Hannukah is the festival of lights and celebration of miracles, but it also commemorates some of Jerusalem’s military history. You can see some of Jerusalem’s history on one of the famous Roman triumphal arches: the Arch of Titus. Let us explore the intertwining histories of Judaism and Ancient Rome by taking a closer look at the Arch of Titus.
The Arch of Titus is a triumphal arch that was built circa 81 CE. It stands over the Via Sacra, or sacred way, on the south-east end of the Roman Forum in Rome at 50 feet high and 44 feet wide. Emperor Domitian built the arch in honor of his late brother Titus to commemorate his victory alongside their father Vespasian in sieging Jerusalem in 70 CE when Judea rebelled against the Roman empire. The arch’ interior panels feature reliefs of the triumphal procession in Rome that showcased Rome victory and spoils of war such as the Second Temple’s Menorah. The apex of the arch’s interior also features Titus’ apotheosis scene, which was common in commemorations to Roman emperors.
The arch also features key inscriptions. The original inscription is on the east side and reads: “The Senate and the Roman people (dedicate this) to the deified Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the deified Vespasian.” The 1821 inscription is on the opposite side and was installed under Pope Pius VII by Giuseppe Valadier: “(This) monument, remarkable in terms of both religion and art, had weakened from age: Pius the Seventh, Supreme Pontiff, by new works on the model of the ancient exemplar ordered it reinforced and preserved in the 24th year of his sacred rulership.”
What is a Triumphal Arch?
A triumphal arch is a free-standing arch that spans a road. They are icons of Ancient Roman imperial architecture. The Roman triumphal arches commemorated victorious leaders and their military successes and/or acts of public service such as expanding the empire, improving Roman infrastructure, and/or the death of an imperial figure.
In addition to the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Constantine and Septimius Severus still stand in the Eternal city. They all span the Via Sacra, which served as the route for triumphal parades. The parades often featured the honored leaders such as generals, soldiers, and statesmen and spoils of victory such as treasures, animals, and prisoners from conquered lands. Triumphal arches in the Roman style can be found standing all around the world, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Narva Triumphal Arch in Saint Petersburg, or the Wellington Arch in London.
Arch of Titus Represents
While this arch commemorates a Roman victory, it has also been a symbol of the destruction of the Second Temple. Ancient records claim that over 60,000 Roman legions battled for more than a year to overcome the 25,000 soldiers in Jerusalem. Over half a million Jewish civilians were massacred, and the remainder marched to Rome to be sold into slavery.
The procession in the arch’s bas-relief features the Hebrew prisoners in the Roman triumphal parade along with the sacred menorah. The arch was not mentioned in rabbinic literature. A ban was put into effect by Rome’s Chief Rabbinate: if a Jewish person walked under the arch, they would no longer be considered a Jew. Allegedly, no Jew had willingly walked under the arch until the ban was lifted in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded, and this rescindment was made public at a Hannukah celebration in 1997.
While the duality is complicated, it is important to commemorate both sides of the Siege of Jerusalem to gain a fuller understanding of the history. We discuss the cultural diffusion and shared histories on ancient art and architecture in some of our classical art tours, and we wish everyone a Happy Hannukah