I walked slowly away from the Coliseum in Rome. Completed in 80 C.E. by the Emperor Titus it was used for almost 500 years for countless gladiatorial games and bloody spectacles. Some speculate that it was initially financed from the booty taken from the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. A murderous monument to Roman civilization, indeed.
Turning my back on its horrors, I entered the Via Sacra, the well-worn street that leads to the Roman Forum and its triumphal entry, the Arch of Titus. The infamous arch towers over the ruins of the Forum and echoes the larger Arch of Septimius Severus at the opposite end. As I approached the 50-foot high monument on a late Friday afternoon in July it was swarming with tourists gawking, snapping pictures and resting in its shade, preparing for their next adventure. Few seemed to grasp the gravity of this site.
The Arch of Titus was built in 81 C.E. by the Emperor Domitian, the brother of Titus, to commemorate the victory over the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It marks the utter military defeat of the Jews in the face of paganism and what easily could be seen as the beginning of the creation of the Christian world. More importantly, it memorializes the severance between Jews and G-d that lasts to this day. The Diaspora from our Land and our Avodah still gnaws at the Jewish soul.
Arch of Titus, view from Roman Forum
On the inside of the arch looking toward the Forum are two surviving marble reliefs that face one another. On the right, Titus is seen triumphantly entering Rome while the left parades the spoils from the Temple. The silver trumpets, the Show Bread Table and finally, the Golden Menorah, are clearly displayed. I sat down and covered my eyes in sorrow at our punishment. Seeing the Arch of Titus and its relief sculptures I was a direct witness to G-d’s wrath.
Trying to contain my grief, I realized that this ancient work of art needed to be seen in its historical context, just like all works of art. My immediate personal reaction was only the first step to uncovering its larger meaning. What struck me immediately was the extremely prominent place that the Arch of Titus occupied. For hundreds of years as Romans approached the Forum, the heart of their far flung Empire’s administrative, social and religious life, they would see the Latin inscription that crowns the arch just as we see it today: “The Senate and The People of Rome [dedicate this to] The Divine Titus Vespasianus Augustus, [son of] Divine Vespasian.”
The proud acknowledgement by the Roman people and Senate of Titus’s achievement in subduing the stiff-necked Jews is especially impressive when we consider how many other worthy foes the Romans had conquered. Before subduing the Jews, the Romans had conquered Macedonia, Greece, Carthage, Spain, Central and Southern Italy, Sicily, Gaul, Germany and Britain. And yet, it was this conquest that first greeted the Roman elite. As an expression of this, the arch is adorned with multiple figures of the Roman goddess Victory, proclaiming triumph. On the façade facing the Coliseum and the façade facing the Forum two spandrels (triangular shapes above the archway) boast two giant winged beings bearing trophies of celebration.
The elaborately decorated soffit (underside) of the arch shows a central panel depicting the Apotheosis of Titus, his image carried aloft to heaven by an eagle. It was common in this era for the Roman Senate to deify their emperors once they died (hence ‘Divine Titus’). This visually crowns the two relief panels on the inside of the arch. In both relief panels the figures are moving in the same direction, toward the Roman Forum, dramatically reenacting the triumphal procession that actually occurred when Titus returned from defeating Jerusalem and Masada in the year 72 C.E.
Facing the Forum, the right side shows Titus standing in a quadriga (4-horse chariot) that is led by the goddess Roma. Just behind him, a winged Victory crowns the general with a laurel wreath while alongside the chariot he is accompanied by a youth, representing the Roman people and an old man representing the venerable Senate. The four horses impatiently stride forward, their passion in sharp contrast to the calm dignity of the marching soldiers and lictors carrying ceremonial fascia of royal office. The conquering Titus seems impenetrable and undefeatable. In fact, Titus died at the age of 40, a mere 11 years after he defiled the holy Temple. The Gemara in Gittin 56b famously relates how G-d tortured Titus with a tiny gnat that knocked around in his brain for seven painful years until he died. Not surprisingly, no trace of his real future is to be found in the proud marble depiction of triumph.
Opposite the triumphant Titus is the relief of the spoils taken from the Temple. The men carrying the Golden Menorah have hoisted it up on long poles. They have pillows on their shoulders and laurel wreaths on their heads as they stride forward. There seems to be 12 men carrying the Menorah and another eight carrying the Show Bread Table. In front of the Table two silver trumpets are also carried. It is notable that many more individuals are shown in this procession than in the triumphal entry of Titus. We see behind the figures, four placards held aloft that proclaim the victories, conquered cities and peoples of Titus.
Menorah, Show Bread Table; Marble Relief
This procession is much more animated than the staid Titus opposite, and it marches purposefully to enter into a carved arch at the extreme right. This depiction of the Porta Triumphalis uncovers the deeply religious nature of the triumphal procession. The passage through the Porta Triumphalis was meant to purify the returning soldiers of the bloodguilt incurred in battle. Additionally, the presence of the victorious general passing through this gate was thought to bring a blessing upon the Roman capital itself. The victory march would then make a ritual procession to a series of sacrifices and dedications of the spoils. The entire ceremony would culminate in the Roman Forum at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maxiums, offering additional spoils, sacrificing “white oxen to Jupiter, laying a laurel branch and wreaths in the lap of the god’s statue.” The triumphant general and the Senate would then share in a sacred feast. What we are seeing in this relief is not just a victory parade; it is an aspect of pagan worship using the sacred objects from the holy Temple.
The tragic aspect of the Arch of Titus did not cease with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the end of the fifth century. In 1555 Pope Paul IV ghettoized the Roman Jews and forced them to swear an “oath of submission to the Pope” under the still standing Arch of Titus. This arch carries the full weight of G-d’s anger at His people and the cruelty of His agents.
And yet, as I looked around the arch on that July afternoon, I realized that this sordid history was not the whole story. The Arch of Titus, now presiding over what is left of the Roman Forum, is a complete and utter ruin. Uncovered and restored in the 19th century out of archeological curiosity and, more recently touted to foster tourism, for 1,500 years both the arch and the Roman Forum were abandoned; the Forum at best put to use as a cow pasture and quarry, the arch incorporated as part of medieval fortifications.
Triumph of Titus; Marble Relief
The Jews meanwhile had set about reconstituting themselves, forging an authentic Jewish life without a Temple, somehow surviving without its degree of holiness. We were wildly successful as we codified the Mishnah and Gemara, codes of Law built upon generations of pious practice and rebuilding of countless communities. Our journey since Titus has been arduous to be sure, filled with tragedy as well as triumph, but we cannot deny that we live in a blessed generation – yeshivas filled to overflowing, Jewish communities blossoming around the world and our nation repossessing our Land. As we look at the Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus we can rise above the sorrow that we feel and know that this same image adorns the seal of the sovereign and proud State of Israel.
Years ago, when I first visited the Arch of Titus, I remember seeing graffiti scribbled in chalk under the relief- Am Yisroel Chai. That is how I still understand what this ancient monument means.
References to Roman religion and triumphal celebrations are from “The Origins of Roman Historical Commemoration in the Visual Arts” by Peter J. Holliday (California State University, Long Beach) Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org