classical texts and archaeological information. The reconstruction of the arch helps to reflect the challenges involved in piecing together the story of Rome’s conquest of England, from Julius Caesar to Hadrian.

Featured image by Scailyna – Own work via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

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