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Arch of Drusus – “neither arch nor Drusus”. So how much truth is there in legend?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Arch of Drusus
Arch of Drusus

Many of you have probably seen a building in Rome called the “Arch of Drusus” or at least heard about it. It stands on Via Appia, at Porta San Sebastiano, on the inside of Aurelian’s walls.

Who was this Drusus? In Imperial Rome of the 1st century CE, there were many men of the imperial family surnamed Drusus. It was worn by the brother of Emperor Tiberius (so-called Drusus the Elder), the son of Tiberius (Drusus the Younger, also called Drusus Castor), as well as the prematurely deceased son of Emperor Claudius (in his childhood, he choked on a piece of pear that got stuck in his trachea). Also, the son of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder – Caligula’s brother, starved in the Palatine dungeons – was named Drusus. This nickname was given to the male members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in memory of one of the branches of the Livy family called Drusi, one of whose representatives, Marcus Livius Drusus, was the father of Livia, the wife of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. For the same reason, many women of the ruling family were given the name Drusilla (Drusilla was the middle name of the above-mentioned Livia, as well as the name of Caligula’s sister, the name of his daughter).

Of course, it is no big secret that the building on Via Appia is not a triumphal arch and has no connection with any of the mentioned Druzus. The alleged Arch of Drusus was built only as a fragment of an aqueduct, the arcade of which, running over Via Appia, acquired a particularly decorative character. In the upper part of the arch, on the sides, you can still see holes through which water once flowed.

An interesting fact, however, is that there is a grain of truth in the story about the alleged “arch of Drusus”. Well, on the same street, a little closer to the center of Rome, there once really stood an arch honouring the victories of Drusus the Elder, brother of Emperor Tiberius. During the reign of Augustus, Drusus the Elder was one of the most talented military leaders and commanded numerous military campaigns. Unfortunately, in 9 BC During the war in Germania, he accidentally fell off a horse and broke his leg. The injuries must have been so serious that Drusus died after a few weeks. Maybe it was an open fracture? Maybe there is an infection? What is known is that the news of Drusus’ accident reached Tiberius, who was in Pannonia at that time. Tiberius immediately set off north on horseback and reportedly covered the 600 Roman miles separating him from Germania (about 900 km) in a record time of three days!!! If this information is true, it must have been a truly mad race against death. Tiberius made it. Drusus died just after his brother’s arrival.

To honor Drusus and his achievements, the Senate erected an honorific arch on Via Appia. Unfortunately, nothing remains of this building. Perhaps the last mention of its existence appears in medieval sources from the 12th century CE. But although there is no trace of it, we can recreate its appearance with a high degree of probability. A certain coin minted during the reign of Emperor Claudius has survived. We see the massive arch of Drusus containing many elements known from other preserved Roman triumphal arches.

Arch of Drusus on a Roman coin
  • like the preserved arch of Titus, the structure dedicated to Drusus was single-passage and had four columns or pilasters decorating it;
  • in the upper part you can see a characteristic triangular tympanum in the middle, reminiscent of the Roman arch in Orange, built not much later. Ironically, the aqueduct arcade, today mistakenly called the “Arch of Drusus”, also contains such a decorative tympanum. So at least in that respect it has something in common with the unpreserved original arch;
  • At the top, on both sides, we see round medallions, which probably contained bas-reliefs. Today, they can be found in the Arch of Constantine in Rome, where they were moved from an older building from the reign of Hadrian;
  • Above the arch immortalized on the coin there is a statue of Drusus on horseback, shown in a very dynamic pose – the leader spurs his horse, encouraging the legions to fight (or, according to some, throwing a spear). The proportions on the coin are probably not correct and the sculpture looks significantly overscaled. Perhaps this is due to the difficulty in depicting other details of a sculpture that is a much smaller element of the entire building on a small surface;
  • on both sides of the statue there are tropaions – symbols of victory. A similar marble tropaion, from the same period, can be seen in the Centrale Montemartini museum in Rome.

The detailed location of the Arch of Drusus remains unknown. Some place it on the Via Appia near the Baths of Caracalla, where there was a property belonging to Drusus’s nephew – Tiberius’s son, Drusus the Younger.

Someone might ask why the arch was not built in the Forum? I note that the Arch of Drusus did not immortalize a specific triumph granted to Drusus. Therefore, it was not a triumphal arch in the strict sense of the word, but only a commemorative (commemorative) arch. Therefore, its location had to be less prestigious for obvious reasons. On the other hand, the arch was built at the then entrance to the city, which did not yet extend to the Aurelian walls, built much later. Everyone who entered Rome from the Via Appia had to see it. Additionally, the descent of Drusus from the Claudius family (gens Claudia) was also important. After all, Appius, who built the Queen of Roman Roads, was Claudius… In this delicate way, Augustus emphasized not only the achievements of Drusus, but also reminded everyone that the imperial family had its roots in the ancient times of the Roman republic. Just another example of carefully conducted dynastic propaganda.

Today, when the real Arch of Drusus no longer exists, only the preserved aqueduct arcade reminds us of its existence.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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