Parthian Arch


  • Partherbogen in augusteischer Zeit (um 14 n.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Partherbogen (19-17 v.Chr.)
  • Partherbogen (19-17 v.Chr.)
  • Partherbogen, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Partherbogen, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Partherbogen, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Partherbogen, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Partherbogen, heutiges Erscheinungsbild

Constructed: between 19 – 17 B.C.

Alterations: no structural modifications or restorations known

Function: honorific arch, prestigious dedication

Historical Context: Augustus II Antonine Flavian Severan Tetrarchic

If one looks around the Forum nowadays, one hardly notices the ancient structure of the Parthian Arch of Augustus, which stands between the Temple of Caesar and the Temple of the Dioscuri. Yet we still know a lot about this monument. It was central to Augustus’ political representation on the Forum and the ancient visitor had to enter through it in order to access the south-east area of the Forum. We know a lot about the location, decoration and political significance of the monument. In earlier research, however, scholars put forward various controversial readings of the remains of this arch. In the meantime archaeological investigations have demonstrated that this arch should be identified with the Parthian Arch of Augustus (with three passageways).

Augustus’ Honorific Arches

An examination of the literary sources reveals that Augustus received up to three honorific arches on the Forum for three different victories (besides further honorific monuments designed for political self-representation; see Columnae rostratae of Augustus). These arches commemorated his naval victory at Naulochos in 36 B.C., at Actium in 31 B.C. as well as his diplomatic achievement of having the Roman standards from the Parthians returned to Rome in 20 B.C. (the latter was ideologically portrayed as a further “victory”). Very little of the three arch monuments has survived. Only the Parthian Arch, south of the Temple of Caesar, can be identified with certainty; the existence of the arch for Naulochos is disputed; and the location of the Actian Arch (see Actian Arch) has to this day not been ascertained.

Historical Context

Retrieving the Roman standards (lat. signa) in 20 B.C., which had been lost to the Parthians, was the most important feat of Augustus in his foreign policy after his victory at Actium over Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. The standards of multiple Roman legions fell into the possession of the Parthians in 53 B.C., after several military operations under the command of Crassus had failed. Julius Caesar declared it his aim to retrieve these lost standards. His death in 44 B.C., however, hindered him from executing his intended campaign against the Parthians so that Marc Antony took over this task. But Marc Anthny failed and, to make matters worse, he also lost the legionary eagle of the Romans to the Parthians – just like Crassus had. These unfortunate events appalled the senators and the Roman people – a situation that Augustus gladly used to his advantage: He recognised the political potential and personal benefits he would reap if he succeeded in this task. So he did his utmost to retrieve the standards without being defeated militarily. With the help of his stepson Tiberius he was able to place the Parthian king Phraates IV under such pressure that a military intervention was not even needed (23 – 20 B.C.). Hence, Augustus returned to Rome without having engaged in battle and celebrated this diplomatic success as an achievement of his peace policy. This was ideologically exploited to mark the beginning of the saeculum aureum, the Golden Age. A little later the standards were exhibited in the Temple of Mars Ultor (on the Forum of Augustus), which was dedicated to the vindictive god of war.

History and Function of the Arch

In honour of this feat the Senate granted Augustus a small triumph (lat. ovatio) and dedicated an arch to him decorated with trophies – Augustus declined these honours, however, in 20 B.C. (just as he had done with other honours) in order to publicly display his humility. Because the prophecies in the Sibylline Books understood the victory over the Parthians as a necessary precondition for the begin of the Golden Age (lat. aureum saeculum), which Augustus grandly celebrated in 17 B.C., it is plausible to conclude that Augustus wanted to display his “victory over the Parthians” more ostensibly within the cityscape and was interested in ways to present his victory architecturally: e.g. the honorific arch that he received on the Forum Romanum. The arch monument seemed like the perfect kind of architecture for the representation of his military victories and was part of a long-standing tradition in Rome. Because there were countless ways of integrating reliefs, inscriptions and statues into the arch, it was possible to convey a wide spectrum of complex messages to the people. Due to its architectural format the citizens could also walk through the arch and this allowed for a rich and impressive experience of the monument.

