From Royal to Republican, by Caroline Winterer

Teaching the Article
Exercise 2

The Roman Triumphal Arch

One enduring image from antiquity is the Roman triumphal arch. In ancient Rome, a victorious emperor, accompanied by soldiers, booty, and captured prisoners, would pass through the triumphal arch as part of his long march through the city. The triumphal procession itself was an ephemeral event, and so eternal monuments to the idea of the procession were essential to maintaining long-term power. They could be stone or wooden monuments or, using more ephemeral but more widely dispersed media, engravings and illustrated books. In books, the arch could appear as an illustration of an actual arch mentioned in the text (as in Basil Kennett's Romae Antiquae) or as a decorative device on the title page (as in Thomas Hobbes's History of the Grecian War), where it framed the author's name and sometimes his or her portrait bust.

Look at the images of triumphal arches below. What are the similarities and differences among the arches? Consider not just the appearance of the arch, but also what medium it appears in and how different media could be seen and used by different people. How do these changes in appearance and medium suggest the ways different generations changed the meaning of the arch? Do they suggest any continuities? Why might Americans immediately after the Revolutionary War have preferred the triumphal arch in Image C to the royalist imagery in Image A? (Consider the revolutionary mistrust of royalist imagery featuring captured slaves and other war booty.) What is presumed to happen when someone moves through a triumphal arch as opposed to another kind of space?

Look especially at the final image, of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, completed in 1965. Its architect, Eero Saarinen, envisioned it as among other things a Roman triumphal arch for the modern period. He described it this way in 1948, when the arch was in the planning stages: "It seemed like a sort of modern adaptation of a Roman triumphal arch . . . a triumphal arch for our age as the triumphal arches of classical antiquity were for theirs." It was, he went on, a "gateway to the west."1 Clearly, the language of empire and conquest is submerged for Saarinen in the rhetoric of the pacific "gateway," but the idea of western conquest (Roman-style) persists through the form of the arch, just as it did for Alfred Jacob Miller in his modern rendering of the continence of Scipio in his painting The Trapper's Bride. (The painting and related images are explored in exercise 4.) Students might be asked to ponder their own responses to the St. Louis Arch, and to find current pictures of it in the popular press. How have photographers framed the arch? For example, does the viewer look west or east, north or south? How do Web sites about the arch explain its meaning?

1 W. Arthur Mehrhoff, The Gateway Arch: Fact and Symbol (Bowling Green, 1992), 23.


A. Roman triumphal procession. From Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae (1696; London, 1721), Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C.

B. Arch framing book title. From Thomas Hobbes, History of the Grecian War (London, 1676), Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Library, Stanford, Calif.

C. Washington riding through arch. From America Guided by Wisdom. Drawn by John James Barralett, engraved by Benjamin Tanner. Philadelphia, Pa. , 1820. Wove paper. Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del.

D. Gateway Arch, St. Louis, n.d. National Park Service, Jerfferson National Expansion Museum.