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The Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli, Libya

Gregory DiPippo

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was born on this day in the year 121, just under 40 years before he acceded to the imperial throne. Despite his prominence as heir apparent to Antoninus Pius (138-61), and his own rule of almost twenty years, very few public monuments of his reign survive. We have recently looked at the famous equestrian statue of him that now stands in the main piazza of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, and the large columnar monument in the city center that celebrates his military campaigns. Close by the column, there once stood a triumphal arch that celebrated the same campaigns; this no longer exists, but eight relief panels were saved from it by being recycled into the Arch of Constantine near the Colosseum, and three others are now preserved in the Capitoline Museums. Like most Roman Emperors managed a half-way decent reign, Marcus Aurelius was divinized after his death, and a temple was built to honor him as a god in the same area, but nothing of it survives.

However, across the Mediterranean from Italy, in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, there survives a small triumphal arch dedicated to him, although it has suffered much from the vicissitudes of time. This city was founded in the 7th century BC by the Phoenicians, who also founded Rome’s great rival, Carthage, to the west and north along the African coast. It was originally called Oyat, which was Latinized as “Oea” after the Roman conquest in the wake of the last Punic War. Its modern name “Tripoli”, meaning “three cities”, comes from its proximity to two other major centers, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, both of which are now no more than archeological zones.

The arch was built in 165 by an official of the city named Gaius Calpurnius Celsus, to commemorate the victories of Marcus Aurelius and his adoptive brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus over the Parthians in Armenia, as recorded in its dedicatory inscription. Drawings from the 19th century show remains of the original attic, which is now destroyed; its absence reveals externally a small octagonal cupola, a very unusual feature in Roman architecture. Prominent relief sculptures show the city’s patron gods, Apollo and Minerva, riding chariots pulled by griffons and sphinxes. The empty niches on two of the four faces of the arch formerly held statues of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus; one of the latter was rediscovered during excavations conducted in the area in the nineteenth century.

(The Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli, as it appear in 1803; engraving by Luigi Mayer, from the book Views of the Ottoman Empire. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The internal cupola and one of the external relief sculptures. Both images from Wikimedia Commons by Dr Esam Tabone, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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