On the basis of literary sources, depictions on coins and the material findings on the Forum (which include the foundation as well as fragments of the upper architecture which match the depictions from the coins) we can be certain about the existence of the Parthian Arch and its identification with the remains south of the Temple of Caesar. In light of the historical context (see above) we can date the time frame of its construction to a period before the Secular Games (lat. ludi saeculares; 17 B.C.): 19- 17 B.C.


The literary sources that reference the Parthian Arch inform us that it was located in the area next to the Temple of Caesar on the Forum Romanum. Accordingly, there are two possible candidates for its location on the Forum: The area between the Basilica Paulli and the Temple of Caesar; or the area between the Temple of Caesar and the Temple of the Dioscuri. Based on the archaeological evidence it is safe to say that the second proposal is much more likely, because an excavation of the second area in the 19th century uncovered three elements of a foundation as well as a substratum of a foundation for an arch with three gates – just as the coins depict the arch’s outer appearance (in contrast, the Actian Arch, which we only know of through the literary sources, has to be reconstructed as an arch with a single gate; and the findings that belong to the area between the Basilica Paulli and the Temple of Caesar do not indicate that an honorific arch with three gates once stood there).


The appearance of the arch can be reconstructed on the basis of its depiction on numerous coins and several fragments of the structure’s ornamentation. An extremely important piece of evidence in this respect is a contemporary coin from 17/16 B.C., which depicts an arch with three gates, whereby the statue of the triumphator is standing in the quadriga on top of the attic, flanked by two statues of Parthians (holding the signa), standing above the two side gates. The foundations and the fragments of the ornamentation can help us to come up with an approximate estimation of the measurements of the upper architecture of the Parthian Arch.

It is disputed whether two official lists of the triumphators and the consuls of Rome(so-called fasti Capitolini), which were inscribed into marble ashlar blocks and have been preserved only fragmentarily (partially excavated in the area of the arch at the Forum), were attached to the Parthian Arch; with the information that we currently have it is very difficult to answer this question.


A more detailed discussion and scholarly reconstruction can be found in the wiki of the digital Forum Romanum (Sophie Horacek)



Selected Bibliography

B. Andreae, Archäologische Funde und Grabungen im Bereich der Soprintendenza von Rom 1949-1956/57, Archäologischer Anzeiger 1957, 119-358.

E. Carnabuci, L’angolo sud-orientale del Foro Romano nel manoscritto inedito di Giacomo Boni, Atti dell’Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche. Memorie 1991, 245-365.

S. De Maria, Gli archi onorari di Roma e dell’Italia Romana (Rome 1988) 269-272.

Digital Roman Forum, Arcus Augusti,

E. Nedergaard, Zur Problematik der Augustusbögen auf dem Forum Romanum, in: M. Hofter (ed.), Kaiser Augustus und die verlorene Republik. Eine Ausstellung im Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 7. Juni – 14. August 1988 (Berlin 1988) 224–239.

E. Nedergaard, Arcus Augusti (a. 19 a.C.), in: E.M. Steinby (ed.), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae I (Rome 1993) 81-85.

E. Nedergaard, La collocazione originaria dei Fasti Capitolini e gli archi di Augusto nel Foro Romano, Bullettino della Comissione archeologica comunale di Roma 96, 1994–5, 33–77.

E. Nedergaard, Facts and fictions about the Fasti Capitolini, Analecta Romana Instituti Danici 27, 2001, 107–127.

J. W. Rich, Augustus’s Parthian honours. The temple of Mars Ultor and the arch in the Forum Romanum, Papers of the British School at Rome 66, 1998, 69–128.

O. Richter, Die Augustusbauten auf dem Forum Romanum, Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 4, 1889, 137–162.

M. Roehmer, Der Bogen als Staatsmonument. Zur politischen Bedeutung der römischen Ehrenbögen des 1. Jhs. n. Chr., Quellen und Forschungen zur Antiken Welt 28 (München 1997) 32–44.

J. P. A. van der Vin, The Return of Roman Ensigns from Parthia, Bulletin antieke beschaving. Annual Papers on Classical Archaeology 56, 1981, 117–139.

P. Zanker, Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (1987) 188–196.